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12/8/2010 Analyzing Prose

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Analyzing Prose

FO LLO W ERS FR IDA Y , N OV E MB E R 27 , 2 009

Techniques for Prose Analysis

w ith Google Friend Connect Assumptions of close-reading prose:
1. Writing style is itself an expression of philosophy; or, to put it another
Followers (7) way, form contains ideas
2. The formal aspects of writing - diction, sentence structure etc. - may
work against the literal sense of the writing - or enhance it.
3. The subtleties of connotation and diction form a layer of meaning which
is additional to the surface meaning of the text.
4. Every prose text comes with a host of expections - of genre, writing
Already a member? Sign in conventions, and the relationship of speaker and reader. Most (literary)
texts operate by defying these rules and expectations.

▼ 2009 (2)
▼ November (1) 1. Diction: types of words.
Techniques for Prose a. Connotative words vs. denotative words: this is a simple
Analysis distinction in theory; in practice, it requires some judgement to tell the
difference between the two. Denotative words refer to a specific
► August (1) referent; connotative language has other associations in addition
to its primary meaning. A general word (such as "home") is more likely
to have connotative value than specific language (such as "house," which
describes a type of building). Understanding connotation is not a science,
because it depends on the cultural, conventional associations with the
b. i. Genre of discourse: the words: "commit homicide," "blow away,"
and "murder" all mean to kill someone. They come, respectively, from
legal discourse, vocal slang, and everyday (middle style) usage. "Blow
away" and "murder" each carry a distinct connotative and emotive value.

Similarly, "happen," "occur," "manifest," and "go down" each have a

distinct level of formality. They are similar in meaning but come from
distinct genres of discourse: everyday usage (happen), formal usage
(occur), philosophical discourse (manifest), and slang (go down). "Happen"
and "go down" could be used in speech; "occur" and "manifest," being
more formal, would not ordinarily be used in speech.

ii. Modes of discourse: vocal / written / horatory. Literary fiction

changes modes frequently. Note the modes of address in this excerpt from
Bellow's Ravelstein:

"Although I was Ravelstein's senior by a good many years, we were close

friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in
his, and these leveled the ground and evened things up. A man who knew
me well said that I was more innocent than any adult had the right to be. 1/10
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As if I had chosen to be naïve. Besides, the fact is that even extremely
naïve people know their own interests. Very simple women understand
when it's time to draw the line with a difficult husband-when to siphon the
money out of their joint back account. I paid no particular attention to self-
preservation. You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement,
to accept the terms, invariably falsified, on which others present
themselves. You deaden your critical powers. You stifle your shrewdness.
Before you know it you are paying a humongous divorce settlement to a
woman who had more than once declared that she was an innocent who
had no understanding of money matters."

Bellow begins with literary storytelling, specifying time and relationship.

However, he incorporates idiomatic expressions -- "leveled the ground and
evened things up" -- that do not belong to the formal mode. "Besides...":
he moves into a vocal running style. He uses an embedded metaphor --
"siphon the money" -- and a rhetorical strategy of oppositions -- simplicity
vs. sophistication. (See Notes on Composition, below). "I paid no particular
attention to self-preservation." (Formal language.) More metaphors:
"deaden... stifle." He uses legal/financial language: "unformulated
agreement... falsified..." And hyperbole: "humongous divorce
settlement..." Vocal, commonplace expression used by the woman he is
discussing, not by him: "money matters."

c. Types of technical words. English is rich in technical vocabularies,

which need not be technical in the sense of coming from science. Usages
are specific to subcultures, academic fields, vocations or industries (e.g.
fashion, movie production, marketing), and even political and philosophical
belief systems (e.g. market economics; Marxism; Kantian epistemology
etc.). The alert reader will be able to decode the way an author draws
from various lexicons.

d. In literary studies it is customary to speak of "poetic diction." Poetic

or literary language would stand out in casual conversation, is sometimes
archaic, and generally rich in connotation. Ordinary or even idiomatic
language used for its unusual language has a literary value. Unusual
connotations also carry with them double meanings. For instance, in
C onrad's "The Secret Sharer" the word "terrific" is used for its connotation
of terrifying; in Scott's "The Two Drovers," the word "taxation" is used for
its connotation of "taxing" or stress-inducing.

Examples of neutral vs. poetic forms:

all together / as one

incessant / unceasing
escape / flee
invisible / unseen
branch / bough
girl / maiden
room / chamber

In every case, the first usage is essentially descriptive; the more poetic
usage is richer in connotation. Generally speaking, it is more emotive. It is
instructive to examine the reasons for an author's choice of neutral or
connotative language. 2/10
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e. Types of verbs: action verbs, linking verbs, auxiliary verbs.

i) action verbs: physical, mental, or conceptual action.

Physical: She expressed her disgust in the strongest language imaginable.
Mental: While to all appearances she liked her roommate, she maintained
a persistent sense of disgust through all their dealings.
C onceptual: Her apparent good intentions were subverted by brief lapses
that revealed her true feelings of utter disgust.

An author's verb choices create the tone of the work. Verbs create the
reality depicted in the text, whether physical, interior, or conceptual. Of
interest too is the way an author moves from one verbal mode to another.

ii) linking verbs: These are inactive verbs that put the stress on the
predicate. (An important question to ask when analyzing sentences: is the
stress on the subject or predicate or modification?)

Janice is a fairly equable individual.

The cat could be a Siamese, judging from its markings.

iii) An auxiliary verb modifies another verb: I was walking to Oxford Town.
"Was" in this case is not a linking verb, because it is followed by another
verb. Auxiliary verbs tell the manner of the action in the main verb.

f. Patterns of modification. A sentence is essentially an independent

clause or a series of independent clauses. Everything else is modification,
giving more information about the subject; about temporal issues affecting
action; about the manner of action; about other, related actions; about the
speaker's or character's thoughts about the action.

i) When analyzing prose it is useful to look for patterns of

modification. Is there a persistent concern with temporal matters? Do
digressive clauses express mixed or paradoxical feelings? Do they
undermine or case doubt on the action? C omplex prose is characterized by
heavy modification; the ambiguities and subtleties of meaning are often
located outside the subject-predicate structure. For instance, in Douglass's
Narrative there is a persistent concern with locating every event
temporally. And yet, the descriptions are often less than specific, which
shows a tension between the desire for accuracy and - perhaps - the
impossibility of providing specific details.

C omposition is the big picture of prose; our concern here is with micro-
analysis. Nonetheless, it is necessary to have a basic sense of big picture

1. Rhetorical strategies. These are not formal modes of argument (cf.

the field of logic) or storytelling strategies (cf. the field of narratology).
Instead, they are tactics for speaking persuasively in prose. To explain
this another way, they are closer to jokes than to arguments. A syllogistic
argument may have validity if its basic premises lead to its conclusion. A
joke has no validity except to the extent that it makes someone laugh. To
that extent it is effective. If rhetorical strategies work, they are effective. 3/10
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a. Themes or motifs. Any concept that ties a text together and which is
referred to throughout a text. "Looking for something lost." Or a specific
thing: transitions, light, the seasons.
b. Repetition of key words.
c. Counterpoints (or antithesis). An effective structuring principle in
nonfiction or fiction: darkness / light; justice / freedom.
d. False modesty. The author shows vulnerability or a species of self-
denigrating charm to put the reader off guard.
e. Imagery. To this I would add: language that engages the senses,
including feeling, aural experience, even smell.
f. Metaphor. "My affection for her swelled to such a height I feared I
would be toppled by its eventual, inevitable crash." Metaphors are
frequently embedded in prose and contain a whole area of content outside
the primary meaning of the passage.
g. Framing strategies. "False modesty" is a sub-category of this. There
are many effective framing strategies, including misdirection - leading the
reader to believe you're speaking about something other than your
eventual subject matter.
h. Strategies of voice: irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, emotional
directness... The quality of voice is created by diction and sentence
structure, and is probably the most important aspect of compositional
i. Paradoxes and oxymorons. These are neat formulations that can be
very effective in prose: "I looked at her, startled by her faithless
devotion." or "I looked at her, realizing she was at once my savior and my
j. Parody and allusion. In Roland Barthes' short essays he parodies
common formulations and belief systems. Montaigne's essays are rich in
allusions to classical literature. (This is a mode of persuasion and a way of
forming a bond with the reader.) Woody Allen's short, comic stories
occasionally parody trite storytelling conventions. They also include
allusions to well-known passages from literature.
k. Mythic overtones. Used to great effect by political speakers like Bill
C linton; manifesto authors like Marx and Engels; founders of new
disciplines like Sigmund Freud. Or novelists like Fitzgerald.

2. The logic of composition: hypotaxis, parataxis. In traditional

prose, paragraphs are organized by the ideas they discuss. These ideas
may not be explicitly stated in the paragraph. They are often closer to
topics than beliefs or statements (although a paragraph can be organized
around an assertion). There is a logic to the way a writer moves from
paragraph to paragraph, and often some paragraphs are subordinate to
others; for instance, a series of paragraphs may represent supporting
points for an assertion made in an earlier paragraph. Or paragraphs may
be arranged as chronological events. In any case, they will have an
explicit (hypotactic) or implicit (paratactic) logic.

Poetry has meter, rhyme, alliterative techniques, and - most importantly -
the line to lend it cohesion. C ohesion is what gives a text a sense of
consistency or wholeness. The most basic type of cohesion is repetition of
whatever type. 4/10
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In general, repetition is used as a persuasive technique. Like all rhetorical
styles, however, it may be used ironically or as a parody of classic or
formal writing.
1. Textual versus sounded cohesion. The following sentence has
textual cohesion that is not reflected in its sound - due to the repetition of
the letter "g."
"Gary might have bought some top-flight freight instead of the ignoble
choices he made."
English phonemes such as "ough"=/aw/; "eigh"=/ay/ contain silent letters.
On a written level, the sentence has added cohesion due to the repetition
of the letter "g." This creates an awareness of the distinction between the
textual and aural components of the text.
2. Types of sounded cohesion in prose:
a. alliteration
b. assonance
c. rhythmic repetition (stresses)
d. rhyme
e. repetition of word-patterns
f. repetition of specific words
g. homonyms - use of similar-sounding words
h. repetition of consonant sounds within words

3. Semantic cohesion. Well-written prose makes judicious but often

liberal use of repetition, using series of parallel clauses and parallel
sentence structures - and so on. In that this involves a repeated meaning
or concept, it adds cohesion to the work.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The opposition of
"best" and "worst," in addition to the repeated phrases, gives this a
rhythmic, persuasive quality.

4. Rhythm in prose. Although prose lacks the line breaks of poetry, it

makes use of stresses, unstressed syllables, and pauses. These rhythmic
patterns underscore and determine the meaning in many ways -
dependent on the particular passage. In most cases, there are repeating
patterns of stress; the close reader should seek out such patterns.

For example, this is a passage from Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

"WHAT a LARK! // WHAT a PLUNGE! // For SO it had ALways SEEMED to

HER,/ WHEN,/ with a LITtle SQUEAK of the HINges,/ which she could HEAR
NOW,/ she had BURST OPen the FRENC H WINdows/ and PLUNged at
BOURton INto the OPen AIR. / How FRESH, / how C ALM,/ STILler than
THIS of C OURSE,/ the AIR WAS in the EARly MORning;/ like the FLAP of a
WAVE,/ the KISS of a WAVE,/ C HILL and SHARP and YET/ (for a GIRL of
eighTEEN as she THEN WAS)/ SOLemn,/ FEEling as she DID,/ STANding
THERE at the OPen WINdow,/ that SOMEthing AWful was ABOUT to

Much of the rhythm in this passage comes from the repetition of similar
stress patterns either within a phrase or between consecutive phrases. The
pattern of repetition is introduced in the first two sentences, each
consisting of a single phrase identical in syntax, syllable structure, and
stress. The fourth and fifth setnences each likewise begin with paired 5/10
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parallel phrases, in which likeness of stress pattern accompanies virtually
identical syntactic and syllable structure.

As a prose analyst you will need to discover how the rhythm, in itself,
contains meaning or alters the meaning of the text. It will be easier to
analyze rhythm if you have some experience with verse prosody.

1. Prose, unlike poetry, must be analyzed with careful awareness
of its context. A poem, rightly or wrongly, is often viewed as a self-
standing text. Prose fiction or nonfiction is assumed to be more explicitly
purpose-driven, and often assumes knowledge of the author's reputation
and biography. These things must be taken into account when interpreting
a text.

2. The social contract: all prose writing entails an unspoken agreement

between the author and readers. These are the expectations determined
by genre and circumstances of publication - they are also set up, to some
extent, by the beginning of the text. The author does the following things:
i) identifies himself as well as his readership; ii) promises to do something
- tell a certain type of story, make an argument, amuse and entertain,
alert the reader to a pressing concern; iii) establishes a bond between
herself and her reader. Understanding author / reader relationship
requires subtle reading of both the cultural context and the opening
passages of the text.
A further note: these expectations, often, are made to be broken; the
author adds interest to the text by failing to follow through on this

iv) The believing or doubting reader. An imporant aspect of the

author-addressee relationship is the degree to which the speaker asks and
expects the reader to give him the benefit of the doubt. In minimalist and
modernist prose the reader accepts a good deal of the responsibility to
construct the text's meaning or the story's events. Otherwise, a writer may
take on an inordinate "burden of proof" to persuade the reader or
articulate the content of the piece explicitly.

3. The expectations of time period and genre. This is an extension of

the social contract. Most prose writers are either conforming to or working
against literary conventions, which determine expectations for language,
storytelling strategies, conventions of genre, authorial presence etc. You
can't interpret these without considering the cultural context in which the
work was published.

4. Establishing a universe of discourse. The meaningfulness of

written language is dependent, to a great extent, not on what is literally
said on the page, but on the assumed knowledge shared by speaker and
reader. Part of the writer's "social contract" with the reader consists in
his/her cues as to the spatial and temporal frames of reference of the text.
a. Spatial frame of reference. Where is the speaker or main character?
The place may not be specific, but a writer nonetheless leaves an
impression as to the nature of the place. Descriptions that involve
directions ("to the left, there was a ficus plant") can only be understood in
reference to the speaker or main character. As always, experimental or 6/10
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ironic writers can create a deliberate lack of clarity as to the location of the
b. Temporal frame of reference. This can be a historical time and
place, or even the future, or simply a nonspecific "now." Within that "now,"
it can be a time of day or of the week ("late Tuesday afternoon").
c. Shared domains of knowledge. The speaker identifies his listener
and him/herself mainly through assumptions about what that listener
would know or believe. ("He was the kind of tousle-haired, no longer
young fool you tend to meet in the Arab Quarter.") This alliance, or
assumption of shared knowledge and beliefs, can of course be used
ironically. All literature is built on assumptions. You must ask: what kind of
person would have these assumptions? What kind of reader would share
them? (Much of what the speaker and reader know in common is merely
ordinary beliefs and assumptions; this is why a story by Hemingway or
Lawrence can carry such a rich subtext beneath its terse surface.)
d. Point of view. Who is the speaker? And what does the speaker know?
How should we understand what the speaker appears to know - should we
take it lightly or seriously? In the beginning of The Great Gatsby, Nick, the
narrator, announces his goals for the summer, which were to read: "to
establish myself as that most limited of specialists, the well-rounded man.
This isn't just an epigram -- life is much more successfully looked at from
a single window, after all." This paradox, that a broad view is too limited
and a limited one revealing, comes to define Nick. He also locates himself
as an anonymous fellow who had decided that "the stock market could
support one more man" and in terms of the part of Long Island to which he
has come to stay, a geographical anomoly both limited and broad.
Through the novel Nick seems to miss obvious facts and to know others
that would be hard to divine. We believe it, though, because Nick has
established his point of view as somewhat inconsistent, like someone who
looks through both ends of a telescope. A nonfiction speaker establishes
his point of view in social terms, ordinarily: identity, beliefs, perspective,
agenda, purpose.


1. First question to ask: where is the action? who (or what) is doing what
to whom? In literary fiction the subject-predicate structure is often
concealed or buried.

2. Basic writing styles: periodic and running; hypotactic and paratactic;

descriptive style and action style.

3. Hypotaxis involves an assumptive logic. This means that the

hypotactic style which subordinates one idea to another idea, is driven by
conventional assumptions. These assumptions can be used ironically.

"Having survived years of substance abuse and crippling depression, she

was finally ready to take charge of her life."

To believe and understand that hypotactic sentence, you have to accept its
logic and assumptions. Writers like Roland Barthes use hypotaxis,
ironically, to parody glib, conventional assumptions. Sylvia Plath in The
Bell Jar, for the most part, uses hypotaxis in a straightforward manner.

Barthes has a complex bond with his reader; he and his reader are 7/10
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mocking conventional ways of thinking. Plath's relationship to her reader is
one of sympathy.

4. The author of paratactic writing is more withdrawn; she leaves

the reader to work out the logical links between parts.

"Sleep came slowly to him that night; morning seemed to hardly interrupt
the night; noon declared itself shyly in the overcast day; night came again
unaccompanied by sleep."

In a sense this author is more present, though, since she has obviously
calculated the relationship between events.

5. Sentences that emphasize the subject, either through a series of noun

phrases,create a sense of emphasis, as well as a suspensive effect. Again,
this effect can be used ironically.

"C OMPLAC ENC IES of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny
chair, and the green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
the holy hush of ancient sacrifice."

A peignoir is a dressing gown. The sentence fully creates a scene before

delivering the verb. "The C ommunist Manifesto" is full of front-loaded
sentences, used to create persuasive emphasis. Nabokov uses these
sentences ironically, playing on conventional rhetoric.

6. Noun-style sentences take the emphasis away from action and

place it on description. The suitcase-style sentence packages this
description in a global statement.

"It is widely recognized that substance abuse is a lifelong condition whose

symptoms (drinking) can be controlled but whose cause (compulsion) can
never entirely be alleviated."

Description style sentences often use forms of "is." They create a (possibly
false) sense of objectivity, concealing the author's presence and point of

7. Running style places the author and/or character in the

present moment. This is a different, more immediate, less calculated-
seeming form of authorial presence. Of course, it is just as calculated as a
deeply suspensive sentence.

8. Reversed (18th century) or digressive (Jamesian) sentence

structures. Both styles are suspensive and serve to put the
emphasis on something other than the subject and verb. The
following sentence uses reversal (of subject and object, putting the object
first) AND the digressive style.

"Natural objects, evoking a certain rhythm of order, men in the youth of

the world, driven by the most occulted of instincts, sing and dance to

The sentence structure is: men sing and dance to imitate natural objects. 8/10
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This very suspensive reversed style puts the emphasis on qualifications
and observations. Generally speaking, digressive sentences place the
emphasis outside the noun and verb; 18th century sentences create an
elegantly suspensive effect, putting the verb late or last.

9. The scholarly sentence uses an abstraction, or something that is not

an entity, as its subject. This creates a sense of objectivity and
detachment. Authors use it when they are saying something that might
otherwise raise objections!

Happiness is where you find it.

Anti-liberalism has always been framed by its proponents across the
political spectrum as a form of liberation; in fact, it is a form of
enslavement. (Sounds authoritative, right?)

Or, using a gerund, a participial can been the subject. Swimming in

the ocean at night is sexy but dangerous, as the first scene of Jaws amply
Using an infinitive as subject: To think is human; to act is divine; but
to act after having taken thought, that - is the greatest thing of all. (The
parallel structure of this sentence adds to its persuasiveness.)

Any part of a sentence can be nominalized, made into the

subject: The fact that anti-liberalism is framed as a form of liberation is
the first clue to its nature as a form of authoritarian tyranny.

10. Cumulative sentences are the coolest type; they create a

sense of building intensity. While the parts of a hypotactic or paratactic
sentence are tied together by some sort of explanatory logic, the major
logic of a cumulative sentence is the principle of addition.

He sat in the old Dodge, an old duffel bag on the seat next to him, a
feeling of dread guiding him as he turned the key in the ignition, the cold
metal burning his fingertips, the sound of the engine grinding unpleasantly,
the bag within an arms reach, a short reach to open it and take out the '38
revolver buried inside.

Each addition modifies a different part of the sentence, creating a series of

levels - as explained in Lanham.

Posted by Robin at 12:25 PM 0 comments

MON DA Y , A U GU ST 24 , 2 009

Close Reading Prose

This blog, based on the findings of the "C lose Reading" class at Eugene
Lang C ollege in Fall 2009, summarizes techniques for analyzing prose.

The blog assumes the reader knows basic rhetorical terms, as explained in
Richard Lanham's Analyzing Prose and numerous other sources.

It will also be useful to look at the examples in the original close reading
blog and the blogs linked thereto. In particular, I would point you to the
posts giving examples of sentence types in a paragraph, the post on types
of words, and the brief analytic notes on Nabokov, Joyce's Dubliners, an 9/10
12/8/2010 Analyzing Prose
essay by James Baldwin, Flannery O'C onnor, and the prophetic tones of
Karl Marx.

Posted by Robin at 6:26 PM 0 comments


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