Exploring the Effects of Language

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A-level English By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » A-level English
Last updated: 22/04/2017
Tags: a-level essay writing, exploring literature, literary analysis

Say a lot about a little 

As a teacher of GCSE, IGCSE, A level and IB Diploma English Literature for over 15 years, I have always enjoyed building students' confidence when exploring their interpretations of texts. Having just completed the marking of coursework assignments for IB Diploma English Literature, I would love to share some insight into the main difference between excellent responses and poorer ones. 

It is not the quality of the ideas themselves that are the issue for lower achieving students, it is rarely the case that good students get it and weaker students don’t; nor is it the lower level of sophistication used to convey their ideas, although it is always good to see students striving to express themselves with confidence and precision. Instead, it is the willingness, or more precisely the lack of willingness in weaker responses, to explore HOW a writer achieves particular effects through the language they use.

All too often a student works through a checklist of literary terms, hoping to impress the examiner with their knowledge of the terms themselves but if there is little appreciation of HOW these literary features are being used, or to what end, then the student is destined to produce a lacklustre, and low scoring, response. As a teacher, and more recently an examiner, this is an area of student response that has always concerned me and is easily, and enjoyably, rectified. Saying a lot about a little is key: key not only to gaining higher marks for essays, but more importantly it is key to really engaging with texts and discovering a genuine passion for Literature.

By way of illustration, I have focused on three popular texts (one drama, one prose and one poetry) and written short snippets of responses to the text, based on a well-used quotation. Hopefully this will make everything a little clearer and help you to move towards saying a lot about a little in response to whichever literature text you are exploring at the moment.

 

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Quotation: ‘Let me say “Amen”, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here be comes in the likeness of a Jew’ (Act 3 Sc 1)

A response:

Shylock enters this scene and immediately the characters of Solanio and Salarino show their animosity towards him by acknowledging his entrance with the words, ‘Let me say “Amen”, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew’. Likening Shylock to the devil is a motif used throughout the play. The Christian characters also often refer to him as ‘a Jew’.

A better response to the same quotation:

When Shylock enters the scene we can immediately see how the characters of Solanio and Salarino ridicule and insult him: seizing upon Shylock’s misery and metaphorically kicking him while he is down. Their first words, acknowledging Shylock’s entrance, are, ‘Let me say “Amen” betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew’ which immediately show how they not only characteristically refer to him as the ‘devil’ but also that they refuse to dignify him with a name, referring to him instead as ‘a Jew’. The motif of the devil is constantly used by the Christian characters to describe Shylock and not only carries with it all their hatred for Shylock, as the devil is the epitome of evil, but also their fear of what he represents: a Jew, with all of their particular beliefs and customs, being wholly outside the ken of Christian society of the time. Constantly labelling him as both the ‘devil’ and ‘a Jew’ further allows the Christian characters to dehumanise Shylock and distance themselves from him; leading to their abuse of him verbally, physically and mentally, without feeling any culpability for their actions or words.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Quotation: ‘Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away.’

A response:

Solzhenitsyn begins the novel by emphasising the harsh conditions in the gulag.  The inmates are called to wake up by a warder banging on a rail outside the sleeping quarters, a noise that is described as a ‘ragged noise … muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows’. This emphasises the cold and uncomfortable conditions the prisoners have to exist in.

A better response:

Solzhenitsyn begins the novel by emphasising the harsh conditions in the gulag.  The inmates are called to wake up by a warder banging on a rail outside the sleeping quarters; the discomfort of being jolted awake is conveyed by the abruptness of the short sentence, ‘Time to get up’. The sound of the hammering itself is described as a ‘ragged noise … muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows’. This emphasises the cold and uncomfortable conditions the men have to exist in. The use of the word ‘ragged’ suggests a sound that cuts through the air with a kind of aggression, interrupting mercilessly the inmates’ sleep. However this aggression appears somewhat sinister, latent rather than fully unleashed, because it is ‘muffled’ by the ice, and although this could sound reassuring, as if the men are being protected in some way from the warder’s intrusion, the ‘ice two fingers thick’ instead conveys the isolation of the prisoners in freezing, almost suffocating conditions. Through these descriptions Solzhenitsyn seeks to introduce the reader to the gulag and how one indignity after another is inflicted on the men: the lack of freedom, the underlying aggression, the freezing temperatures, there is no escape from the harsh conditions, and this is just the start of the day.

 

This Lime Tree Bower my Prison by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Quotation: ‘… yea, gazing round/On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth   seem/ Less gross than bodily;’

A response:

At this point in the poem, Coleridge seems to have fully ascended to a sublime state as he has moved away from mere aesthetic appreciation of his physical conditions and transcended to a more spiritually enlightened place, ‘…yea, gazing round/On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem/Less gross than bodily’. The repetition of the word, ‘gaze’ is important for showing his awe for his surroundings and the idea of things now seeming, ‘Less gross than bodily’ adds to the sense of Coleridge having become spiritually lifted by his experience of Nature.

A better response:

At this point in the poem, Coleridge seems to have fully ascended to a sublime state as he has moved away entirely from mere aesthetic appreciation of his immediate physical conditions, the beautiful, and transcended to a more spiritually enlightened and expansive place, ‘…yea, gazing round/On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem/Less gross than bodily’. The spontaneous emotional interjection ‘yea’ and the repetition of the word, ‘gaze’ is important for showing Coleridge’s awe for his imagined natural surroundings by suggesting that rather than searching for sights to focus on, to lift him out of his ‘prison’, he is instead embracing all elements of Nature and allowing them to impress their magnificence upon him, with no sense of strain in this relationship. Furthermore, the movement beyond ‘this lime tree bower my prison’ of the first stanza to a landscape that is now described as ‘wide’ shows how he is emancipated both emotionally and spiritually. He is in a sublime state where everything is, ‘Less gross than bodily’ adding to the sense of Coleridge having become spiritually lifted by his experience of Nature as the landscape has become ethereal, almost heavenly, suggesting a connection of man with Nature in a way that leads to a closeness with God: the pantheistic Romantic poet’s utopia.

 

* Please note these are not the finished article – the examples above are limited in order to illustrate one aspect of the approach to literary analysis – you should also consider the need to:

  • thoroughly develop a response by using frequent, short, integrated quotations – your readings cannot merely be based on one word or line from a play, poem or novel;
  • be responsive to the genre of the text, such as, by looking at aspects of staging in drama, focusing carefully on meter and rhythm in poetry and considering aspects of narrative perspective in prose;
  • comment on social or historical context, whenever useful, to help unpack a writer’s meaning and intentions.

Pamela Newman International Baccalaureate Tutor (Guildford)

About The Author

As an enthusiastic and well-qualified teacher of English, with over 15 years experience, I am committed to helping my students grow in confidence and discover their love of English which is key to achieving higher examination grades.




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