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If you’ve been studying John Donne’s metaphysical poetry, you’ve probably noticed that his works are riddled with different symbols and motifs. Embedded throughout his poetry, these literary devices may seem slightly abstruse to the reader. You may find yourself asking: What do they mean? And in relation to what? Even Donne’s contemporaries failed to appreciate his poetry. The neoclassical poet John Dryden rejected Donne’s works because it “affects the metaphysics” and “perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love”.
One thing that you should understand about Donne’s romantic poetry, is that while his stark images of compasses and spheres may seem foreign to you, they were also alien to his predecessors too. So, if you’re struggling to comprehend his enigmatic poetry, not to fear! Because John Donne’s poetic peers didn’t initially get it either.
The reason for this is because Donne refused to conform to the poetic conventions of the time. The poet emerged as an idiosyncratic in the Elizabethan era, the Renaissance. Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t employ elaborate descriptions of symbol natural landscapes, classical myths and female beauty. The reason for this was because Donne did not believe in the one-sided love and emotional frustrations that his contemporaries tried so hard to convey in such imagery.
Donne’s poetry was so different because he rejected and even openly mocked the idea of such a high-minded religious worship in literary romance. In “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” Donne criticises the “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” of the “dull sublunary lovers.”. In a similar vein, Donne satirises the “sighs” and “tears” (The Canonisation) so prevalent in Petrarchan works.
Instead, Donne advocated for a different kind of love. He espoused a love that comprised of the Body and the Soul, which was a dominant intellectual issue in the literary treatment of love in the 1590s. More specifically, Donne embraced the balance between Platonic love and the Ovidian love.
Platonic: Platonic love is essentially love that surpasses the mere sensual and physical. It is a very spiritual concept and is based on reason, affection, respect, intellect and compatibility.
Ovidian: Ovidian love
The idea of balance derived from discoveries being made about the human body during the Elizabethan era. The Renaissance was fundamentally a time of discovery (particularly in the area of science). Elizabethans believed that elements in the body needed to be balanced,
Top Tip: When you’re analysing John Donne’s poetry and writing essays, be aware of Donne’s overarching message in his romantic poetry. Most explanations about his use transcendent relationship with his lover is thus determined by obtaining a balance between the spiritual and earthly pleasures. Most examination questions will leave room for to discuss the connection between the material and the divine world! Make sure to understand this, because this is a huge component to his poetry.
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Studying both English and Literature in VCE is an interesting undertaking, and I’ve heard very mixed opinions about whether or not it’s a good idea. For me it was a no-brainer; I’d always loved English so why wouldn’t I take advantage of the opportunity to study two English-based subjects? Looking back on my VCE experience now, and comparing my experience of studying each subject, I can see that they are each very different. However, if you’re going to study both, don’t expect that each subject will unfold in isolation, because your work in one of these subjects will undoubtedly impact upon your work in the other - even if, like me, you complete them in different years. So if you enjoy English I would 100% endorse studying both VCE English and VCE Literature, but being an English-nerd I still think there are benefits to analysing the process of studying this dynamic-duo back to back.
At the beginning, I assumed that Literature and English would be fairly similar in terms of studying and writing. It’s all about reading books and writing essays, right? Well, whilst this is essentially true, it turns out that the process for each subject is quite different. I studied year 12 Literature first, completing it in 2017 as a year 11 student, and as my only unit 3/4 subject for that year it was the focus of a lot of my time, energy, and creativity. What I loved about VCE Literature from the beginning was the departure from formula; the impetus to “dive right in” as my teacher always used to say. Instead of worrying about how many sentences your introductions and conclusions have to be, in Literature you can simply get straight into the analysis and see how far it takes you. So, if you’re the kind of person who needs to stick to that body paragraph structure acronym that has always served you so well, then when you first start studying Literature it might be a challenge to loosen up. Or, if you’re like me and can’t shake the compulsion to write paragraphs that take up double-sided sheets of paper, you might find this subject to be a welcome respite from some of the restrictions of English tasks.
Although English is often viewed as the more ‘basic’ of the two, in many ways I found it more difficult once I hit year 12. Having just finished VCE Literature, shifting my focus back to English definitely wasn’t as seamless as I might have expected. In comparison to my Literature essays where I would base paragraphs around in-depth analysis of a few of Gaskell’s sentences, my English text responses felt stunted and forced – English isn’t really compatible with tangents, and so it was difficult to train myself to be expressive whilst also being concise. In my opinion, the most daunting of the year 12 VCE English SACs is the comparative, and this is where my lack of flow was most evident. Being accustomed to delving into complex discussion of the details of my Literature texts, it seemed impossible to provide insightful analysis of two texts simultaneously, whilst also comparing them to each other and also keeping my essays well structured. My first comparative practices sounded somewhat awkward when I read over them, and I just felt like I never really knew what I was trying to get across. This provoked me to be frustrated with myself, and then my frustration distracted me from writing, and then my essays read even more contrived; you get the idea.
So, how do you push past this sense of friction between the study of English and the study of Literature? Well, I think the best way to reconcile the conflicting approaches is to realise that each subject brings out different strengths, but these strengths can be applied to either type of study. Yes to a certain extent English is supposed to be formulaic, but you can use the analysis skills you learn in Literature to enhance your English text responses and give your work a point of difference. On the flip side, the structure you work with in English can be applied to Literature to ensure that your essays always exhibit direction and purpose, even if they encompass a broader range of discussion. Once I realised that I didn’t have to discard all of my Literature skills and start writing my English work exactly the same as everybody else, I began to develop a more fluid, balanced writing style that enhanced all of my English tasks – even the comparative.
Let’s start with the obvious comparisons between the English exam and the Literature exam. Firstly, the English exam encompasses three essays in three hours (with 15 minutes reading time), whilst Literature is only two essays in two hours. The English exams tasks include a text response to a prompt, a comparative text response to a prompt, and a language analysis. The Literature exam involves a passage analysis, and a text response to a prompt influenced by a literary perspective. Where in the English exam you are given a choice of prompts for each text choice, whereas for both sections of the Literature exam only one choice is available for each text. Whilst both exams involve some supplied material, in Literature this material is a passage from one of the set texts, however for the language analysis section of the English exam this is completely unseen material created by the VCAA. For me, this felt like a very significant difference, because there is no familiar material (i.e. passages from the texts) to rely on in the English exam; if you get lost you can’t latch on to anything except what you have memorised.
Personally, I think that the study strategies I utilised for each exam were fairly similar, although obviously geared towards different tasks. I took in depth notes on my texts, planned essays, memorised quotations and explored their significance, timed my practice essays etc. My actual approach to each exam was also similar, for example I made sure to allocate one hour for each different task and did all of my planning mentally during reading time. So although obviously everyone’s study and exam techniques are different, this shows that your own personal strategies that you develop can be applied to both the Literature and the English exams. However, despite the continuity in this sense I still found myself feeling very different coming out of my English exam than I had leaving my Literature exam the year before. Where after the Literature exam I had been content with the knowledge that I had showcased the best version of my abilities, after the English exam I felt much more unsure and ready to believe the worst about the outcome. This particular comparison is of course specific to every individual person, however I think it could have something to do with the knowledge that most VCE students study English and the difficulty in believing that your work could stand out from the work of 40,000 others.
In the end, I achieved very different results from these two subjects, with English being my highest study score and Literature being one of my 10% contributions. It seems to be a general consensus (or at least it was at my school) that it is more difficult to crack the high 40s in Literature than in English, and whether this is true or not it definitely impacted my expectations of my results each subject. However, that said, after being slightly disappointed with my Literature results in year 11 I was not overly optimistic about doing much better in English. When talking about this with my Literature teacher, she told me to “remember that English is marked very differently to Lit, so don’t think you can’t get a 50” and I think this is very solid advice. Whilst you might feel you were equally skilled at both subjects, this doesn’t mean you will receive equally ‘good’ results’, but don’t let this disparity discourage you because, as we have discussed throughout this post, when it comes to Literature and English one size does not fit all.
The idea of critical lenses in literary perspective essays can often be tough to fully grasp. Is sticking to just one ok? Are there enough examples in the text to support a purely feminist viewpoint? Or a Marxist one? What about post-colonialism? Sometimes it’s difficult to find a clear through line, especially when the concepts you’re attempting to discuss are so complex.
Luckily when it comes to Shakespearean texts, Twelfth Night in particular, a lot of people throughout history have already studied these ideas and critical lenses, and there are many more resources out there for you to utilize than you might think.
Thus, we are faced with the extremely helpful nature of published critical readings. These critical essays are pieces often published by university professors or scholars which offer an in-depth analysis and examination of a given text. While much of the language is complicated and a bit overwrought at times, the content within the essays can give you helpful ideas and can help you gather a repertoire of vocabulary and evidence for your own literary perspectives essay. In fact, if you type in “Twelfth Night critical readings” into your google search tab, there will be pages of valuable content at your disposal.
For instance, the critical essay Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night by Nancy Lindhiem, gives insight into both the Marxist and the queer lens.
Here is an extract from Lindhiem’s reading in which she discusses the idea of “androgyny” and sexuality (noted specifically in the bolded words):
“While Viola is barely male except in attire, the dual aspect of Sebastian’s androgyny is carefully explored. The Elizabethan audience’s first, external, impression – he looks like his sister! – is reinforced ‘internally’ in his conversation with Antonio. His exquisite sensitivity to the quality of his friend’s feelings and the obligation it lays upon him might well be seen as a woman’s trait.”
After reading Lindhiem’s discussion of the “androgynous” twins within the play and how this displays a disparity between gender identity, this student then decided to expand on in a similar idea in a part of their paragraph below (queer lens). In the first part of the sentence, the student outlines the idea of androgyny (shown in bold)specific to the character of Viola. Later on, the student also explores the idea of different behaviours contributing to certain gender traits much like Lindhiem’s notation of it in the above paragraph (shown in bold in the last sentence), however concludes on a broader outline of sexuality as a whole, rather than focussing on just female traits.
Viola’s mediatory role between Olivia and Orsino’s households, coupled with her androgynous performance as a woman playing a man (adding further confusion to the Elizabethan stage convention of a male actors playing women on stage) evokes a form of genderbending and identity perplexity that pervades the play’s dramatic trajectory and opens up what is possible, if not overtly permissible, on a spectrum of sexuality.
Another way of making use of these critical readings is to draw from some of their sophisticated vocabulary. The following is an example of how a student was able to adjust and expand her vocabulary specific to their chosen lens by reading critical essays.
After studying a couple of feminist and queer critical essays to Twelfth Night, the student highlighted some repetitive language and terms used within the essays, and was able to use them within their own essay.
Casey Charles’ Theatre Journal exert Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night uses the phrasing
“the phenomenon of love itself operates as a mechanism that destabilizes gender binarism and its concomitant hierarchies”.
The student went on to use the term gender binarism in one of her essay’s sentences:
In all, Twelfth Night delineates the true fluidity within gender binarisms as well as the way in which societal structures are enforced and reiterated…
Alternatively, the critical essay Gender Ambiguity and Desire in Twelfth Night by Maria Del Rosario Arias Doblas makes use of the terms “homoerotic” and “heterosexual” throughout its text - “homoeroticism residing in theatrical transvestitism… and homosexual allusions and so on pervade the play to create the “most highly intricate misunderstandings”’ - thus outlining the type of high-level language specific to a queer reading of the play that the student was able to implement in their own work:
In fact, Shakespeare oscillates between reinforcing patriarchal ideology and heterosexual language, and the deconstruction of such romantic ideals, simultaneously closeting and disclosing the queer possibilities typical to conservative societies that use violence to repress homosociality and police the safe expression of homosexual exploration within heterosexual norms.
As you can see, the student’s language is now specified to the type of lens they are using in their literary perspectives essay, and is also of a high register.
External or Contextual references
Another benefit of going through critical readings is the external or contextual references they make. An example of this is in Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night by Nancy Lindhiem, where the author makes reference to Narcissus, a character from Metamorphoses – a Latin narrative poem from 8 AD:
“For all the likelihood that both Olivia and Sebastian are seduced by a visual perception, we probably feel that Olivia succumbs mainly to Cesario’s way with words.9 Several critics have commented on the allusion to Ovid’s Echo in Cesario’s ‘babbling gossip of the air’ (1.5.277)”
Noticing this reference as a motif in many other critical readings too, this student decided to insert it into their own essay here:
These central relationships therefore reapply the idea of self-reflexivity while blurring the structured boundaries of identity stability, central to the Narcissus myth of which Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphosis forms a part; “a very echo to the seat/ where love is throned” invokes a doubling motif, as well as the troubling foundation of representation over reality.
See how the student was able to discuss it in their own way? Referencing external texts in your literary perspectives essay can prove very useful if done once or twice, as it demonstrates that you are able to apply the values within the chosen text to wider elements of society and culture.
One of the most efficient ways of going through these sorts of essays (which are often quite elaborate and at times difficult to understand fully) is to print them out, grab a highlighter and pen and skim through as much as possible. Highlight words, terms or phrases which spark your intrigue, or ones you feel you may be able to manipulate as evidence to support your own essay.
Overall, reading as many of these expert-written critical essays as possible can be extremely beneficial in developing a greater understanding of the critical lenses, the ideals and context of the Elizabethan theatre, and the way both dialogue and staging can be used as evidence in your own essays.
The more you know about the play, the more you’ll be able to write about it. So, get reading!
1. Don't focus just on ideas and avoid language engagement.
Language engagement is every bit as important as ideas. Sometimes, when you get stuck in philosophical musings, you might find yourself in a place where you're spouting on and on about solipsism or the intrinsic desire for independence in the 19th century Norwegian working class. Literature essays are all about finding balance, and here, that balance means language engagement. Whether you are writing about literary criticism or a passage analysis, you have to be able to support your interpretations with textual evidence.
Often, this requires some creative thinking. You can have a lot of fun with it and the examiners like you to pick up on small details and connect it to a grander scope.
Here's an example from Jane Eyre.
“my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple.”
“I was not surprised...to feel...the breathing of a fresh and fragrant breeze...The rooks cawed, and blither birds sang; but nothing was so merry or so musical as my own rejoicing heart.”
In this passage, Jane is rejoicing over her marriage proposal, but readers are led to understand that this may be a false, idealistic dream of hers. Note the patterns of alliteration – the fricative 'f' shifting to the plosive 'b' in “fount of fruition” and “borrowed beams” then again from “fresh and fragrant breeze” to “blither birds”. What could it possibly mean?
Fricatives tend to indicate freedom, whereas plosives tend to indicate an abruptness – a harsh change. Perhaps, Jane's wild, free joy is immediately followed by plosive alliteration so as to illustrate how her happiness is cut short and her dream is a false one – she will attempt to achieve freedom through this romance, but she will be abruptly and unceremoniously prevented from attaining it.
Regardless, in any passage, there are always things to talk about and little language quirks to exploit to figure out an interpretation. Start from these little details, and build out and out until you tackle your big ideas. All of these ideas should be rooted in language.
2. Don't prioritise complicated language over ideas.
Often, when you think that expressive, complicated writing takes priority over ideas in Literature, you tend to end up with flowery material that becomes more convoluted than it is effective. If you are one of those people (I know it's hard) but kill your darlings. Focus on coming up with original ideas, and express them clearly. Cut out redundancies. Be expressive in a way that is natural and in a way where you know that first and foremost, your language is accurate. Don't go around using metaphors purely for the sake of sounding intellectual when you can express something equally eloquently and beautifully with simpler, fluent text.
Remember: this is not to say that you shouldn't be expressive in Literature. In fact, writing style and the ability to write well is a fundamental component to doing well in this subject. It is just vital that you strike the right balance. This is a good lesson to learn sooner rather than later - and you'll be steering into prime territory for the exam.
3. Don't treat Literature like an English essay. Be free!
Good Literature essays generally tend to be more lively and expressive than English essays. Why? Because Literature just doesn't operate under the same criteria, and it shouldn't be treated as such.
Don't feel like putting in an introduction/conclusion? No need! Don't feel like sticking to a TEEL structure? No problem!
Your focus is creating writing that moves along at a natural, expressive pace, moving through textual evidence to broader ideas. You don't have a structure. You don't have a paragraph quota. You have free reign over a lot of how you write your Literature essays – so find out what works for you.
4. Come up with original interpretations and don't stick with popular readings.
Literature is one of very few subjects in the entirety of VCE that rewards original thinking. You don't need to go with the crowd consensus on how to read your text: as long as you have the evidence to support your reading! The examiners will reward complex, creative, and unique ideas. Every passage analysis you write should be approached with a fresh perspective – base your interpretation around the text in front of you, and not a dogmatic set of ideas that you bring with you.
5. Let the text before you provide you with the ideas, don't force your ideas into the text.
By reading literary criticism and expanding the scope of your ideas, you can apply original readings to each set of passages you have. Your essays stand out when they cover new, uncharted territory.
Literature is all about balance. If you can find it in you to balance language engagement, interpretation, and writing style, I'd say you have yourself a pretty good essay.
Remember not to fall into any of the common traps of the subject, and you'll have put yourself on solid footing to become a true literati.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman 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.
Analysing Techniques in Visual Texts
The Complete Maus is a graphic novel that depicts the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jewish Holocaustsurvivor who experienced living in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Vladek’s son, Art has transformed his story into a comic book through his interviews and encounters which interweaves with Art’s own struggles as the son of a Holocaust survivor, as well as the complex and difficult relationship with his father.
Survival is a key theme that is explored during Vladek’s experience in concentration camps and his post-Holocaust life.
For example, Vladek reflects that “You have to struggle for life” and a means of survival was through learning to be resourceful at the concentration camps.
Resourcefulness is depicted through the physical items Vladek keeps or acquires, as well as through Vladek’s skills. For example, Vladek explains to Art that he was able to exploit his work constantly through undertaking the roles of a translator and a shoemaker in order to access extra food and clothing by being specially treated by the Polish Kapo.
He even wins over Anja’s Kapo to ensure that she would be treated well by not being forced to carry heavy objects. Vladek’s constant recounts and reflections symbolise survival, as Vladek was willing and able to use his skill set to navigate through the camp’s work system.
During the concentration camps, food and clothes also became a currency due to its scarcity and Vladek was insistent on being frugal and resourceful, which meant that he was able to buy Anja’s release from the Birkenau camp.
Although survival is a key theme, the graphic novel explores how Holocaust survivors in The Complete Maus grapple with their deep psychological scars.
Many of those who survived the war suffered from depression and was burdened with ‘survivor’s guilt’. This can be seen through the character of Art’s mother, Anja, as 20 years after surviving the death camps, she commits suicide. After having lost so many of her friends, and families, she struggled to find a reason as to why she survived but others didn’t. Throughout the graphic novel, her depression is apparent. In a close-up shot, Anja appears harrowed and says that “I just don’t want to live”, lying on a striped sofa to convey a feeling of hopelessness as if she was in prison. Her ears are additionally drawn as drooped, with her hands positioned as if she was in prison in the context is that she must go to a sanatorium for her depression.
It is not only Anja’s guilt that is depicted, but also Art himself who feels partly responsible. Art feels that people think it is his fault as he says that “They think it’s MY fault!” and in one panel, Art is depicted behind bars and that “[He] has committed the perfect crime“ to illustrate that he feels a sense of guilt in that he never really was the perfect son. He believes he is partly responsible for her death, due to him neglecting their relationship. Spiegelman also gives insight to readers of a memory of his mother where she asks if he still loves her, he responds with a dismissive ‘sure’ which is a painful reminder of this disregard.
Art constantly ponders how he is supposed to “make any sense out of Auschwitz’ if he “can’t even make any sense out of [his] relationship with [his] father”. As a child of Jewish refugees, Art has not had the same first-hand horrific experiences as his parents and in many instances struggles to relate to Vladek’s stubborn and resourceful tendencies. Art reflects on this whilst talking to Mala about when he would not finish everything his mother served, he would “argue til I ran to my room crying”. This emphasises how he didn’t understand wastage or frugality even from a very young age, unlike Vladek.
Spiegelman also conveys to readers his sense of frustration with Vladek where he feels like he is being treated like a child, not as an adult. For example, Art is shocked that Vladek would throw out one of Art’s coats and instead buy a new coat, despite Vladek’s hoarding because he is reluctant and feels shameful to let his son wear his “old shabby coat”. This act could be conveyed to readers that Vladek is trying to give Art a life he never had and is reluctant to let his son wear clothes that are ‘inappropriate’ in his eyes. However, from Art’s perspective, he “just can’t believe it” and does not comprehend his behaviour.
Since we're talking about themes, we've broken down a theme-based essay prompt (one of five types of essay prompts) for you in this video:
3. Analysing Techniques in Visual Texts
The Complete Maus is a graphic novel that may seem daunting to analyse compared to a traditional novel. However, with countless panels throughout the book, you have the freedom to interpret certain visuals so long as you give reasoning and justification, guiding the teacher or examiner on what you think these visuals mean. Here are some suggested tips:
Focus on the Depiction of Characters
Spiegelman may have purposely drawn the eyes of the Jewish mice as visible in contrast to the unapparent eyes of the Nazis to humanise and dehumanise characters. By allowing readers to see the eyes of Jewish mice, readers can see the expressions and feelings of the character such as anger and determination. Effectively, we can see them as human characters through their eyes. The Nazis’ eyes, on the other hand, are shaded by their helmets to signify how their humanity has been corrupted by the role they fulfill in the Holocaust.
When the readers see their eyes, they appear sinister, with little slits of light. By analysing the depictions and expressions of characters, readers can deduce how these characters are intended to be seen.
Look at the Background in Each Panel
Throughout the graphic novel, symbols of the Holocaust appear consistently in the background. In one panel, Art’s parents, Anja and Vladek have nowhere to go, a large Swastika looms over them to represent that their lives were dominated by the Holocaust.
Even in Art’s life, a panel depicts him as working on his desk with dead bodies surrounding him and piling up to convey to the reader that the Holocaust still haunts him to this day, and feels a sense of guilt at achieving fame and success at their expense.
Thus, the constant representation of symbols from the Holocaust in Spiegelman’s life and his parents’ past in the panels’ background highlights how inescapable the Holocaust is emotionally and psychologically.
Size of Panels
Some of the panels in the graphic novel are of differentsizes which Spiegelman may have intended to emphasise the significance of certain turning points, crises or feelings. For example, on page 34, there is a disproportionate panel of Vladek and Anja passing a town, seeing the first signs of the Nazi regime compared to the following panels. All the mice seem curious and concerned, peering at the Nazi flag behind them. This panel is significant as it marks the beginning of a tragic regime that would dominate for the rest of their lives.
You should also pay close attention to how some panels have a tendency to overlap with each other which could suggest a link between events, words or feelings.
Alice Munro is a Canadian Nobel-Prize-winning author of short stories, and Runaway, first published in 2004, is a collection of eight such stories (though kind of actually only six, because three of them are sequential). These stories examine the lives of Canadian women throughout the last century, but not all of them are necessarily realistic to what daily life actually looks like. Rather, Munro uses borderline-supernatural events (which some critics say feel staged or contrived) to shed light on the tensions and challenges of gender in modern life.
This can mean that some of the stories are quite hard to follow; they go through all these twists and turns, and the lines between stories start blurring after a while. Let’s go through each in a bit more detail before jumping into our analysis.
2. Story-by-Story Characters and Summary
The titular story is about a woman Carla, her husband Clark, their goat Flora, and their elderly neighbour Sylvia Jamieson. There are many runaways in the story: Carla ran away from her middle-class home to marry Clark, Flora the goat literally runs away, a scandalous lie about Sylvia’s late husband gets a bit out of hand, and now Sylvia is helping Carla run away once again, this time from Clark. Few of these runaways are really very successful: this story is really interrogating why and how.
The next three stories are sequential, and revolve around Juliet, a well-educated classicist who is working as a teacher in the first story, ‘Chance’ - it is set in 1965 and she is 21. In this story, she meets her lover Eric Porteous on a train, then finds him again six months later. Eric is sleeping around with a few women in light of his wife’s declining health and eventual passing, but by ‘Soon’ he and Juliet have settled down and had a baby together - Penelope.
‘Soon’ focuses more on the relationship between Juliet and her parents, in particular her mother Sara. Juliet feels a bit out of place now at home, and feels guilty about not being more present for Sara. In turn, ‘Silence’ depicts her own daughter running away from her. Juliet returns to her studies and only hears about Penelope’s life through a chance encounter with a friend who reveals that Penelope is now a mother herself.
The next story is about Grace, an older woman revising the family home of her husband Maury Travers. Their marriage never had a lot of passion in it really - Grace was always more interested in Maury’s family - but both of them were just doing what was expected of them. The contrast comes from Maury’s brother Neil, a doctor who accompanies Grace on a hospital trip when she cuts her foot. This trip becomes longer and more sensual, feeling adulterous even though very little actually transpires between them - the story raises questions around what counts as cheating, and what marriages should entail.
‘Trespasses’ is slightly deliberately disorienting from the start (which is actually the end of the story). We go on a flashback in the middle to learn about a father, Harry, and his daughter Lauren. One day when moving house, Lauren finds a cardboard box - Harry explains that it contains the ashes of a dead baby who he and his wife Eileen (Lauren’s mother) had had before Lauren. This leads to Lauren questioning if she was adopted, which is further complicated by Delphine, a worker at a hotel who seems to think Lauren is her biological daughter. The ending (which was teased at the beginning) is the evening of confrontation between the four characters where the truth is finally revealed.
Conversely, ‘Tricks’ has a more linear plot to follow. Robin is a carer for her asthmatic sister Joanne, but she’s taken to watching Shakespeare plays in the next town once a year. One year, she meets a European clockmaker Danilo who plans to meet her next year when she is back in town - but this doesn’t go to plan at all. It’s only 40 years later that Robin finds out Danilo had a twin brother, which is why the plan had gone downhill.
The last story in the collection is arguably the most complex, and it’s broken into 5 parts to reflect that complexity. It follows Nancy as she ages from a fresh high school graduate to an old woman by the end of the sequence, including her marriage to the town doctor Wilf. Importantly, the stories also cover her friendship with Tessa, who has the supernatural powers mentioned in the title. However, by the third story, Tessa has been abandoned in a mental hospital and she has lost her powers. Throughout the stories, we also see Ollie, Wilf’s cousin (or a figment of Nancy’s imagination according to this analysis), who seems to be responsible for Tessa’s demise.
Let’s start tracing some of the common themes between the stories.
A key theme explored throughout many of the stories is marriage and domesticity. There’s a strong sense that it’s an underwhelming experience: it doesn’t live up to expectations and it particularly dampens the lives of the women involved. Nancy’s marriage to Wilf in ‘Powers’ only happens because she feels guilty - 'I could hardly [turn him down] without landing us both in…embarrassment' - but, as a result, she loses her fun, intellectual streak as he tells her to put down her book, 'give Dante a rest'. A similar fate befalls Juliet, who gives up her study in the process of becoming married.
Marriage is also sometimes explored as a deliberate choice, even if it might have unintended consequences - for example, Carla’s marriage to Clark is described as a life that she 'chose'. This interpretation is more unclear though, and is contradicted in other stories like Passion, where Grace’s marriage is described as 'acquiescence ', acceptance without protest. It’s even contradicted to some extent in the same story: Munro compares Carla’s marriage to a 'captive' situation, where she might’ve chosen to enter the marriage, but after that has little say in how it goes.
This sounds a bit trite, but the title is a key theme as well - just not necessarily in the physical sense. Consider all of these different definitions and how they pop up in the stories. In ‘Runaway’, Carla and the goat run away, but also the lie Carla tells Clark about Leon, a runaway lie that taints his relationship with Sylvia completely. Some runaways are described as accidents - 'she – Flora – slipped through' - while others are much more deliberate. The question here is how much control we actually have over our own lives. Not a lot, it would seem.
The other side of runaway/s is to think about who the victim in each runaway is. Does somebody run away because they are 'in a bad situation, the way it happens', a victim of circumstance, or do they run away because they feel guilty, or because they’re abandoning someone else, the true victim of being left behind? Carla does seem like more of a victim of circumstance with good reason to run away, but think about Nancy leaving Tessa behind in ‘Powers’: ‘“I’ll write to you”, she said…she never did.’
This question about who the real victim is might be the hardest to answer for ‘Silence’. Juliet’s daughter abandons her, but it’s not like there’s a strong history of positive mother-daughter relationships in their family: Juliet wasn’t able to give Sara what she needed ( 'she had not protected Sara') and in turn isn’t able to quite give Penelope what she needs either (Penelope having a 'hunger for the things that were not available to her in her home '). At the same time, Penelope’s abandonment does feel quite callous and inexplicable, even if Juliet feels like it’s what she deserves; Munro suggests at the end of the story that a reunion would be an 'undeserved blessing'. The intertextuality with Aethiopica reveals Juliet’s good intentions, her similarity to the 'great-hearted queen of Ethiopia', but it doesn’t quite give us the satisfaction of a neat resolution either.
Ethics and Morality
Finally, Munro’s stories also raise questions around morality. Besides what we’ve already covered - adultery, runaways - there are further questions raised around parenthood, particularly in ‘Trespasses’. Harry seems to share a bit too much information with his child, who really doesn’t need to know about the dead baby just yet. Lauren is 'not short of information', and it’s worth questioning where that boundary should be for a child of her age.
But not all ethical questions have simple answers: as in ‘Tricks’ they can sometimes just have 'outrageous', cruel punchlines that don’t reveal themselves for decades. Munro doesn’t necessarily have all the answers on this one. She brings up complex moral situations but does not pass judgment on any.
4. Symbols & Analysis
Throughout the stories, Munro brings in a few elements of Greek mythology or literature. The intertextuality in ‘Silence’ is one example, drawing on the classical text Aethiopica, but there are a few more scattered throughout the stories: the constellations of Orion and Cassiopeia in ‘Chance’ and an oracle-like figure in Tessa, a main character in ‘Powers’. All of these elements have some significance:
Cassiopeia is known for her arrogance and vanity, which parallels with the way Juliet detaches herself from her life ('she had made herself into a rather superior, invulnerable observer' - despite her very real vulnerabilities)
Orion is known for his forbidden romance with the virgin goddess Artemis, which parallels with Eric’s romance with Juliet (Juliet being relatively inexperienced with men herself, with all of her experiences being 'fantasy')
Oracles in mythology are like mouthpieces of the gods who can prophesy about the future. They were often women, so oracles were unusually influential in their male-dominated societies. The question is whether this parallels with Tessa at all: even though she has these supernatural powers, are there other forms of power she might lack instead?
In general, intertextuality is a way to enrich a text by drawing parallels and linking characters to existing stories or archetypes. Here, Munro uses classical texts to add dimension to her characters in a way that is almost-but-not-quite commentary. Pre-existing Greek myths are a way for us to see what’s really going on.
(Rail)Roads and Transit
The other symbol that comes up a few times in the stories is roads or railroads - basically places where runaways might happen. ‘Chance’ is set in the middle of a train journey, ‘Tricks’ involves a couple of train journeys, ‘Runaway’ maps the roads leading in and out of Carla’s home, and almost all of ‘Passion’ takes place on the road. If we broaden ‘places where runaways might happen’ to include planes as well, then we can add ‘Powers’ and ‘Silence’ to the list.
All of these spaces are what might be called liminal - they’re ‘in-between’ spaces with an air of suspense about what can happen. It’s probably most prominent in ‘Passion’, where Grace describes the events of that road trip as a 'passage” in her life, both physically and metaphorically. In general though, they’re the settings where the wildest and most significant events tend to happen.
'She (referring to Carla) chose this life with Clark.'
'She is just in a bad situation, the way it happens.'
'She saw him as the architect of the life ahead of them, herself as the captive, her submission both proper and exquisite.'
'She might be free.' - this is the second last line in the story. Note the ambiguity here (and through all these quotes, to be honest) about which ‘she’ is being referred to (Carla, Flora or even Sylvia)
'Juliet was twenty-one years old and already the possessor of a B.A. and an M.A. in classics.'
'The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married—which might happen…—she would waste all her hard work.'
'She had made herself into a rather superior, invulnerable observer.'
'…the two of them (referring to Sara and Juliet) intertwined. And then abruptly, Juliet hadn’t wanted any more of it.'
'But she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, soon I’ll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed?…She had put everything away.'
Penelope supposedly had a 'hunger for the things that were not available to her in her home.'
'Penelope does not have a use for me.'
'She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.'
Grace, watching a movie with Maury, felt 'rage…because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That’s what men - people, everybody - thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.'
'It was not in her nature, of course, to be so openly dumbfounded, so worshipful, as he was.'
'Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say - she did say - that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang - acquiescence simply rippled through her.'
Lauren 'had been brought up to believe that children and adults could be on equal terms with each other.'
'How could she be sure that they had not got her as a replacement? If there was one big thing she hadn’t known about, why could there not be another?'
'Forgive us our trespasses' - note the ambiguity of ‘trespasses’ (does it mean sins as in the prayer, or overstepping boundaries, or both?)
'Some of the best-looking, best-turned-out women in town are those who did not marry.'
'A means to an end, those tricks are supposed to be.'
'I couldn’t stand for the poor man (referring to Wilf) to have had two girls turn him down’
'I used to have a feeling something really unusual would occur in my life, and it would be important to have recorded everything. Was that just a feeling?'
'She could be upset to see you leave without her. So I’ll give you an opportunity just to slip away.'
'He has nearly forgotten that he ever believed in her powers, he is now only anxious for her and for himself, that their counterfeit should work well.'
Carla, Grace and Tessa are more similar than different in terms of their relationships with the men in their lives. Do you agree?
How does Munro contrast younger and older women in Runaway?
What does the setting contribute to the overall effect of Runaway?
'Forgive us our trespasses.' What types of boundaries are created and overstepped in Runaway?
7. Essay Topic Breakdown
Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’sTHINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will give you a brief glimpse on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.
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
‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ What types of boundaries are created and overstepped in Runaway?
Step 1: Analyse
This quote is from ‘Trespasses’ and captures the double meaning of the word as both overstepping physical boundaries and sinning in the moral or religious sense. It’s likely we’ll want to talk about both interpretations - physically trespassing but also encroaching on boundaries in immoral ways. Note that the prompt also includes the action words ‘created’ and ‘overstepped’, meaning that there’ll be a pretty diverse range of examples that we’ll need to use to answer this prompt comprehensively.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Let’s start with physical boundaries: Carla’s marriage and the fences on her property and the US-Canada border in ‘Powers’ come to mind. Then, we’ve got non-physical boundaries: emotionally as in ‘Chance’ and ethically as in ‘Trespasses’. This is where we start getting into whether these boundaries are created or overstepped.
Clark creates boundaries for Carla and her attempts to break free from them are unsuccessful. The border in ‘Powers’ is more of an excuse for Nancy to neglect Tessa, a boundary she creates and never makes the effort to overstep. Finally, the ethical boundaries in ‘Trespasses’ are overstepped from the get-go. How can we synthesise these ideas into one essay?
Step 3: Create a Plan
I think the trick with questions like this is not to just allocate different types of boundaries and/or different action words to each paragraph. Try to think of creative ways to string these ideas together that also build towards a bigger picture or overall contention about the text as a whole. This example plan explores physical and emotional boundaries but makes a bigger argument that they are often associated with regret in Munro’s stories.
Paragraph 1: Physical boundaries are both the most intentional and the most difficult to overstep.
Carla’s farmstead is isolated and bordered by roads; her marriage to Clark and her life on this farmstead is likened to a 'captive' situation, with Clark being the 'architect' of it all
Munro ends Runaway on a pessimistic note about Carla’s ability to leave this boundary: 'She might be free'
International borders also constitute physical barriers, and these are used by Nancy in ‘Powers’ to avoid responsibility; because this is an active decision (‘“I’ll write to you”, she said…she never did.’), it’s a barrier that never really gets broken. Similar to Penelope in ‘Silence’
Paragraph 2: Munro’s stories, however, focus more on emotional boundaries, and the way these are applied varies greatly. This variation underscores their complexity.
Emotional boundaries when created can prevent intimacy: Juliet 'ma[kes] herself into a rather superior, invulnerable observer' so as to avoid commitment. These boundaries come back to bite when she has a daughter
Conversely, they cause a great deal of harm when overstepped: for example, ‘Trespasses’ sees 'crazy and dangerous' adults toy with the life of a child, constantly assuming that she 'can take it' when in fact this is not the case
Paragraph 3: Regardless, Munro’s characters often come to regret the boundaries they erect or overstep.
Carla’s ambivalence about her marriage is tinged with regret either way: when she’s there, she wants to escape, and when she escapes, she questions if she has 'anything left in [her]'
Juliet reflects on the boundaries she puts up between herself and Penelope and realises that 'spontaneous remissions' between them are undeserved and impossible
In ‘Powers’, Nancy struggles with the guilt of abandoning Tessa: many years later, she still wants to 'open [the past] up' and understand her motives. However, it is too late, and the boundaries are already there
Munro does not suggest that boundaries are inherently good or bad, but her stories show how they can be sources of regret when treated improperly
Measure for Measure is currently studied in VCE English under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Ahh William Shakespeare. That guy. You’re probably thinking, “Great. More fancy language. Hasn’t he been dead for centuries? Why does he keep popping up in our English curriculum?”
At least, that’s how I reacted.
Shakespeare is actually a huge figure in the history of the English language, and really no high school English curriculum is complete without a mandatory dose of him. In fact, the current VCAA study design demands that one of his texts must be on the text list. What a legend.
Shakespeare doesn’t only influence our world in the classroom. The Bard coined many words and phrases that we use today. We can thank this playwright for “be -all, end-all”, “good riddance”, and my personal favourite, “swagger”.
The Bard’s play “Measure for Measure” was first performed in 1604; over 400 years ago. So why do we still study his works today? In fact, the ideas and themes that are evoked in his plays are universal and timeless; pertinent to his contemporary counterparts, as well as today’s audience. Shakespeare’s plays are like soup (bear with me, this is going somewhere). One could say the playwright is a master chef; he mixes tales of the human condition and experience and asks us to question people and ideas. Everyone, regardless of their time, will gobble up the story.
So, what is this soup- I mean ‘Measure for Measure’ about? The play is known as a “problem play” and/or “tragicomedy”. That’s right, it’s both a tragedy and a comedy. Dire trials and tribulations are intertwined with humorous gags and jokesters. I guess Shakespeare couldn’t choose just one.
‘Measure for Measure’ is also a problem play. Critic W.W Lawrence defined a problem play as one in which "a perplexing and distressing complication in human life is presented in a spirit of high seriousness ... the theme is handled so as to arouse not merely interest or excitement, or pity or amusement, but to probe the complicated interrelations of character and action, in a situation admitting of different ethical interpretations".
Ok, crazy, but he also said that "the 'problem' is not like one in mathematics, to which there is a single true solution, but is one of conduct, as to which there are no fixed and immutable laws. Often it cannot be reduced to any formula, any one question, since human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified.”
In short, a problem play presents lots of complications and issues that are open to different ethical interpretations. As in “Measure for Measure”, the “problem(s)” is/are not always solved.
So, what actually happens in this play that is problematic? What are our ingredients in this problem soup?
Get it? Cause soup is cooked in a pot. Sorry.
The Duke of Vienna appoints his deputy, Angelo, as the temporary leader. This Duke then pretends to leave town but instead dresses up as a friar to observe what happens in his absence. Angelo, strict and unwavering in his dedication to following the rules, decides to rid Vienna of all the unlawful sexual activity; including shutting down the brothels. Prostitutes like Mistress Overdone (pun alert) and her pimp Pompey are poised to lose their livelihoods. Laws against this activity exist, but they’ve gotten lax over the years. Angelo, a stickler for the rules, has Claudio arrested because young Claudio has gotten his engaged wife-to-be (Juliet) pregnant before they were officially married. Claudio is to be executed.
The virtuous Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is poised to enter a nunnery. Upon hearing of her brother’s arrest and sentence, she goes to Angelo to beg him for mercy. He hypocritically, in an absolutely dog move, propositions her, saying he’ll pardon her brother if she sleeps with him (with Angelo, not Claudio). She immediately refuses, being the religious and chaste woman that she is. At first Claudio is upset because he wants to live, but then he calms down and accepts death.
Luckily, the Duke (secretly dressed as a friar) helps in their sticky situation. He brews up a plan; Angelo’s former flame Mariana was engaged to him, but he broke off their engagement after she lost her dowry in a shipwreck. The Friar (Duke) plans to have Isabella agree to sleep with Angelo, but then send Mariana in her place. In theory, Angelo would pardon Claudio and be forced to marry Mariana by law.
The old switcheroo goes off without a hitch. But come morning, Angelo refuses to pardon Claudio, fearing he will seek revenge. The Duke, in collaboration with the Provost, send Angelo the head of a dead pirate (Ragozine) who died of natural causes. They claim that it’s Claudio’s head, and Angelo is satisfied, thinking him to be dead. Isabella is also told that her brother is dead and is encouraged by the Friar (Duke) to complain about Angelo to the Duke, who is returning home.
The Duke makes a grand return to Vienna, saying he will hear any complaints immediately. Isabella tells her story, and the Duke feigns disbelief, despite having orchestrated the plan himself. In an act filled with more twists and turns than a Marvel movie, everything comes out; the Duke reveals he was a friar all along, Angelo is forced to confess, and Claudio is pardoned amongst other things. To top it all off, the Duke proposes to Isabella. Crazy!
It’s important to acknowledge what was going on in the world during the writing of a text. This may help give insight into why the author has included (or not included) some aspect of their work.
The Divine Right of Kings
This holy mandate states that a monarch derives his right to rule from the will of God and is not subject to earthly authority. The “king” or monarch is hence practically divine, and questioning his orders is also questioning god; blasphemy.
The Great Chain of Being/Class divides
This chain is a hierarchy of all life forms and matter in the following order:
Kings & Royalty
Commoners (Gentry, Merchants, Yeoman, Laborers)
Hence, alongside The Divine Right of Kings, this ideal gave monarchs huge power over their subjects.
In early 1600s England, there was a defined social hierarchy and class system. Everyone had a place in the hierarchy, and there was little movement between the classes. Within each class, men were considered superior to women.
Shakespeare encourages us to ask a few questions of our supposedly holy leader and his actions. According to the Divine Right of Kings, the Duke is god’s right-hand man, and thus all his decisions are holy and backed by heaven. However, the Duke is pretty shady when he plots his bed-trick plan with Isabella and Mariana. Is this deceptive behavior still holy? Furthermore, is it not sacrilege to pretend to be a holy friar when one is not truly a holy man?
Moreover, when the Duke assigns Angelo as his deputy, would this transform Angelo into a divine ruler too? Could he be divine, considering his cruel rule and despicable request to Isabella?
Women were considered subservient, lower class citizens then men. Alliances were forged between powerful families through arranged marriages of daughters. These girls may have received an education through tutors attending their homes (there were no schools for girls), but their endgame would be marriage, children and maintaining the home. Women and girls of a lower class did not receive any formal education but would have learned how to govern a household and become skilled in all housewifely duties. Impoverished and desperate women (Mistress Overdone) would turn to prostitution to stay alive.
Shakespeare perhaps highlights the struggle of women in his female characters; Isabella, Mistress Overdone, Juliet, and Kate Keepdown. Their futures appear bleak; Isabella is poised to enter a nunnery, Juliet’s husband (her only source of income and protection) is to be executed, while the brothels that facilitate Mistress Overdone and Kate Keepdown’s livelihoods are being closed down by Angelo.
It was a tumultuous time when Shakespeare penned ‘Measure for Measure’ in 1604. A year earlier came the end of the 45 year long Elizabethan era and began the Jacobean era under the rule of King James. Since the late Queen Elizabeth had no direct heirs, King James of Scotland (a relative) took to the throne. Little was known by the English people of this foreign king.
Perhaps, as Shakespeare portrays the ruler in ‘Measure for Measure’ as clever and good-hearted, the Bard sought to appease the king by calming the people and encouraging them to trust in their new monarch.
The playwright characterizes the Duke as loving his people, but not enjoying being before their eyes and in the spotlight; much like King James, a quiet ruler who relished studying privately in his great library.
Playhouses and Brothels
The general public (commoners) paid a penny (could buy you a loaf of bread back in the day) to see Shakespeare’s plays, standing in the “yard”; on the ground, at eye-level of the stage. The rich (gentry) paid 2 pennies for seating in the galleries, often using cushions. The really rich (nobles) could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself. Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre. Playhouses in Shakespeare's time were often close to brothels, both in terms of their physical locations in the suburbs and the way they were viewed by some of polite society. Thus, Shakespeare's relatively sympathetic portrayal of sexual deviance in ‘Measure for Measure’ may also constitute a defence of other suburban entertainment—his plays—and a way to humanize lower classes who patronized them.
WRITING ABOUT 'MEASURE FOR MEASURE'
If you’re lucky enough to study this interesting piece, the study design requires you to prepare “sustained analytical interpretations…discussing how features of the text create meaning and using textual evidence to support (your) reasons”. Basically, you’ll be given a topic; this topic could surround themes, characters, etc., and you must write analytically.
While you may choose to structure paragraphs around themes, ideas or characters, make sure to embed some historical context in there; that’ll show the examiner that you’ve done your research and have a thorough and deeper understanding of why Shakespeare put this or that in. Talking about authorial intent in your analytical essay leads to a more in-depth analysis.
“Shakespeare portrays characters that are flawed as a result of pre-destined circumstances. These characters, such as bawd Pompey and prostitute Mistress Overdone, lived in a time when there existed strong class divides, and movement within the social hierarchy was rare. As per the “Great Chain of Being”, a contemporary religious dogma, there was a hierarchy of all living things and matter, from lofty God and his angels down through the ranks of men and finally to animals and non-living things. In some cases, attempting to move up the social ranks was even considered a blasphemous rejection of the fate chosen by God.”
- embedding historical context (The Great Chain of Being) into a paragraph that discusses characters being flawed because of their circumstances
“Shakespeare offers characters such as Isabella and The Duke who strive for self-improvement through understanding and temperance. Perhaps the playwright suggests that perfection is very difficult if not impossible to attain, even for a ruler like the Duke and a pure soul like Isabella. However, he posits that it can be strived for and that perhaps this attempt to become better is what truly matters.”
- talking about authorial intent - what is Shakespeare trying to tell us?
Think of it as an opportunity to make your very own soup! Add some themes, stir in character analysis, sprinkle in some quotes and serve with historical context and authorial intent. Just like with a soup, there’s got be a good balance of all your ingredients; test out different structures during the year to find what works for you. (Just try not to overcook it, like I have done with this soup metaphor). If you need more help, How To Write a Standout Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare Essay is for you!
So, you see, there’s more to Shakespeare and ‘Measure for Measure’ than just fancy old language and iambic pentameter (What’s that? Well...). Keep on reading this blog post, where we’ll delve into themes, characters and symbols/motifs. In the meantime, let’s have a break. Grab a snack, a drink, and enjoy this tasty Shakespeare meme.
...Aaaaand we’re back!
Are you ready for part 2 of the Shakespeare train? Hop on board as we explore themes, characters and symbols/motifs.
These are the major themes in ‘Measure for Measure’.
As you can see, the themes are interconnected. (Do you like the diagram? Made it myself :)) Why does this matter? Well, if you get an essay topic about Justice, for instance, you can also link it to Sexual and Gender Politics as well as Social Decay/Cohesion.
So, why is any one theme an important theme?
Which moments and characters are these themes related to?
Is there a link to historical context?
What are some key quotes?
What could be Shakespeare’s potential message? (Keep in mind that depending which pieces of evidence you look at, the Bard could be saying something different. In this piece, we’ll only discuss one or two authorial messages. The beauty of Shakespeare is that much is open to interpretation. You can interpret characters and ideas in so many different ways!)
Those are some great questions. Let’s explore some of the biggest themes...
Power and Authority
Power not only dictates the Viennese society, but we see it is a basis for moral corruption (I’m looking at you, Angelo!). The Duke is the leader of Vienna, ordained by God. He hands this power to his deputy Angelo, who misuses it in his request of Isabella. Now consider Isabella - she has power too, but a different kind… Also consider characters who have little to no power - Mistress Overdone, Pompey etc.
This theme could be linked to the Divine Right of Kings, the Great Chain of Being and Women.
“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant” - Isabella when she pleads to Angelo to not kill her brother (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 130-132)
“He who the sword of heaven will bear should be as holy as severe” - The Friar (Duke) to himself, not happy with Angelo’s dog move (Act 3, Scene 1, 538-539)
“When maidens sue, men give like gods” - Lucio to Isabella, encouraging her to convince Angelo not to kill Claudio (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 87-88)
"Hence we shall see, if power change purpose, what our seemers be.” - The Duke lowkey suggesting that once Angelo gets power, he’ll change into something evil (Act 1, Scene 4, Line 57)
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” - Escalus is sneakily hating on Angelo. This quote shows that power and authority often involve corruption (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 41)
Perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that power is a dangerous weapon and that in the wrong hands, it could be deadly.
Morality and Sin
This is an interesting theme. What defines sin? For instance, if Isabella sleeps with Angelo she’s sinning before God. But if she doesn’t, then she’s letting her brother die, which is not good either. Bit of a pickle that one. Some characters to consider include Isabella, Angelo, The Duke, Claudio, Lucio, the Provost…. jeez just about everyone! So many of the characters take part in questionable deeds. Was it immoral for the Duke to pretend to be a holy friar? Is Claudio’s sin of impregnating Juliet really punishable by death if both parties were willing, and no one else has been punished for the same “crime”? Are Pompey and Mistress Overdone being immoral in being in the prostitution business, if it’s the only way to survive?
Deep stuff man. This can be linked back to class divides, women and the contemporary playhouses/brothels.
“What sin you do to save a brother’s life, nature dispenses with the deed so far that it becomes a virtue” - Claudio begs his sister to sleep with Angelo (immoral, especially since she’s poised to enter a nunnery), saying that it’s for a good cause, and will actually be a virtue/good deed (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 146-148)
“Might there not be a charity in sin to save this brother’s life?” - Angelo asking Isabella to sleep with him and trying to paint the act as a charitable deed (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 65-66)
“I am a kind of burr, I shall stick” - Lucio, who represents sin and immorality in Vienna (we’ll talk more about this later in symbols/motifs) (Act 4, Scene 3, Line 182)
“To bring you thus together ‘tis no sin, sith that the justice of your title to him doth flourish the deceit.” - The Friar (Duke), encouraging Isabella and Mariana to do the dodgy bed-trick and trick Angelo (Act 4, Scene 1, Line 79-81)
Perhaps Shakespeare tries to tell us that there is a fine line between something moral and something sinful. Maybe he’s asking, “who are we to judge?”, since we all do questionable things sometimes. Everyone from the almighty Duke to a lowly prostitute has committed potentially immoral acts. Perhaps audiences are encouraged to be more understanding of others, and their reasons for these deeds.
Mmm, this theme ties in nicely with just about all of the others. How does one define justice? The play explores this idea; does justice mean punishment? Or mercy? How do we balance the two to deliver the right punishment/lack thereof? Characters that dispense justice include The Duke, Angelo (although they have differing ideas of justice) and Isabella. Since Vienna is a religious place, consider the divine justice system (ie. a perfect, flawless system meted out by God) and the earthly one (ie. the flawed, human justice system). Laws exist in an attempt to ensure justice. But does it always work? Consider also the Old and New Testament ways of thinking - the former strict and punitive, while the latter is more measured and merciful (see symbols/motifs below for more info).
This theme can be linked to the Divine Right of Kings, Great Chain of Being, Women, and Jacobean Audience.
“Justice, justice, justice, justice!” - (Wait, are you sure this quote is about justice?) Isabella pleads for (you guessed it) justice to the Duke (no longer dressed as a friar), thinking Angelo has, in fact, killed her brother (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 26)
“The very mercy of the law cried out… ‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’ Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure, like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” - The Duke, explaining that it’s only fair that Angelo die for “killing” Claudio. (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 437-441)
“liberty plucks justice by the nose” - The Duke tells Friar Thomas that the laws have slipped over the years, and the citizens of Vienna are not being punished for immoral deeds (prostitution, sex before marriage etc)
Perhaps Shakespeare says that since we humans are inevitably flawed, that any justice system created by us will too be imperfect. Who are we to decide the fates of our fellow man? Furthermore, the Bard may be encouraging us to be kind when dispensing justice, leaning more to mercy than punishment.
Sexual and Gender Politics
Who run the world? Gir- no it’s a bunch of men. This theme contributes to why ‘Measure for Measure’ is a problem play. The exploration of the female characters in this play are very interesting, and kind of sad. Of 20 named characters, only 5 are women. Together, their lines make up only 18% of the play. Yikes! There is a lot to unpack here. Our female characters are Isabella, Mariana, Mistress Overdone, Juliet, Francisca (a nun who speaks twice) and Kate Keepdown (who we never meet). Their situations: a maiden poised to enter a nunnery, a prostitute, a pregnant girl about to lose her husband, a nun, and another prostitute. Quite gloomy, isn't it? Meanwhile, the men are leaders (The Duke, deputy Angelo, and ancient lord Escalus) and gentlemen (Lucio, Claudio, and Froth). Over the course of the play, our female characters are put into worse situations by men. Their experiences are dictated by men. Consider taking a “feminist perspective” and exploring ‘Measure for Measure’ from a female point of view.
This theme links to the Great Chain of Being, Women and Playhouses/Brothels.
“see how he goes about to abuse me!” - These are the last words we hear from Mistress Overdone, as she calls out Lucio for betraying her even though she kept secrets for him. All this happens while she’s being carted off to prison in only Act 3! What do you think Shakespeare is saying to us? (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 481)
“Then was your sin of heavier kind than his” - The Friar (Duke) says to Juliet that she sinned more than Claudio, even though their sin was “mutually committed”. Even though they were both consenting, the woman is blamed more. Consider what would become of Juliet if Claudio was executed. She’d probably end up like Mistress Overdone... (Act 2, Scene 3, Line 31)
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” - Angelo says this after Isabella threatens to reveal his disgusting request. Ouch. It really goes to show how untrustworthy women are deemed. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 163)
“Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” - The Duke says this to Mariana. Basically, he says a woman can only be those 3 things. Jeez. (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 196-197)
“When maidens sue, men give like gods” - Lucio to Isabella, encouraging her to convince Angelo not to kill Claudio. So, perhaps women do have some power. But, it’s due to their sexuality; something evaluated by men. Peachy. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 87-88)
Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that women are treated unfairly in society. Maybe he posits that women are afforded so few opportunities in a man’s world. The Bard potentially says that such sexual and gender politics do not create a cohesive and just society.
This theme, again, connects to many others. It can link to all groups of people (The wealthy, the poor, women, criminals etc). Most of the mercy is dispensed at the end of the play when the Duke does his grand reveal. Characters who choose to mete out mercy over punishment include The Duke and Isabella. Also consider Angelo, who instead of choosing to spare Claudio, decides to kill him to uphold a law that hasn’t seen anyone punished for the same deed. We might think this is harsh, but it a legal and lawful decision.
Connect this idea with historical context, specifically Jacobean audience and playhouses/brothels.
“I find an apt remission in myself” - Apt remission = ready forgiveness. The Duke says this after pardoning Angelo (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 539)
“pray thee take this mercy to provide for better times to come” - The Duke pardons murderer Barnadine, asking him to use it to do better. How lovely! (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 525-526)
“let us be keen (shrewd/sharp), and rather cut a little than fall and bruise to death” - Escalus says this to Angelo, who wants to enact all strict laws immediately. The ever-reliable Escalus advises Angelo to be lenient and merciful. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 6-7)
“Mercy is not itself that oft looks so, pardon is still the nurse of second woe” - Escalus says this, defending Angelo’s decision to punish Claudio. He suggests that sometimes being merciful can encourage further wrongdoing. (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 282-283”)
“I show it (pity) most of all when I show justice” - Angelo says to Isabella that he is showing Claudio pity/mercy by punishing him. A firm believer in the law, Angelo thinks he’s doing the right thing and teaching Claudio a lesson by punishing him. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 123)
Perhaps Shakespeare encourages us to look at mercy and punishment from different perspectives. Angelo believes he is punishing Claudio for his own good, and cleaning up Vienna of lechery too. Maybe we ought to be merciful in our opinion of the deputy. Nonetheless, the Bard shows that in the case of young Claudio, mercy and forgiveness is the right path to choose. Finally, consider why Shakespeare may have portrayed a merciful leader to his Jacobean audience. Maybe if he were to portray a leader as fair and merciful, the Jacobean audience would trust that their new king (a man similar in character to the Duke) could be kind and merciful too. Earning the favour of the king and writing a killer play? He’s killed two birds with one stone.
Human Frailty & Fallibility
I’ve encountered many essay topics about how humans are flawed and imperfect. It’s a pretty big theme in many texts, not just in our friend William Shakespeare’s. Human fallibility is to blame for a lot of the going-ons in ‘Measure for Measure’. Angelo takes the law too seriously, he gets heart eyes for Isabella and kills Claudio even though he thinks he’s slept with Isabella. Why? He wants to save his own ass, fearing Claudio will seek vengeance. The Duke is flawed too. He’s a leader, but he just avoids his problems, leaving Angelo in charge to deal with them. Then he plans to swoop in and look like a hero. Kinda dodgy. Consider Claudio and Juliet too. They, like Angelo, succumbed to lust and slept together before they were officially married. (Sigh, humans just can’t get it right.) It’s also worth thinking about the “low-lives” and poorer characters. Are the poor frail in a different way? For example, Mistress Overdone keeps Lucio’s secrets for him. In that way she is virtuous. However, she sells her body to survive. Perhaps she is not prone to desire like Angelo, but serves another desire - a desire to survive?
In terms of historical context, consider the Divine Right of Kings, the Great Chain of Being and Playhouses/Brothels.
“They say best men are moulded out of faults, and for the most become much more the better for being a little bad” - Mariana pleads to Isabella to support her in begging the Duke to pardon (her new husband) Angelo. She is optimistic for man, believing our bad deeds can lead to self-improvement. (Act 5, Scene 5, Line 473-475)
“Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once” - Isabella pleads to Angelo to pardon Claudio. She states that all souls were flawed before Christ offered redemption. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 93)
“I speak not as desiring more, but rather wishing a more strict restraint” - Isabella is speaking to a nun as she is poised to enter the ranks of the nunnery. We usually think of a nun as living a very strict life, but Isabella wants it even stricter! Here we see her flaw is that her thinking is too singular and blinkered. (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 3-4)
“Lord Angelo is precise, stands at guard with envy, scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite is more to bread than stone.” - The Duke talks about how unhuman Angelo is. The deputy follows rules very closely, almost to the point where he’s like a machine. His nature is too strict. (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 53-56)
“I love the people, but do not like to stage me to their eyes” - The Duke says this to Angelo and Escalus as he hands over power to his deputy. Even the Duke is not perfect, in that he does not like being before crowds of his people (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 72-73)
Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that no one is truly perfect, not even a leader supposedly ordained by God, a law-abiding deputy, or a maiden who is poised to enter a nunnery. Yet while Angelo is overcome by his lust and emotion, the Duke and Isabella attempt to better themselves by showing mercy and temperance. Maybe Shakespeare suggests trying to improve one’s flawed self is most important.
God, Religion and Spirituality
Phew, we’re at our last theme. So, society in Vienna is very much religious. Their beliefs dictate actions and laws within the city. Some very religious characters include Isabella and Angelo. However, our novice nun, who is obsessed with virtue and chastity, agrees to and takes part in the bed-trick, a deception that is not particularly Christian. Our lusty deputy also succumbs, hellishly propositioning a maiden to sleep with him in exchange for her brother’s life. Even The Duke, supposedly semi-divine, makes some dubious choices. He spends most of the play posed as a holy man, even though he is not. He plans the bed-trick to deceive Angelo and lets poor Isabella think her poor brother is dead, instead of saving her so much pain. Furthermore, the title of the tale, ‘Measure for Measure’, comes from the Gospel of Matthew. (See symbols/motifs for more deets). The question of how much we should let religion dictate us is another reason this piece is a problem play.
The theme of God and Religion can link to historical context such as the Divine Right of Kings.
“more than our brother is our chastity” - (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 194) and “Better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister by redeeming him should die forever” - (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 111-113) show that Isabella values her chastity and virtue over her brother!! Damn girl!
“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, to lie in cold obstruction and to rot” - Claudio tells Isabella that he fears the uncertainty of death. Perhaps his belief in a heaven has left him in the wake of his impending death? (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 129-130)
“Let’s write good angel on the devil’s horns - ‘tis not the devil's crest” - Angelo is talking to himself about his lust for Isabella. It’s an appearance vs reality (ooh another theme!) kind of idea, where you can try to pretend something is something else (ie. Angelo doesn't lust after Isabella), but it doesn't change the thing (ie. he’s still keen). The deputy is comparing his emotions to these religious extremes. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 16-17)
Perhaps Shakespeare criticises religious extremism in his portrayal of characters like Isabella and Angelo. Or maybe he just wants us to remain open-minded about ideas and our spirituality.
Yikes, there are so many themes in this play! Let’s move it along, and talk a little bit about characters.
Each character can be viewed in different lights, even more so than themes can be. We’re going to discuss characters very briefly because it’s up to you how you want to read them.
Here are the characters, in order of how much they speak in the play. To keep things short, let’s pretend these are all tinder bios. Who would you swipe right on? (Hint: not Lucio)
super chill (the benevolent ruler of Vienna who’s let the laws slip a little)
loves dressing up (actually spends most of the play disguised as a friar)
clever/cunning (secretly counteracts the injustices decreed by Angelo)
strong morals (would rather her brother die than she lives in shame)
can get wild (conspires with the Duke to complete the bed-trick)
holy gal (poised to enter a nunnery)
a gentleman (well, his title is. He’s rude about the Duke and abandoned a prostitute that he got pregnant, so maybe he’s not that kind of gentleman)
loves attention (legit! He’s a minor character but he has the third most lines of them all! Lucio loves to stir the pot!)
loves some symbolism (Lucio represents all the bad stuff in Vienna…..see symbols/motifs)
plays by the rules (a little too much)
hypocrite (Sentences Claudio to death for sex before marriage, while asking the same thing of Isabella…. wow we’ve found our antagonist)
Deep (Angelo is a bit of a complex character. He seems aware of his misdeeds and struggles to deal with these desires. It’s hard not to pity him at times)
reliable (consistently counsels Angelo against acting too harshly)
virtuous (he’s merciful, lets Pompey go with a warning in Act 2 Scene 1)
loyal (trusts in the Duke)
hard worker (he’s a prison ward)
virtuous (does what’s right by him, disobeying Angelo’s orders to behead Claudio)
magician (not really, but he makes Angelo believe that pirate Ragozine’s head is Claudio’s)
clever (philosophically debates whether prostitution is worse than murder)
funny (his character is the clown, and he’s got some sassy comebacks)
poor (Pompey is a bawd employed by Mistress Overdone. Not the best dating bio)
down for a good time ;) (impregnates Juliet before they are officially married)
cool family (he’s Isabella’s brother)
good hearted (initially is horrified at Angelo’s request of Isabella, saying she shouldn’t do it. Unfortunately, his fear of death get’s to him. After he’s calmed down, he’s accepting of death)
a man in uniform (a policeman)
a little dumb (he speaks a lot of malapropisms - hilariously using similar but incorrect words)
not like Pompey (Pompey is a clever poor man, while Elbow is a policeman who’s a little bit all over the place)
dedicated (still in love with Angelo even though he called off their engagement because her dowry was lost)
a willing accomplice (participates in the bed-trick)
poor (she’s a prostitute, who fears for her livelihood when Angelo announces he’s destroying all the brothels)
good hearted (kept Lucio’s secret. What secret? Read on…)
works for the Duke (as an executioner…. there’s no way to make that sound nice)
doesn't have a great name (c’mon it’s true)
also likes to have a good time ;) (pregnant before official marriage)
dependent (if Claudio dies she will probably end up as a prostitute to survive)
can sing (Mariana asks him to sing a sad song about how she lost her beloved Angelo)
holy gal (she is a nun)
Kate Keepdown (we never actually meet this character)
a colleague of Mistress Overdone (a prostitute)
single mum (Lucio got her pregnant and then ran away. He thinks marrying a prostitute is akin to whipping and hanging)
Ragozine (we never actually meet this character)
dies (legit that’s all he does)
SYMBOLS & MOTIFS
These are people, objects, words etc that represent a theme or idea. For instance, the fact that I’ve used a bad soup metaphor AND a tinder reference means I need to go outside more. But let’s move on…
The title, “Measure for Measure” draws from the gospel of Matthew. The idea of heavenly justice vs earthly justice is prominent throughout the text. Moreover, it’s worth exploring the Old Testament ways of “an eye for an eye” and “measure for measure” in comparison to the New Testament teachings which lean towards forgiveness and mercy. Now, where do the Duke’s actions fit in? Is he harsh and equalising? Is he just and sympathetic?
New Testament vs. Old Testament
When the Duke sentences Angelo to death, he makes a fancy speech which includes the play’s title.
“‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure.
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.”
Act 5, Scene 1, Line 439-441
This mimics the Old Testament views, which famously states “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). These ideals teach that the person who committed a misdeed shall have the same misdeed done unto them. (For example, if you don’t like my new Facebook profile picture, I’m not liking yours…..but way more severe.)
In comparison, the New Testament states that we “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:36-37)
So, when sentencing Angelo the Duke employs the words of the Old Testament. However, he doesn’t go through with Angelo’s execution, instead showing the mercy encouraged by the New Testament. He’s not really following either way. Perhaps he’s instead choosing a middle road; one of temperance and justice.
Wait, who? We haven’t mentioned the “gentleman” Lucio much in the plot and in this blog post. That’s because he doesn’t really do that much other than buzz around and annoy everyone. Maybe that’s why his name rhymes with mosquito….
Regardless, we do see enough of Lucio’s character to learn that he’s not a very nice person. He treats Mistress Overdone and Pompey poorly, makes visits to the brothel, doesn’t take responsibility for his actions (getting Kate Keepdown pregnant) and bad-mouths the Duke. So yeah, we don’t like Lucio, what’s the big deal? Well, in Act 4, Scene 4 Line 182, Lucio says something very intriguing.
“I am a kind of burr, I shall stick.”
Burr - those little brown prickly things that get stuck to you.
We can think of Lucio as representing all the sins and misdeeds in Vienna - lechery, immorality, lack of justice, selfishness etc. Hence, Lucio is saying that these shortcomings and flaws will always be present to people and in Vienna, sticking to the city like a nasty burr. Damn, that’s deep.
The metre of the verse (ie. the classic Shakespeare writing) in ‘‘Measure for Measure” is iambic pentameter. This means that each line is divided into 5 feet. Within each foot, there is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
I’ll TELL him YET of ANgelO’S reQUEST, And FIT his MIND to DEATH, for HIS soul’s REST. (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 195-196)
Verse does not have to rhyme, as the above lines do. Shakespeare often employs a rhyming couplet to close a scene and add some drama.
Verse is usually reserved for the higher class citizens, with those who are less fortunate speaking in prose.
Prose is language in its ordinary form, with no metre.
Certain characters, such as Lucio, switch between verse and prose depending on who they are speaking to. This could allude to Lucio’s duplicity, or perhaps a deep understanding of class divides in Vienna.
Names: Escalus and Angelo
Escalus is the ever reasonable and loyal lord and close confidant of the Duke. His name gives connotations of scales and balance - characteristic of the rational man.
Angelo’s name has connotations of “angel”. If we judge him only by his name, he should be a pure and heavenly being. Bah! That’s so fake! We can see that appearance is very different from reality. Isabella notices this too, stating that “this outward-sainted deputy...is yet a devil” (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 95-98).
There is so much to unpack about this douchebag. Let us briefly consider 2 ideas. When he propositions Isabella to sleep with him, he requests that she “lay down the treasures of (her) body” (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 100).
Firstly, that’s weird. Perhaps Angelo can be seen as someone who is obsessed with the physical - Isabella’s body and treasure. Maybe this obsession leads to his immorality and poor leadership.
Secondly, Angelo struggles to directly say, “hey, let’s sleep together”. He weaves his way around the request, propositioning Isabella so indirectly that at first, she does not even seem to understand his request! However, once she threatens to tell everyone about his vile demand, he speaks bluntly; “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (Act 2, Scene 4, Line 163). Perhaps this shows Angelo is self-aware that he’s being an ass. Or maybe this scene is yet more evidence of a patriarchal society, with the men knowing very well the power they hold.
We never actually meet this fellow. Ragozine is a pirate who dies in jail while “Measure for Measure” unfolds. His head is used in place of Claudio’s to convince Angelo of the former’s execution. Fascinatingly, Ragozine is the only person who dies in the entire play. ALSO, he dies of natural causes. Interesting. It feels like the play is full of death, grief and many heads on the chopping block. But curiously, there is only one death, of a minor character, of natural causes. Perhaps this says something about fate and justice or offers some commentary on life and hope.
Elbow vs. Pompey
Elbow is a silly policeman who speaks in malapropisms (using a similar but incorrect word for humorous effect). Pompey is a clever pimp who seems to have a deep understanding of justice and the Viennese people. The comparison of these characters, fortunate and dumb to unfortunate and clever, perhaps serves to show that the law is not always apt and that sometimes those who break the law are more clever than it.
Mistress Overdone (or lack thereof)
Mistress Overdone is a pitiable prostitute. She worries for her survival when Angelo begins pulling down the brothels, and she keeps Lucio’s bastard child a secret, only for him to throw her under the bus to save his own skin. The last we see of Mistress Overdone is her getting carted off to prison, crying “See how he goes about to abuse me!” (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 481) Yes, the last we witness of one of five speaking female characters is of her imminent incarceration. Furthermore, this happens in Act 3 of 5, around halfway through the play! The audience never hears from Mistress Overdone again, and her future is left uncertain. Even Barnadine, a convicted murderer, is given freedom and a happy ending.
Consider writing a few sentences of your essay from a feminist’s perspective. Think about the events of the play from the female characters’ points of view. What is Shakespeare saying by portraying Mistress Overdone (and other women) in such a way? Perhaps he is pointing out the injustices of the patriarchal system, or how uncertain a woman’s life was in his contemporary time.
“Measure for Measure” truly is an incredible text. This blog post is by no means an exhaustive list of all its quirks and complexities. This play’s relevance has survived centuries, and I believe it will continue to be pertinent to audiences well into the future. You are very lucky to be studying a text with such universal themes and ideas that you can carry with you even after high school.
1. Summary 2. What Is Magical Realism? 3. Themes 4. Symbols and Analysis 5. Quotes 6. Sample Essay Topics 7. Essay Topic Breakdown
Flames is a bit of an out-there story right from the beginning: Levi is attempting to build a coffin for his sister Charlotte because the women in their family come back to life after dying. Neither of them is that close to dying - both are young adults. Charlotte doesn’t really want a coffin so she runs away from home, as far as she can while still remaining in Tasmania at least, and Robbie Arnott takes us on this adventure through interweaving perspectives and rich imagery of his home island.
Some of these perspectives are surprising and unexpected, ranging from a hardcore private investigator to a river god in the form of a water rat, but each of them earns their place in the story. Our job when studying this text is to follow these shifts in perspectives and make sense of how they contribute to the overall text. If you’re writing creatively, you may want to play around with this sort of structure as well in your piece.
2. What Is Magical Realism?
Before we get stuck into the text itself, it might be useful to first discuss its genre. Magical realism books tend to be extremely confusing if you’re not familiar with the genre (and sometimes even when you are!). This is because authors in this genre will typically set their stories in the real world (in this case, in Tasmania), but they’ll add supernatural elements, which vary wildly from story to story.
Let’s unpack the genre a bit more, in particular, what it involves and why it’s used.
Elements of Magical Realism
The most important element of magical realism is that it blends the real world with fantastical elements. In Flames, the most obvious example is gods: gods don’t exist as far as we know, but they walk among humans and play key roles in this text. Less obvious examples of fantastical elements include the wombat farm at Melaleuca (fortunately nobody actually skins wombats) as well as the Oneblood tuna and (unfortunately!) the pet seals.
The fact that these examples are narrated as perfectly normal is another element of magical realism: the author usually operates as if the fantastical elements are perfectly real. We, as readers, enter a world where the existence of these magical things is taken for granted by the characters.
Purpose of Magical Realism
This blurring of the lines between real and magical is primarily supposed to suspend our disbelief: we can’t really be sure what’s real about the novel’s world and what isn’t. All we know is that in many respects, it looks like our own. Within this familiar setting, Arnott lets his own imagination run wild and leaves the reader to figure out the rest. This helps to create a sense of wonder, as if these elements could be real and as magical as described.
These elements also contribute to the story in other ways: in particular, they open up new possibilities for commentary. For example, the voice of the South Esk god is used to highlight the impacts of colonialism and the “blood-tasting tang of iron” that was brought with it.
Other Magical Realism Books
If you’re liking the sound of this genre and/or if you enjoyed Flames, there’s plenty more to discover in the way of magical realism. It’s a hallmark of Latin American literature (Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez), and it’s also been picked up in Japan by the likes of Haruki Murakami. A prominent Australian example is Carpentaria by Alexis Wright.
Death and Grief
Let’s move more closely into Flames, starting with its central theme of death and grief. It’s what defines this central point of tension between Levi and Charlotte throughout the novel, since it starts with their divergent responses to their mother’s death (and reincarnation etc.). Their divergent responses suggest that there’s no one way to cope with death, and their father’s reaction on top of that introduces further complexity: he disappears from their lives altogether, “not want[ing] to be close to them when they [died]”. Between the three of them, there are three very different expressions of grief.
But Edith McAllister is not the only death of significance in the novel. Another standout is the passing of Karl’s seal, after which he becomes haunted by “clicks”; he subsequently leaves tuna-hunting behind. The death of the South Esk god is also explored as causing grief, this time in the form of divine emotional outpouring, “a cloud’s sorrow”. Arnott is thus exploring many processes of grieving, from solitude and callousness to physical and emotional labour.
Outside of these moments of grieving, Arnott explores the background relationships between family members as well. Again, Levi and Charlotte are central to this. As siblings, they don’t always see eye to eye: “Levi and I have never understood each other”. However, that does not diminish their love for each other, particularly as they were left alone after their mother’s death. Their father Jack again makes this dynamic more complicated: he sees an “unbridgeable gap” between himself and Levi for example, but the omniscient third-person narrator in that chapter knows otherwise. Consider what difference it makes when Arnott writes in first person from within these relationships (as he does with Charlotte) versus when he writes in third person, observing from outside.
We also see interesting relationships between Karl and his daughter Nicola. Unlike the McAllisters, the two of them are remarkably close despite his ongoing grief for his seal: “nothing could match the blaze of love in her father’s smile”.
Nicola crops up again under this theme, as she begins to navigate a relationship with Charlotte. In a book review for The Guardian, Sam Jordison argues that this is a bit trite, but we can think of it as one perspective on how relationships begin: organically and sincerely, and out of a desire to protect someone else. By contrast, the start of Jack and Edith’s relationship was founded on something more artificial and manipulative, a “tiny spark” which he ignited in her mind.
This is bookended with romantic relationships that have come to an end, as explored through the eyes of the private investigator: her and her ex-husband, Graham Malik, have settled into something of an “ecosystem”. With these various beginnings and endings, Arnott shows how it can be natural - or supernatural - to fall in and out of love.
Finally, this novel touches on the impacts of colonisation. It’s a few quiet allusions here and there, but they are important: Arnott acknowledges the impact of colonisation on the natural landscape of his birthplace. He does this firstly through the eyes of the South Esk god, who observes the “foul industries” of the “loud, pale apes” when they first arrived on palawa and pakana land, the land we now know as Tasmania.
Arnott also explores colonisation through the eyes of Jack, who experiences racism when taking on the human form of an Aboriginal person. He wanted to learn more about how European colonisers were using fire, but he found “they reacted poorly to his dark appearance”. Meanwhile, First Nations people in Tasmania were being “hunted in their own homeland”, and he chooses not to intervene.
As immortal outside observers, their perspectives are the only ones in the novel that can really trace this history. Arnott might be including them so readers take his descriptions of nature with a grain of salt: even as we appreciate Australia’s beautiful landscape, it’s worth acknowledging its custodians who have kept it that way for tens of thousands of years.
4. Symbols & Analysis
We’ve traced the major purposes of these deities already, but to reiterate them here these ‘gods’ symbolise different parts of nature and the wonder Arnott derives from them. Although nature is already alive, these figures help it feel even more so. They also serve the important purpose of highlighting and acknowledging Tasmania’s colonial history, as well as the disconnect between humankind and nature.
The one natural element worth discussing as its own symbol is water. There are many bodies of water identified in the novel, from rivers and lakes to the ocean, and they each have their own significance. For example, rivers connect parts of the natural landscape while lakes (particularly Crater Lake) represent a getaway, solace, solitude and peace.
The ocean is the most complex of these symbols though: it’s all around the island of Tasmania, and it appears to be a vicious and unforgiving place filled with orcas and tunas the size of “mountains”. But it’s also a place that brings calm to Edith and Charlotte, and even Levi as a child. Arnott canvasses all of these different relationships to nature through the different manifestations of water. Water even exists as rain, which in the novel’s denouement represents a new beginning, a washing away of past tensions and conflicts.
“My sister is struggling to cope with the loss…I cannot allow her pain to continue.”
“They (Levi and Jack) were so alike”
“The tears were flames, and they were coming from within Charlotte.”
“Levi and I have never understood each other”
“Some wore fur and feathers and watched over the creatures they resembled… Some, like a blood-hungry bird spirit he encountered deep in the southwest, were cruel. Most were calm, seeking only to care for the creatures and land that they felt drawn closest to.”
“He (the South Esk god) continued on, soothing his rage in a simple, humble way - by nipping screws out of the hull of an idle jetski”
“Living with humans did not work”
6. Sample Essay Topics
More than anything else, Flames illustrates the importance of family. Discuss.
Levi McAllister is the hero of Flames. Do you agree?
How does genre contribute to the storytelling effect of Flames?
What is the effect of shifting narrative perspectives as used in Flames?
“I could have spoken to him but he would not have listened.” What does Arnott say around family?
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
How does genre contribute to the storytelling effect of Flames?
Step 1: Analyse
When talking about the genre of this text, we’ll definitely need to discuss magical realism. The question here is about how magical realism enriches or contributes to the story, so it might be worth breaking down the elements of magical realism and thinking through each of them one-by-one. The fact that this prompt is framed as a ‘how’ question (one of the 5 types of essay questions) also means we’ll have to bring in Arnott and how he chooses to tell the story.
Step 2: Brainstorm
One magical realism element Arnott adopts is the gods, who play a few roles symbolically in the novel, but there are other elements too: the seals, the flames, the cormorants and so on. Do these elements add as much as the gods, and if so, what are they adding?
Consider also not just the elements as they appear, but also how Arnott is treating them. The fact that a lot of them are taken for granted as perfectly normal is in itself another genre element.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Instead of talking about the elements too disparately or separately, I think a lot of them revolve around this central question of how humans relate to the earth and to one another. This will help connect my ideas to one another.
Paragraph 1: Elements of magical realism show how humans adversely impact nature
Nature is a huge part of the story: around the island, we see everything from beaches and rivers to “undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass”. Sometimes, these elements are personified as deities (e.g. South Esk god) – this is where genre comes in, since these deities are supernatural or ‘magical’, though they are written to exist in our world.
These voices, made possible by magical realism, highlight the impact of human industry on the environment: for example the “blood-tasting tang of iron” that seeps into Tasmania’s waterways.
Even Jack and Edith’s relationship could be seen as a metaphorical take on our incompatibility with nature: “living with humans did not work”.
Paragraph 2: At the same time, not all humans contribute equally to this pollution, and magical elements also facilitate commentary on this perspective
Before European colonisers arrived in Australia, the land had been tended to by the First Nations peoples for over 60,000 years - and pollution had been minimal. We cannot blame the entire human race equally for the deteriorating natural environment (see this Instagram post for an explanation!).
This is pointed out by the South Esk god: it is the “pale apes” who are trying to “swamp over everything”.
Jack, the deity of flame, also recognises this, although he is far more complicit: “he liked learning from the pale people more than he wanted to help” Aboriginal people.
Magical realism adds this historical and political dimension to the narrative.
Paragraph 3: However, Arnott’s use of magical realism also shows possibilities for ‘ideal’ relationships between humans, and between humans and nature
This paragraph gets to draw on some examples that aren’t just the deities: the seals for example coexist really poetically with humans, “the half of themselves they had been born without” (these were inspired by dogs, by the way).
Plus, even though Jack and Edith’s relationship was founded on a lie, Arnott is able to use that as a point of contrast for the relationship between Charlotte and Nicola, born from Nicola’s “desire to help”, plus her “fast and firm” attraction to Charlotte. This relationship is highly organic, and the ‘magical’ relationship between Charlotte’s parents proves a useful foil.
Even though some textual elements are exaggerated because of genre, Arnott still manages to use magical realism to highlight what might be possible, inviting the reader to imagine possibilities for harmony between people and nature within their own worlds.
Flames is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out ourUltimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Bombshells and The Penelopiad are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
Bombshells is a collection of six monologues written by Joanna Murray-Smith, each featuring one female character who is symbolic of a specific stage in life and role. Together, they are a telling account of the struggles of being a woman in a modern world, and the monologue format allows the author to emphasise how they are simultaneously unique and universally relatable.
ThePenelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s point of view. The story is narrated first-person by Penelope who resides in the underworld, but is also peppered with spoken, sung or chanted testimonies from the twelve dead maids of the story who act as a Chorus, a traditional part of ancient Greek theatre. Although the story is old and much-retold, the voice is modern and the author’s messages concerning women and their position in the world and their relationship with men are universal, regardless of the historical period.
4. Sample paragraphs
Prompt: How do Bombshells and The Penelopiad emphasise the subtleties of the male-female relationship dynamic?
While the narratives of both Bombshells and The Penelopiad are firmly focused on the female perspective of issues relevant to them, the texts also address the male perspective and role in such issues. Like the women, the men created by the authors have instrumental roles in the way the stories play out, which interestingly are sometimes disproportionate to their actual involvement in the plot.
One of the main differences between the texts, other than the literary format, is the level of dialogue and active participation afforded to the male characters. In The Penelopiad, the male characters arguably largely direct Penelope’s life, from her father essentially selling her into marriage to Odysseus’ life-disrupting departure, return and ‘lies…tricks and… thieving’, not to mention her ‘quite spoiled’ son Telemachus’ will to usurp and disobey his mother. Penelope’s narration gives them large amounts of dialogue and paints them as three-dimensional people in her life, whereas the male characters in Bombshells have barely any dialogue – most of them have none – and yet manage to cause a similar level of turmoil in the female characters. The marriage of Theresa McTerry to her fiancé Ted, for example, sends her into long, capitalised rants heavily punctuated with exclamation marks and profanities; Murray-Smith does not even give Ted a full description. Even without forming the male characters into rich, detailed personas, she still manages to fully showcase the chaos visited upon Theresa by her ill-considered marriage. She draws greater attention to her inner panic and desperation than we see in Penelope, whose voice retains a sense of shocked detachment even when crying or suffering. As such, the differing approaches of the authors both showcase the fact that men can wreak significant havoc with women’s lives, and that we do not actually need to know much about the particulars of the men or their acts to comprehend the women’s suffering.
The approaches of Atwood and Murray-Smith towards the level of engagement of their male characters differ significantly, yet both show the full impact of their actions on the lives of their female counterparts. Even when the men are given only cursory mentions, their presence as an agent of change within the story is sufficient for them to dramatically alter the courses of the characters they consort with.
It’s very hard to look past the overt feminist overtones of both try – even though these are some of the most interesting parts of the texts and you definitely should discuss them, there is more to them than messages about women. Maybe expand your view to more general ideas about human beings, how we live our lives and the ways we react to situations of duress.
Also consider that these texts are in two different formats; how does the live performance of Bombshells change the way it is perceived? How do the different media of these texts support or emphasise the authors’ messages? What can a monologue do better than a book in terms of transmitting an idea and vice versa?
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1.'The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn't let it—and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn't sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.'
Compare how a perceived sense of control shapes characters in both Never Let Me Go and Stasiland.
2. Compare how the texts explore the importance of memory in defining identity.
3. 'To conform is to be safe and to survive.'
Compare how this idea is examined in both texts.
4.'I'll have Hailsham with me, safely in my head, and that'll be something no one can take away.' (Never Let Me Go)
Compare how these texts explore the consequences of denying history for affected individuals.
5. Compare how Never Let Me Go and Stasiland examine what it means to be human.
6. Compare how both texts explore the influence of being an outsider on one's understanding of society and their place in the world.
7.'This society, it was built on lies – lie after lie after lie.' (Stasiland)
Compare what the two texts say about wilful ignorance in society.
8. 'It is impossible to be free when you are unaware of your confines.'
Compare how the two texts explore freedom and confinement.
9. 'When I got out of prison, I was basically no longer human.' (Stasiland)
'Poor creatures. What did we do to you?' (Never Let Me Go)
Compare how Never Let Me Go and Stasiland explore how humanity can be irreparably broken.
10. Compare how these texts examine the sacrifices required for societal progression and change.
11. Compare what the two texts say about the inevitability of change and being forgotten.
12. Compare the ways these texts explore the influence of different types of human relationships on the individual.
13.'Things have been put behind glass, but they are not yet over.' (Stasiland)
Compare how Never Let Me Go and Stasiland demonstrate differing attitudes towards reality and the past.
14. Compare what the two texts suggest about the factors which shape an individual's world view.
15. 'We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.' (Never Let Me Go)
'...a soul buckled out of shape, forever.' (Stasiland)
Compare how Never Let Me Go and Stasiland explore the concept of souls in relation to one's identity.
Station Eleven is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out ourUltimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Breaking Down a Station Eleven Essay Prompt
We've explored themes, characters, symbols and provided a summary of the text over on our Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
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
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
The Prompt: 'The distortion of memories can be harmful.' Do you agree?
Step 1: Analyse
The first thing to note about this prompt is that it's a theme-based prompt, focussing specifically on the theme of memory, which plays a significant role throughout the novel! But more specifically, it's asking directly about the impacts distorted (i.e. misrepresentative/twisted/warped) memories have on individuals, and whether this is harmful or not. So ultimately, you have to look at which memories are distorted throughout the novel, and evaluate whether this process is ultimately helpful to the characters or not.
Many characters' memories are altered significantly from what actually occurred - this is especially relevant for the characters living after the pandemic, as memories naturally distort over a 20-year period
The two main characters we see whose memories are altered the most are Tyler and Kirsten - both of whom were children during the collapse of civilisation
For Tyler, his recollections of the past are all dominated by violence and this has a significant impact on his worldview. One could very easily argue that it is this distorted view of reality that ultimately leads to the formation of his cult and the subsequent harm he inflicts
Thus, in the case of Tyler, it is quite clear that the distortion of memories has been quite harmful
However, on the other hand, Kirsten has had to commit unspeakable acts, (as implied by her being unable to remember her past/childhood), but this is seen as a coping mechanism, allowing her to move forward in life
Thus, for Kirsten, the manipulation of her memories through her forgetting is ultimately rather positive!
Memory distortion doesn't just relate to these two characters - it also affects Clark quite severely
He is shown to be quite unhappy in the pre-apocalyptic world, which is a stark contrast to his fulfilment by the end of the novel. What causes this?
This can be attributed to his distortion of memories which allows him to view the old world in a far more positive manner, with significant nostalgia
Thus, like Kirsten, Clark's distortion of memories is also presented as largely beneficial
So ultimately, while there are downsides to manipulating one's memories (Tyler), Mandel shows that distorting memories is largely a positive coping mechanism for many characters!
Step 3: Create a Plan
From my brainstorming, I'll be approaching the essay with the following contention:
Distorting memories can be harmful but more often is beneficial.
Now it's time to work out our paragraph ideas.
P1: Tyler's distortion of memories is largely detrimental and therefore harmful because they are tainted with violence and thus exacerbate his suffering.
P2: However, Kirsten uses this as a coping mechanism, enabling her to move forward from the trauma associated with the collapse of society and therefore the distortion of memories is necessary in her case.
P3: Further, Clark's rose-tinted view of the past world allows him to come to terms with the collapse of society and again is beneficial.
While Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven illustrates the harm which can be associated with the distortion of memories, it ultimately expounds on the benefits which can be garnered by those who alter their perceptions of reality given how this can serve as an invaluable coping mechanism to process trauma. The non-linear structure of her novel, achieved through the interweaving of pre- and post-lapsarian scenes (1), allows her to sculpt parallels between her characters who are able to accurately recall both the positives and the negatives of the 'modern world'. She thus advocates that whilst the distortion of memories can perpetuate and enable violence, it can alternatively result in tangible benefits when utilised in a positive manner, thus exposing Mandel's credence in how this can actually serve to benefit individuals and entire communities as a whole.
Annotations (1) It is really useful to show an understanding of how the novel has been constructed and why - so through Station Eleven not following a traditional model of time, this allows Mandel to really contrast between her characters - namely Kirsten and Tyler.
Mandel expounds (2) how the distortion of memories can ultimately exacerbate the suffering experienced by vast sectors of the community, arguing that it is this which actively perpetuates harm due to the inability of humans to adequately process trauma, particularly trauma which stems from one's childhood given the loss of innocence which accompanies this. Indeed, Tyler, who was characterised as a young boy during the 'neutron bomb' of the Georgia Flu and the subsequent destruction of civilisation 'had the misfortune of remembering everything', ultimately resulting in dire consequences for the majority of characters who interact with him. Mandel condemns Tyler's innate desire to justify the pandemic, arguing his inability to forget, process and fully comprehend ‘the blood drenched years of the collapse’ drives the creation of his cult which eventually perpetuates great suffering. This ultimately results in significant consequences, thus allowing her to denounce how the distortion of memories (with Tyler's recollections largely being defined by extreme violence and gore) can be extremely harmful. Indeed, 'ruling with a combination of charisma, violence and cherry-picked verses from the Book of Revelations', Tyler damages the overwhelming majority of people he comes into contact with, from having numerous 'child brides' to rendering the town of St. Deborah by the Water 'unsafe' to his cult containing only a few 'true believers', (3) serving as the embodiment of humanity's insatiable lust for power. Through his reciting of only phrases from the Book of Revelations, labelled the most exclusionary and brutal book of the New Testament (4), Mandel condemns the selectivity of Tyler's beliefs, advocating that his internalisation of only the most harmful and violent phrases exemplifies the lack of benefits associated with violently distorting memories given the inability of humans to process such immense trauma and suffering. Whilst Mandel explains Tyler's actions as stemming from the violence underpinning his childhood, particularly given that he was raised by a 'lunatic' whom others deemed 'unsaveable', she dispels the notion that this excuses them, arguing the degree of hardships inflicted by Tyler himself are unjustifiable, thus further exposing her credence in the necessity of being able to forget harmful memories in order to overcome them. Ultimately, through her portrayal of Tyler's inability to forget his childhood as 'a boy adrift on the road', Mandel reveals the potential for harm to be imposed due to the distortion of memories so that they are marked by violence, arguing that this can indeed be overwhelmingly dangerous.
Annotations (2) It is great to use action words such as 'expounds' instead of the basic 'shows’ as this demonstrates a more in-depth understanding of the author’s views and values (ensuring you meet VCAA Criteria 2: Views and Values).
(3) When making claims such as that Tyler harms 'the majority of people he comes into contact with', it is great to show multiple examples, so that your claims are properly backed up with appropriate evidence!
(4) This is a really great point to draw out that other students may not consider - Tyler never references any other components of the New Testament and only focuses on the most violent sections of one particular book.
However, Mandel also displays a belief in the positives which can be gleaned by those who inherently distort their memories as a mechanism to process traumatic times in their lives, arguing this can provoke significant, tangible benefits. Conveyed through the non-linear structure of her novel, Mandel sculpts parallels between Tyler and Kristen given their similar ages and respective connections to protagonist Arthur through him serving as their father and father figure respectively, with the significant difference being that only the latter was able to forget 'the year [she] spent on the road…the worst of it' (5). As such, only Kirsten is able to adequately move on from this extremely traumatic period in her life, exemplifying Mandel's credence in how the distortion of memories can truly serve as an invaluable coping mechanism allowing individuals to overcome significant harm, with Kirsten experiencing a large degree of post-lapsarian fulfilment given her 'friendships' with her fellow members of the Travelling Symphony, her 'only home'. Despite Kirsten's past being underpinned by significant violence, with her having three 'knife tattoos' to commemorate those she has had to kill in order to survive, her continued ability to adapt her memories into less traumatic ones is applauded, with her murders having been portrayed as occurring 'slowly…sound drained from the earth' as a way for her to process 'these men [which she] will carry with [her] for the rest of [her] life', thereby exposing Mandel's credence in the necessity of being able to overcome trauma through distorting memories. As such, she ironically went on to perform Romeo and Juliet following one such event which, given Mandel's depiction of the unparalleled significance of artistic forms of expressionism facilitating human wellbeing as Kirsten 'never feels more alive' than when she performs, exposes Mandel's illumination of how altering false realities (6) can ultimately provoke tangible benefits given Kirsten's ability to simply move on despite the traumatising nature of the truth. Ultimately, through the juxtaposition between Tyler and Kirstens' distortion (7) of memories, Mandel expounds how distorting memories can wield both consequences and benefits, with the latter occurring when employed subconsciously by individuals to process harmful memories.
Annotations (5) It is quite sophisticated to go back to the construction of the novel throughout the essay (as opposed to just briefly mentioning it in the introduction!). This shows you truly understand why the author structured the novel the way she did, which in this case is to highlight the similarities and differences between Kristen and Tyler.
(6) Try to avoid repeating 'distortion of memories' every single time - it is great to use synonyms such as 'false realities', but make sure you're using the right words (see annotation 2 for more information).
(7) Note how this links back to paragraph 1 (given that these two points are so similar and go off of one another) which makes the essay flow better. We are showing that our argument is well-structured and follows logical patterns.
Furthermore, Mandel similarly explores the benefits of utilising the distortion of memories as a coping mechanism and how, especially when this is done through the lens of nostalgia, it can facilitate unprecedented satisfaction. Indeed, Clark is depicted to be the literal embodiment of post-lapsarian fulfilment (8) given his ability to, albeit through rose-tinted glasses, appreciate the 'taken-for-granted miracles' of the 'former world' through his position as the 'Curator' at the 'Museum of Civilisation'. Subsequently, he serves to expose Mandel's belief in the benefits of altering one's recollections in an overwhelmingly positive manner. As such, Clark 'spend[s] more time in the past…letting his memories overtake him' as he maintains integral cultural artefacts which 'had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve'. This ultimately eventuates into a significant degree of fulfilment for not only Clark himself, but also the other residents of the Severn City Airport, the children of whom 'like all educated children everywhere….memorise abstractions' of the pre-lapsarian society, with the entire Airport community revelling in the everyday 'beauty' of objects not typically appreciated by the general populace. In doing so Mandel highlights her belief regarding the significance underpinning the benefits which can be gained from those whose memories are distorted to cope with losses in a positive manner, arguing this can enable a substantial increase in wellbeing. This is exacerbated through the juxtaposition in Clark's pre- and post-lapsarian fulfilment, for in the former he is denigrated as merely an unhappy 'minimally present...high functioning sleepwalker' (9). Overall, through her portrayal of Clark's satisfaction despite his elderly status and the loss of everyone dear to him, Mandel exposes her belief in the value of distorting one's memories in an overwhelmingly positive manner, advocating this can facilitate the forming of one's intrinsic purpose and thus fulfilment.
Annotations (8) You want to show how characters correlate to specific themes, and if one embodies a particular idea, then you should clearly state that! It shows examiners you really know your stuff. See this blog for more about the themes and characters in Station Eleven.
(9) Again, you want to clearly highlight how Clark is distorting his memories, including by providing evidence to back up your claim.
Ultimately, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven exemplifies the limitations of the human psyche when affected by trauma, arguing that the distortion of memories can have either a positive or negative impact upon the individual. Whilst she cautions her audience against the dangers of adhering to selective recollections, she simultaneously presents the benefits which can be garnered from this, alongside the ability to liberate oneself from such harmful memories.
For more Station Eleven writing samples, check out this blog post, which compares three different paragraphs and analyses how they improve upon one another.
If you found this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our Station Eleven Study Guide where we cover 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals!
Pride and Prejudice 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.
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, follows the titular character of Elizabeth Bennet as she and her family navigate love, loyalty and wealth.
When Mrs. Bennet hears that a wealthy, young and eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingley, has moved into the manor of Netherfield Park nearby, she hopes to see one of her daughters marry him. Of the five daughters born to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, Jane takes an early liking to Mr. Bingley despite his friend, Mr. Darcy, initial coldness and apathy towards her younger sister Elizabeth. Though Mr. Darcy’s distaste soon grows to attraction and love.
While Jane and Mr. Bingley begin to fall for each other, Elizabeth receives and declines a marriage proposal from her supercilious cousin Mr. Collins, who eventually comes to marry Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte. While Mr. Darcy is in residence at Netherfield Park, Elizabeth finds and enjoys the company of a young officer named Mr. Wickham who too has a strong disliking for Mr. Darcy. Mr. Wickham claims it was Mr. Darcy who cheated him out of his fortune, which then deepens Elizabeth's initial ill impression of the arrogant man.
After a ball is held at Netherfield Park, the wealthy family quits the estate, leaving Jane heartbroken. Jane is then invited to London by her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, which Mr. Darcy fails to tell Mr. Bingley as he has persuaded him not to court Jane because of her lesser status.
When Elizabeth visits her newly married friend Charlotte, she meets Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s (Mr. Darcy’s Aunt) other nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam. While there, Mr. Darcy appears and proposes to Elizabeth unexpectedly claiming he loves and admires her. To Mr. Darcy’s surprise, Elizabeth refuses as she blames him for ruining Mr. Wickam’s hopes of success and for keeping Jane and Mr. Bingley apart. Mr. Darcy later apologies in a letter and admits to persuading Mr. Bingley not to pursue Jane, but argues that her love for him was not obvious. In the letter, he also denies Wickam’s accusations and explains that Wickham had intended to elope with his sister for her fortune.
Elizabeth joins her Aunt and Uncle in visiting Mr. Darcy’s great estate of Pemberley under the impression he would be absent. It is there that Elizabeth learns from the housekeeper that Mr. Darcy is a generous landlord. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy then have a chance encounter after he returns home ahead of schedule. Following her previous rejection of him, Mr. Darcy has attempted to reform his character and presents himself amiably to Elizabeth’s Aunt and Uncle as she begins to warm up to him.
Mr Darcy happens upon Elizabeth as she receives the terrible news that Lydia has run off with Wickam in an event that could ruin her family. Mr. Darcy then going out in search for Wickham and Lydia to hurry their nuptials. When Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy return to Netherfield Park, Elizabeth is pleased to see him though Darcy shows no sign of his regard for her. Jane and Mr. Bingley soon become engaged.
Soon thereafter, Lady Catherine visits the Bennets and insists that Elizabth never agree to marry her nephew. Darcy hears of Elizabeth's refusal, and when he next comes, he proposes a second time which she accepts, his pride then humbled and her prejudices overturned.
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy
Mr. Charles Bingley
Lady Catherine De Bourgh
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner
Within the text the theme of pride is ever present as it plays a major role in how Austen’s characters present themselves, their attitudes and how they treat each other. For much of the novel pride blinds both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth of their true feelings and hence becomes something both characters must overcome. While Darcy’s pride makes him look down upon those not immediately within his social circle, Elizabeth takes so much pride in her ability to judge the character of others that she refuses to amend her opinions even when her initial judgements are proven wrong. Indeed, this is why Elizabeth despises the benign Darcy early on in the text, but initially takes a liking to the mendacious Wickham. By the denouement of the novel, both Datcy and Elizabeth have overcome their pride by encouraging and supporting each others own personal evolution. Indeed, as Darcy sheds his elitism Elizabeth comes to realise the importance of revaluation.
The tendency of others to judge one another based on perceptions, rather than who they are and what they value becomes a point of prolific discussion within Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, the title of the text clearly implies the related nature of pride and prejudice as both Darcy and Elizabeth are often shown to make the wrong assumptions; Darcy’s assumptions grounded in his social prejudice whereas Elizabeth’s is rooted in her discernment led astray by her excessive pride. As Austen subtly mocks the two lovers biases, she gives the impression that while such flaws are common faulting someone else for the prejudice is easy while recognising it in yourself is hard. While Austen’s representation of prejudice is aligned with personal development and moral growth as she wittingly condemns those who refuse to set aside their prejudices like Lady Catherine and Caroline.
The family unit that Austen displays with Pride and Prejudice becomes the social and domestic sphere as it forms the emotional center of the novel in which she grounds her analysis and discussion. Not only does the family determine the social hierarchy and standing of its members but provides the intellectual and moral support for its children. In the case of the Bennet family, Austen reveals how the individuals identity and sense of self is molded within the family as she presents Jane and Elizabeth as mature, intelligent and witty and lydia as a luckless fool. Not only this, Austen reveals the emotional spectrum that lives within every family as shown through Elizabeth’s varying relationship with her parents; the tense relationship with her mother and sympathy she shares with her father.
At the center of its plot, Pride and Prejudice examines the complex inequality that governs the relationships between men and women and the limited options that women have in regards to marriage. Austen portrays a world in which the socio-economic relationship between security and love limits the woman and her choices as it based exclusively on a family’s social rank and connections. Indeed, the expectations of the Bennet sisters, as members of the upper class is to marry well instead of work. As women can not inherit their families estate nor money, their only option is to marry well in the hope of attaining wealth and social standing. Through this, Austen explains Mrs. Bennet’s hysteria about marrying off her daughters. Yet Austen is also shown to be critical of those who marry purely for security, thereby offering Elizabth as the ideal, who initially refuses marriage as she refutes financial comfort but ends up marrying for love.
Class and Wealth
As Austen focuses much of her novel on the impacts of class and wealth, she makes clear of the system that favours the rich and powerful and often punishes the weak and poor. Characters like Lady Catherine, whose enforcement of rigid hierarchical positions often leads her to mistreatment of others. Other characters like Mr. Collins and Caroline are depicted as void of genuine connection as they are unable to live and love outside the perimeter of their social standing. In contrast, characters such as Bingley and the Gardiners offer a respectable embodiment of wealth and class through their kindness and manners. Indeed, Austen does not criticise the entire class system as she offers examples that serve to demonstrate the decency and respectability. Darcy embodies all that a high-class gentleman should as though he is initially presented as flawed and arrogant, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is capable of change. Always generous and compassionate, his involvement with Elizabeth helps to brings his nurturing nature to the foreground, evident in his attempts to help the foolish lydia. Ultimately, Austen suggest through Darcy’s and Elizabeth's union that though class and wealth are restrictive, they do not determine one’s character nor who one is capable of loving.
Symbolism, imagery and allegories
Three Act plot
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (ch.1)
When writing on any text in Text Response, it is essential to use quotes and analyse them.
Let’s take this quote, for example.
“it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”
This is the opening line of the novel. It is satirical, ironic and mocking in tone. Austen makes fun of the notion that wealthy bachelors must be wanting to marry in order to be valued in society. By using this tone, she subverts this “truth universally acknowledged” and encourages readers to question this societal presumption of wealth and marriage.
Have a look at the following quotes and ask yourself, ‘how would I analyse this quote?’:
“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” (ch.3)
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." (ch.20)
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (ch.34)
“They were all of them warm in her admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (ch.43)
“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” (ch.58)
1. What do the various relationships shown in Pride and Prejudice tell us about love, marriage and society?
2. Austen shows that even those of the best moral character can be blinded by their pride and prejudice. To what extent do you agree?
3. Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact does this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response because it’ll dramatically enhance how much you can take away from the following essays and more importantly, to then be able to apply these in your own writing.
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
Character-based Prompt: Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact could this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact could this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
A character based essay prompt is pretty self-explanatory as the prompt will have a specific focus on one character or a group of characters. While they may look relatively simple and straightforward, a lot of students struggle with character based questions as they find it is hard to discuss ideas in a lot of depth. With that in mind, it's important that we strive for what the author is saying; what is the author trying to convey through this specific character? What do they represent? Do they advocate for specific ideas or does the author use this character to condemn a certain idea and action?
Step 2: Brainstorm
This question is looking at the attitude Elizabeth Bennet has in regard to the expectation and institution of marriage and how her view could impact the lives of the people around her. As always, we want to make sure that we not only identify our key words but define them. I started by first defining/ exploring the attitude Elizabeth holds towards the institution of marriage; as marriage was not only an expectation in the times of regency England but a means to secure future financial security, Elizabeth’s outlook that an individual should marry only for the purpose of happiness and love was not only radical but dangerous. Her outlook, while noble, could and did put her family at jeopardy of being cast out from their estate as without a union between one of the Bennet daughters and Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins would have every right to do so as the only male inherent. I also looked at the wider implications Elizabeth’s outlook could have on the lives of the other characters such as Charlotte, Darcy and Bingley.
Step 3: Plan
Contention: Your contention relates to your interpretation of the essay prompt and the stance you’re going to take – i.e. are you in agreement, disagreement, or both to an extent.
While radical for her time, Elizabeth's progressive view of marriage can be seen to advocate for the rights of women and love and happiness but also, can jeopardise the livelihoods of those around her as Elizabeth is guided by selfish motives.
P1: The radical view of marriage Elizabeth holds can be viewed as selfish and guided by her own self interest which is shown to negatively impact the lives of her family.
P2: As Elizabeth diverts from the traditional approach to marriage, she encourages her friends and loved ones to follow their own hearts and morals rather than society's expectations.
P3: Because Elizabeth is depicted as a bold and beautiful woman, she is unable to recognise that her radical view is a luxury that not all characters have access to.
If you'd like to see an A+ essay on the essay topic above, complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can emulate this same success, then you'll definitely want to check out our Pride and Prejudice Study Guide: A Killer Text Guide! In it, we also cover themes, characters, views and values, metalanguage and have 4 other sample A+ essays completely annotated so you can kill your next SAC or exam! Check it out here."
Let’s get real - nobody likes pancakes without any toppings, or a hamburger without the bun. Well, it’s the exact same for Text Response essays. For that deeply-desired ‘A+’ written on your SAC, you’ll need a holistic interpretation of your text; including some ingredients that are so commonly pushed to the periphery. There are several components that assist in making your essay ‘stand out’ against fellow students, and each should be addressed to convey comprehensive knowledge of your text. Along with the points below, don't forget to also read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Collaborating with friends
Practice writing essays
Gather your resources; it’s time for a background check! Researching the context of your text is imperative for understanding its nuances. This is particularly necessary when investigating the author’s life, and the social, cultural and historical influences of the text. This may also answer those burning questions that you can never quite understand by just reading the text. Borrowing a book from a library, talking to your teacher, looking up queries on Google - is all it takes to have that deeper understanding to bolster your confidence … and potentially your grades!
Ever been stuck in the middle of your essay, just trying to remember what quote it was you wanted to write? It’s scientifically proven that how you memorise your material impacts its retrieval rate! Remembering items that are similar to each other improves the likelihood of recall in the long term and means that you won’t have to waste any time during your SAC with the sensation of knowing the quote, but not being able to retrieve it from memory. Therefore, organising your quotes in terms of themes, locations, settings or characters (and memorising them in the order of their category) can improve your ability to remember the information!
I think we’ve all had that ‘Oh my God’ moment when you read someone’s essay and see a frightening number of long and complex words appearing in each sentence. Well, you can rest easy in knowing your sophistication and vocabulary isn’t the only indicator of a SAC’s worth. In fact, consider your vocabulary as sprinkles on a cupcake - too much is overload, but you do need to include some to compete with other students. If vocabulary is a particularly weak point for you, take your time once a day to look up a new word in the dictionary, or better yet, subscribe to an online dictionary to be emailed one new word’s definition per day.
The best tip to doing well in English is passion! You may be thinking ‘well yeah, but I have none…” and this is something that is easily adaptable. The predecessor to passion is always interest! Creating a study group with friends, or even just talking to classmates before, during and after class to open discussion can provide you with a broader outlook on the text and get you asking questions such as ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Everyone has different opinions, and so by hearing others it encourages you to share your viewpoint.
The final step to any revision is practice, practice, practice! Just remember, writing essays should never be the first thing you do after studying your text, but should be the product of weeks of hard work. At this stage of the process you should have ideas shared from your friends, vocabulary relevant to the text, multiple quotes to embed and background knowledge! It makes the learning process so much simpler and easier to learn - relieving you from a tonne of stress as you approach your SAC date!
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