The 'DON'TS' of VCE Literature

March 9, 2017

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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 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.

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