Literary Perspectives 101

May 1, 2019

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Ever since literary perspectives have been introduced into the VCE Literature study design in 2017, there’s been a hell of a lot of confusion surrounding what they actually are, and what students are supposed to do with them. Due to the incredibly subjective nature of English, and especially Literature, as a subject, there is no single correct answer as to how to go about it. However, I hope to shed some light for you on how to go about this elusive component of VCE Literature.

So, what are they?

Firstly, what actually are perspectives? Well, they can be compared to a lens which you use to colour or filter your analysis of the text. You use the ideas and schools of thought that are specific to each perspective to shape, influence and guide your writing. There are a whole bunch of these perspectives, including psychoanalytical, Marxist, feminist and postcolonial. For your SAC during the year, you are going to need to use two different perspectives in your essay, whilst you will only use one in the end of year exam. Personally, while studying Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, I used Marxist and feminist in my SAC and narrowed it down to Marxist for the exam.

How do I begin?

The best place to start, after having read the text of course, is to read up on what other people have to say about the book. Perspectives are closely intertwined with literary criticisms; that is, other people’s analysis and interpretation of the texts. For Literature, this needs to go into a bit more depth than someone telling you whether or not they liked the text. Some people like to include excerpts of other critics’ writing in their perspectives essays. Whilst this is not wrong, it isn’t the only way to go about it either. My class simply used these critics as a way of finding inspiration for our own ideas.

I was fortunate enough to be given a whole bunch of scholarly readings and critiques of ‘North and South’ by my teacher; however, if you aren’t as lucky, and the State Library of Victoria’s online database are both amazing sources for such information. You can simply search up the title of your text, and maybe the author’s name to narrow down results, and you’re provided with scores of articles. I’d recommend reading as many of these as possible, and maybe even jotting down some key points or ideas that stand out to you as important or useful as you go along.

How do I choose which perspective to use?

With all those different perspectives out there, it can become difficult to narrow all the options down to two, and then one. Whilst some texts definitely lend themselves to certain perspectives more than others, the idea is that you can use whichever perspective you want for whichever text if you try hard enough. Sure, it may be hard to find evidence to support them all, but it is expected that, as a Literature student, you are able to read deep enough into the texts that you could find what you need to write on any of them.

My advice is to choose the perspective that initially jumps out at you. When you read the text for the first, second and even third time, there will be certain plot points and themes that present themselves to you. By analysing these, you’ll be able to see what connects them, and most likely be able to relate them to a particular perspective.

How do I write a perspectives essay?
As I mentioned earlier, there is no stock standard formula that all perspectives essays must follow. But there are a few basic guidelines that can help you get the ball rolling.

Perspectives essays have the same basic structure as a normal English essay, but differ in the sense that they are more focused on a particular school of thought.  

Be sure to build up an inventory of useful words or phrases unique to your chosen perspective that will help clue the examiner in to what approach you’re taking. For example, when I was exploring a Marxist perspective, I would include phrases like “bourgeoisie”, “interclass relations” and “social hierarchy”. That being said, there is no need to explicitly state, “From a Marxist perspective…” in your essay. By including those subtle, little expressions unique to your chosen perspective, you should be able to signpost to the examiner what your perspective is without making your essay seem basic. As you spend more time exploring your chosen perspective, you will become more familiar and comfortable with a range of these specific expressions.

Help! I can’t decide which perspective to choose! What do I do?

If you find yourself, like I did, stuck when choosing which perspective you want to use, there are a couple of different things to can do to try and get yourself out of this funk.

To start off, Literature is an extremely collaborative subject. It naturally opens itself to a discussion between you and your classmates. In fact, this is a great way to build more ideas and strengthen the ones you already have for all parts of the Literature study design, not only this one. I’d recommend you have a chat with the other people in your class and talk through all your options and the evidence that you could use to support them. I find that by talking in this way, my jumbled ideas tend to become a bit clearer in my head, and I’m often exposed to new ideas as well.

Secondly, your Literature teacher is, of course, another port of call. You literally pay them to teach you Literature and make sure you walk into your SAC and exam as prepared as possible, so why wouldn’t you take full advantage of their expertise? Explain to them your problem and your thoughts up until this point, and I’m sure they’ll be able to, if not provide you with, point you in the right direction towards finding some clarification.

Lastly, you need to remember that you are ultimately the one who needs to make the decision. As cheesy and cliché as it sounds, just listen to what your gut tells you. Your first thoughts are usually the best ones, so just go with your instinct and see where it tells you to go!

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