A close reading of a sentence from Chapter 17 of Small Island, with reference to CAIE A-Level English Literature 9695 marking criteria.

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There is a phrase which English teachers used to say to students when I was at school. I don’t know if yours ever has. The phrase is:

“It’s better to say a lot about a little, than a little about a lot.”

In the time since becoming a teacher, I have heard lots of different ways of expressing this idea: ‘squeeze the sponge’…. ‘go back to the well’… ‘pick more meat off the bones!’

The idea is basically this: Good analysis isn’t about giving a broad overview of the text from start to finish… it’s about picking a few key moments and exploring them in fine detail.

Now, this isn’t true in every situation. Not even every English Literature situation. But it can be a very useful strategy for when we need to force our spades underneath the surface of a text and see what’s buried underneath. Especially in an exam where we are given an extract to look at.

This is where the practice of ‘Close Reading’ comes in. Literary critics have used ‘Close Reading’ as a method for many years to tease out all the significant patterns and ideas from a text. If you choose to do the extract based question on Paper 2 of the English Literature A Level (9695/02) then this is a key skill to practice.

Before I show you an example of how to do a close reading of a phrase from Small Island, let’s have a quick look at what the mark scheme is asking us for. I will highlight the bits I want you to focus on.

AO2 (AN) 

  • Evidence of a perceptive analysis of ways in which writers’ choices shape meaning and create effects
  • Evidence of an assured appreciation of literary methods such as language, form and structure and literary genres and conventions

AO3 (P) 

  • Evidence of personal response to texts will be perceptive and interpretations will be well informed and fully supported with assured use of quotations
  • Evidence of perceptive independence of response may show originality in the approach to and treatment of questions.

Did you notice what word kept getting repeated there? ‘Perceptive’

The ability to perceive. To see what other people might have missed because they weren’t looking closely enough. Or because they weren’t ready to make links between what was there in front of them and what.

That is a huge part of what it means to be a skilled student of literature – to be a really good noticer of little things and to understand how they point to bigger things.

This only comes through detailed reading and re-reading of texts… which we need to train ourselves to do at great speed as we move closer to the exams.

So step one here is to choose a section from a novel which has significance and to annotate it in detail with the Cambridge mark scheme in mind. 

So let’s say we are given the question:

In what ways, and with what effects, does Levy present the incident in the cinema in the following passage? [25]

Let’s imagine that I am given an extract from the ‘Cinema Riot’ which takes place in Chapter 17 of the novel. 

I’m going to choose the following sentence taken from the middle of this chapter in order to illustrate what a close reading might look like:

“While the locals, with the trepidation of picnickers before a stampede of bulls, looked one way then the other.”

Now see below, how we might annotate this sentence in order to derive some of its potential meanings.

Now, let’s see how we might take this close reading and work as many aspects of it as we can into a paragraph:

Example Paragraph:

Andrea Levy uses lexical register and syntactical structure to characterise Gilbert as a sensitive, intelligent and credible narrator. In the first sentence of this extract, Levy has Gilbert use the parenthetical aside ‘with the trepidation of picnickers before a stampede of bulls’. The technique of parentheses is commonly used for the purpose of colloquial and humorous minor addresses to the reader, creating the sense of rapport between reader and narrator. This is clearly part of Levy’s purpose in such moments, as uses Gilbert as the moral anchor of Small Island – the character who shows the strongest moral fortitude in the face of adversity. Further effects of this are created by the notably ‘British’ image of the ‘picnic’, which creates a humorous juxtaposition with the stampeding bulls, as well as indicating the Gilbert has largely assimilated the nuances of British culture. One of the key functions however, is to demonstrate how witty and eloquent this character is, with polysyllabic lexis such as ‘trepidation’ as well as the ability to create humorous images, which has the unsettling effect contrast with the animalistic violence which is soon to unfold as the fight erupts in the cinema. Levy is showing us the tragedy of this man’s rich interior intellectual world, and how misunderstood he is by the bigotted American soldiers he faces in the following paragraphs.

Phil Brown, 2021

Thanks for reading! If you find this useful, you can take a look at our full English Language and Literature courses, and find one that’s suitable for you!