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Formative Essay

Formative Essay: Close reading of a passage from a Term 1 text, situating it in relation to the wider themes and concerns of the text (1000 words)

Close reading, for the purposes of this module, involves critical analysis of a text with a focus on language, form and theme leading to development of a wider interpretive argument. It’s not what is referred to in the French system as an ‘explication de texte,’ or a descriptive commentary covering all the details of the text. Instead, you’re being asked to select what you judge are the most important aspects of your chosen passage and to develop a reading or interpretation based on these aspects. Your reading will aim to relate textual parts (in this case, elements of your chosen passage from a given work) to wholes; keep in mind the larger context of the work when accounting for particular details of the section you’ve chosen to read closely. Above all, remember that this assignment – as with most of the essays and exams you’ll write at Warwick – is argument-driven; you’re making a strong (rather than weakly descriptive) claim based on the evidence of the text and its implication in a wider world.

There is a temptation to rely on generalizing terms (“nature,” “Romanticism,” “modernity,” etc.) as self-evident givens in assignments of this kind; avoid this. Instead of assuming a consensus about what these terms mean, investigate what they point to within the details of the text itself. On the other hand, don’t fall into the trap of regarding the text as a purely autonomous and self-constituted linguistic world of its own; nearly every significant word in the language is saturated with histories of conflict and context-sensitive usage that repay investigation, and the historical contexts of each text on the module form an essential ground of their possible meanings. (A useful reference for understanding how the meanings of key terms have changed over time is Raymond Williams’s little book Keywords, and its later updating, New Keywords).

What we’re looking for are sharply perceptive, concisely written and well developed analyses that open up and illuminate the texts being read. On what to avoid, the following are a few frequently used markers’ comments on essays and exams:

- ‘Overly descriptive’: essay is essentially a paraphrase or exposition of the text rather than an analysis

- ‘Obvious’: concludes what is already apparent or easily recognizable in a passage or question

- ‘Impressionistic’: records writer’s immediate or personal responses to a passage or question without conceptually developing these responses into a sustained analysis

- ‘Generalised’: essay stays at an abstract and macro-level throughout, often including unsupported assertions

The focus of this essay should be your own reading of the text. However it is important to consult selected secondary sources that bear on your topic, as a way of positioning and refining your argument. For this assignment, you should consult and cite from at least two secondary sources, referencing these correctly in your Works Cited / Bibliography. In general, start with the most up-to-date critical sources to get a sense of where the academic conversation on a given text has developed.

Finally, how you determine what constitutes a ‘passage’ is up to you — it may be a paragraph(s) or page(s) of a work of fiction, or a single stanza or section of a poem, or a scene or exchange of words in a play — but it should be a restricted and reasonably concise portion of the text. Make the case in your essay for treating the section you’ve chosen as significant for understanding the work as a whole.