The New Close Reading: Web-Based Technology and Writing Pedagogy

Elizabeth Losh

I. The Web as an "extra-textual" resource

The Humanities Core Course Web Site

The Virtual Research Project

II. The Web as an "intra-textual" resource: Close Reading with Film

The Rebecca Assignment

The Screenplay as "Traditional Text"

Pre-Writing for the Rebecca Assignment

A sample paper:

    Alfred Hitchcock's classic suspense film Rebecca is a masterful story of three individuals with romantic connections and how one of these individuals is eliminated so that the two others can become united in marriage.  Simple as this process sounds when thus delineated, it actually involves many complicated stages.  Among these stages, one of the most central to the story is the stage when the two married individuals remain greatly separated.  The factors involved in this separation seem obvious, but the artistry of the movie lies in the complex portrayal of the separation.  One scene in which this underlying separation is obvious is that of the honeymoon film.  The visual and emotional elements of this scene reveal this intense separation between Maxim and his young wife while indicating that the separation is a result of Maxim's complete knowledge of his past as compared to his wife's complete ignorance regarding that past.

    While not contained in the honeymoon film scene, the initial narration by the "I" character simultaneously establishes the point-of-view for the film and the ignorance of the "I" character.  The voice-over comes during the dream sequence at the beginning of the film, which portrays an eyeline match with "I" as she walks up the path to Manderley.  Immediately the cinematography reinforces the viewpoint as being that of the narrator since it follows her line of sight rather than her actual figure.  As she walks towards Manderley, the narrator describes the foreboding house we see through her eyes by saying that "no whisper of the past" remains in Manderley.  The narrator is emphasizing her ignorance regarding the past, which becomes the audience's ignorance since they see everything from her point of view.  Just as the narrator knows nothing of Manderley's past when she first comes in contact with Maxim, so now the audience knows nothing about it.  The audience must rely on the narrator to provide knowledge about the past piece by piece, just as she relies on Maxim and the events surrounding her to gain knowledge about Maxim's true past.

    From the beginning of their relationship, Maxim possesses control emotionally and mentally because of his knowledge of the past.  For example, during the honeymoon film, Maxim exercises his power over "I" by interpreting the film for her and then manipulating her emotions.  Unlike in the initial narration, Maxim is the principle voice of interpretation for this film because his knowledge of the film is greater.  "I" offers few interpretations, and they are either obvious or in agreement with Maxim's interpretations because she desires to share in his enjoyment of the film.  Here, Maxim sets the emotional tone, as he does when his attitude abruptly changes in response to Mrs. de Winter's assertion that "that's why you [Maxim] married me [her].  Because you [Maxim] know[s] . . . there could never be any gossip about me [her]."  She is attempting to interpret the honeymoon video and the larger context of their marriage.  At this point in the film, however, both Mrs. de Winter and the audience have no concept of how Rebecca and Maxim's marriage was only a show designed to ward off dishonorable gossip.  As a result of Maxim's refusal to disclose his past to his new wife, her interpretation is ironically painful for him.  Yet instead of bringing his wife closer to himself by sharing his knowledge, Maxim uses his power to manipulate her emotions and further the distance between them.  As she has no knowledge of the past, she allows Maxim to dictate her emotions regarding the past when she first questions ("what's the matter") Maxim's response but then quickly agrees with him that "it wasn't a very attractive thing to say."  Maxim's upper hand in knowledge gives him the upper hand emotionally and these advantages serve to separate him from his new wife.

    Although marriage is traditionally seen as the two uniting to become one, in the honeymoon film scene the physical locality of objects and characters reveals the intense separation between these two individuals and how their attempts to unify are blocked by the barriers between them.  Initially, the honeymoon film shows only shots of Maxim and his wife separately, as they are before marriage and Manderley.  This visual separation of images is indicative of the separation between their lives.  As they sit watching the film within the film, the physical distance between them evidences the lingering separation and lack of blending in their lives.  Physically, the noisy projector sits between them, demanding attention, but emotionally the greater barrier of Rebecca exists.  The issue of Maxim's past with Rebecca must be addressed if he and his new wife are to become united.  Futher evidence of the gap between them comes analogously through the abrupt break in the honeymoon film clip.  There remains a "gap," a missing portion of their relationship that only Maxim is aware of.  He has seen the film, so to speak, and knows its content, whereas Mrs. de Winter has not been able to view this portion.  The gap in the film mirrors the gap in their relationship (which is echoed by the physical distance between them) and the gap in Maxim's past that "I" is unable to fill in.  The audience shares Mrs. de Winter's uncertainty because neither the film nor the past has been revealed to them and they are left without knowledge of these events.

    One of the greatest contributors to Mrs. de Winter's, and therefore the audience's lack of knowledge regarding Maxim and his past with Rebecca is the relative "darkness" surrounding the details of this woman and her relationship with Maxim.  Mrs. de Winter's perceptual abilities are limited by the amount of light or knowledge available on any given event or situation.  For instance, during the honeymoon film scene, the room is dark during the "past" (when the film is playing) yet illuminated in the "present" (the lights are flipped on when matters at hand arise).  Similarly, Mrs. de Winter is "in the dark" regarding Maxim and his past with Rebecca, and knows only what few pieces of information she has gathered through the visual images of the past.  While the honeymoon film provides "I" with a few images of her relationship with Maxim, images of Rebecca are provided only in the form of stories from the servants,  Rebecca's room, and Rebecca's cottage.  "I" can see only darkly lit remnants of the past and is therefore unable to form a complete picture of the past.  The portrayal of Maxim's face when he becomes angry during the film showing is another example of how amount of light indicates knowledge on the part of "I."  Maxim is shown from below, with his face only half lit.  In this lighting, Maxim seems to be quite different than when the lights are on, and the fact that he is partially illuminated implies that his past and his former self, so to speak, are only partially known to his new wife.  He is shown in this lighting as he angrily reacts to his wife's attempt at interpretation of the past.  She has limited knowledge of Maxim, as is evidenced by the lighting of his face, and is therefore uncertain as to why her words upset him.  Maxim alone knows the full implication of the past on his feelings and actions, and so Mrs. de Winter is left to wonder about both his reaction to her interpretation of the past and the past itself.

    Maxim retains the power in his marriage throughout most of this film because of his knowledge of the past.  The honeymoon scene is but an example of a time when the uneven balance of information between husband and wife is made painfully evident.  Not until Maxim decides to disclose his past to his wife and equalize the balance of power and knowledge between them can their separation be exterminated.  The critical moment of restoring balance comes when Maxim at last reveals that he "hated her [Rebecca]!" and proceeds to relate to "I" the circumstances of his life with Rebecca.  The film ends in the way it began, with a visual image of Manderley.  However, by the end of the film Manderley is no longer a mysterious place, for the spirit of Rebecca has been defeated through truth and the revelation of knowledge which simultaneously free "I" from her trap of ignorance.

III. The Web as an "intra-textual" resource: Close Reading with a Translated Text

The Odyssey Assignment

The Assigned Passage

Pre-Writing for the Odyssey Assignment

A sample paper:

    Odysseus is depicted as a constant and reluctant traveler who must continually encounter different cultures. Although on his initial arrival to the Island of the Phaiakians he makes no physical contact with another culture, his inner desire to preserve his own culture becomes apparent. He has been stripped of his clothes, his oikos and his direction. The only untouched possession that he retains is his culture. The new culture that he encounters must conceive their own opinion of the culture of his native Ithaka, and because Odysseus is the only foreigner from there, what they decide is based entirely on the impression that he makes. As a hero, he must be an ideal representation of his culture, and this is expressed through his apparent persona. A heroic identity is an accurate representation of a culture through one person. In order to generate a more accurate impression of his people, Odysseus must mold himself to be an exact representation of them. The technological skills that Odysseus portrays in this passage are actually a representation of the identity of his people. Adopting their identity as his own, Odysseus makes it possible for outsiders to perceive his culture. Homer's meticulous choice of words portray the importance of technological heritage in Odysseus' heroic identity.
    His identity is important to Odysseus because as he makes contact with other cultures, his identity is the means by which they perceive his own culture. Homer implies that Odysseus is in a strange land "where none live near as neighbors" (489). Homer's original Greek word for neighbors, geitones, has a meaning different than the modern accepted meaning of 'neighbor.' The Greek word geitones is defined more specifically as not only those who are near, but those who are of the same land and culture as well*. He is not suggesting that Odysseus is physically alone, but rather that he is alone in a cultural manner. Homer did not use the word anchitermon, the more literal and geographical aspect of neighbor, because he wants to accentuate the importance of Odysseus' heroic identity. To an ignorant people, his identity would be the sole representation of his culture. Since he is the only one of his kind in this new land, the process by which he develops his heroic identity will be crucial to any contact he makes with outside cultures.

    Odysseus views shelter as the most important technological concept in his culture and by acknowledging this, he is articulating his identity.  Landing on the Island, he immediately commences to seek shelter. Soon after, he "stopped underneath two bushes," without delaying to find other ways as he commonly does (476). The original Greek version of the text uses the word hupeluthe, meaning to come under, instead of "stopped" as is used in Lattimore's translation. This small detail is one of great importance because it shows an indecisive hero's immediate choice to seek shelter. He did not stop in front of the bushes by coincidence, nor did he stop in front of them to ponder his possibilities, rather he approached them specifically with the thought of using them as a form of shelter. Going back to his basic instincts, shelter is a concept that needs no further thought because it is a bare necessity. His knowledge of its importance was learned, or inherited, from his past ancestors. By taking cover immediately, he is automatically remembering his culture, and expressing his identity.

    Through the complexity of his techniques (for the construction of shelter), Odysseus develops a valid heroic identity for the presentation of his culture. He begins to construct a habitat, not with tools, but with his own identity. He "heaped [himself] a bed to sleep on," made primitively with his own bare hands (482). In the translation, Odysseus gathers dead leaves to make himself a cushion to sleep on. It is interesting, however, that Homer chose the word eunen, a bed, rather than the Greek word stibas, meaning a makeshift bed of straw or leaves. It seems to be that stibas would be the more fitting choice of words, however, Homer chooses to keep his depiction of the bed vague and simple. In doing so, Homer is allowing the possibility that the bed Odysseus made is much more complicated than a simple a pile of leaves.  Such an uncivilized and primitive bed does not show much about individuality, whereas Odysseus' complicated design is yet another expression of his identity. Homer uses the same word, eunen, when speaking of Telemachus' bed, a bed of great importance and honor (I.427). The word is used again by Circe as she speaks to Odysseus about going to her bed (X.297). Here, eunen refers to a divine bed worthy enough to belong to a goddess. Homer uses this word to describe beds that are honorable and important. Unlike his bed at Ithaka that is described as lechos, or a marriage bed, this bed that he makes out of leaves has no sexual value; it is purely one of honor. These references suggest that the bed that Odysseus makes for himself in the leaves is one of complexity and prestige. Assuming that Lattimore's translation underestimated this detail, it is safe to assume that Odysseus uses his technological knowledge and culture to build his bed. On this Island where he has been stripped of everything, the only hope that he has for his survival and sanity, is his individual view on his culture. With this culture, he is not only given the will to survive, but the will to preserve his identity as well.
    Homer furthers his idea of heroic identity by transforming Odysseus' technology into a metaphor. He compares Odysseus' desire for identity to the warmth of a burning log. Like the log that is buried to preserve its fire, Odysseus "[buries] himself in the leaves," with the desire to preserve his identity (491). Because he is alone on this strange Island, he must maintain his culture by any means necessary. In this passage, he maintains his culture, his heroic identity, by the use of technological techniques. Through these techniques of shelter, he will keep his culture alive; much like the log keeps the fire alive, preventing its need to be re-lighted. If at any time the fire does go out, there is "no other place to get a light from," and the risk of total loss is inevitable (490).  Homer uses this metaphor to portray the importance of shelter to Odysseus. If he loses this shelter, he runs the risk of a total loss of culture. It is only with his sheltering that Odysseus is given the chance to survive. The only way that he can preserve his previously established identity is by burying it under coverings of protection.  Referring back to the original Greek, Homer uses a play on words. He uses kalupto to depict Odysseus burying himself. Kalupto has two meanings: the first is to cover, and the second is to veil oneself. As Odysseus covers himself with the leaves, he also veils his culture and identity from the possibility of outside harm. By imitating a burning log, Odysseus conserves his heroic identity and ensures the success of his cultural presentation.
    Practicing careful rhetoric, Homer makes it apparent that certain technological concepts are essential to constructing a heroic identity. Shelter is an inherited trait of Odysseus' ancestral past, and so when he consciously acknowledges this, he is acting on his culture. Odysseus establishes his heroic identity by accepting the importance of shelter, as well as by practicing technological methods for its construction. The assimilation of these two concepts provides Odysseus with a valid heroic identity, and thus a valid expression of his culture. For the conservation of his identity, Odysseus uses the technological aspect of shelter to protect himself and his portrayal of his culture. Each time that he encounters a new culture, he is faced with a different people that are curious to learn more about him and his culture. Odysseus chooses to deal with this form of contact by maintaining an accurate presentation of his culture. Referring to the original Greek text indicates that Homer had specific reasons for his choice of words as he portrays the elaboration of Odysseus' heroic identity.  Focusing on Homer's language, the development of Odysseus through this passage shows the maturing of a convincing cultural presentation.

IV. Pedagogical Implications

A. "Cultural Studies" vs. "Close Reading"? 

B.  Hypertextual Analysis?  Taking Texts Inside-Out

C. Mechanisms of Sight and Insight: Teaching Reading While Teaching Writing

D.  Technological Polymorphism and the Well-Wrought Urn: Lessons of the New Criticism for Process-Oriented Writing