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Most assessments require you to write essays using formal language. In English writing, there are two main styles of writing – formal and informal. The primary purpose of formal language is to achieve sophistication and clarity. Although the difference between the two styles is relatively straightforward, we’ll point out some common examples to just to make sure that you don’t slip and make an unnecessary mistake. Consider these two examples:
Example 1 : We cordially invite you to the Year 12 formal.
Example 2 : Hey buddy! Wanna go to the dance?
It is clear that example 1 is formal while example 2 is informal. The vocabulary, tone, and syntax are all things that change depending on the style you wish to adopt. Informal language isn’t always a ‘taboo’ though. Creative pieces and persuasive pieces can be written informally, for example, if it is a personal diary or an advertisement respectively. If you’re unsure, the easiest way to separate the two is to question whether or not you would say the phrase in real-life conversations. If it’s a yes, then it’s most likely informal language. Below are some more specific examples of the differences between formal and informal writing:
Formal: Avoids using colloquial words/phrases
Informal: May use colloquial words/phrases
Formal: Avoids contractions (write out full words – was not, did not, had not etc.)
Informal: May use contractions (wasn’t, didn’t, hadn’t etc.)
Formal: Usually written in third person (Sharon, Ben, they, them etc.)
Informal: May use first (I, me etc.), second (he, she etc.) or third person (as above).
Formal: Specific words (such as, large, items, etc.)
Informal: Imprecise words (like, big, things, etc.)
Formal: Avoids cliches (many, etc.)
Informal: May use cliches (loads of, etc.)
Formal: Avoids addressing readers using second person pronouns (the readers, an individual, one’s etc.)
Informal: May address readers using second person pronouns (you, your, etc.)
Formal: Avoids using abbreviated words (write in full – photograph, television, etc.)
Informal: May use abbreviated words (photo, TV, etc.)
Whether you consider yourself a Frankenstein expert, or someone who is a bit taken back by the density of the novel and Shelley’s writing, do not fret! Below I will outline 3 tips which, will hopefully give you a clearer perspective on how to approach writing on Frankenstein! Let’s get started!
1. ALWAYS TRY TO TALK ABOUT SHELLEY’S CONCERNS
Since the book was set during the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic era, Shelley essentially used Frankenstein as a vessel to criticise and warn readers against many of the values upheld during her era. It’s therefore crucial that you address this!
The late 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century were exciting times for science and exploration. Shelley’s two main protagonists, Walton and Frankenstein, both passionately sough to discover what had previously been hidden. Walton wanted to be the first to find a passage through the Arctic Circle; Frankenstein wanted to be the first to create manmade life, to uncover the mysteries of Nature. Both men claimed to be desirous of benefitting humankind but both wanted glory more. This obsession to win accolades for their discoveries will destroy Victor, and turn Walton for a while into a hard taskmaster over his crew.
Juxtaposed against these two characters is Henry Clerval. Clerval, too, has an inquiring mind but he also cares about humanity, family and friends. He represents the balanced human being who is sociable, compassionate, intelligent and loyal to his friends. Victor’s ability to reanimate the dead, to bring to life his gigantic Creature using the newly discovered electricity, makes him a genius but also a monster. In his inexperience he botches the work producing a hideous and terrifying creature with, ironically, initially all the virtues of the ideal man of he world. Repulsed by his amateurish handiwork, Victor abandons his creation, setting in place the vengeance that will unfold later.
Try to ground any response to Shelley’s text in the enormous enthusiasm for new discoveries and new geographic phenomena that attracted lavish praise for those who went where others feared to tread. It was this praise that drove Walton and Frankenstein to exceed reasonable expectations becoming reckless and careless of the consequences of their actions.
2. ALWAYS TRY TO DRAWS LINKS AND CONTRAST DIFFERENT CHARACTERS AND THEMES!
Walton, Frankenstein and the Creature are interconnected in so many ways – whether it be their isolation, ambition, desire for companionship, desire for vengeance or the Romantic values they share. I’ve also noted that it is also really easy to connect themes in Frankenstein as the tragic story-arc of the novel is built upon many different causes. What I mean by this is that there is a clearly define relationship between isolation, ambition and vengeance (and ultimately tragedy) in the sense that isolation is what led to the brewing of unchecked ambition which essentially causes the resultant tragedy.
Take Frankenstein for example: having left his loving family and friends, who provided him with love and companionship for Ingolstadt, there was no one to hold him back from his natural tendencies towards unchecked ambitions, leading him to creating the monster who out of spite towards society kills all of Frankenstein’s loved ones, leading them towards the desire for mutual destruction. Being able to see these links and draw them together will not only add depth to your writing but it also arms you with the ability to be able to deal with a wider array of prompts.
3. ALWAYS TRY TO LOOK FOR MORE NUANCED EXAMPLES AND DISCUSSIONS!
While Walton, Frankenstein and the Creature can be discussed incredibly thoroughly (and by all means go ahead and do it), but it is also very important to consider the novel as a whole and talk about, if not more thoroughly, on the minor characters. While characters such as the De Laceys, villagers and the rustic in the forest can be used to highlight the injustices brought upon the creature and people’s natural instincts of self preservation and prejudice, innocent characters such as Elizabeth and Justine can be used to emphasise the injustice of society and the consequences of unchecked ambition and isolation.
Henry Clerval (like previously mentioned) can be contrasted against Walton and his best friend Frankenstein to show that as long as we have a balanced lifestyle and companionship, ambition will not lead us to ruin. Characters such as the Turkish merchant can also have parallels drawn with Frankenstein in telling how our selfish desire and actions, born out of inconsideration for their consequences, can backfire with great intensity. Lastly the character of Safie (someone I used a lot in my discussions) can be compared and contrasted with the Creature to show the different treatment they receive despite both being “outsiders” to the De Laceys due to their starkly different appearances.
Mentioning these characters and utilising these contrasts can be monumental in showing your understanding of the novel and by extension, your English analytical ability.
Hey guys, I'm Lisa, welcome back to Lisa's Study Guides. Today, we're going to be talking about Frankenstein and breaking down an essay topic for it. So in the past, I've done plenty of videos looking at different types of essay topics and breaking them down by looking at keywords and then going into the body paragraphs and looking at those ideas. This time round, the takeaway message that I want you to leave with is understanding what types of evidence you should be using inside your body paragraphs. Specifically, I wanted to talk about literary devices or metalanguage. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein uses so many literary devices that it's impossible to ignore. If you are somebody who is studying this text or other texts that you use and are heavily embedded with literary techniques, then it's really important that you don't just use dialogue as part of your quotes, but actually reading between the lines. I'll teach you on how it's not just about finding dialogue, which you include as quotes inside your body paragraphs, but reading between the lines, so looking at literary devices like metaphors, symbols, imagery, so let's get started.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein constitutes escaping critique of the prioritization of scientific advancement over human welfare and relationship. Dr. Frankenstein is fascinated with science and discovery, he is consumed with the idea of a new and more noble race by stitching up dead body parts from a cemetery. He feverishly works away at his experiment until one day the creature is born. Frankenstein is horrified at the living thing he has made and completely rejects the creature, leaving it without a parental figure. The creature is left alone to look after himself. He educates himself and on repeated occasions tries to approach people in society, however, is rejected every time because of his monstrous appearance. As a result, the creature becomes enraged at humanity and Frankenstein's unfair treatment towards him and consequently exacts revenge on Frankenstein and his family.
The essay topic we'll be looking at today is, Our sympathies in this novel ultimately lie with the creature. Discuss. So in previous videos, we've looked at keywords, how to identify them and how to define them. Since it's pretty straightforward for this essay topic, I thought I would skip that part and then go into the more nitty gritty with the body paragraphs. But, if you are unfamiliar with these steps, then I'll link them in the card above and also in the description below so you can have a look at how I went ahead and did the keyword section in my planning, now back to the prompt. Unequivocally within Frankenstein, Shelley portrays sympathy as spread throughout the text through depicting the creature as innately human through his desire for relationship and the challenges he faces at the hands of the prejudice enlightenment society he's born into, Shelley elicits sympathy for his situation. However, through the notable absence of the female gender throughout the text, Shelley portrays those silent within society as most deserving of sympathy.
So, with this in mind, here are the potential paragraphs in response to this prompt. Paragraph one, Shelley's depiction of the creature as innately human motivates support for his challenges at the hands of a prejudice society. The action of the creature to open his dull yellow eye, symbolic of his nature as a human being alongside a green wrinkled on his cheeks, with one hand stretched out, indicates his simple desire for paternal connection. Through constructing the creature's actions as innately human Shelley acts proleptically of the inequitable experiences the creature will experience throughout the structural architecture of the text. And through doing so, depicts his character as worthy of support.
Similarly, through the metaphor of fire, Shelley explores the duality of progress and innovation of which the creature desires. The fire, one that gives light as well as heat, yet also causes a cry of pain, indicates the hardships of the creature in his isolation, whereby, his forced to withdraw from his desire for education. Upon viewing himself in a pool, the creature becomes "fully convinced that I was in reality [a] monster" with the consequent sensations of despondency and mortification granting the reader the opportunity to sympathize with the creature in order to indicate the intensely negative social prejudices that are inflicted upon the creature.
So you can see that we've looked at symbols of the creature's nature and the metaphor of fire to support our topic sentence. Using literary techniques is what's going to make the difference between you and another student who might be saying the same thing. Why? Because when you look at literary devices, it means that you're reading just beyond the lines, just beyond what's in front of you. You're now introducing your own interpretation, so you're looking at fire and thinking about what that means in connection to the text, and why Mary Shelley would use the term of a fire and revolve her discussion around that. So let's see how we keep doing this in the next body paragraph.
Paragraph two, Shelley indicates the significance of relationships as a key element of human nature that the creature is denied, motivating affinity from readers. In replacement of human relationships, the creature rather seeks comfort within the natural world. The metaphorical huge cloak that the creature takes refuge within indicates this, illustrative of an ecosystem, the forest allows the creator to surround himself with life. The subsequent attempts to "imitate the pleasant songs of the birds" reveals the desperate urge of the creature for companionship as he is abandoned by the paternal relationship represented by Victor Frankenstein, which forms a core of human relationships. Again, here we've discussed the metaphorical huge cloak and its connection with the forest, I strongly encourage you to have the goal of discussing at least one literary device per body paragraph. And no, there is no such thing as talking about too many literary devices because it's really just about whether or not your argument is concise and whether or not you're backing that up with evidence.
Paragraph three. However, it is Shelley's depiction of the submissive female sex within Frankenstein that becomes most deserving of sympathy. Each female character is characterized as passive, disposable, and they're serving a utilitarian function, namely as a channel of action for the male characters within the text. Notably, the complete lack of absence of Margaret Saville, functioning only as an audience for Walton's letters exemplifies this. Margaret's role within the text is simply to enable Walton to relay the story of Frankenstein and as such were the most necessary character of the texts whilst the most distant. This ironic dichotomy enables Shelley to exemplify the difficult role of the female within society, arising sympathy from the readership. Here, even the purposeful emission of a character is discussed as a language technique. So, this type of literary device definitely tops the cake because you're literally looking at what's not even there. That's definitely reading between the lines.
Frankenstein is a very complex novel, and sometimes that's what makes it a difficult text to study. But, it lends itself to many unique interpretations and it's heavily dressed with heaps of literary devices or metalanguage, however you want to call it. So, that's what makes it an absolutely fantastic text for high school students to study. If you wanted to find out more on how to nail a Frankenstein essay, then I'll link you to my blog just down below, because there are definitely more tips there to help you excel in this particular text. Thank you so much for watching, and especially even if you're not studying this text, I hope you've been able to take something away from this video. And I'm confident that you have because talking about literary devices is definitely a topic that isn't necessarily the fore front of discussion in classrooms, and it's something that a lot of people struggle with. So, I hope you are able to walk away with a new goal in sight in order to improve your English essays. So, I will see you guys next time, thank you so much for joining me, see you guys soon. Bye!
We’ll be applying the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy from LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparative and at how ideas are developed in similar or different thematic directions in these texts. CONVERGENT ideas lead to similar conclusions and messages, while DIVERGENT ideas take us to different conclusions. If you’d like to learn more about this strategy which can help you build more insightful discussions of the text by finding unique points of comparison, then I’d recommend you check out the LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparativestudy guide. In the meantime, let’s start with some CONVERGENT ideas.
Power, Race and Oppression
In both texts, we see racial systems that take power away from Bla(c)k people. In the play, settler-colonialism is a big one. It’s depicted as a home invasion, a ship taking up a whole harbour, and as a process of devaluing land and ignoring its custodians. This trickles into contemporary institutions (widely understood patterns, rules or structures within society) which perpetuate these dynamics of race and power, such as the police and the media. Oppression is similarly maintained in The Longest Memory, where physical violence, and even just the threat of possible physical violence, is used to enslave African Americans. Plus, all of this racial violence was justified by the socio-economic interests of enslavers. Both texts see Bla(c)k people disempowered by a range of white institutions.
On the other hand, family and the wider community are depicted as a galvanising or healing force in both texts. In The 7 Stages of Grieving, we see how death can bring together entire communities to commiserate, dance and mourn collectively, drawing on one another’s strength. Depictions of families in projections of photographs also outline how joy and solidarity can be drawn from community. In the novel, family ties are also important. Whitechapel and Cook build a committed relationship to one another; she even says, “he proves he loves me every day.” At the same time, Cook also provides her unconditional love and support to Chapel, whose education and eventual relationship with Lydia are facilitated by her.
Memory and Grief
Both texts show how memory and grief are significant burdens for Bla(c)k people and operate at multiple dimensions. The play is sort of built around the five stages of grief but demonstrates how First Nations grief isn’t neat or linear. It can go from highly expressive to numb in moments. It also has roots in Australia’s genocidal history such that the death of any First Nations person—but especially elders—is felt widely. In The Longest Memory, there’s a physical dimension to Whitechapel’s grief. He earns the name “Sour-face” because of the worry lines that developed after Chapel’s death. He feels extremely guilty and only after Chapel dies does he realise why Chapel disagreed with him so stubbornly in life. He actually learned the tough lesson that he’d been hoping to teach Chapel.
What about divergent ideas? Let’s break down two now.
Struggle and Resistance
Both texts offer ideas about what the fight against racism might look like, but at times these ideas are more different than similar. In The 7 Stages of Grieving, the main struggle is to be heard and understood. In the play and in real life even, we can see how the media is stacked against First Nations peoples, so their fight is about cutting through the bias and making sure they are fairly represented. In The Longest Memory, the fight against slavery is portrayed quite differently. In a scenario where physical violence was used the way it was in order to oppress, self-emancipation was seen by many as the only path out. Enslaved workers weren’t fighting to be heard, they were fighting to survive. It’s also worth bearing in mind the history of abolition, which happened in Northern states first. This gave them a destination, as well as hope.
The Generation Gap
The other thing that the texts diverge on is the relationship between parents and children. In the play, family is consistently shown to provide support and community. As the woman speaks about her father and brother, the unconditional love and support between them is palpable. However, the novel depicts a bit more conflict— Whitechapel argued with Chapel based on his lived experience, and the many young people he had seen be killed for trying to free themselves. However, Chapel was far more committed to freedom than to survival. There isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer either way, but this definitely isn’t a tension that we see in the play.
I discuss all these themes in further detail in A Killer Comparative Guide: The 7 Stages of Grieving & The Longest Memory. In this guide, I offer you a deep dive into these two texts through plot summaries and analyses, structural features, critical readings, and best of all, 5 sample A+ essays fully annotated so you can understand exactly how to achieve better marks in your own essays.
Essay Topic Breakdown
As with all our essay topic breakdowns, we'll follow LSG's THINK and EXECUTE technique, as taught in our How To Write A Killer Text Response. The LSG's THINK and EXECUTE technique follows three steps in the THINK phase - Analyse, Brainstorm, and Create a Plan. Learn more about this technique in this video:
Let's use essay topic #1 from the section below.
Compare the ways in which the two texts explore the possibility of social change.
Step 1: Analyse
‘Social change’ is a key term here, but the word ‘possibility’ also stands out to me. Social change—probably towards equality—isn’t something that just happens, so the prompt also wants us to think about how to get there, and whether that seems achievable in the contexts of these stories. The prompt is phrased as an instruction (“Compare”) which invites you to analyse both texts together, but you totally knew that already!
Step 2: Brainstorm
I’d probably start by brainstorming what exactly needs to be changed. In each text, we see institutions and structures which are violent and harmful—from the play, police and the media, and from the novel, the economy itself. However, these institutions are upheld in different ways, and require different mechanisms of change—while the play emphasises grieving and unity, the novel focuses more on emancipation.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Because we’ve got two sets of ideas for each text, let’s alternate the texts (Essay Structure 1, as discussed in How To Write A Killer Comparative) to cover these ideas in four paragraphs.
P1: Starting with The 7 Stages of Grieving, social change is required at the institutional level. Police and the media are racially biased, and Aboriginal people aren’t given a platform to tell their stories. Reconciliation needs to include Aboriginal voices.
P2: With The Longest Memory, social change is required across the economy that depends on enslaving people and stealing their labour, while others have an economic interest in the status quo.
P3: Because of this, change seems more possible in the play, and we start seeing it happen towards the end, as the ice thaws and people, Bla(c)k and white, march across the bridge together.
P4: On the other hand, emancipation is seen as the only path to change in the novel, as intergenerational social pressures among the enslaving class in the South are insurmountable.
So our contention will probably revolve around the idea that ‘social change’ means different things in each text as social inequalities exist at different levels (Paragraph 1&2)—as such, the ‘possibilities’ for that change look different as well (P3&4), particularly the extent to which white people can be involved in that change.
Metalanguage is language that describes language. The simplest way to explain this is to focus on part 3 of the English exam – Language Analysis. In Language Analysis, we look at the author’s writing and label particular phrases with persuasive techniques such as: symbolism, imagery or personification. Through our description of the way an author writes (via the words ‘symbolism’, ‘imagery’ or ‘personification’), we have effectively used language that describes language. For a detailed discussion, see What is metalanguage?
Stories We Tell is a different beast to anything many of you will have encountered previously in your English studies. This blog is a continuation of the above Stories We Tell YouTube video so make sure you watch it first!
With interviews, archival footage, extradiegetic film and sound elements alongside recreated scenes, the documentary can seem very overbearing and convoluted upon first viewing. However, once you have a holistic understanding of the text a plethora of opportunity for high-level analysis and discussion presents itself. Stories We Tell is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
To begin, watch our introduction covering background and themes below:
Stories We Tell centres around director Sarah Polley attempting to piece together her family history. While she endeavours to understand who her mother Diane was and finally learn the identity of her biological father, Director Polley also poses a number of questions to viewers surrounding the nature of the truth and the importance of stories in our lives. The film is comprised of interviews with Diane’s loved ones, home movies from the Polley family, extra-diegetic newspaper clippings, recreated Super 8 footage and excerpts from other productions - all of which contribute to Sarah’s inquisition into the notion of truth, and demonstration that how a story is told can shape how it is received.
NB: I have used ‘Sarah’ when discussing Sarah Polley as a character, and ‘Polley’ when describing her as the director.
The idea of the truth, and what comprises it is a constant question being answered through the documentary. Before exploring Polley’s depiction of the truth, it’s important that we fully understand what the truth is. One definition characterises it as the burden of confirming with fact or reality, and with this in mind it becomes easier to appreciate and analyse the intricacies of Stories We Tell. Polley creates a distinction between universal truths - which are accepted by all as fact, and subjective truths which can vary on individual interpretations. For example, Michael conflicts with the rest of the family while discussing his relationship with Sarah after Diane’s passing. Mark details Michael’s obsession with “playing solitaire”, Susy depicts the house as one of “complete and utter disuse”, while Joanna observed him “smoking all day” and perceived Sarah as “just a little kid who nobody was looking after.” Michael, however, has fond memories of his time spent with Sarah - he believed he was “lucky to have her to look after as well as himself”, called their time together a “great period” - eventuating in him feeling “closer to [Sarah] than any of the other children.”
Individual recollections of Michael’s actions and demeanor during this period belong to each storyteller, and form the basis for what they consider to be the ‘truth’ regarding Michael and Sarah’s relationship. By presenting contrasting accounts of the same event, Polley reveals her stance on the idea of truth - being that it is entirely subjective and open to interpretation, centred around the perceptions of each individual at any moment in time. It is entirely possible that Michael did “smoke all day” and feel a sense of increased “close[ness]” with Sarah, but due to the variability of the human memory, this is impossible to state with any certainty - illustrating the fallible nature of universal truths.
Stories and how they are told are a constant factor during the documentary - beginning with the title, ‘Stories We Tell’ and concluding with Geoff’s admission that he and Diane did sleep together during their days acting in Montreal. For example, Polley’s use of the inclusive ‘we’ signifies her interest in storytelling on a grand scale; not merely the stories she unravels onscreen. As a result, one can argue that her purpose for the documentary extends far beyond the action captured onscreen and in fact involves Polley encouraging others to share their own stories - enabling them to “create shape out of mess” as she has done through the presentation of her own family story.
By placing Geoff’s confession at the conclusion of the documentary (and casting doubt on all of the discoveries she has made throughout Stories We Tell) Polley emphasises how storytelling allows a “clearer picture” of the past to develop - as he had previously denied any sexual history with Diane, labelling them just friends. As such his admission of a relationship with her symbolises the manner in which the truth can be “refracted” over time, leading to many “shifts and fictions” while clouding “what really happened.” Therefore, Polley reveals how storytelling can provide some semblance of closure to us, in a world where the truth is “ephemeral” and “difficult to pin down.”
While Polley undoubtedly utilises Stories We Tell to express her views on truth and storytelling, fundamentally it remains a story of the Polley family, and what holds it together. The narrative begins with the ‘storytellers’ providing loving, yet somewhat conflicting recollections of Diane as Polley seeks to understand who she was. Family members buoyantly describe her as “infectious” and “enthusiastic”, while friends paint a more mysterious picture of Diane as a “woman of secrets”, alluding to her alleged infidelity. The closeness of the Polley family is evident throughout their discussion of Diane’s first marriage, universally criticising the outcome of the court case in which she was labeled “unrepentant” for “allow[ing] her desire for a career to overtop her “domestic duties” - resulting in Diane losing custody of John and Susy, which proved to be a major strain on Diane and the family.
Despite this closeness, Mark expresses his disappointment in Diane following the confirmation of Harry being Sarah’s father - detailing the she “broke the rules” and “broke a kind of taboo” when she had the affair. This is the only real example of any member of the family disapproving of Diane’s past - indicating Polley’s desire to demonstrate that families are not perfect, and bring their own faults and shortcomings. In spite of this, however, their care the family shows for one another is clearly demonstrated through their interviews with Polley, highlighting to the audience that by staying close, families can better cope with the trauma of losing a loved one and in time, be able to honour their memory by sharing their stories.
Putting it all together
While analysing the themes in isolation can provide a good foundation for success studying Stories We Tell, looking at how they interact and interrelate enables students to demonstrate their higher-order skills. Truth, storytelling and family are intrinsically linked - for example: Polley’s presentation of conflicting accounts and recollections of Diane demonstrates the complexity of her family, while showcasing her stance on the inability of individuals to find universal truths. As a result of this, the importance of storytelling is highlighted as a means to provide some understanding of our past - and how it affects us in the present and shapes who we are. Including different interpretations of the text and the context in which Polley grew up and created the text can also help to improve your writing to A+ standard - and this will be covered in the blog post that acts as a continuation of this video! *end video*
Following on from the video, the content below is an expansion upon Stories We Tell.
Author views and values
One of the golden rules of A+ essay writing is to understand that everything contained within the text is seen to be a deliberate choice by the author. With this in mind, we can start considering how Polley’s choice to include certain snippets or position footage in a particular way highlights her views.
The truth is ephemeral - can it ever be known?
Throughout Stories We Tell, Polley continually emphasises the impossibility of knowing a truth with absolute certainty. Her stance is shaped by the clouded nature of her paternity and family history, exemplified within the text by the varying accounts of Diane’s personality. Portraying her as “infectious” and “enthusiastic”, Polley captures Diane dancing - cleverly lighting up her face, thus symbolising her warm nature. However, juxtaposing this is Deidre’s assertion that Diane was a “woman of secrets” - bolstered by Polley’s recreation of a covert phone call in which Diane ponders the identity of Sarah’s biological father. Through her presentation of contrasting recollections of her mother, Director Polley showcases the relativity of truth within her own family, inviting the audience to question the meaning of truth in their own lives, highlighting that “you can never get to an answer.” As a result, Stories We Tell predominantly displays the impossibility of one knowing a singular truth.
Subjective truths can be found
Continuing the theme of ambiguity within her synthetic documentary, Sarah Polley demonstrates that individuals can develop their own interpretations of the truth, in spite of her stance on the validity of singular truths. Within Stories We Tell, Polley illustrates this by depicting the contrasting recollections of Michael’s relationship with Sarah as a child. Supporting Joanna’s assertion that Sarah was “just a little kid that nobody was looking after”, Polley ironically captures a full shot of Michael in the middle of the couch, portraying him as a distinctive presence in the scene in spite of Joanna’s belief that Michael isn’t present in Sarah’s life. Conversely, Michael recalls his time with Sarah as “a great period in [his] life” - a claim reinforced by Polley, via recreated Super 8 footage of the pair assembling a snowman, symbolising their construction of a new beginning following Diane’s death. Through this interaction, Polley portrays Michael as a compassionate and loving father - juxtaposing this with Joanna’s description, revealing to her audience the ability of individuals to find subjective truths - encouraging them to do so in their own lives in spite of searching for universal truths.
The importance of stories
Building on her depiction of the truth as fallible, Polley thus emphasises our need to tell stories, illustrating how they allow one to better understand themselves, their families and the world around them. Within Stories We Tell, unearthing the ‘story’ of Diane takes centre stage for a majority of the production, and Polley hints towards this goal via her inclusion of Bon Iver’s folk ballad Skinny Love. The line “pour a little salt, we were never here” plays on the use of salt to heal wounds - implying that the storytellers aim to ‘heal’ their pain felt from Diane’s death via telling “the whole story” they have developed from their memories of her. Moreover, the phrase “who the hell was I” addresses Polley’s attempt to “form [Diane]” by piecing together the various second hand accounts and layers of connected stories from her loved ones - allowing her to ascertain a clearer understanding of her family history. Polley utilises stories to “[clear] up...the smoke” in her past,” praising the idea that such tales shed a light on areas of confusion and uncertainty - while also allowing one to “[cope]” and make sense of their heritage. Through her demonstration that stories enable individuals to move past the “small and large details that vary”, Polley prompts the audience to seek more information about their own families, and relay their own family stories.
Throughout the documentary, Polley demonstrates, both explicitly and implicitly, a number of her inherent values. Drawing upon these, referring to them in your essays and (most importantly!) connecting them to your analysis of the text is a great way to get ahead of the pack and maximise your marks both in your sac and the exam.
NB: Much of the excerpts contained here are analysing specific scenes/motifs, and then linking such thinking to the theories listed below. I found this to be a coherent and structured way of including this deeper level of thinking in the publication of my own essays!
Feminist lens on the social values of 1960’s Canada
By depicting extradiegetic footage of Diane singing Ain’t Misbehavin, Director Polley provides a feminist commentary on the dominant social values of 1960’s Canada; the lyrics “I walk the streets to balance the sheets” and “what is an honest girl to do” metaphorically representing the perception of Diane by the court and wider society - denied “custody” of her children due to her “adultery.”
By inserting a newspaper clipping criticising Diane’s choice to let her “desire for a career” to supercede her “domestic duties”, Polley illustrates the difficulties faced by aspirational women in such a restrictive society - condemning the treatment of her mother while calling on female viewers to continually campaign for equality of opportunity in their societies.
Outlining the fact that Diane was not considered “ladylike”, Polley sardonically ridicules the “controlling” nature of such rigid gender stereotypes and their effect on Diane losing her children - exhibiting her desire to empower her female audience to “save [themselves]” from similar situations and “ma[ke] a choice to live.”
Postmodernist interpretation of the truth
As I’ve discussed at length in this blog post, Polley continually reminds us as an audience that the truth is not set in stone and is in fact a flexible, relative concept. Such a line of thinking directly correlates to the postmodernism literary theory - notable for being hostile to absolutes such as truth, and not creating a text in isolation.
Polley continually blurs the line between fact and fiction within Stories We Tell - an ode to the postmodernist school of thought she is following. Depicting recreated Super-8 footage capturing herself directing the actress Rebecca Jenkins who ‘plays’ the ‘role’ of the younger Diane, Polley seeks to somewhat deceive her audience as to what is real and what is derivative - prompting the audience to “consider what was real and what wasn’t… in their own minds.” As a result, she seeks to promote the validity of the postmodernist critical theory, prompting philosophical discussions between individuals about the variability of memory and whether any absolute truths can ever be truly known.
Another feature of postmodernism in literature is the relationship between one text to another. In her creation of Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley exacerbates this relationship, including a number of extradiegetic elements such as newspaper clippings, emails, songs and segments from other productions in order to add greater meaning to the documentary. For example, Polley presents her email exchange with Harry, illustrating her desire for the story to include “everyone’s point of view”, as it is only then that the “whole picture” can be established. While reciting the email aloud, Polley delicately pauses when articulating that the story must include “[her] experience, [Harry’s] experience” and her “family’s [experience]”, emphasising her desire to give “equal weight” to all versions of the story.
In my experience studying the text, this documentary can be interpreted two ways:
1. as a self-reflective memoir following the journey of Sarah finding her father and gaining a more mature understanding of her mother, or;
2. A philosophical and, at-times political commentary on the way stories are told and the nature of truth. Both interpretations (and others you find or develop through your own viewing) are great to use in your writing, just ensure that they are relevant to the specific prompt/idea you are discussing!
Let's dive into each a little further:
1. Stories We Tell is a commentary on how stories are told - specifically, how the way a story is told can shape how it is received and the meaning one can draw from it
Upon first glance this point may seem rather convoluted, and several viewings of the text are necessary to fully engage with this line of thinking. Essentially, this centres around the idea that the different forms, mediums and extradiegetic elements present in the documentary can significantly influence how we as an audience react to the story that is being told.
The best way to explain this is to acknowledge the level of credibility and the associations attached to each individual medium used to tell the story.
For example, what impact does the newspaper clipping (detailing her custody battle and fight for equality in a restrictive society) have on our sympathy for Diane? Does the sense of credibility and validity drawn from an upstanding publication such as a newspaper elicit a greater sense of trust and acceptance of fact from viewers - therefore making us as an audience more inclined to view her in a positive light? Conversely, are viewers more accepting of Diane’s affair with Harry following testimony from those who witnessed her unhappiness with Michael first hand - her friends and family?
Moreover, in spite of her declaration that “equal weight” will be given to all experiences, does Polley’s use of Michael as narrator and his constant presence in the formal setting of a recording studio provide his version greater significance than Harry’s - who notwithstanding his involvement in the story as Sarah’s biological father, is resigned to providing his interview somewhat informally in a home setting, in the same vein as the rest of the storytellers?
Feel free to apply this line of thinking to other aspects of the text - such a deeper engagement with the philosophical ideas of the text are far more likely to score highly, as opposed to shallow pieces that merely discuss the storytellers in isolation - and not what they represent.
2. Stories We Tell is a commentary on the ephemeral nature of truth
The notion of truth seems to be just as much of a theme through this blog as it is in the documentary!
This is for good reason, however, as I found this to be the primary theme running through Stories We Tell, through the journey to discover Sarah’s paternity, the affair and conflict over whose story it is to tell. Truth affects a number of other ideas within the texts, such as storytelling, intertextuality, the variability of memory, production and identity - thus, using the ephemeral nature of the truth to explain why certain ambiguities exist in Harry’s “faulty” recollections, for example is an excellent way to show a greater depth of understanding of the interrelationships in the documentary.
Essay Topic Breakdown
Essay Topic from the 2018 VCAA Exam:
“To save all hurt, why not leave things as they are?”
Why does Sarah not “leave things as they are?”
This prompt does not ask you to discuss a specific theme or character - instead it guides you toward providing an analysis on Sarah Polley’s purpose for creating Stories We Tell. While authorial intent should always be included in any text response essay, it is essential that the purpose is central in response to this type of prompt - essentially, providing points of discussion as to why Sarah is unable to “leave things as they are.”
1. Unable to leave things as they are - wanted to question the concept of traditional family structures, by contrasting the influence of biological connections and emotional relationships on her development.
I discussed the effect of both Harry and Michael on Sarah’s development - concluding that while both of them had a significant role to play in her becoming the woman she is today, Michael’s influence was significantly stronger. Polley implies this by giving him a greater voice in the documentary through his role as the narrator.
2. Unable to leave things as they are - wanted to comment on the ephemeral nature of the truth in our lives.
Central to this paragraph is Polley’s use of recreated Super-8 footage. Using three prime examples (the opening scene with Diane and Michael crossing the bridge, Polley directing the actress that ‘plays the role’ of Diane in recreated footage, and the staging of Diane’s funeral) I aim to display Polley’s postmodern perspective on the truth and how this is conveyed through her deliberate creation of Stories We Tell.
3. Unable to leave things as they are - Emphasise the importance of storytelling in our lives to gain some understanding of the past.
Due to her depiction of the truth as a “mystery of nothingness”, Polley highlights the role that stories play in our lives. Within Stories We Tell, Polley attempts to understand herself by recreating Diane’s story on screen - allowing her to create “shape out of mess” and form a clearer picture of how she became who she is. Moreover, Polley also reveals how stories enable individuals to maneuver through the “wreckage” of the truth and “recreate the past.”
Ah, language analysis. It’s that time of year again, which sees us trade our novels and films for newspapers and blog articles, and our knowledge of characters and themes for the never-ending list of persuasive language devices which we will soon begin to scour our texts in search of.
Once again we must put ourselves in the mind of an author, only this time it’s a little different. No longer are we searching for hidden meanings within the text, instead we search for techniques and appeals to emotions which our daring author uses to persuade us to stand in solidarity with their view. My, how times change. Just when we think we’re getting the hang of something, VCE English throws us a curveball. Typical VCAA.
There's a lot that goes into a strong Analysing Argument response and it can be difficult to know where to start, so here's a specific breakdown of an A+ essay to help you elevate the quality of your own writing! Just before we get started, if you'd like to find out more about Language Analysis, head here for a comprehensive overview of this area of study.
Now, before you get too deep into this step - and I know how eager you must be to dive into that juicy analysis – you first need to decide on a structure. In this particular case of Language Analysis, we are comparing two articles, meaning we have a couple of different structures to choose from. That is, we now need to decide whether we will be separating the analysis of each article into its own individual paragraph, or rather, integrating the analysis and drawing on similar ideas from each of the texts to compare them within one paragraph. Tough decisions, eh?
While most examiners prefer integrated paragraphs, as it shows a higher level of understanding of the texts, sometimes the articles make implementing this structure a little difficult. For example, maybe one article focuses more on emotional appeals, while the other uses factual evidence such as statistics to persuade the reader. What do we do then? If none of the arguments are similar, but we still want to use that amazing integration technique, what can we do?
Well first of all, remember that we are comparing two articles. Comparisons don’t always have to be about similar things, in fact, the true spirit of comparison should take into account the articles’ differences too. So what does this mean for us? We can still integrate our paragraphs, however, we will be focusing on how two contrasting techniques seek to achieve the same result of persuading the audience.
Next, now that we’ve got structure out of the way, we can work on the actual analysis part of planning. That is, scouring through the articles for those various language devices the author has used to turn this article from an exposition to a persuasive text, and then deciding on how we shall be using this in our essay.
I absolutely cannot stress this enough, but: PLAN YOUR ESSAYS! Yes, I happened to be one of those students who never planned anything and preferred to jump straight into the introduction, hoping all my thoughts would fall into place along the way. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: that was a notoriously bad idea. My essays always turned out as garbled, barely legible messes and I always managed to talk myself into circles. Trust me, planning is crucial to an A+ essay.
It is also crucial that you know what exactly should be going into the planning process. There are two main aspects of planning that you need to focus on for a Language Analysis essay: analysis and implementation. I know that might not make much sense right now, but allow me to explain:
This includes reading through your articles and picking out all the pieces that seem like persuasive techniques. For example, you might find a paragraph using inclusive language such as "our problem” to convince the reader that this is an issue that they need to be directly concerned about, or perhaps you may find a sentence describing the “excess of funds” being poured into the initiative that demonstrates to the audience how big of a problem it is. This step typically includes underlining areas of interest in the articles, making arrows between similar arguments which you think should be linked and doodling in the margins of the paper with all your immediate thoughts so you don’t forget them later. This part is the lengthiest and it may take you some time to fully understand all of the article.
Next, comes implementation.
This is the part where we make ourselves an actual essay plan, in which we decide how to implement all the new information we’ve collected. That is, deciding which arguments or language devices we will analyse in paragraph 1, paragraph 2 and so on. This part is largely up to you and the way in which you prefer to link various ideas.
Below is an example of how you might choose to plan your introduction and body paragraph. It may seem a bit wordy, but this is the recommended thought process you should consider when mapping out your essay, as explained in the following sections of this blog post. You may want to skip ahead and read those first so you know what we’re talking about when you see CCTAP (explained in Step 2: Introduction) or TEEL (explained in Step 3: Body Paragraphs), but otherwise it’s pretty straight forward. With enough practice you may even be able to remember some of these elements in your head, rather than writing it out in detail during each SAC or exam (it might be a little time consuming).
Sample Introduction Plan
Note: Sentences in quotation marks ('') represent where the information has been implemented in the actual introduction.
Context: Detention of Asylum Seekers is currently a popular topic of discussion, 'issue regarding the treatment and management of asylum seekers'.
Contention: Detention of Asylum Seekers is wrong, 'detention as a whole is inhumane'.
Tone: Conviction, 'tone of conviction'.
Audience: Those in favour of Asylum Seekers, 'supporters of his resource centre'.
Purpose: Allow Asylum Seekers into the country, '[barring them from entering the country]…should be ceased immediately'.
Sample Body Paragraph Plan
Topic: Inhumanity of detention
Evidence: Article 1’s Emotive Language
Example: 'harsh', 'brutal regime', 'needlessly cruel' to invoke discomfort.
Evidence: Article 1’s Expert Opinions
Example: Amnesty International, UN, etc. 'repeatedly criticised'.
Evidence: Article 1’s Humanisation of Asylum Seekers
Example: Depicts as individuals who’ve been 'arbitrarily punished'.
Evidence: Article 2’s Invitation to Empathise
Example: Writes he 'cannot imagine the horrors', inviting readers to try too.
Evidence: Article 2’s Emotive Language
Example: 'pain', 'suffering', 'deprivation of hope' to invoke sympathy.
Evidence: Article 2’s Placing of Blame
Example: Blames Australian Government for the 'suffering inflicted'.
Link: Restate topic sentence in relation to entire essay
Step 2: Introduction
Now that you’ve got all the planning out of the way, next comes beginning the essay and writing up your introduction. Having a top notch introduction not only sets the standard for the rest of your language analysis, but it gives you a chance to set yourself apart from the crowd. Your teacher or examiner will be reading heaps of these kinds of essays within a short period of time and no doubt it’ll begin to bore them. Thus, having a punchy introduction is bound to catch their attention.
In addition to having a solid beginning, there are a few other things you need to include in your intro, namely, CCTAP. What does CCTAP stand for and why is it so important, you may ask? Well, the nifty little acronym stands for Context, Contention, Tone, Audience and Purpose, which are the five key pieces of information you need to include about both of your articles within your introduction. In addition to all the various language devices we collected during planning, you will need to scan through the articles to find this information in order to give the reader of your essay the brief gist of your articles without ever having read them.
For an example on how you would accomplish this all in one paragraph, here’s my introduction:
In recent years, the issue regarding the treatment and management of asylum seekers has become a topic of interest for many Australian citizens, with the debate focusing centrally on the ethics of their indefinite detention, and the reliability of this initiative as a working solution. Many articles intending to weigh-in on the debate depict the Australian Government’s favoured solution in various tones, with two pieces, written by news source, The Guardian, by authors Ben Doherty and Helen Davidson, and activist Kon Karapanagiotidis, respectively, asserting that the initiative is the wrong approach to a growing problem. In their piece, 'Australia’s offshore detention regime is a brutal and obscene piece of self destruction', the former of the authors speaks with an accusatory tone to their audience of regular readers of the popular news publication site and debates the practicality of the 'arbitra[y]' detention of these asylum seekers, as well as calls into question the humanity of the act and assesses whether it is an effective use of Australia’s wealth, intending to persuade readers to be similarly critical of the initiative. Likewise, the author of the open letter, 'Stand in solidarity with people seeking asylum this holiday season', writes to supporters of his resource centre in a tone of conviction, asserting that asylum seekers deserve the safety of asylum within Australia, that detaining or barring them from entering the country is inhumane and the root of much suffering, and that overall, it is morally wrong, and thus should be ceased immediately. Both articles contend that Australia’s current solution to the growing issue is incorrect, with Doherty and Davidson specifically believing that there is a better solution that must be sought, and Karapanagiotidis believing that detention as a whole is inhumane and should not be further employed by the government.
Step 3: Body Paragraphs
And now we reach the meat of your essay - the body paragraphs. A typical essay should have at least three of these, no less, although some people might feel the need to write four or five. While this may seem like a good idea to earn those extra marks, you should never feel pressured to do so if you already have three good paragraphs planned out. You have limited time to write your essay and getting as many words on the page as possible won’t always improve your score, especially if you traded quality for quantity. What your teachers and examiners are really looking for is a comprehensive understanding of the texts and the way in which you organise your ideas into paragraphs. So sure, writing an extra paragraph may be useful if you have the time and technique, but never feel pressured to expend the effort on one if it costs you time to the point where you’re turning in an unfinished essay. You can achieve an A+ essay with only three paragraphs, so don’t stress.
Now, onto writing the actual paragraphs. There are various little acronyms to help you through this process, such as TEEL, PEEL or MEAT. Some of these you may have already heard of before and you might even have a preference as to which one you will use. But regardless of what you choose, it is important that you add all the correct elements, as leaving any of them out may cost you vital marks. Make sure you include a Topic sentence, Evidence, Example and Link (TEEL). Once you have the structure down pat, there’s one other thing you need to consider during a Language Analysis essay: don’t forget to analyse the picture.
Seriously, it’s pretty crucial. A requirement of this kind of essay is to analyse imagery, whether it be the newspaper’s header, a cartoon or an actual photograph. This step may involve analysing the image for what it is, or linking the imagery with an already existing argument within the article. Whatever you deduce it to mean, just make sure you slip it into one of the paragraphs in your essay. [Note: an analysis of imagery is not included in following paragraph].
While both articles make very different arguments on the same topic, in one particular case they give voice to the same issue, namely, the inhumanity of detaining refugees, in which both articles become advocates for the abolition of offshore detention. Authors for The Guardian write that it is 'needlessly cruel', 'harsh', and a 'brutal regime', using emotive language to give weight to their argument and invoke a sense of discomfort within their readers, particularly towards the government’s chosen solution. They call on the opinions of a number of other sources who have 'repeatedly criticised', the operation, such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other similar experts on the matter. The authors depict Asylum Seekers as individuals who are 'arbitrarily punished offshore', and who 'have been accused of no crime', and are therefore, by the judgement of the authors, being treated immorally. In agreement, Karapanagiotidis writes of the abuse endured by asylum seekers in detention, including their separation from loved ones, their arbitrary incarceration, and stating that he, himself, 'cannot begin to imagine the personal toll detention has had on [them]', implying further damage has been done and inviting his audience to similarly place themselves into the figurative shoes of an asylum seeker. The author writes that the offshore detention of asylum seekers causes 'pain', and 'suffering', as well as the 'depriv[ation] of [their] hope', using emotive language to invoke sympathy and understanding within his readers. Karapanagiotidis hands the blame for such 'suffering inflicted', on the Australian government, a similar tactic which The Guardian employed throughout their piece. Overall, both articles use a range of language devices and expert sources to agree that the act of detention is inhumane, and the root of much suffering.
If you'd like to see more sample A+ body paragraphs and essays, all with annotations to see exactly what makes them high-scoring, check out our How To Write A Killer Language Analysis ebook for an in-depth guide to nailing your Language Analysis.
Step 4: Conclusion
You’ll be glad to know that this is the final part of your essay, hooray! And some might argue it is in fact the easiest, because now all you need to do is summarise all of those body paragraphs into a concise little one. Simple right?
Conclusions typically don’t even have to be all that long, I mean, you’re only restating what you’ve already written down, so there’s no new thinking involved. Under no circumstances should you be using your conclusion to add in any new information, so just make sure you give a brief description of your previous arguments and you should be good to go!
And one more thing: never start your conclusions with 'In conclusion'. Seriously, that may have worked in Year 8, but we’re writing for a whole different standard these days and starting your conclusions off like that just isn’t going to cut it.
The two articles, in their discussion of Australia’s offshore detention initiative, bring light to several key points. Authors for The Guardian use various appeals, emotive phrases and evidence of reported monetary statistics to sway the reader to share their opinion, as well as arguments regarding the lack of reliability the initiative provides in its ability to deter boats, the sheer cost of the program, and the morality of the issue. Similarly, Karapanagiotidis, the author of the open letter, uses a humanising image, appeals to the values of the readers, and employs phrases with pre-existing connotations known to the audience, to assert main contentions: that asylum seekers deserve asylum, that barring them from settling in the country is the root of much suffering, and that their indefinite detention is not only inhumane, but morally wrong.
On the Waterfront is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
On the Waterfront is a part drama, part gangster film that’s authentic and powerful in its approach. Set on New York’s oppressive waterfront docks, longshoremen are forced to play a game where the odds are always stacked against them. The film approaches concepts such as trade unionism, corruption, and racketeering, and is a story that stitches together other stories. As discussed later, Kazan used Terry Malloy as a representation for his own real-life struggles against the powers above. The film is also a depiction of the hardships of life on the docks in 1940s America.
Inspired by real-life incidents, Kazan has created a world where workers live under the iron fist of corrupt trade union bosses. Let’s take a deeper dive into what this world looks like and the events that form the basis of the film.
Johnny Friendly’s maintenance of power involves controlling several aspects on the waterfront – from the operations to the stevedores. Firstly, threats are repeatedly made against all the longshoremen in an effort to ensure that if anyone dares to act out against Friendly, they are sure to meet dire consequences. Their fear is reinforced through the various murders committed by the gang, most of which are the deaths another longshoremen, thus warning the workers that any one of them may be next. Although Friendly is clearly behind the homicides, the longshoremen and their families are unwilling to speak to the authorities, as they know full well that they would be risking their lives. This demonstrates their lack of protection and vulnerability in the hands of the union leader, which is exactly what he has aimed to establish.
Faith is a strong underlying theme set forth by Father Barry and the church. The priest’s constant remainder of what is right and wrong urges the men to step outside Friendy’s grasp and begin to think about themselves. When Father Barry conducts the congregation, the interruption caused by the mob falters the longshoremen’s hopes, since Friendly’s power can even reach as far as a church, where people are supposed to be ‘safe’. To do what is morally correct is a simple concept but one that is difficult for the longshoremen to embrace. It is only when they begin to have faith in their actions that things begin to change on the waterfront.
The film poses the question, what is true loyalty? Friendly pretends to be looking after the longshoremen by sending out loans and offering them better work positions, for example, Terry on the loft. However, in reality Friendly uses this action to manipulate the men to his advantage. It is a tactic to ensure that the longshoremen believe that they in return, have to support Friendly. An additional tactic of Friendly’s manipulation is shown though the infiltration of the longshoremen’s minds. The words ‘rat’ and ‘stool’ prevent the men from speaking out since they believe that they will betray one another. Terry believes that he will ‘rat’ on his friends when in fact, he is simply telling the truth. He ultimately learns that instead of abiding by Friendly, he needs to be loyal to himself, and this eventually saves himself and the other longshoremen from the clutches of the union leader. The name ‘Friendly’ is ironic since he is hardly a ‘friend’ but a ‘nemesis’ of all those who reside on the waterfront.
Throughout Terry’s personal journey, it is clear that he is uncertain about his feelings and thoughts in regards to various aspects of his life, from his low-ranking position as a stevedore, Joey’s death and Friendly’s involvement, the longshoremen’s lack of rights, to Edie’s unique perspective. His initial ambivalence after Joey’s death is highlighted through the thick mist that covers the city and consequently obscures the people’s vision. At the end of the film when he is finally resolute on overthrowing Friendly, the omnipresent fog that sweeps over Hoboken suddenly disappears, reflecting that his mind has now ‘cleared up’ or that he has an ‘unclouded vision’. His behaviour shifts from an introverted person who appears uncomfortable in his own skin as he refuses to look people eye-to-eye and constantly chews gum, to someone who possesses a confident stance, standing tall and proud.
On the Waterfront emphasises that it is never too late to redeem oneself. The religious imagery of Joey, Dugan and Charley ascending to heaven demonstrate that although they had spent much of their life turning a blind eye to the indiscretions of Friendly and his men, their actions at the very end of their lifespan allowed them to compensate for their sins.
Bird symbolism is heavily embedded throughout On the Waterfront. The longshoremen represent pigeons, as they are docile and delicate in the hands of Friendly, who is portrayed as the ‘hawk’ who swoops above at them, keeping his watchful eyes on each and every pigeon in case they misbehave. Kazan often films Terry positioned behind Joey’s Coop fence, therefore characterising Terry as a pigeon stuck in a cage, as if bound by Friendly into a small world that he cannot escape. When the longshoremen await work on the docks, the recurrent high-angle shots peer down at them, depicting them as a flock of birds, rummaging around. Much like pigeons, they compete with one another when ‘pecking’ at the tabs that Big Mac throws at them, as if the tabs are like ‘seeds’.
Instead of being ‘D and D’, those who ‘sing’ or in other words, speak out against Friendly are labeled ‘canaries’, since these birds are most notably recognised for their singing behaviour. Canaries were once used as a barometer for air quality down in mines. If there were toxic gases in the mines, this would subsequently lead to the canary’s death as this type of bird is extremely sensitive to air borne pollutants. Thus, this would be an indication for miners of whether or not it was safe to work in the pit. The bird’s self-sacrifice parallels that of Joey and Dugan, who tried their best to help out the other longshoremen, yet both met their deaths after ‘singing’ out against Johnny Friendly.
Originally named The Hook but eventually changed to On the Waterfront, the sharp tool is an important representative of Friendly’s power over the men. All the longshoremen carry silver hooks on their shoulders as part of their work on the docks, but from another view, it is as though Friendly has ‘hooked’ onto the men – and thus, they cannot escape the union leader. Like many other words used in the film, it is a pun, as ‘hook’ is also a term used in boxing, meaning a short swinging punch with the elbow bent.
Hudson River and New York City
The river is always subtly lurking in the background of several scenes throughout the film. It acts as a metaphorical barrier that prevents the men from escaping Friendly’s grasp as they appear to be ‘trapped’ on the Hoboken docks. The ever-present fog is a veil that manages to conceal Manhattan on the other side of the river. Since the city’s silhouette barely peeps through, it portrays a sense of mystery and unknown to the stevedores who can seemingly never leave Hoboken. At the end of the film however, when Friendly no longer exerts any control over the men, the shot of the Hudson River and the city on the other side is crystal clear. The outlines of the skyscrapers, which were once unidentifiable, are now easy to recognise, demonstrating that the men are free, as their vision is no longer clouded by Friendly.
Gloves have significant meaning in two key scenes in On the Waterfront. Most notably, Edie’s white glove symbolises a ‘good’ world, a place that is peaceful and pure. It reflects Edie’s personality as she conducts herself virtuously and with amiability. When Terry wears one of her gloves, it demonstrates that he is ‘trying on’ her perspective of life, where ‘everybody [should] care about everybody else’. On the other hand, when Charley and Terry share an intimate conversation in the taxi, Charley’s black gloves represent Friendly’s ‘evil’ world. Charley begins to feel uncomfortable in his clothing and removes a glove when he confronts the truth about being solely responsible for coercing Terry into forfeiting his career and subsequently becoming just another longshoremen. His removal of the glove depicts the notion that Charley will no longer be manipulated and controlled by Friendly, and is essentially, taking a step out of Friendly’s oppressive world.
On the surface, the windbreaker is simply a jacket that is passed amongst the longshoremen, in particular, from Joey to Dugan to Terry. The sharing of the jacket represents camaraderie and brotherhood, since the men have little money to spend on buying warm clothes and as a result, most of their clothing has been worn through. This is a stark comparison with the mob, who are proud owners of long thick coats with scarves, hats and gloves to protect them from the Hoboken bitter cold weather. Symbolically, the jacket motivates the three men stand up to Friendly. Firstly, Joey talks to the Crime Commission yet before he is able to do any damage to the mob, he is found dead. As a result, his jacket is passed to Dugan, who later on musters the courage to continue in Joey’s shoes and reveal thirty-nine pages worth of notes about Friendly’s operations to the Crime Commission. Unfortunately, Friendly manages to successfully silence Dugan. The windbreaker is ultimately passed to Terry who testifies in court and defeats Friendly once and for all. The jacket demonstrates that even with murder, the truth cannot be silenced.
Joey's Death (Part 1)
"Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly."
"I kept telling him, "Don’t say nothing. Keep quiet, you’ll live longer.""
‘I’ve been on the docks all my life boy, and there’s one thing I learned. You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like that."
"Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?"
"We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbour in the world."
Joey’s Coop (Part 2)
"They sure got it made. Eating, sleeping, flying around like crazy, raising gobs of squabs."
"Be careful. Don’t spill no water on the floor. I don’t want them to catch a cold."
"Johnny Friendly the “great labour worker.""
"Why don’t you keep that big mouth of yours shut."
"I’m poorer now than when I started."
Terry and Edie (Part 3)
"Your brother was a saint, the only one who ever tried to get me compensation."
"You don’t buy me. You’re still a bum."
"Who’s calling me a bum?"
"Don’t pay no attention to him. He’s drunk, he’s falling down. Everything. He’s just a juicehead that hands around the neighbourhood. Don’t pay no attention."
"It isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them."
Terry’s Confession (Part 4)
"Favour, who am I kidding? It’s “do it or else.”’
"It’s like carrying a monkey on my back."
"Question of “who rides who.”’
"If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel."
"And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?"
Sample Essay Topics
1. Edie is depicted as an angel that saves Terry. To what extent do you agree?
2. On the Waterfront portrays a world where people are only successful through money and violence.
3. We are able to understand the moral struggles of the characters through the cinematic devices used in On the Waterfront.
4. On the Waterfront demonstrates that silence cannot be achieved through murder.
5. The actions of only a few individuals can result in a revolution. Discuss.
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our On the Waterfront Study Guideto practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Theme-Based Essay Prompt: On the Waterfront shows that power and money can destroy a man’s soul.
Step 1: Analyse
This essay prompt is an example of a theme-based prompt. It specifies ‘power’, ‘money’, and ‘soul’ as ideas for you to consider. When faced with a theme prompt, I find it most helpful to brainstorm characters and author’s views that are relevant to the given themes, as well as considering more relevant themes that may not have been mentioned in the prompt itself.
Here are some of my thoughts scribbled down:
We cannot discuss power without also touching on redemption, as those that subscribe to power corruption are morally defeated, whereas the characters that reject power and money are somewhat martyred. Faith is also important: what happens to those who place faith in money and power versus those with religious faith?
The prompt is asking us to show (and essentially prove) the point that power and money are destructive.
How are power and money intertwined?
Souls are ambiguous and intangible, although in this film it can be interpreted as the character’s moral code and how the film validates those morals.
A soul destroyed is one that has been chipped away, whittled down and eventually broken to pieces. Power doesn’t wear a soul down in an instant, it’s progressive.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Power & money
In capitalism, money is a tangible representation of power. Money talks. Having lots of it seemingly makes you powerful over those that don’t.
Friendly controls the docks because he has the money (and the power) to do so.
Chasing money (for survival, status or ego) can lead a man to do unethical and problematic things.
Those that chase power & money
Charley, Friendly and the rest of the mobsters. They’re faithless.
Terry to a certain point. His loyalty is “bought” and “owned”.
Charley follows Friendly wholeheartedly which results in his own bitter end.
Friendly embodies power & money and ends up beaten and alone.
Mr. Upstairs turns on Friendly in an instant.
By contrast, those that reject power & money
Edie, Father Barry
Dugan and Joey, both die for their beliefs. The film validates their actions by treating them as martyrs throughout.
Dugan’s body ascending with Father Barry after he dies under whiskey barrels
Joey’s jacket being handed down from one heroic dockworker to another
Terry after a certain point
Step 3: Create a Plan
Contention:On the Waterfront uses its characters to show that having faith in power and money can destroy a man’s soul, whereas having faith in the greater good can lead to redemption.
P1: Having faith in power & money destroys Johnny Friendly and Charley.
P2: Rejecting power & money and having faith in the good of people is rewarded (Dugan, Joey, Edie, Father Barry, for example).
P3: Terry sits in between these two notions for most of the film. His soul is redeemed when he rejects power & money and chooses to do the right thing.
As you can see, in this structure, each paragraph grapples with the theme in a way that links each character and the film’s treatment of them.
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