What keeps us from anything but a secret appreciation of literary works, a feigned
indifference, perhaps even a public disavowal of them? Are we uneasy about getting lost in the
complexity of a masterpiece? Do we want to avoid sailing into uncharted waters? A fix for our
anxieties may lie in the seemingly old fashion execution of a reasoned literary explication.
French "explication de texte" is an organized analytical description of a literary work as a text,
that is a fixed document. It is generally composed of a series of related observations. These
may concern the descriptive, narrational, episodic, contextual, prosodic, historical, lexical,
semantic, phonetic, structural, stylistic, tonal, rhythmical, or other aspects of the text. They
may focus on literary genre, kind of literary or rhetorical image, frequency of structure or
word, the delineation between form and content, the identification of narrators, anticipated or
embedded readers, what is implicit in an utterance. To a certain extent, by recording these
observations, an explicator allows the work to speak for itself.
Assembling even some of the most obvious of these is an excellent start at having something to
say about a literary text. It permits us a statement about what we do observe, and it reveals
specific categories where we have not yet made observations. At this point "explication de
texte" can take on the limited role of a reader's guide, prompting us to look for more of the
mechanics and strategies which give the text its presence, and inform us of "how it means". The
goal of a mature explication should then be a methodical reading of a literary work, allowing the
the text to speak through its many aspects, revealing not just a seamless performed work, but
working parts, which can in turn become tools for some hypotheses about the very act of its
creation or a platform from which to investigate significant paratextual features.
At what point can we really benefit from such a method of literary analysis? Clearly a look at
the reading guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
Languages or the federal government's Interagency Language Roundtable
scale reveals that the "Advanced" or "3" level is the best place developmentally to start a
holistic approach, though some students may be ready at the upper end of "Intermediate High"
or "2+" level. This being said, there are a number of points in the learning continuum where
we are capable of observing single characteristics in a literary work. Making these
observations, as the opportunity presents itself, should be a part of our reading agenda, both in
prereading and post reading activities, from the point where we begin to address whole texts. In
this way, explication de texte will seem more like a synthesis and less like a mystery to those
who will try them out holistically in literature classes.
In this site I point learners and practitioners to a virtual library of over 100 resources which
should considerably inform or enhance their efforts in textual analysis. I have included a
limited number which are oriented towards English-language texts, because they contain
valuable insights, a concise list of strategies, or practical style sheets. Included also are
rhetorical figure vocabularies and resources for making sense of allusions to mythological
figures or Biblical characters. There are also resources which inventory major theoretical
approaches, one which brings to light the analytical and critical possibilities afforded by our
information age. Finally, in order to make this the most complete resource of its kind anywhere,
I have included a print bibliography.4>