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6.2: Close Reading

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  • Connotation vs. Denotation

    Before we begin looking for words to consider in our literary analysis, we must first look at how we interpret words. When we read something, we first understand it at its most basic, literal level. This is called denotation. You can think of the denotation of a word as its dictionary definition. For instance, when you read the word “cow,” you think of a four-legged herbivorous mammal. However, every word carries a connotation as well as a denotation. A connotation is the non-literal meaning we associate with words. To continue our example, “cow” might connotate farm life, the countryside, or a glass of fresh milk.

    Here are a few more examples of connotations and their possible denotations.
    Word(s) Denotation Connotation
    George Washington First U.S. President Never told a lie, cut down a cherry tree, wooden teeth, crossed the Delaware
    Rose A flower Love, affection, romance, sensuality, beauty, the color red
    New York City A major U.S. city Crowded, center of art and culture, night life, traffic, Statue of Liberty
    Green A color Vegetation, fertility, growth, envy, money, life, springtime, prosperity

    As you can see, words have many connotations. Every person will find different connotations for a word, as connotation depends on a person's background, cultural setting, emotions, and subjective opinions. For instance, while the color green often represents prosperity to Western cultures, Eastern cultures associate the color red with wealth and good fortune. However, there are often a number of connotations that are widely accepted as connected to a word. People from all over the world, for example, associate snow with winter and heat waves with summer.

    So, how do we apply this to reading? Well, when people read, certain words often stand out to them. This is usually because those words carry strong connotations for the reader. Thus, when you read, look for words whose meanings stand out, especially if they relate to a recurring theme in the text. As an example, read through the following excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Some words that stand out have been italicized.

    I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium--the bitter lapse into everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil.

    When reading a passage like this, you might get a general impression that its mood is gloomy and depressing. Certain key words in the passage are what create that impression, and if we look at the italicized text, we can see a pattern. The narrator is describing a house, but “vacant eye-like windows” has a denotation of dark or empty windows, but it also brings up the connotation of corpses. “Rank” means overgrown, but it brings up connotations of abandonment and possible decay. Continue looking at the connotations behind each word, and see if you can detect any patterns. For instance, do the italicized words in this passage make you think of death, decline, and decay? Does the comparison to “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium” make you question the narrator's state of mind? By asking these kinds of questions, you're on your way to doing a close reading.

    Rhetorical Devices

    Now you know how to search for connotation and denotation in a text, but how do you tell which words you should examine closely? If you were to spend time doing a close reading of every word in a story, you would never finish. Thus, you want to look for rhetorical devices when you read. Rhetorical devices are words that serve a special function in the text. Authors include them in order to convey a meaning to the reader. Listed below are some of the most common rhetorical devices.

    Metaphors and Similes

    Two of the most common rhetorical devices are metaphors and similes. These are both means of comparison. A metaphor compares two things by saying they are the same, while a simile uses the words “like” or “as.”

    The following table contains a list of examples.
    Metaphor Simile
    My Great Dane is a vacuum. My Great Dane is like a vacuum.
    That linebacker is a wall. That linebacker is like a wall.
    She is a cheetah. She runs as fast as a cheetah.

    In the first example, we know that the Great Dane isn't really a vacuum. Both the metaphor and simile, however, imply that the dog consumes a large amount. The main difference is that the metaphor creates a stronger comparison. However, in the last example, only the context will tell you that the metaphor is not talking about a real cheetah. If we were talking about a runner, saying “she is a cheetah” would carry the denotations of speed, grace, agility, litheness, etc. But if we are looking at the simile, we only see that the runner is fast.


    Repetition is another powerful rhetorical device. When you read, you should always keep your eyes open for repeated words and phrases. This can be tricky, as sometimes the repeated words appear close together and other times they are spread out in a text as a motif. For instance, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a green light is mentioned repeatedly; however, these references are spread throughout the text, never appearing more than once or twice per chapter. Therefore, you will need to keep your eyes open for repetition while reading a story. If you see a word or phrase appear more than once, make a note of it--it is likely that the author included the repetition intentionally.


    Imagery is language that makes an appeal to the senses. It can apply to any of the five senses or a combination of multiple senses. Although imagery often comes in phrases or complete sentences, a word can evoke the senses. Here are some examples.

    Touch The dog's fur was smooth and silky, as though it had just been brushed.
    Smell The delicious scent of freshly-baked cookies wafted out of the window.
    Taste Dinner was mouthwatering! We ate buttery rolls, and a savory chicken dish with a side of rich gravy.
    Sound 1st Street was a cacophony of car horns, people on cell phones, and police sirens.
    Sight The apple was a deep red, like the sky moments before the sun comes up.

    Every time you find imagery in a text, it brings up a set of connotations. For instance, the scent of freshly-baked cookies might bring up connotations of childhood, comfort, or home. When you see a particularly striking image in a text, think of what it denotes to you. Ask yourself, “Why describe this thing in detail instead of describing something else?” An author often uses imagery to call attention to a particular idea, character, setting, or plot point. Imagery can also be used to create the mood of a text. For instance, a story that includes a great deal of rain imagery might have a very dark, dreary mood.