Quick Guide – How to Analyse an Unfamiliar Text

Whatever the extract is, ask yourself these questions and you’ll be off to a good start.

Genre Type What type of writing is it? Is it narrative, descriptive, reflective/ personal, argumentative, expository? Does the passage belong to a conventional literary genre or form? For example, is it a sonnet, a column, a short story?
Themes What is the passage about?
Perspective Whose point of view is in the foreground? Is there a narrator? Is there a character whose point of view, thoughts and feelings we are invited to share? Is the author’s point of view explicit or implicit? Does the author seem to share the main character or narrator’s perspective or does he or she seem unsympathetic?
Purpose and Stance Why do you think the author wrote the passage? Is there an addressee or an implied audience? If so, how does the narrator/ persona want this person to react? How does the author want you to react?
Mood and Atmosphere What types of situations and feelings are presented in the passage?
Tone What feelings and attitudes towards the passage does the author want you to have? How does he or she handle the subject matter of the passage?
Style How does the author’s use of linguistic, literary and structural devices contribute to your sense of mood, atmosphere and tone? This includes the following:
Diction and register Is the language formal or informal? Is it simple or complex? Does it belong to a specific social or cultural context? Does the passage use dialect, idioms or jargon? If there is dialogue in the passage, do different characters adopt different registers?
Syntax and Punctuation Are sentence structures simple or complex? Are they short or long? Are structures repeated? Is frequent use made of dashes, semi-colons, exclamation marks or other less common punctuation marks? Is use made of unconventional structures such as inverted syntax or ommitted punctuation? How are sentences linked – what types of connectives and conjunctions are used?
Paragraphing/ Stanzas How is the passage structured at this level? Do paragraphs and stanzas expand upon or contrast with what they follow on from?
Ambiguity Does the passage include any words and phrases which can be interpreted in more than one way? Is your understanding of the passage enhanced if you allow for these multiple interpretations?
Tenses, Mode and Verb Forms Does the passage make use of conditionals and interrogatives? Are the verbs mostly active or passive? Are they transitive, intransitive or reflexive?
Pace Does the passage appear to lend itself to a fast or a slow reading? Why?
Imagery To what extent does the author make use of simile and metaphor? To what effect?
Phonic devices How does the passage make use of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm and metre?
Narrative and dramatic devices Does the author make use of devices such as irony, suspense or foreshadowing? How and why?
Convention Is the passage’s style appropriate to its subject matter? Does it use a conventional literary form in a serious manner? Does it make use of bathos or deflate or re-appropriate literary conventions?

Tips for Unfamiliar Texts

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Close reading tests your comprehension, understanding, and critical analysis of how language is used to communicate a message to a reader. Therefore, you will need to be able to analyse the writer’s style. The style of a piece of writing is the way in which features of the language are used to convey meaning, typically but not always within the constraints of more widely accepted conventions of grammar and spelling. The ideas below will help you tackle Achievement Standard 3.5 ‘Unfamiliar Texts’.

Firstly:

  • Understand what the passage is about – the main ideas – the main steps in any argument or development:

– break the passage into its essential parts

– identify the topic sentence of each paragraph

– identify the function of the passage

– summarise the passage

– interpret the title (or supply one).

The Vocabulary

– its relationship to the function

– its relationship to the intended audience

– its reflection of the author’s attitudes.

Possible Questions:

(The questions should always extend to why?)

  • What evidence of educated or specialised word selection? (What is the level of vocabulary?)
  • Why select specific words?
  • What connotations are important for specific words? (think of the nature of connotations)
  • What classes of word dominate? (adjectives in description? abstract nouns in argument…)
  • What personal pronouns are evident? (note the personalised nature of the passage)
  • Are there coinings, neologisms, altered word uses?
  • Is any word or usage archaic? Is modern slang present?
  • Are any words foreign or recent borrowings?
  • Are there allusions to other texts, events, experiences (The Bible, Shakespeare …)
  • Are there quotations from other texts? Acknowledged? Implied references?
  • Is use made of abbreviation, or formulaic language? (specialised audience or tone)
  • Are there clear examples of colloquialism, ornate selections, obscenity, slang, dialect words…? (range and nature of the audience and reader accessibility)
  • What is the ratio of Latinate words to ‘simpler’ (Anglo-Saxon derived?) words?
  • What use is made of imperative forms? (influence on the tone)
  • Are interrogatives used?
  • Are there sound patterns behind the selections?

Sentence Structures

– the nature of structures

– the patterns formed or repeated

– the role of fragments within the sentences

Possible Questions

  • Are the sentences ‘short’ or ‘long’? (you should be able to define correctly)
  • How does the length affect the clarity of the message or tone?
  • What syntactical complexity is evident? And how is that achieved?
  • Is there a patter of subject + verb + object/complement (or other patterns)?
  • What is the effect of alterations or breaks to any pattern?
  • Is the word order routine? What is the effect and purpose of other word order patterns?
  • How are the sentences punctuated?
  • What rhythms are set up by the sentence patterns? Balance? Repetition? Patterns of sentence length?
  • How are conjunction used? What other linking devices are there?
  • Are the sentences climactic or anti-climactic (periodic or loose)?
    What is the logic of the sentence organisation?
  • What is the role of quotation, dialogue, monologue…?
  • Are the constructions active or passive, or both?

Paragraph Structures

– placement of topic sentences

– nature of material developed in the paragraph

– sequence which orders the paragraphs

– variations in length and style of paragraph

Possible Questions

  • Which sentence is the topic sentence?
  • What is the internal organisation of the paragraph (loose or periodic)
  • Do the paragraphs descend or ascend in terms of content importance?
  • What is the function of each paragraph within the overall structure?
  • What linking devices are used to coordinate the paragraphs?
  • How is the movement between dialogue and other prose achieved?
  • What is the function and form of the opening and closing paragraphs?
  • What sense of crafting is evident in the paragraphing?

Tone

– the attitude demonstrated by the author to the subject of the writing

Possible Questions

  • Is the author serious? persuasive? satirical? humorous? angry? didactic?…
  • How is the author’s personality evident throughout the writing?
  • Is the author writing directly or creating a persona?
  • Is the author being emotive? passionless? balanced?
  • How does the author achieve the lack of bias?
  • Does the author’s attitude detract from or advance the basic thesis of the passage?
  • How are the tone points reflected in the word choice, sentences, organisation?
  • Is there change in the author’s stance or attitude?
  • What regard is evident of the reaction of the reader?
  • How is the reader ‘involved’ in the writing?

Imagery

– the author’s attempt to use words to create a visual or associated emotional response in the reader

– the use of sensual faculties to enhance mood or attitude

– a means by which the author can present an experience or perception in an individual perhaps unusual but recognisable manner.

The simple forms of imagery include:

  • simile
  • metaphor
  • personification
  • hyperbole (exaggeration)
  • litotes (understatement)

Imagery can

  • enhance atmosphere
  • suggest meaning or imply attitude without direct statement
  • allow a symbolic interpretation of otherwise concrete material
  • introduce qualities which would otherwise not be apparent

Sound Devices

– patterns of sound used to achieve a specific effect

The commonest devices include:

  • rhyme (end rhyme, half-rhyme)
  • patterns of sound (alliteration, assonance)
  • rhythm (alliteration, metre, repetition)
  • onomatopoeia
  • vowel colours
  • consonant colour (heavy, harsh, light, syllibant…)

A method to handle exam passages

You can apply the following set of questions in the exam and review these questions before attempting to answer the close reading questions.

These questions are used to get a close reading of the prose extract or poem, especially when your mind draws a blank on a first reading.

Train yourself to use these questions methodically:

  • What are they key words?

Which words stand out as important?

Which words reoccur? Has the use changed?

Which words are linked or similar?

  • Why are the key words important?

How do they guide the reader’ thoughts?

What aspects of the subject of the passage do they focus on?

  • What tone do they establish?

Harsh? Friendly? Cynical? Bitter? Positive? Loving? Distrust? Warm? Reflective? etc…

  • What connotations do these words have?

What thoughts or attitudes are provoked by the key words?

  • What images are created?

What images are stated? Developed?

What pictures are created in the mind?

What ideas or objects are linked?

  • What impact do the images have?

How do the images cause you to react? To think? To feel?

  • Does the title establish a tone?

What is introduced by the title?

Do the words of the title hold direct or ironic meaning?

Is the title an extract from or reference to anther work?

How blunt is the title?

  • How are sounds used to reinforce tone?

Light or dark vowels?

Harsh or light consonants?

Repetitions or contrasts?

Patterns or randomness?

  • What structures are used?

What sentences or line types are used?

What is the plan of the organisation of the content?

Is there any significance to the use, type, and placing of punctuation?

  • What voice is used?

Active or passive? Involved or detached?

1st or 3rd person? Omniscience?

  • What is the main topic of the passage?
  • What specific points are being made in the passage?

How are they linked?

How are individual points developed?

The Ballad of Calvary Street

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We have looked at ‘High Country Weather’, ‘Rocket Show’ and ‘The Ballad of Barney Flanagan’ in class this year. Last week I mentioned ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street’ which was written in 1960 and have posted the poem below.

Ballad of Calvary Street

On Calvary Street are trellises
Where bright as blood the rose bloom,
And gnomes like pagan fetishes
Hang their hats on an empty tomb
Where two old souls go slowly mad,
National Mum and Labour Dad.

Each Saturday when full of smiles
The children come to pay their due,
Mum takes down the family files
And cover to cover she thumbs them through,
Poor Len before he went away
And Mabel on her wedding day.

The meal-brown scones display her knack,
Her polished oven spits with rage,
While in Grunt Grotto at the back
Dad sits and reads the Sporting Page,
Then ambles out in boots of lead
To weed around the parsnip bed.

A giant parsnip sparks his eye,
Majestic as the Tree of Life;
He washes it and rubs it dry
And takes it in to his old wife –
‘Look, Laura, would that be a fit?
The bastard has a flange on it!’

When both were young, she would have laughed
A goddess in her tartan skirt,
But wisdom, age and mothercraft
Have rubbed it home that men like dirt:
Five children and a fallen womb,
A golden crown beyond the tomb.

Nearer the bone, sin is sin,
And women bear the cross of woe,
And that affair with Mrs Flynn
(It happened thirty years ago)
Though never mentioned, mean that he
Will get no sugar in his tea.

The afternoon goes by, goes by,
The angels harp above a cloud;
A son-in-law with spotted tie
And daughter Alice fat and loud
Discuss the virtues of insurance
And stuff their tripes with trained endurance.

Flood-waters hurl upoin the dyke
And Dad himself can go to town,
For little Charlie on his trike
Has ploughed another iris down.
His parents rise to chain the beast,
Brush off the last crumbs of their lovefeast.

And so these two old fools are left,
A rosy pair in the evening light,
To question Heaven’s dubious gift,
To hag and grumble, growl and fight:
The love they kill won’t let them rest,
Two birds that peck in one fouled nest.

Why hammer nails? Why give no change?
Habit, habit clogs them dumb.
The Sacred Heart above the range
Will bleed and burn till Kingdom Come,
But Yin and Yang won’t ever meet
In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.

– James K. Baxter.

This poem also looks at the theme of the ugliness and sterility that Baxter saw behind the respectable front of New Zealand middle-class society in the 1950s. Note the use of religious references throughout the poem. What do they make clear about the life of the couple? Baxter had converted to Catholicism shortly before he wrote this poem so think about why he chose to use Calvary in the title.

How leaf we are

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How leaf we are;
At first, all furled in separateness:
Peeping out with little vanities and hopes, also vanity;
Perhaps the last vanity, holding us to that green world
Our life shall be; believing ourselves
So individual, we all reach, being identical.
Shall the prodigal gardener weep?

How leaf we are:
At last, all seared in brittleness
Curled up with tiny fears and hurts, also fears;
Perhaps the last fear, tethering us to that dry twig

Our life become; then knowing what we are
Enumerable, we fall, expendable, all.
The gardener is blind. He will not sweep.

How leaf we are
Like waves we do become; first urged, then merged.
That gardener is a fisherman;
That fisherman’s asleep.

Ronald Duncan

Ronald Duncan was a poet, playwright and journalist. His poem, How leaf we are is an interesting one to use for a close reading exercise.

Now, I realise that I am being ridiculously optimistic but I would like some discussion of the poem. Who can explain how Duncan developed the extended metaphor? What is the theme? How about explaining the effect of the poetic devices used?

Any honest efforts would be welcomed.

To help you with your analysis have a look at this Guide to Close Reading from MIT, I hope all Scholarship candidates will read it.