Close reading in formalist approach

Formalist analysis is a shift from the author-based analysis of a text to the physical characteristics of a text. It concentrates on the inherent aspects of the text to determine its meanings by ignoring the author’s social, cultural, political, religious, economic, and ideological characteristics. The author of a text becomes secondary to the readers and the black words of a text are considered to be the determining factors of the meaning system inherent in it. Thus, formalism manifests the humanist perception of authorship who is assumed to hold a godly position in identifying the meaning system available in a text. This breaking down of the author’s sole position in the text is done with a view to liberating it. Moreover, it allows the readers to explore multi-layered meaning systems available in the text. The formalists follow a particular methodology to ensure the absolute independence of the text’s words and other physical qualities. They believe in close reading of the text so that it is possible for the readers to fathom out the inherent every possible meaning in it. The following paragraph deciphers what it means by close reading and what other factors are to be taken into consideration to read a text in a condensed manner.  

Close Reading in formalist analysis

Close reading is one of the most remarkable formalist approaches to determine the meaning of a text. It corresponds to the idea as observed by Rivkin and Ryan in their “Introduction: Formalism”, “literature would be considered not as a window on the world but as something with specifically literary characteristics that make it literature as opposed to philosophy or sociology or biography” (3). Close reading is one of the processes of exploring these literary aspects of a text. Close reading is also called condensed or solid reading. In this process of reading, nothing available in the text can be spared that can offer meaning. Jacques Derrida, in his deconstructive analysis, also argues that a text is a paradigm of endless meanings. These meanings are not always open. Sometimes they are dormant and “connotative languages (allusion, metaphor, symbolism)” (Rivkin & Ryan 3). They are to be dug out through close reading.

What close reading offers in formalism

What close reading offers is to get familiar with the sensitivity to the words of a text. Words always appeal to human senses through which stimuli are created in the readers’ minds. Thus, reading connects the readers’ minds with the words of the text which paves the process of discovering its hidden meaning. This kind of connectivity also opens the text’s denotative (indicative) and connotative (more meaning) values. This mechanism accelerates the readers’ awareness of the text’s multiple meanings. It also deepens the readers’ understanding of the literary language. For this reason, the formalists opine that literature “should be studied for the way literary language differs from ordinary practical language and for the unique truths conveyed only through such literary language” (Rivkin & Ryan 3).  Because of the readers’ absolute connectivity with the text’s language, they grow interest for the etymology (history of words) of words. This leads them to develop the tendency of dealing with the language of the text with a standard dictionary so that meanings can be reliable.

Close reading and its formalist approaches

Boris Eichenbaum, in his “Introduction to the Formal Method”, opines that the “organisation of the Formal method was governed by the priniciple that the study of literature should be made specific and concrete” (Rivkin & Ryan 8). So, the formalist approach always advocates for systematic and strategic study of a text. Close reading as a strategy of the formalist approach tends to explore some particular aspects of a text which are believed to pave its meaning system. They are structure, shape, interplay, inter-relationship, denotation, connotation, contexts, images, symbols, repeated details, climax, balances, tensions, rhythms, and rhymes. Close reading also enables the readers to find out the inherent qualities of a text. Form is one of them. Form determines the endless pattern of meanings. According to the formalists, form works as a determining factor in a text that shapes the possibilities of meanings. It cannot simply be said that form refers to a structure. Form determines the relationship between the words and their meanings.

Close reading, larger units of a text, and form

Form offers the privilege of understanding the words available in a text. It also determines the boundary of the meanings of the words. After the discovery of the relationship between the words and their meanings under the judgment of the form, it is very important to determine the structural relationships and patterns in larger units. After the exploration of these larger units, form becomes much more than sentence patterns in a text. Sentences also bear extraordinary characteristics. Sentences work as the relationship between the stanzas and they maintain the interplay of an octave and a sestet in a sonnet. They also refer to the tone or mood that the text builds. Moreover, they indicate the shifting and alternative to the moods. In addition, they refer to the sequence of plot elements. It can be argued that they confirm the relationship between the teller and the hearer in a text and carry the ambiguities in the speeches. What is more important to add here is that the author of a text works as a catalyst to show the internal relationships available in a form that is a principle by which all subordinate patterns can be analyzed. There is always an internal logic in a text which can only be discovered by examining all the words, phrases, metaphors, images, and symbols of a text. The exploration of the inherent logic of the text offers the form of the work.   


In this way, close reading of a text means the creation of an understanding between the readers and the text. It examines the existence of the words in a text with their surface and dormant meanings. Moreover, it shows the main areas which need more concentration to determine the meaning of a text. Furthermore, it deals with the form and different roles of sentences.

Further reading

Brown, Dr. Sheron. “What is Close Reading”. 21 Century Literacy Leaders, available at

Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. John Benjamin’s Publishing, 2000.

Ryan, Michael & Rivkin Fulie (Edt.). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, 1998

Selden, Raman et al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Tailor & Francis, 2016

Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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