Close Literary Reading 101: Thinking about How Stories End

I thought it might be fun (at least for me) to lay out, in a series of short blog posts, some of the basic terms and ideas that I present to my students when talking about the “close reading” of literary texts. Maybe there will be others who also find these brief outlines valuable. I have discovered, over the years, that close reading of literature is akin to the practice of Buddhist vipassana. Close reading teaches you to slow down, actually notice what it is that you’re looking at and experiencing, and see changes and patterns. Anyway, below are some basic literary terms and ideas that I share with my students concerning how stories end.

  • The recurrent elements in a story—its themes (such as love) and motifs (such as the color red)—may play important roles in the conclusion. Themes and motifs can be thought of as a story’s obsessive concerns.
  • You might notice that something foreshadowed at the beginning of a story plays a large role at the end.
  • A reader may leave the reading of a story with a dominant impression (Poe), or a very particular sense of life
  • One might experience, by identification with the protagonist, catharsis (emotional “purgation” by “exhibition”; an epiphany that brings one to calm).
  • A reader may perceive that the story is, in some sense, “true to life” (that is, it has verisimilitude), or that it actually says something true about life.
  • Related to verisimilitude is poetic justice. You may feel that a character, in achieving justice in a story, has arrived at something both plausible and satisfying. Nothing, in other words, is left to the afterlife to make “good”. Likewise, when poetic justice fails to occur in a story, you might feel that this is plausible as well, but you are also left discomforted, and may leave the story feeling that you have encountered an aporia (an impasse; a source of confusion; a puzzle). You may also feel that the story is absurd.
  • A story may have a profound meaning to you that matches, challenges, or expands your Weltanschauung (worldview) or way of talking about life and meaning (final language or final narrative).
  • By not explicitly announcing its purpose or meaning, a story may function as a kind of objective correlative (T. S. Eliot) to a very specific, if nevertheless unspoken, emotion or meaning (as an icon might externalize a unique and singular emotional state, and trigger it when gazed upon). You may leave a story, in other words, feeling an emotion or meaning that the author conveys only indirectly.
  • You might conclude a story feeling that you have emerged from a vortex. Ezra Pound, in the context of poetry, coined the term vorticism for the “the point of maximum energy” around which a work of great art swirls, and to which, in the literary arts, no unnecessary words attach themselves. In a story, at least one such “vortex” may come at the end of it, or very near the end. It’s something to watch for.
  • One may leave a story feeling jouissance (the pleasure verging on pain of reading a text that unsettles, disturbs, and disorients), or Romantic sublimity (a “delightful horror, a terrible joy” that surpasses one’s ability to grasp at an object’s full implications and capacious reality, and initiates trembling).
  • An author who is capable of bringing us to aporia, jouissance, or sublimity might be said to possess negative capability, which the poet John Keats coined for a writer “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats’s premiere example of someone with negative capability was Shakespeare. Negative capability may also be thought of as the ability to empty yourself of your own vantage and step into the shoes (imaginatively) of others, inhabiting them. You may leave a story feeling that you have, in fact, done this. But you may also leave a character’s “shoes” feeling that you have encountered a person that is so deeply perplexing and contradictory that you are unsettled. Aporia, jouissance, sublimity, and negative capability are attempts to label such an encounter. Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” are stories that readers tend to leave under these terms. And Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is another example.  
  • An author may seek to evoke in readers an alienation effect (a term coined by the dramatist Bertolt Brecht), or a reader may feel an alienation effect apart from a writer’s intention. An alienation effect is present wherever one maintains an ironic distance and “evaluative wariness” from an author’s work, and does not succumb to its mystifications or emotional manipulations, but stays uninvolved, self-aware, and critical.
  • Some stories and novels are driven, thematically, by intellectual ideas, and when we encounter such a story we might call it a “story of ideas” or a “novel of ideas”. For example, Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, is a novel of ideas. As you might expect, the hero of the novel (who embodies the author’s highest ideals) is placed on iconic display in the concluding scene (an architect stands atop the skyscraper he has built and overlooks New York City). Likewise, Leo Tolstoy’s novella, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, is an extended meditation on death and dying, and the concluding scene centers on the deathbed of Ivan Ilyich.
  • Aristotle. When Aristotle looked at, say, a tree and asked what caused it, his answer began with matter and form: a tree is a product of the raw matter it is made of (water and wood fibers) channeled through a very particular form (root, trunk and branches). To matter and form, Aristotle offered two other causes: the efficient (or triggering) cause of a particular tree may have been a seed dropped by a bird thirty years previous. And the seed’s telos (design, purpose, nature)—what we might call today its genetic blueprint—was the ultimate or final cause of the tree’s manifestation. The seed, like human desire in humans, is what makes the tree go. Aristotle’s ideas about causation can be interesting to apply to the end of a story: what proved to be the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause for how it came out? Put another way, here are four Aristotelian questions to ask: (1) In the vast library of material possibilities for how the story might have turned out (based on its beginning), what actually did materialize at the end? (2) What form or process was passed through that brought about that specific materialization? In a story, the form or process consists of the plot points the author maps out for the reader: “This happened, then this happened, then this happened—and then everything arrived at this or that conclusion”. (3) What was the proximate trigger that set the end process in motion? (4) What telos, design, purpose, or longing did the lead character have in the first place that made the story go?
  • Here’s an example for applying Aristotle’s notion of causation to a piece of literature: in Kate Chopin’s well known short story, “The Story of an Hour”, we can say that Mrs. Mallard died for four reasons: (1.) Mrs. Mallard died because of a heart condition (a material cause alluded to in the first sentence of the story). In the library of material possibilities, death by heart attack was something that could have happened to her, and at the end of the story it was realized. (2) The form (the formal cause) or process by which she wound her way to this materialization was via receiving news of her husband’s death, thinking she was gloriously free of him, but then learning that, in fact, her husband was not dead after all. (3) What specifically triggered her heart attack (the efficient cause) was seeing her husband arrive at the door of their house, not dead. (4) The purpose that Mrs. Mallard set out with, and that made the story go at all, was her desire, as a nineteenth century woman embedded in a deeply chauvinist culture, to get free of a bad marriage. Unfortunately for her, that aspiration was frustrated and the chain of events turned out badly. From an Aristotelian vantage, this is the “final cause” for how the story turned out: Mrs. Mallard’s telos (her design, her purpose) was to move toward greater freedom from male control, but it led to her death.
  • After you read a story, what happens if you reflect on it—as literary critic Peter Brooks suggests that you do—as an obituary? What proved most important in retrospect? Where did a character’s critical thinking fatally break down, etc?
  • Susan Lohafer’s preclosure theory. An interesting approach to thinking about how a story ends is to reflect on what it would feel like had the story ended earlier. Literary critic Susan Lohafer has developed this technique into a detailed (and I think valuable) method for close reading, but to practice the basic idea doesn’t require much elaboration: just pretend that a story ends at some earlier paragraph of your choosing and think about it in the light of this pseudo-ending. At a stopping point that is not the author’s, is the story profoundly changed? Is it still a satisfying story? Try the technique at various “preclosure” points and see what insights about the story come from the exercise.
  • After you have read a story, you might attempt to summarize it in your own words. This is called a synopsis.
  • In romantic terms, we might think of our experience of a great story in the way that William Wordsworth, writing in 1805, thought of the imagination generally (in his Prelude Bk. 6):

Imagination!—lifting up itself

Before the eye and progress of my song

Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,

In all the might of its endowments, came

Athwart me. I was lost as in a cloud,

Halted without a struggle to break through,

And now, recovering, to my soul I say

“I recognize thy glory.”

For thoughts on dramatic structure, see here. For terms and ideas for thinking about characters, see here. For thoughts on narration and style, see here and here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Close Literary Reading 101: Thinking about How Stories End

  1. Hi Santi

    Unrelated to your post, sorry, but I thought you might find my post “Should we tolerate the intolerant” interesting? http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/should-we-tolerate-the-intolerant/

    Jonathan 🙂

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