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Whenever you write anything, whether it be a creative piece, a text essay or a literature discussion, keep these four words in mind:
Simple language, complex ideas.
It seems a basic concept, and at the heart of it, it is! But these four words hold the key to unlocking your English potential.
To write at your own personal best, you need to utilise the language that you are familiar with. This way, you won’t confuse yourself, and as an extension, the marker too!
Writing clearly and precisely is a skill that all academics can improve on, so how do we outdo ourselves? It’s really quite simple.
Whenever you write, choose words familiar to you. Searching for longer and more complex words can be dangerous. Rather for the simple word, the word that can be universally understood. When you truly understand the language you use, you then have the power to explore your arguments with far more efficiency.
Of course, with progression of writing comes an increase of sophistication, but do not let this be your goal. Rather, aim to allow your vocabulary to increase organically, looking up definitions when and where you need to. Expression is a facet of writing that every person can improve on, so why overcomplicate your task?
Next time you write anything, consciously focus upon how you express your argument, point of view or analysis. Often, you will find, the simplest word can be the most effective!
So, what about the complex part? This too will grow organically. Find a concept, idea or theme that you understand, and simplify it through the best language you can think of. This way, you ensure that nothing becomes lost in translation, and you demonstrate clearly to the marker that you understand the core of your topic. Next, find another idea, this time of a greater complexity. Break it down and put it into your own words. Over time, you will not only build a concise and accurate writing style, but you will also learn your arguments intimately. You can never go wrong!
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Rear Window 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.
When most people think of Hitchcock, it’s the screeching violins from Psycho that first come to mind. Whilst he is indeed known for his hair-curling thrillers, Rear Window is a slightly subtler film which focuses not on a murderer at large, but rather a crippled photographer who never even leaves his apartment.
Our protagonist L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is portrayed by James Stewart, who was known at the time for portraying cowboys in various Western films as well as starring in an earlier Hitchcock film Rope. After breaking his leg after a racing accident, Jeff begins to spy on his neighbours, one of whom he suspects of having committed a murder.
Despite some initial misgivings, his insurance nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and lover Lisa (Grace Kelly) also come to share his suspicions and participate in his spying. Their contributions ultimately allow the mystery to be solved.
Intertwined with this mystery is also the rather complex story of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship. Jeff on one hand resembles the ‘macho’ men of action whom Stewart is very accustomed to playing. On the other hand, Kelly portrays a character much like herself, a refined and elegant urbanite whose lifestyle inherently clashes with that of an action photographer.
Hitchcock ultimately resolves both of these storylines in the film’s denouement.
2. Historial Context
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the film, it is crucial to understand a bit about its historical context. As with any other text, the social conditions at the time of Rear Window’s release in 1954 inform and shape the interactions and events of the film.
Released in the post-war period, the film is undoubtedly characterised by the interpersonal suspicion which defined the era. In particular, there was a real fear in America of Communist influences and Soviet espionage - so much so that a tribunal was established, supposedly to weed out Communists despite a general lack of evidence. This practice of making accusations without such evidence is now known as the McCarthyism, named after the senator behind the tribunal.
The film undoubtedly carries undertones of this, particularly in Jeff’s disregard for his neighbours’ privacy and his unparalleled ability to jump to conclusions about them. During this era, people really did fear one another, since the threat of Communism felt so widespread. Jeff’s exaggerated interpretations of his neighbours’ actions lead him to an irrational sense of suspicion, which is in many way the basis of the entire film.
At the same time, the 1950s saw a boom in photojournalism as a legitimate profession. To some extent, this was fuelled by the heyday of Life magazine (an American weekly, as well-known then as Time magazine is today). This publication was almost entirely photojournalistic, and one of their war photojournalists, Robert Capa, is actually the basis of Jeff’s character. This explains the prevalence of cameras in his life, as well as his ability to emotionally distance himself from those whom he observes through the lens.
Another crucial historical element is the institution of marriage, and how important it was to people during the 1950s. It was an aspiration which everyone was expected to have, and this is reflected statistically - only 9.3% of homes then had single occupants (as opposed to around 25% today). People also tended to marry at a younger age, generally in their early 20s.
Conversely, divorce was highly frowned upon, and once you were married, you would in general remain married for the rest of your life. In particular, divorced women suffered massive financial difficulties, since men, as breadwinners, held higher-paying jobs, and women were only employed in traditionally female roles (e.g. secretaries, nurses, teachers, librarians). Seen in this light, we can understand Lisa’s overwhelming desire to marry and settle down with Jeff. The importance of marriage is also evident in the lives of Jeff’s neighbours; Miss Torso’s 'juggling [of the] wolves', and Miss Lonelyheart’s depression both reflect this idea.
Combining a basic understanding of the film’s plot, as well as our knowledge of its history, we can begin to analyse some of the themes that emerge.
Possibly the central tenet of the film is the big question of privacy. Even in today’s society, the sanctity of privacy is an important concept; every individual has a right to make their own choices without having to disclose, explain or justify all of them. The character of Doyle says almost these exact words:
'That’s a secret and private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private that they couldn’t possibly explain in public'
The tension that Hitchcock draws upon is this other idea of public responsibility, or civic duty - that is, the need to uphold the peace and protect one’s fellow citizens from harm. These ideas clash in Rear Window, as fulfilling this civic responsibility (which for Jeff means privately investigating Thorwald) means that Thorwald’s right to privacy gets totally thrown out the window. So to speak.
Evidently, this is a major moral dilemma. If you suspect that someone has committed murder, does this give you the right to disregard their privacy and surveil them in this way? While the film doesn’t give a definite answer (and you won’t be required to give a definite answer), Hitchcock undoubtedly explores the complexity of this question. Even Jeff has misgivings about what he’s seeing:
'Do you suppose it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars, and a long-focus lens—until you can see the freckles on the back of his neck, and almost read his mail? Do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove he didn’t commit a crime?'
In some ways, the audience is also positioned to reflect on this question, and in particular, reflect on the paranoia that characterised and defined the McCarthy era.
Somewhat separate to these questions is the romance between Jeff and Lisa, since Hitchcock seems to keep the thriller storyline and the romance storyline separate for a large part of the film. Their contrasting lifestyles and world views present a major obstacle in the fulfilment of their romance, and the murder mystery both distracts and unites them. Hitchcock further alludes to the question of whether marriage will be able to settle those differences after all - a major example is the following scene, in which Lisa not only reveals her discovery of Mrs Thorwald’s ring, but also expresses a desire for Jeff to ‘put a ring on it’ as well:
It’s impossible to study a Hitchcock film without considering how he impacted and manipulated its storytelling. The cinematographic techniques employed in Rear Window are important ways of shaping our understanding of the film, and Hitchcock uses a wide array of visual cues to communicate certain messages.
Lighting is one such cue that he uses a lot - it is said that at certain points in filming, he had used every single light owned by the studio in which this film was shot. In this film, lighting is used to reveal things: when the lights are on in any given apartment, Jeff is able to peer inside and watch through the window (almost resembling a little TV screen; Jeff is also able to channel surf through the various apartments - Hitchcock uses panning to show this).
On the contrary, a lack of lighting is also used to hide things, and we see Thorwald utilise this at many stages in the film. Jeff also takes advantage of this, as he often sits in a position where he is very close to being in the shadows himself; if he feels the need, he is able to retreat such that he is fully enshrouded. Low-key lighting in these scenes also contributes to an overall sense of drama and tension.
Another handy visual cue is the cross-cut, which is an example of the Kuleshov effect. The Kuleshov effect is an editing technique whereby a sequence of two shots is used to convey information more effectively than just a single shot. Specifically, the cross-cut shifts from a shot of a person to a second shot of something that this person is watching.
We see this often, particularly when Jeff is responding to events in the courtyard; Hitchcock uses this cross-cut to immediately show us what has caused Jeff’s response. This visual cue indicates to viewers that we are seeing what Jeff is seeing, and is one of the few ways that Hitchcock helps audiences assume Jeff’s point-of-view in key moments.
Similarly, Hitchcock also uses photographic vignetting to merge our perspectives with Jeff’s - in certain shots, we see a fade in clarity and colour towards the sides of a frame, and this can look like a circular shadow, indicating to us that we are seeing something through a telescope or a long-focus lens.
Interestingly, a vignette is also a short, descriptive scene that focuses on a certain character and/or idea to provide us with insights about them - in this sense, it’s also possible to say that Jeff watches vignettes of his neighbours. Since this word has two meanings, you must be careful about which meaning you’re referring to.
By the way, to download a PDF version of this blog for printing or offline use, click here!
5. Key Symbols
As with any other text, it’s important to consider some of the key symbols that Hitchcock draws upon in order to tell his story. That being said, one of the benefits of studying a film is that these symbols tend to be quite visual - you are able to see these recurring images and this may make them easier to spot. We’ll be going through some of these key images in the final part of this guide.
One of the first symbols we see is Jeff’s broken leg, which is propped up and completely covered by a cast, useless for the time being. Because he has been rendered immobile by his leg, readers can infer from this symbol that he is also incapable of working or even leaving his apartment, let alone solving a murder mystery. The broken leg is in this sense a symbol of his powerlessness and the source of much of his discontent.
Another interpretation of the broken leg however, is that it represents his impotence which on one hand is synonymous for powerlessness or helplessness, but is on the other hand an allusion to his apparent inability to feel sexual desire. Being constantly distracted from Lisa by other goings-on in the courtyard definitely supports this theory. All in all, Jeff’s broken leg represents some compromise of his manhood, both in the sense that he cannot work in the way that a man would have been expected to, but also in the sense that he is unable to feel any attraction towards Lisa, even as she tries her best to seduce him.
Conversely, Jeff’s long-focus camera lens is a symbol of his passive male gaze, which is more or less the only thing he can do in his condition. It is the main means through which he observes other people, and thus, it also symbolises his voyeuristic tendencies - just as his broken leg traps and inhibits him, his camera lens transports him out of his own apartment and allows him to project his own fears and insecurities into the apartments of his neighbours, watching them for entertainment, for visual pleasure.
In this latter sense, the camera lens can also be understood as a phallic symbol, an erection of sorts. It highlights Jeff’s perverted nature, and the pleasure he derives from the act of observing others. Yikes.
On the other hand, Lisa’s dresses underscore the more positive parts of her character. Her initial wardrobe represents her elegance and refinery whilst also communicating a degree of incompatibility with Jeff. However, as she changes and compromises throughout the film, her wardrobe also becomes much more practical and much less ostentatious as the film wears on, until she is finally wearing a smart blouse, jeans and a pair of loafers. The change in her wardrobe reflects changes in her character as well.
Finally, the wedding ring of Mrs Thorwald is hugely significant; wedding rings in general represent marriage and commitment, and are still very important symbols that people still wear today. Specifically, Mrs Thorwald’s ring means a couple of things in the context of the film - it is firstly a crucial piece of evidence (because if Mrs Thorwald was still alive, she would probably still be wearing it) and it is also a symbol through which Lisa can express a desire for stability, commitment and for herself to be married.
There’s definitely plenty to talk about with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and I hope these points of consideration help you tackle this film!
Test your film technique knowledge with the video below:
Ready to start writing on Rear Window? Watch the Rear Window Essay Topic Breakdown:
6. Sample Essay Topics
In Rear Window, Hitchcock suggests that everybody can be guilty of voyeurism. Do you agree?
Jeff’s attempts to pursue justice are entirely without honour. To what extent is this true?
In the society presented in Rear Window, Jeff has more power and agency than Lisa in spite of his injury. Do you agree?
Discuss how the opening sequence sets up later themes and events in Rear Window.
'Of course, they can do the same thing to me, watch me like a bug under glass if they want to.' Hitchcock’s Rear Window argues that it is human nature to be suspicious. To what extent do you agree?
Explore the role of Jeff’s courtyard neighbours in the narrative of Rear Window.
Jeff and Lisa’s roles in Rear Window, as well as that which they witness, reflect the broader societal tensions between the sexes of the time. Discuss.
'I’m not much on rear window ethics.' The sanctity of domestic privacy supersedes the importance of public responsibility. Is this the message of Rear Window?
Marriage lies at the heart of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Discuss.
Hitchcock’s Rear Window explores and ultimately condemns the spectacle made of human suffering. Is this an accurate reflection of the film?
Rear Window argues that it is more important to be right than to be ethical. Do you agree?
'To see you is to love you.' What warnings and messages regarding attraction are offered by Hitchcock’s Rear Window?
In Rear Window, women are merely objects of a sexist male gaze. To what extent do you agree?
In what ways do Hitchcock’s cinematic techniques enhance his storytelling in Rear Window?
'When they’re in trouble, it’s always their Girl Friday that gets them out of it.' Is Lisa the true heroine of Rear Window?
Now it's your turn to give these essay topics a go! In our ebook A Killer Text Guide: Rear Window, we've take 5 of these essay topics and show you our analysis, brainstorm and plan for each individual topic. We then write up full A+ essays - all annotated - so that you know exactly what you need to do to replicate a 50 study scorer's success!.
7. Essay Topic Breakdown
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, your ability to apply this strategy 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
Film technique-based prompt:
Hitchcock’s use of film techniques offers an unnerving viewing experience. Discuss.
Step 1: Analyse
While we should use film techniques as part of our evidence repertoire in each essay, this particular type of essay prompt literally begs for it. As such, I’d ensure that my essay has a greater focus on film techniques (without concerning myself too much over inclusion of quotes; the film techniques will act as a replacement for the quotes).
Step 2: Brainstorm
Since the essay prompt is rather open-ended, it is up to us to decide which central themes and ideas we’d like to focus on. By narrowing down the discussion possibilities ourselves, we’ll 1) make our lives easier by removing the pressure to write about everything, and 2) offer teachers and examiners a more linear and straightforward approach that will make it easier for them to follow (and give you better marks!).
The ‘unnerving viewing experience’ is present throughout the entire film, so my approach will be to divide up each paragraph into start of the film, middle of the film and end of the film discussions. This will help with my essay’s coherence (how well the ideas come together), and flow (how well the ideas logically progress from one to another).
Step 3: Create a Plan
Contention: Through a diverse range of film techniques, Hitchcock instils fear and apprehension into the audience of Rear Window.
P1: The opening sequence of Rear Window employs various film techniques to immediately establish underlying tension in its setting.
P2: Through employing the Kuleshov effect in the strategically cut scene of Miss Lonelyhearts’ attempted suicide, Hitchcock adds to the suspenseful tone of the film by developing a guilty voyeur within each viewer.
P3: In tandem with this, Hitchcock ultimately adds to the anxiety of the audience by employing lighting and cross-cutting techniques in the climax scene of the plot, in which an infuriated Thorwald attempts to enter Jeff’s apartment.
If you find this helpful, then you might want to check out our A Killer Text Guide: Rear Windowebook, which has all the information and resources you need to succeed in your exam, with detailed summaries and background information, as well as a detailed analysis of all five essay prompts!
The following blog post (updated 02/10/2020), is a mix of the video transcription, along with some new pieces of advice and tips. Happy learning!
Hey guys. Welcome back to Lisa's Study Guides.
Right now, it's in the middle of December, and I know that most of you should have finished school by now, and you're enjoying your school holidays. Because it is summer holidays, and most people aren't really studying right now, this is for the truly keen beans, the people who are reading the text before the school starts, which, by the way, you should be doing. I'll pop that video in a card up above and so if you are studying Burial Rites, then this video is for you. If you're not, as always, it doesn't really matter because the type of advice that I will be giving would definitely be relevant to any text, because it's more about your thinking and how you actually go around approaching essay topics.
Burial Rites is about this girl called Agnes, and she is the last person in Iceland to be sentenced to the life sentence. This book covers the last few months of her life, living with these people who she's sharing her story with. She has been sentenced because she has murdered Natan. And although we first initially hear that she has murdered this guy, when we start to hear her story develop, that's when we start to see that there are shades of gray. That she did have reason behind what she did, and you can start to feel quite sympathetic towards her. At the same time, though, and this is what today's essay question will be about. There's a lot to do with the patriarchy. Agnes being not just a woman, but an intelligent woman, was something that was looked down upon, and people were scared of that. That's just to give you a little bit of context so that we can start this essay topic.
Today's chosen essay topic is:
Women have no power in Burial Rites, the patriarchy dominates their lives. To what extent do you agree?
Step 1: Analyse
The first step, as always, is we look at keywords. What are the keywords here? To me, they are women, no power, patriarchy and dominates. These words really stand out to me, and these are the words that I feel are necessary for me to focus on in order to answer this prompt properly.
The second step that I do is I define keywords. So what I do here is I try to understand what the keywords mean and also their implications.
Women, is our first keyword. it's easy just to say, "Oh, women includes this character and this character." But we can start to think about more so the implications as well. So don't just think about the major characters like Agnes and Margret, but also think about the minor characters like Sigga and Rosa.
No power. So to me, no power means to lack freedom. It's not necessarily no power like you know I'm not strong and this is why we need to actually define the words because many words have multiple connotations or they have multiple meanings. So you need to figure out, "Okay, how am I going to find this word so that I've got the right focus for the rest of my essay?" This is silly, but what if you, halfway through your essay, went, "Holy crap, power could also mean electricity, and I didn't talk about electricity." So electricity is not part of Burial Rites, but it's just something to get you thinking. You know you don't just want to dive straight into the essay, assuming you know what the keyword means and what it entails. Actually spend time to define it, so that it's a lot clearer for you, too. So I've also added that no power means a lack of power compared to men. So because it is a patriarchy, the fact that they have no power is very much sort of linked to the fact that it's male-induced.
The third keyword is a patriarchy, so a male-dominated society, which means that an analysis of male characters is also required to fully understand male and female interactions. If you have an essay where you only talk about the women, then you're maybe only answering it 50%. To really add extra value to what you're saying and to really solidify your points, talk about the men because everyone influences each other one way or another.
The last thing is I would also add, 'to what extent'? When a prompt says, "to what extent?" to me, it means that some sort of challenge is required here. It's probably not enough if I just completely agree with it because it's only suggesting that the extent does end somewhere and that you need to go beyond it.
Step 2: Brainstorm
While in this video I don't cover the brainstorm process, you can learn more by reading up on my THINK and EXECUTE strategy, which has helped thousands of students achieve better marks!
Step 3: Create a Plan
My third step is I plan out key arguments. So this is how I'm going to break down this essay prompt. I am going to do two body paragraphs where I agree and one body paragraph where I disagree. So this should mean that I'm only agreeing to a certain extent. Here's a video about this type of essay structure and response:
Body paragraph 1:
So my first body paragraph is yes, under male authority, the women are robbed of freedom and power. My example for that would be Agnes, who is the protagonist. She is a woman who's being sentenced to death for murdering Natan, more about him later, and, as a result, society condemns her and she's robbed of her identity and freedom. "Everything I said was altered until the story wasn't my own." The metaphor of a story represents her being stripped of her experiences and identity, and instead replaced with how others think of her, whore, madwoman and murderess.
Body paragraph 2:
My second body paragraph would be another agreement, but this time I'm going to focus on the men. In this second body paragraph, my argument is men hold exploitative power over women. One, Natan, the person who was murdered, toys with all his whores, demonstrating male dominance in 1820s Iceland. All his workmaids are stranded, shipwrecked with nowhere else to go, highlighting women's hopelessness in changing their situation. Additionally, there's Blondal. So Blondal is a government authority and he's torn when commanding Lauga, Lauga, not too sure how to say that. You guys let me know. "I'm sure you would not question me," which is also another example of women's subordinate status.
Body paragraph 3:
The third one is one where I disagree. Here will be that there are rare instances of female empowerment in the novel. The first one will be Rosa, the poet. So Rosa has an affair with Natan, but Kent praises Rosa and she's described to be a wonderful woman and beautiful. Rosa transcends patriarchal structures, as she is assertive, headstrong, going against social codes in an act of female empowerment.
The second one will be Agnes. Her storytelling and ability to express what she is inside allows her to gain a voice in the patriarchal world that has silenced her. Through her storytelling, she asserts her self-worth and dignity and despite the fact that she has been locked down, she is being treated like crap by the men, her ability to hold herself strong and to be able to face her death with dignity means that with some sense, at least from within, that sense of empowerment has not been completely diminished.
If you found this blog and video helpful, and would like to see Burial Rites essay writing in action, then I recommend you check out How To Write A Killer Text Response below!
Many students receive feedback from teachers to ‘avoid retelling the story’ along with red scribbles across their essay that state, ‘paragraph needs further development’ or ‘develop your contention further’. It’s a common issue across the VCE cohort and fixing it does take some time and practice. However, keep in mind that it is definitely possible, you just have to understand what exactly what ‘retelling the story’ means!
So, ‘retelling the story’ – it’s pretty much stated right there the phrase – it’s when you are re-describing or repeating the plot based on whichever text you’re writing on. The reason why it is so cringe-worthy is because: 1. you should assume that your teacher or examiner has already read the book before so they don’t need a summary of the events occurring in the text, and 2. you are wasting time by writing something probably a year 8 student could when instead, you should focus your time on providing a comprehensive analysis of the text when responding to your essay topic.
Here is an example of a student who ‘retells the story’ (using Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men – “Twelve Angry Men explores the importance of moral responsibility. Discuss.”):
“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror has had an estranged relationship with his son for 2 years. He does not get along with his son since the son is disrespectful to his father. This is unlike the 3rd juror, who used to show respect to his elders by calling his father ‘sir’ going up. He is ashamed of his son since his son once ran away from a fight which made the 3rd juror ‘almost thr[o]w up’. As a result of his personal problems with his child, he sees the defendant as another young kid that needs punishment for his wrongdoings. He believes that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ’em down before they make trouble, you know?’. Since he is blinded by his own experience, he lacks the moral responsibility required to be a juror on the trial.”
As you can see, the student above has provided a lengthy explanation of the plot, rather than focusing on the keywords. ‘moral responsibility’, ‘decency’ and ‘righteousness’. The student could easily have cut down on the plot details and used the essential events in the play to act as the basis of his/her analysis. So what are the things you can do in order to provide an insightful passage without falling into the trap of this major English student faux pas? Let’s have a look.
Remember that an essay is based on your interpretation of the prompt – that is, whether or not you agree or disagree with the essay topic. Since you are putting forth a contention, it is important that you try to convince the reader of your own point of view. Unfortunately, this is not possible through merely summarising the plot. Try to break down themes, characters, views and values and language construction when elaborating on your contention. By using your own words to explain an idea, you can then successfully use the book as support for your reasoning.
Remember that repeating the plot is not the same as analysing a plot. Some students rely heavily on quotes, but this in itself can become a repetition of what occurs in the novel. Never simply rely on quotes to tell the reader what you want to say; quotes are there again for support and so, use quotes as a basis of interpreting your own opinions and views. Keep this in mind, don’t tell me what I already know, tell me something I’d like to learn. This will force you to write about your own ideas, rather than repeating the author’s words. Concentrate on a specific section of a plot, or a small passage in the novel. Avoid talking about too much at once. If you are able to achieve this, it will prevent you from falling into the path of wanting to write about an overall event of the book, which is inevitably summarising the plot.If you believe that it is absolutely necessary to write about some of the plot in your essay body paragraphs, try to keep it to a minimum. Practice expressing the vital plot points in one phrase, rather than using 2 or 3 sentences to explain what occurs in the book.
Now let’s have a look at the example below. The discussion is based on the same topic sentence as that above however this time, the student has focused on developing their ideas into an insightful exploration:
“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror is shown to be someone who is arrogant and narrow-minded as a direct result of a troubled relationship with his own son. Although he is personally unacquainted with the defendant, he draws a parallel between the youngster with his own young son, stating that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ’em down before they make trouble, you know?’. It is ironic when he asserts that ‘everybody deserves a fair trial’ since he is the juror that adopts the most prejudice towards the case, thus demonstrating his failure to possess righteousness. His shortcomings are further highlighted through the stage directions whereby he ‘shouts’ and ‘leap(s) into the breach’, displaying his lack of interest in other jurors’ opinions as he is adamant that his view that the defendant is guilty is indeed, correct. Therefore, it is clear through his narrow-mindedness that he has little sense of moral responsibility.”
When it comes to studying a text for the text response section of Year 12 English, what may seem like an obvious point is often overlooked: it is essential to know your text. This doesn’t just mean having read it a few times either – in order to write well on it, a high level of familiarity with the text’s structure, context, themes, and characters is paramount. To read a detailed guide on Text Response, head over to our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Authors structure their texts in a certain way for a reason, so it’s important to pick up on how they’ve used this to impart a message or emphasise a point. Additionally, being highly familiar with the plot or order of events will give you a better grasp of narrative and character development.
It’s also a good idea to research the life of the author, as this can sometimes explain why certain elements or events were included in the text. Researching the social and historical setting of your text will further help you to understand characters’ behaviour, and generally gives you a clearer ‘image’ of the text in your mind.
The overarching themes of a text usually only become apparent once you know the text as a whole. Moreover, once you are very familiar with a text, you will find that you can link up events or ideas that seemed unrelated at first, and use them to support your views on the text.
For each character, it is important to understand how they developed, what their key characteristics are and the nature of their relationships with other characters in the text. This is especially crucial since many essay questions are based solely on characters.
With all this said, what methods can you use to get to know your text?
Reading the text itself: while this may seem obvious, it’s important to do it right! Read it for the first time as you would a normal book, then increase the level of detail and intricacy you look for on each consecutive re-read. Making notes, annotating and highlighting as you go is also highly important. If you find reading challenging, try breaking the text down into small sections to read at a time.
Discussion: talk about the text! Nothing develops opinions better than arguing your point with teachers, friends, or parents – whoever is around. Not only does this introduce you to other ways of looking at the text, it helps you to cement your ideas, which will in turn greatly improve your essay writing.
External resources: it’s a good idea to read widely about your text, through other people’s essays, study guides, articles, and reviews. Your teacher may provide you with some of these, but don’t be afraid to search for your own material!
Year of Wonders is set in the small English village of Eyam in 1665, as the town struggles through a deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague. While the characters and events are fictional, author Geraldine Brooks based the novel on the true story of Eyam, whose inhabitants, at the urging of their vicar, courageously decided to quarantine themselves to restrict the spread of the contagion and protect other rural townships.
The experience of the plague provides Brooks fertile ground to develop characters that illustrate the extremes of human nature; displaying the dignity or depravity, self-sacrifice or self-interest that people are capable of when faced with terror, pain and the unknown. She explores the consequences of a catastrophe on an isolated, insular and deeply religious community and we see characters exhibit tireless dedication and heroism, or succumb to depression, exploitation and sometimes murderous depravity.
The novel illustrates that adversity can bring out the best and worst of people and that faith can be challenged and eroded. The novel explores how crises affect human behaviour, beliefs and values and reveal the real character of a community under pressure. Our job while studying this text is to consider how all the different responses to an external crisis contribute to an analysis of human nature.
2. Historical Context
Year of Wonders belongs to the genre of historical fiction (meaning it is fictional but based on historical events) and aims to capture and present the historical context accurately. The context of Year of Wonders is important to understand as it informs a lot of the division and instability in Eyam during the isolation and crisis of the plague (we explain in more detail why context is so important in Context and Authorial Intent in VCE English).
In 1658, only 7 years before the novel opens, Puritan statesmen Oliver Cromwell (who defeated King Charles I in the English Civil War and ruled as Lord Protector of the British Isles from 1653) died and Charles II, heir to the throne, returned from exile to rule England as King. Charles II replaced Cromwell’s rigid puritanism with the more relaxed Anglicanism and his reign began the dynamic period known as the Restoration. During the civil war and Cromwell’s rule, all the past certainties – the monarchy and the Church – had been repeatedly challenged and overturned. This all happened during the lifetime of the Eyam villagers presented in the novel and the recent religious upheaval in Britain was beginning to influence the conservative and puritan congregation of Eyam as the old puritan rector was replaced with Anglican vicar Michael Mompellion. The tension between the puritans and Anglicans is evident early in the novel and is exacerbated by the arrival of the plague, causing further internal fission.
The 17th century also marked the beginning of modern medicine and the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, people began to privilege reason and sensory evidencefrom the material world over biblical orthodoxy as the primary sources of knowledge. The Enlightenment advanced ideals such as progress, liberty, tolerance, egalitarianism and the scientific method. These values are reflected in the liberal characters of Anna, Elinor, Mem and Anys Gowdie, and to an extent, Michael Mompellion. However, we also see the limited reaches of the Enlightenment in characters who succumb to superstition or self-flagellation when the plague arrives. This was a time when religious faith was frequently challenged and redefined.
3. Character Analysis
The novel is narrated in the first person by protagonist Anna Frith. Anna, a young widow, mother and housemaid, becomes the town’s nurse and midwife during the plague alongside her employer and friend Elinor Mompellion. Anna is a compelling protagonist and narrator because she is part of the ordinary, working-class life of the village, but also has access to the gentry in her work for the Mompellions, meaning readers can see how the plague affected all social groups.
At the beginning of the novel, Anna is in many ways very conventional. Aside from her intelligence and desire to learn, evidenced by her interest and quick proficiency in learning to read, Anna married young, is a dedicated mother, had an incomplete education and never thought to question the town’s orthodox religious beliefs. However, it is revealed early that she has progressive views on class and morality and as the novel progresses, the extraordinary circumstances of the plague evoke in her heroism and courage. Brooks notes, Anna 'shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place'. During the plague, Anna becomes the village’s voice of reason and an indispensable figure due to her expanding medical knowledge, tenacity, resourcefulness and tireless generosity.
Michael Mompellion is Eyam’s Anglican preacher, having been appointed three years earlier after Charles II returned to England and replaced Puritan clergies. Generally, Mompellion is altruistic and open-minded: softening strict class divisions, combatting superstition and embracing a scientific approach to the plague. When the plague arrives, the local gentry (the Bradfords) flee and due to his charisma and position in the Church, he becomes the town’s unofficial leader. Mompellion persuades the townspeople to go into self-imposed quarantine to prevent the spread of the plague. His personal charisma, powerful rhetoric and indefatigable dedication to his work mean he can motivate and inspire his parishioners.
Mompellion’s unwavering commitment to his beliefs makes him a good leader, but we also see that his single-minded religious zeal can lead to harsh irrationality and hypocrisy. While progressive on issues such as class divisions, Mompellion is conservative – bordering on fanatic – when it comes to female sexuality. When his beloved wife Elinor dies, it is revealed that Mompellion denied her sexual intimacy for their entire marriage to punish her for the premarital affair and abortion she had as a teenager. Mompellion realises upon Elinor’s death that he extended forgiveness and understanding to all but his wife and, recognising his own hypocrisy and cruelty, he suffers a breakdown and loses much of his religious faith. Through Anna’s eyes, we see Mompellion shift from a character of moral infallibility, to a flawed and inconsistent man of a more ambiguous character.
Elinor is Mompellion’s wife and Anna’s employer and teacher. By the end of the novel, Anna and Elinor are confidantes and friends and their friendship arguably forms one of the strongest emotional cores of the novel, sustaining both women through enormous strain and hardship. Elinor teaches Anna to read and seems not to notice or care about their different social strata, treating everyone equally. Elinor came from a very wealthy family and initially had little practical knowledge of the hardships and necessities of life. During the plague, she confronts pain, suffering and true sacrifice. Because of her beauty, fragility and generosity, the whole town – and especially Anna – view her as a paragon of virtue and the embodiment of innocence. However, Elinor reveals that as a teenager she had a premarital relationship that resulted in an illegitimate pregnancy which she ended through abortion. Elinor considers herself to be permanently marked by sin and is plagued by the guilt of her adolescent mistakes, but her commitment to atone through service and working to help others is admirable.
Anys and Mem Gowdie
Anys and her aunt Mem are the town’s healers and midwives. Both women live on the margins of society, as their knowledge of herbal medicines and power to heal certain ailments causes fear and suspicion. Additionally, Anys further alienates the villagers by having conspicuous affairs with married village men. Anna admires Anys’ herbal knowledge and healing skill and her autonomy and unashamed sexuality, which were rare for women at the time. When the plague breaks out, Anys and Mem are murdered by a mob of hysterical townspeople, who believe they are witches responsible for the plague. This episode shows the power and acute danger of superstitionand hysteria.
Josiah and Aphra Bont
Josiah 'Joss' Bont is Anna’s estranged father and Aphra is Anna’s stepmother. Brooks depicts them as unsympathetic and unforgivable, if understandable, villains as they both seek to profit off the heavy misfortune of others. Joss abused Anna greatly throughout her childhood, and while she manages to forgive him due to the suffering of his own youth, when he cruelly exploits villagers in his position as gravedigger, Anna finds his actions irredeemable. As gravedigger, Joss charged exorbitant fees from desperate people to bury their dead, regularly stole from the beleaguered families and attempted to bury a wealthy plague sufferer alive to loot his home.
Aphra is similarly amoral and greedy. Although her love for her children is shown to be strong, she capitalises on the fear and superstition of her neighbours by selling fake charms while pretending to be Anys Gowdie’s ghost. After the death of her husband and children, Aphra becomes completely deranged, dismembering and refusing to bury the rotting corpses of her children and eventually murdering Elinor. Aphra’s fate and actions show how prolonged catastrophe and suffering can totally erode an individual’s sanity.
The Bradford Family
The Bradford family are arrogant and pretentious. When the plague arrived in Eyam they also proved themselves self-serving and opportunistic, exploiting their wealth and status as part of the gentry to flee Eyam instead of enduring the quarantine with the rest of the village. They provide a foil to the Mompellions, who are of similar status and are newcomers to Eyam with fewer historical ties and thus expectations of loyalty. The two upper-class families provide directly opposite responses to the crisis, with Brooks clearly condemning the cowardice and selfishness exhibited by the Bradfords.
Social Convention and Human Nature in a Crisis
Perhaps the most significant theme or exploration of the novel is what happens to an individual’s character and community norms in a crisis. Year of Wonders depicts a small and isolated community that experiences intense adversity from the plague and, because of their self-imposed quarantine, are additionally isolated from the stabilising forces of broader society. These factors cause the people of Eyam to increasingly abandon their social conventions and descend into chaos and Brooks raises the question of whether people can live harmoniously without a strong social code. She suggests that societal cohesion is the result of social pressure rather than innate to our nature. The social norms and protocols of Eyam collapse under the pressure of the plague, allowing discerning observers like Anna to explore the validity and value of her society’s fundamental values. Eyam’s experience of the plague demonstrates that some norms, like the limited role of women and the strict class divisions, do not need to be so repressive, while other norms and social virtues, like the rule of law and justice, are proved even more essential for their absence as order and civility disintegrate.
Brooks also explores the response of individuals to extreme and enduring adversity and questions whether crises reveal someone’s true nature or instead force them to act out of character.
Anna and Elinor are examples of characters who respond to the crisis of the plague, amongst other real hardships, with a steadfast commitment to their principles. Their innate charity and work ethic are only strengthened and bolstered by the demands of the plague. However, not all residents of Eyam respond to the plague with courage and decency. Many descend into fear and hysteria, while others become malevolent and exploitative in their efforts to protect themselves. The Bonts and the Bradfords are examples of people who act with appalling selfishness, yet Brooks is careful to illustrate them as cruel and self-serving even before the plague. Thus, Brooks appears to argue that our actions under intense duress are intensifications of our true nature.
Faith, Suffering and Science
A major theme explored in the novel is the role of faith in people’s lives and throughout the novel faith, superstition and emerging science contend with each other. Before the plague, the townspeople believe whole-heartedly in God’s divine plan – that the good and bad things that happened to them were God’s rewards or punishments for their virtues or sins. However, the plague makes this worldview unsupportable as the unremitting suffering of plague victims, depicted through gory and vividly gruesome descriptions, demonstrates that their suffering is not commensurate with their sin and that no one can deserve this fate. In particular, it is the suffering of children that most intensely shakes Anna’s faith in a divine plan. Her two young sons are early victims of the plague and their youth and innocence mean it is impossible to justify their deaths as punishment for sin. The sheer tragedy of the plague causes Anna to realise that faith in God’s plan is inadequate to explain suffering and tragedy and she looks for another explanation. This leads her to use science and medicine to ameliorate pain. By focusing on discovering possible cures or pain relievers, Anna and Elinor are indirectly treating the plague as just a 'thing in nature', eschewing the prevailing religious view that the plague is the result of God’s wrath. Their emerging scientific worldview does not rely on God’s presence and intervention in the material world and Anna loses her religious faith.
However, the scientific method and worldview were only in its very nascent form and most people held a firm belief in supernatural intervention, making the townspeople prone to superstition and, in their ignorance and fear, murderousmobhysteria.
Women and Female Sexuality
Women in Eyam had lived highly circumscribed and restricted lives until the crisis of the plague disrupted the social order. The behaviour and speech of women were heavily policed and punished. In a particularly horrifying episode, Joss puts his wife in a muzzle and parades her through the village after she publicly criticises him. While Joss is undeniably an all-round bad guy, his misogyny cannot be dismissed as singular to him. Even Mompellion, an altruistic and in some ways quite progressive man, takes a very harsh stance on female sexuality. Although he preached to adulterous male villagers such as Jakob Merrill that 'as God made us lustful so he understands and forgives', he denied Elinor forgiveness for her teenage sexual relationship and was unfathomably rageful when he discovers Jane Martin having sex outside of marriage. However, Brooks criticises the taboo on female sexuality and shows that sexual desire is an awakening and liberating force for Anna, twice helping her to come out of deep depressions and reminding her that life has joy and meaning.
There are strong feminist undertones throughout the novel as each female character exhibits strengths that the male characters do not and challenges the limitations of her role, expressing desire for more personal autonomy and agency. From the beginning of the novel, Anna admires the sexual freedom of Anys Gowdie and the ability of Elinor to unreservedly pursue her intellectual interests. During the plague, Anna finds herself eschewing her old role and social position and assuming many challenging and indispensable responsibilities that would have been unthinkable for any woman – especially a young single working-class woman – before the plague.
Leadership and Judgement in Times of Crisis
The text explores both the power of religious leaders to influence public opinion and the ability of strong and courageous individuals to rise to positions of respect and authority in a crisis. Mompellion’s natural leadership and rhetorical skill keep the community calm and bring out the spirit of self-sacrifice in them. His clear dedication to his work and parishioners inspires trust in the community, and although Mompellion comes to doubt his judgement, it is undeniable that his strong leadership and assumption of huge responsibility saved countless lives. Anna also emerges as an unofficial leader; she becomes an essential figure and the voice of reason in Eyam. The community’s newfound respect for Anna is evident in the way she is listened to and adhered to and her confidence in firmly and decisively addressing and directing men and those of a higher social class.
We see examples of powerful leadership in the novel, but we also see how an overwhelming crisis can lead to a shortage of clear leadership and expose flaws in existing governing systems. Eyam relied on its gentry (Colonel Bradford) and vicar (Michael Mompellion) to adjudicate and administer justice. However, on the advent of the plague, the Bradfords fled from Eyam and Mompellion became overwhelmed by work, leaving the townspeople to frequently administer their own justice through group tribunals or vigilante action. Additionally, the extreme circumstances of the plague mean the town must deal with crimes it has never faced before and is unsure how to punish. Brooks explores what it means to achieve justice when the only means available are faulty. There are many examples of miscarriages of justice which forces readers to think about the necessity of a strong, fair and prompt judicial system and the weaknesses inherent in these institutions.
5. Sample Essay Topics
How does Year of Wonders explore the concept of social responsibility?
‘In stressful times, we often doubt what we most strongly believe.’ How is this idea explored in Year of Wonders?
‘Year of Wonders suggests that, in a time of crisis, it is more important than ever to hold on to traditional values.’ Discuss.
‘How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.’ What does the text say about community and one’s understanding of reality?
‘Year of Wonders explores human failings in a time of crisis.’ Discuss
Now it’s your turn! Give these essay topics a go using the analysis you’ve learnt in this blog.
The starting point of any theme-based prompt is the ideas, and while this prompt characterises the novel as one essentially about courage, it is more generally exploring the theme of how people responded to the various challenges of the plague. ‘Discuss’ questions give you scope to partially agree, disagree, or extend the prompt. It is okay to ultimately agree with the prompt but to also demonstrate the complexity and nuance of the author’s intentions, and I think that is the best approach for this essay!
Step 2: Brainstorm
As we’ve already discussed, Year of Wondersdepicts a community experiencing an acute crisis and Brooks presents the very worst and very best of human nature. There are characters who display enormous courage (Anna and Elinor), others who are cowardly (the Bradfords) and those who exploit others’ hardships for their own gain (Joss Bont). There is also an entire supporting cast of characters who individually display neither extreme courage nor cowardice but who muddle through a terrible situation with numb apathy. There is also the opportunity to define what courage means here – after all, the decision to isolate themselves within the boundaries of Eyam took immense courage from all the villagers, who knew full well that they would inevitably be exposed to the deadly contagion.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Paragraph 1: [Agree] The novel is grounded in and revolves around the initial courageous decision of the villagers of Eyam to quarantine themselves and risk their own lives to protect others from the spread of the bubonic plague.
Focus on the initial act of courage and the knowing self-sacrifice that this decision required from every single person in Eyam.
As the event that forms the basis of this work of historical fiction, a logical argument can be made that this first act of courage in adversity forms the foundation of the novel and therefore affirms the idea that Year of Wonders is about great courage.
However, importantly, this decision was an act of community courage that anticipated future adversity but was taken before many of the villagers had actually experienced the acute hardship and suffering of the plague. This is why it is important to now discuss the courage shown by individuals in the midst of extreme adversity [link].
Paragraph 2: [Agree] The individuals who displayed courage, hope and conviction in the face of acute personal adversity demonstrate the enormous power of courage to steel us through a crisis.
Anna and the Mompellions concentrate on helping others and their service helped keep some degree of social order and provided comfort to victims of the plague. What they were able to achieve and provide for the community (and how much worse the situation would have been without their courageous assumption of responsibility) illustrates Brooks' high respect for courage and service.
To demonstrate additional analytical thinking, you might consider discussing the fact that these characters were not courageous solely out of charity, but that having an occupation and something to keep them busy and focused actually became a personal survival mechanism. This further highlights the absolutely pivotal role of courage in adversity and is only reinforced through the contrast with the ignoble behaviour of those characters who did not behave courageously and forthrightly [link].
Paragraph 3: [Partial disagree] However, Year of Wonders shows how adversity can provoke extremes of human behaviour and is thus also a story of human failings under immense pressure, with many characters motivated by cowardice and self-interested opportunism.
Here, you should discuss the dishonourable behaviour of the Bonts, the Bradfords and the hysterical mob that murdered the Gowdie women. Your aim should not only be to explain that they behaved without courage, but also to focus on the negativerepercussions their behaviour had for them and the community This will help you build an analytical argument that Brooks’ core message is about the power and necessity of courage in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, while no character escapes from the pain and loss of the plague, Brooks provides illustrations of how different people responded to their shared suffering and it is clear that she believes that the best way to respond to adversity is with the courage and strength to face the challenge head on.
If you found this essay breakdown helpful, let us know if you’d be interested in a complete LSG Year of Wonders Study Guidewhere we would cover 5 A+ fully written sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can reach your English goals!
The Dressmaker 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.
Set in Dungatar, a barren wasteland of traditionalism and superstition, isolated amidst the rapidly modernising post-World War II Australia, acclaimed author Rosalie Ham’s gothic novel, The Dressmaker, provides a fascinating window into 1950s Australia. I find it to be one of the most intriguing texts of our time - managing to weave together a historical narrative with humour, wit, and modern-day social concerns regarding patriarchy, class, and the effects of isolation.
The Dressmaker is one of those texts which reinforces why studying English can be so great when you give it a proper chance. This subject isn’t just about studying books and writing essays, it’s also about learning new insight you’ll carry with you throughout your life. Specifically, The Dressmaker offers real insight into some of the most pressing issues that have been around for centuries - how communities respond to crisis, why certain groups are marginalised, and how we should respond to tyranny and intolerance. Ham’s novel is layered with meaning, character development, and a moving plot which really helps us reflect on who we are as people. Not every book can do that - and, seemingly, on a surface level, you wouldn’t expect a novel about fashion and betrayal to do it either. But somehow, it just does, and it’s what makes The Dressmaker one of my favourite books of all time.
Before we move on to looking at The Dressmaker’s plot and delving deep into analysis, it’s really important to understand the main historical context which underpins the novel. By ‘historical context’, all we mean here is the factual background which tells us why Rosalie Ham wrote her novel, and why she chose the particular setting of Dungatar. After all, Dungatar is a fictionalised community, but its references to post-World War II Australia are very real. The main message I want you to take from this section is that understanding 1950s Australia is essential to understanding Dungatar.
Australian Geography and the Great Depression
Before we delve into talking about this historical theme, I’d like to first acknowledge that Australia was colonised against the wishes of its First Nations peoples, and also recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. This discussion broadly reflects the experiences of colonised Australia because that is the frame which Rosalie Ham provides. However, at Lisa’s Study Guides, weacknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this study guide was written, edited, and published, and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging.
Ham’s fictional setting of Dungatar is a perfect example, as it is placed in the Australian Outback. The ‘Outback’ doesn’t exactly have any borders, so which regions of Australia count as part of the 'outback' will be slightly different from person to person. A general rule to help us understand the Outback is that it is way out in the centre of the country, far away from urban Australia. Its main industry is pastoralism, which refers to the grazing of cattle, sheep, and other species such as goats. This is a tough lifestyle, and as such small towns and a lot of room for livestock is preferable. These communities are often isolated, and don’t really communicate with the outside world unless it’s about trading their livestock into the cities. Isolation tends to create its own culture, practices, and social standards.For Dungatar, we see massive economic divides and strict expectations around the role of men and women. For instance, the McSwineys live in absolute poverty, yet Councilman Evan and his family are relatively wealthy. Most of the women in the town either care for children or stay at home, reflecting the outdated idea that it is the role of the man to work, and the role of the woman to be a homemaker. As much as we can look at these ideas and realise how flawed they are, for Dungatar it is a way of life to which they’ve stuck for decades. Changing this way of life would be dangerous for them because it means they have to completely reconsider the way they live.
Part 1: Plot
Myrtle Dunnage arrives in Dungatar after many years, seeking to care for her mother Molly Dunnage.
Myrtle, who now wishes to be known as Tilly, reconnects with Sergeant Farrat, Dungatar’s eccentric local policeman who is doing his evening lap in the town. He takes Tilly through the town and up ‘The Hill’, which is where Molly lives.
While Tilly is caring for Molly, mental and physical illness causes her to believe that Tilly is an outsider who wishes to poison her. Tilly perseveres in order to shower, feed, and clothe the woman, as well as clear out the house.
The perspective changes to Sergeant Farrat, who is patrolling the town centre a day later. He sees a returned William Beaumont sitting in a car. Moving into Muriel and Alvin Pratt’s General Store, Farrat claims to be buying fabric for his house. Their daughter Gertrude, who is reading a fashion magazine, realises that the material he is buying fits with the latest skirt designs across Australia.
After learning about Mr Almanac’s pharmacy, the footballers move into Purl and Fred Bundle’s pub.
The readers are introduced to the McSwiney family, who with Edward and Mae as the father and mother, have 11 children. They’re said to live in the tip at the edge of town.
The following weekend Tilly and Molly leave The Hill to attend the football match played in Dungatar between the two neighbouring towns, Itheca and Winyerp. Lois Pickett and Beula Harridene give her an immediately negative reaction, taking offence when Molly questions whether their cakes are poisoned.
After getting medicine from Mr. Almanac and his assistant Nancy, Tilly and Molly run into Irma, his sickly wife. Her arthritis makes mobility difficult, and as such she is found sitting on the bank of the river, where she asks Tilly not to let the town know that she had been cooking meals for Molly in Tilly’s absence.
Nancy and Sister Ruth Dimm are shown to be having a secret relationship in the back of the phone exchange building before the perspective moves back to Buela Harridene, who demands that Sergeant Farrat investigate the McSwiney children for supposedly pelting her roof with stones.
Tilly sits on the riverbank, remembering her memories and trauma in Dungatar, with the crucial event being when Stewart Pettyman attempted to headbutt Tilly, but she moved out of the way, causing him to ram into a wall, snap his neck and die.
Marigold and Evan Pettyman are introduced to the audience, with Marigold being a nervous individual who is put to sleep by Evan with pills every night and sexually assaulted.
Following Dungatar’s victory in the grand finale, which sends frivolity and celebration throughout the town, a package arrives for Tilly. Ruth reads through all its contents after picking its lock whilst Tilly reluctantly meets with Teddy, who continues to visit her.
Tilly and Molly visit the Almanacs for dinner, wherein Tilly’s medicine causes Irma’s pain to disappear. Although Mr Almanac is unpleasant – stating that Tilly can never be forgiven for Pettyman’s death – the night moves on, Tilly returns home and is visited by Teddy yet again.
Part 1: Quotes and Analysis
“She used to have a lot of falls, which left her with a black eye or a cut lip.”
Here, Ham subtly hints that Irma Almanac’s injuries were not solely due to ‘falls’, as it is also said that once her husband grew old the ‘falls’ progressively ceased. Abuse of women is common in Dungatar, and it is almost expected that women will be subservient to men and do as they demand.
“His new unchecked gingham skirt hung starched and pressed on the wardrobe doorknob behind him.”
Sergeant Farrat subverts social expectations placed upon 1950s men by adoring feminine fashion. However, the fact that he is forced to hide his passion reveals how, in conservative towns such as Dungatar, individuals are forced to suppress their true selves in order to fit in with the broader population. There is no room for individuality or creative expression, as this is seen as a challenge to Dungatar’s social order and the clear separation between the roles of men and women.
“What’s the point of having a law enforcer if he enforces the law according to himself, not the legal law?”
Buela Harridene pretends to care about the enforcement of the law, but her true concern is bending the law to her own will to make those who step outside of their socially defined roles suffer. She is at odds with Sergeant Farrat as he seeks to control the townspeople’s worst instincts, yet people like Buela ensure that vengeance, rumour, and suspicion are still the defining features of Dungatar.
“Well let me tell you if he’s got any queer ideas we’ll all suffer.”
Although this specifically refers to William Beaumont, it alludes to the broader picture that the people of Dungatar believe that any outside ideas fundamentally threaten everything about the way they live. Even before Beaumont has opened his mouth, he is already a threat since he may have witnessed another way of living disconnected from Dungatar’s conservatism.
If you'd like to see the all Chapter plots, their analysis, along with important quotes, then have a look at our The Dressmaker Study Guide.
Themes, Motifs, and Key Ideas
Isolation and Modernisation
One of the central conflicts in The Dressmaker is between the isolated town of Dungatar, and the rapidly modernising surroundings of post-depression 1950s Australia, as we established in Historical Context. Ham uses this dichotomy (meaning when two opposing factors are placed right next to each other) to question whether isolated communities like Dungatar really have a role in the modern world.
Our clearest indication that Dungatar is not only traditionalistic, but absolutely reviles change and outside influence, is right at the start of the novel, when a train conductor laments that there’s “naught that’s poetic about damn [progress].” Here, we see the overriding contention of Rosalie Ham’s novel - that because a community like Dungatar has been isolated for so long, it has become absolutely committed to maintaining its traditionalism at all costs. There are more symbolic reflections of how stagnant the town has become, such as the fact that Evan Pettyman, the town’s elected Councillor, has been in the role for multiple decades without fail - or that the same teacher who ostracised Tilly as a child, Prudence Dimm, is still in charge of the town’s school.
The Dressmaker speaks extensively about social class. By class, what I mean is the economic and social divisions which determine where people sit in society. For instance, we could say that the British Royals are ‘upper class’, whilst people living paycheque to paycheque and struggling to get by are ‘lower class’.
It's also important to introduce the notion of a classist society. A classist society is one where all social relations are built on these aforementioned economic and social divides - in other words, everything you do in life, and everything you are able to do, is built on where you sit in the class structure.
For The Dressmaker, the question then becomes - "how does class relate to Dungatar?" Well, Dungatar is one of the most classist societies around, where societal worth is explicitly based on one’s position in the class structure.
Femininity, Fashion, and Patriarchy
By now, you’ve probably realised that The Dressmaker’s title is significant. Fashion and ‘dressmaking’ are absolutely essential to understanding the life of Tilly Dunnage, and how she interacts with the people of Dungatar. We’ll go into this further, but Ham specifically delves into the power of fashion as a form of expression which empowers people and their femininity, yet she also examines how, in a community like Dungatar, fashion nonetheless ends up being entirely destructive.
Dungatar and Femininity
The idea of femininity describes, on a basic level, the ability of a woman to express herself independent of any man. Others would describe femininity in more definitive terms, but it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. What’s explicitly clear, however, is that, in order to suppress femininity, women in Dungatar are repressed and kept under the control of men. Marigold Pettyman is raped by her husband, Evan Pettyman every night, while the “ladies of Dungatar…turn their backs” when they see the Councillor coming - knowing his crimes, but being too afraid to challenge him. Above all else, Dungatar exists within a patriarchal framework, which is one where men hold structural power and authority, and that power relies on keeping women silent and subservient. In such a society, the role of women in Dungatar is vacuous (meaning that they don’t have any real purpose) - they frill about, spread rumours, and otherwise have no set roles other than to be obedient to their husband.
Fashion as Empowerment
Within this context, Rosalie Ham explores the power of fashion to empower femininity, and, even if it’s in a limited sense, give the patriarchy its first real challenge. Gertrude is a perfect example, as Tilly’s dressmaking sees her eventually transform at her wedding, even though she is initially described as a “good mule” by Sergeant Farrat; symbolically being stripped of her humanity and beauty by being compared to an animal. However, Gertrude becomes the spectacle of the town at her wedding, wearing a “fine silk taffeta gown” and presenting an elegant, empowered image. The townspeople even note that Tilly is an “absolute wizard with fabric and scissors”, and, with the use of the word ‘wizard’, it becomes evident that the women of Dungatar are absolutely unaccustomed to having any form of expression or individuality - a patriarchal standard which Tilly challenges through her work.
Think also about Sergeant Farrat. Even if he isn’t a woman, he nonetheless is able to embrace his feminine side through fashion. Indeed his “gingham skirt” and secretive love of female fashion is utilised by Ham to demonstrate that, even in a patriarchal settlement like Dungatar, fashion is immensely empowering and important.
Fashion and Destruction
However, as always, Ham elucidates that there too exists a dark side to fashion in a town like Dungatar. Ultimately, the women of Dungatar, in their elegant dresses, end up looking like a “group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way”. What this quote tells us is that, despite a temporary possibility for empowerment, the women of Dungatar did not fundamentally change their identities. As “aristocrats’ wives”, they are still tied to a patriarchal system in which, even if they were better dressed, nothing was ultimately done to overcome their tradition for rumour, suspicion, and ostracising outcasts. Indeed, this becomes most evident at the Social Ball, where, despite wearing Tilly’s dresses, her name is “scrubb[ed] out” from the seating list - symbolically expressing a desire for Tilly’s modernising, urban, outside influence to be removed from Dungatar, even as they simultaneously wear her dresses!
Tilly, or Myrtle Dunnage, is the protagonist of The Dressmaker, and an acclaimed dressmaker trained in Paris. Analysing Tilly requires an understanding that she believes she is cursed: starting with being exiled from Dungatar after the accidental death of Stewart Pettyman, and then finding her “seven month old” baby Pablo “in his cot...dead”, as well as witnessing the deaths of Teddy and Molly. In her own words, she is “falser than vows made in wine”, and does not personally believe she can be trusted. This pessimistic perspective on life inspires Tilly to adopt an incredibly individualistic understanding of the world; believing that the only way for her to survive is embracing her individual worth and rejecting toxic communities. Indeed, although Tilly initially arrived in Dungatar to care for her mother - a selfless act - the town spiralling into vengeance only confirmed Tilly’s pessimism. Her modern dressmaking ultimately could not change a fundamentally corrupt community predicated on “nothing ever really chang[ing]”, and therefore the maintenance of a culture of rumour and suspicion. Indeed, in “raz[ing Dungatar] to the ground”, Rosalie Ham reminds us that Tilly is an unapologetically individually-focused person, and will not tolerate anyone, or anything, which seeks to make her conform to the status quo and repress her individuality.
Molly Dunnage is Tilly’s mother, a bedridden, elderly woman whose sickness drives Tilly back into Dungatar. Molly is commonly known as ‘Mad Molly’ by the townspeople, but what this hides is the fact that Molly was not born mentally insane. Rather, after being “tormented” by Evan Pettyman into having his illegitimate child and seeing Tilly exiled from Dungatar, the malicious actions of the community drive her into insanity.Even in her incapacitated and crazed state, Molly holds such love for Tilly that she attempts to stop her engaging with the community, and thus the symbolism of Molly “dismant[ling] her sewing machine entirely” was that, due to her experiences, she did not believe that the people of Dungatar would ever accept Tilly, either as a dressmaker or a person. Molly’s death is ultimately a pivotal event, and awakens Tilly to the fact that only “revenge [could be] our cause”, and thus that Dungatar is fundamentally irredeemable.
Teddy McSwiney is the eldest son of the McSwiney family, Dungatar’s poorest residents. Teddy is a unique case, as although he’s a McSwiney, he is noted for being incredibly well-liked in the town - even going so far as to be described by Purl as the town’s “priceless full forward” in Dungatar’s AFL team. Nonetheless, as we discussed under the Social Class theme, Dungatar remains an unashamedly classist society, and as such, despite Teddy being valued in his usefulness as a footy player and the “nice girls lov[ing] him”, he “was a McSwiney” - discounted from the town’s dating scene or any true level of social worth. Teddy becomes essential to the plot when he and Tilly spark a budding romance. Whereas the majority of Dungatar rejects Tilly or refuses to stand against the crowd, Teddy actively seeks to remind Tilly of her worth - saying that he “doesn’t believe in curses”. However, his death after suffocating in a “sorghum mill” reiterates a sad reality in Dungatar; it is always the most vulnerable townspeople who pay the price for classist discrimination, ostracisation, and suspicion.
Sergeant Farrat is one of The Dressmaker’s most interesting characters. On the surface, he’s nothing but a police officer who manages Dungatar. However, Farrat’s position is far more complex than meets the eye - as a police officer, he is entrusted with enforcing the “legal law”, yet must also contain the influence of malicious individuals such as Buela Harradine who would otherwise use the enforcement of that law to spread slander about individuals like the McSwineys, who she considers “bludgers” and “thieves”. Despite Dungatar’s complications, Farrat considers the townspeople “his flock”, and this religious, Christ-like imagery here tells us how he is essentially their protector. Farrat is, in essence, entrusted with preventing the townspeople from destroying themselves (by now, we all know how easily the townspeople slide into hatred and division!). Here’s the interesting thing though - at the same time Sergeant Farrat is protecting Dungatar, he is also personally repressed by its conservative standards. Rosalie Ham establishes Farrat as a man with a love for vibrant, expressive, female fashion, and from his “gingham skirts” which he sews in private to his time spent with Tilly while she sews, Ham demonstrates to us that Dungatar’s conservatism affects everyone. Even though he tries to defend Tilly as the townspeople descend on her after Teddy’s death, Tilly destroys his house along with Dungatar anyway - signalling that, no matter how hard Sergeant Farrat tried to reconcile his position as protector of Dungatar and his own person, the town could not be saved.
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The Dressmaker is written in the Gothic style, which means it combines romance with death and horror, particularly horror of the emotional kind. The Dressmaker is divided into four sections, each named after a type of fabric Tilly uses in her work. You can use these in your essays to show how important dressmaking and fashion is to the plot’s progression, especially considering each section starts with fabric. The four types are:
A fabric made from cotton or yarn, with a checkered shape. Gingham is often used as a ‘test fabric’ in designing fashion or for making tablecloths. This gives it a rustic, imperfect feel signifying Tilly’s return to her hometown and complicated past. The name is thought to originate from a Malay word meaning ‘separate’, mirroring Tilly’s feelings of isolation from the rest of Dungatar. In this section of the novel, Sergeant Farrat also buys gingham fabric to secretly make into a skirt, symbolising how the town is still rife with secrets and a disparity between the public and private personas of its inhabitants.
A fabric used for bridal gowns. Gertrude is married in this section and her dress, which Tilly makes, is the first instance where the town witnesses her work. Shantung originates from China, matching this notion of exoticism and foreignness which seeing the dress spreads among the townspeople.
A fabric noted for its ability to be used for a wide variety of purposes. This is the section in which the ball occurs and a variety of Tilly’s dresses are unveiled for the town to see.
A richly decorative fabric made with threads of gold and silver. Brocade is used primarily for upholstery, drapery, and costumes. This is a reference to the costumes of Dungatar’s play, the climax of the novel which occurs in this section.
Sample Essay Topics
1. “They looked like a group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way.” Fashion is both liberating and oppressive. Discuss.
2. How does Rosalie Ham represent the power of love throughout The Dressmaker?
3. Gender repression is rife in The Dressmaker. To what extent do you agree?
4. “Damn progress, there’s naught that’s poetic about diesel or electric. Who needs speed?” What is Ham’s essential messageabout progress in The Dressmaker?
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our The Dressmaker Study Guideto practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!
We’ve got a theme-based prompt here, which really calls for your essay to be explicitly focused on the theme at hand. That means that we shouldn’t stray from the idea of ‘oppressive communities’. Keep it as the centre of your essay and look at how events relate to this idea - we’ll break it down more in Step 2 so you can properly explore it.
Because there’s a ‘Discuss’ qualifier added to the end of the prompt, a clear and concise contention is really important. What you’re being asked to do is, again, stick with the topic frame. That means that going for the usual “two agree, one disagree” structure is decent, but I wouldn’t suggest it as the most efficient way to go. Instead, what you’ll see that I do with this essay is ‘discuss’ how the topic is present throughout all three of our arguments.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Let’s start by breaking down the key words of the topic.
We have the idea of an ‘oppressive community’, which refers to communities that are built on marginalising certain individuals so the majority can maintain power. This is quite a clear reference to Dungatar, but expect that most essay questions for The Dressmaker won’t directly reference Tilly or the town, even if they’re quite clearly talking about them. Something for which you should look out – don’t let the wording phase you!
The addition of the word ‘fundamentally’ doesn’t change that much, but what it does tell us is that the essay is asking us to agree that Dungatar is oppressive to its core. In other words, its ‘fundamentals’ are based on oppression. I would not recommend trying to disagree with this basic premise, as it means you’re going against the topic in a ‘Discuss’ prompt which, as we discussed above, isn’t the best option in my view.
Step 3: Create a Plan
One of the most logical ways to approach this topic is a chronological structure. By that, what I mean is following the text in the order events occur; before Tilly’s arrival, during Tilly’s time in Dungatar, and the consequences that arise after they make her an outcast once again.
This way, you can stay on topic and look at how Dungatar is oppressive even before Tilly shows up again, how that ramps up as she establishes her dressmaking business, and what Ham’s final message is on rejecting oppressive communities and embracing individual worth.
If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our The Dressmaker Study Guidewhere 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! Let's get started.