In a previous video, we covered some of the themes found in both The 7 Stages of Grieving and The Longest Memory. I’d recommend that you watch that video first (or read it’s accompanying blog post if you prefer reading) because once you know some of the themes, you can get even more out of this video. In this video, we’ll be looking at a scene each from both The 7 Stages of Grieving and The Longest Memory, and trying to compare them a little bit.
We’ll be applying the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy from LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparative and exploring how ideas are developed in similar or different thematic directions in these texts. CONVERGENT ideas lead to similar conclusions and messages, while DIVERGENT ideas take us to different conclusions. If you’d like to learn more about this strategy which can help you build more insightful discussions of the text by finding unique points of comparison, then I’d recommend you check out the LSG’s How To Write A Killer Comparativestudy guide.
The Play (The 7 Stages of Grieving)
Let’s go to scene 14 of the play - this should be the report of Daniel Yocke’s death in police custody. The woman recounts his death in a factual, impersonal style as if reading from a court report. She describes how the police pursued and arrested Yocke after he went out drinking with a group of friends, and how he was detained and taken to the watchhouse. He arrives without a pulse, but the report doesn’t go into detail about how that happened between his arrest and his arrival. The woman breaks into bursts of emotion toward the end of the scene.
While most of the play deals with issues that are universal and timeless for First Nations peoples, this scene looks at a specific real event. However, this doesn’t mean that this scene isn’t timeless - First Nations deaths in custody are still a major issue for which no police officer has been held legally accountable - but this scene chooses just one example out of several hundred.
The emotionally detached tone makes the situation feel serious, but in a way, that distances us and the woman from the brutality and the violence of what must’ve happened. After all, how exactly was Yocke dead upon arriving at the watchhouse? How badly must the police have mishandled him for that to have happened? Along the way, there are little outbursts of emotion (like the little outburst of ‘people called him Boonie!’) and these remind us that the detachment belies the true significance of what happened - the needless loss of yet another Aboriginal person’s life.
This has been such a persistent problem in our history - this scene happened in 1993, but even in today’s time we’re still dealing with the same problem. The institution of policing has been unaccountable and violent for decades, at least, and something desperately needs to change.
The Novel (The Longest Memory)
Let’s go to the novel now and look at Chapter 6: Plantation Owners.
In this chapter, Mr. Whitechapel is talking to his peers about Chapel’s death in this clubhouse that his father had built for his own peers. Mr. Whitechapel is initially nervous that they’ll make fun of him, and they kind of do - they point out how hypocritical it is for him to think that he can treat the people he’s enslaved with humanity, and to stick to this argument even after Chapel had been whipped to death. At some point in this banter, he realises this physical violence is unjust and starts proposing ‘another way to organise the economy’ that isn’t slavery, but this draws even more mockery. He ultimately leaves feeling a little more convinced by the perspectives of his peers.
What does this chapter tell us, and how is it similar to the scene from the play?
Well, in both scenes, white men get away with murdering a Black man, and it comes down to socio-economic and institutional power. In this chapter, Mr. Whitechapel and his fellow enslavers all inherit significant wealth and extremely prejudiced attitudes from their fathers, and this creates not only pressure, but also a financial incentive, to conform to the system of slavery. He touches on the possibility of abolition, but this is seen as impossible - certainly, none of these men want to lose their power.
Looking more closely at this chapter, we also see how Mr. Whitechapel is exactly the hypocrite that everybody says he is - it’s ridiculous for him to pretend he’s treating black people fairly when they are dying under his watch. He says he’s feeding enslaved workers adequately and treating them with respect, but none of this is actually going to protect them from violence, and none of this is going to level the playing field so that white enslavers are held accountable. Ultimately, Mr. Whitechapel isn’t seriously interested in making substantive changes to slavery in the name of morality; he is simply trying to save face.
I’ve chosen these two scenes because they both illustrate the dynamics of race and power which pervade both texts, but these two scenes might not be the first ones that come to your mind as a pair that you can analyse together, and that’s totally fine! I encourage you to find your own scenes to compare because that’s what makes English powerful. If you, as a unique student, can compare two scenes that nobody else has compared, that’s going to give you an extra edge because you’re more likely to say something original.
If you’re interested in finding more unique ways to compare these two texts, I’d recommend LSG’s The 7 Stages of Grieving & The Longest Memory study guide. I know there aren’t many resources out there for this text pairing, so what we’ve done at LSG is work really hard at ensuring that all the information in this study guide will actually be beneficial for you. We’re not here just to make you read more guides - we’ve really thought about what would be meaningful for you as a student learning this pairing. That’s why you’ll see that I’ve used some of the ideas mentioned in this video and turned them into an A+ essay, so you can see exactly how knowing this information translates into your SAC/exam.
There’s a free sample of the study guide you can check out to see if it’s right for you!
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Bombshells and The Penelopiad are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
Bombshells is a collection of six monologues written by Joanna Murray-Smith, each featuring one female character who is symbolic of a specific stage in life and role. Together, they are a telling account of the struggles of being a woman in a modern world, and the monologue format allows the author to emphasise how they are simultaneously unique and universally relatable.
ThePenelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s point of view. The story is narrated first-person by Penelope who resides in the underworld, but is also peppered with spoken, sung or chanted testimonies from the twelve dead maids of the story who act as a Chorus, a traditional part of ancient Greek theatre. Although the story is old and much-retold, the voice is modern and the author’s messages concerning women and their position in the world and their relationship with men are universal, regardless of the historical period.
4. Sample paragraphs
Prompt: How do Bombshells and The Penelopiad emphasise the subtleties of the male-female relationship dynamic?
While the narratives of both Bombshells and The Penelopiad are firmly focused on the female perspective of issues relevant to them, the texts also address the male perspective and role in such issues. Like the women, the men created by the authors have instrumental roles in the way the stories play out, which interestingly are sometimes disproportionate to their actual involvement in the plot.
One of the main differences between the texts, other than the literary format, is the level of dialogue and active participation afforded to the male characters. In The Penelopiad, the male characters arguably largely direct Penelope’s life, from her father essentially selling her into marriage to Odysseus’ life-disrupting departure, return and ‘lies…tricks and… thieving’, not to mention her ‘quite spoiled’ son Telemachus’ will to usurp and disobey his mother. Penelope’s narration gives them large amounts of dialogue and paints them as three-dimensional people in her life, whereas the male characters in Bombshells have barely any dialogue – most of them have none – and yet manage to cause a similar level of turmoil in the female characters. The marriage of Theresa McTerry to her fiancé Ted, for example, sends her into long, capitalised rants heavily punctuated with exclamation marks and profanities; Murray-Smith does not even give Ted a full description. Even without forming the male characters into rich, detailed personas, she still manages to fully showcase the chaos visited upon Theresa by her ill-considered marriage. She draws greater attention to her inner panic and desperation than we see in Penelope, whose voice retains a sense of shocked detachment even when crying or suffering. As such, the differing approaches of the authors both showcase the fact that men can wreak significant havoc with women’s lives, and that we do not actually need to know much about the particulars of the men or their acts to comprehend the women’s suffering.
The approaches of Atwood and Murray-Smith towards the level of engagement of their male characters differ significantly, yet both show the full impact of their actions on the lives of their female counterparts. Even when the men are given only cursory mentions, their presence as an agent of change within the story is sufficient for them to dramatically alter the courses of the characters they consort with.
It’s very hard to look past the overt feminist overtones of both try – even though these are some of the most interesting parts of the texts and you definitely should discuss them, there is more to them than messages about women. Maybe expand your view to more general ideas about human beings, how we live our lives and the ways we react to situations of duress.
Also consider that these texts are in two different formats; how does the live performance of Bombshells change the way it is perceived? How do the different media of these texts support or emphasise the authors’ messages? What can a monologue do better than a book in terms of transmitting an idea and vice versa?
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Tracks and Into The Wild are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
Into the Wild (2007) is a non-linear survival film directed by Sean Penn, which is based on Jon Krauker’s 1996 novel of the same name. It recollects the final few months of the life of Christopher McCandless as he departs from society in both an act of resistance as well as a means of self-discovery. A bright young college student in the 1990s, McCandless abandons his family and affluent lifestyle to embark on a frontier-style journey into the Alaskan wilderness. Troubled by a dysfunctional family and disenchanted with the materialistic excesses of 1980s America, McCandless seeks a radical engagement with nature, in the style of his literary heroes Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. After 113 days in the wilderness, he suffers from starvation and dies. The true story of McCandless’ journey renders the film an important depiction of self-reliance, isolation, and the unparalleled power of nature.
Whilst the film is of a biographical nature, it is important to understand that it is heavily subject to the interpretations and opinions of Penn. The story is informed by McCandless’ writings, and interviews with those who knew him, but is ultimately a work of artistic interpretation. Nonetheless, Penn’s film offers strong commentary regarding the materialistic, consumerist nature of modern living, whilst also ultimately emphasising the more humanistic importance of family and love.
Tracks is Robyn Davidson’s 1980 memoir detailing her perilous journey through 1700 miles of Australian outback and the remarkable character transformations that take place throughout. The events of the story begin in 1973, when a young Robyn Davidson arrives in Alice Springs with an outlandish plan to train wild camels to accompany her through the Australian desert. When, after two years of gruelling training, she receives a sponsorship from National Geographic, her journey can finally go ahead- on the condition that a photographer accompany her and document parts of the journey. This compromise weighs heavily on Robyn, as photographer Rick Smolan intrudes on her solitude and compromises everything the trip means to her. As Robyn delves deeper into the journey, each day brings new discoveries about the camels, the landscape, the people of Australia, and ultimately, her self. Tracks emerges as a candid and compelling story of one woman’s odyssey of discovery and transformation.
Whilst Tracks is mostly a personal account, it also presents a co-existent dichotomy between modernistic libertarianism and conventionalism, which serves as a reflection of the changing political views and ideological turbulence of the time, as Davidson notes ‘you could choose not to participate in politics, but you could not avoid politics’. Thus, in many ways Davidson’s journey can be seen as a firm statement that challenges the inherent sexism, racism, and ‘status quo’, whilst also simultaneously embracing the notion of freedom, independence, and escape from conventionalism and ‘self-indulgent negativity’.
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative. I have used this strategy to create this themes table and throughout my character, views and values, and literary technique analysis.
Both Robyn Davidson and Christopher McCandless are products of the time period in which they live, and reject the concept of adhering to a predetermined notion of who they should be and how they should behave. Both embark on their journey because they reject the expectations of their class and gender.
Women’s rights in 1970s Australia
Tracks is set in the late 1970s, an era of intense social and political change in Australia. The second wave feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s were enormously influential in Australia, as women began to dismantle the sexist structures inherent in Australian society at this time. Davidson describes Alice Springs as hopelessly in the grips of a ‘cult of misogyny’. She rejects the archetype of the passive, docile woman. She is passionately determined to shed her own sense of herself as traditionally “feminine,” a quality she sees as arising from being trained from birth to be “door-mattish”.
Davidson acknowledges her gender has played a central part in the media’s fascination with her journey. The character of the ‘camel lady’ that emerges suggests the significance of her trip, as a woman travelling alone in the 1970s through intensely difficult terrain. Davidson describes the late sixties and early seventies as a time of radical social time, when “anything and everything seemed possible, and when the status quo of the developed world was under radical scrutiny by its youth”. Thus Davidson’s actions must be considered in the context of this time, at the peak of the second wave feminist movement.
There are many explicit examples of Robyn facing misogyny and embodying feminist principles. One such example is when an Alice Springs local suggests she’s the “next town rape case”. This statement reveals the position of a woman in this misogynistic society, wherein a single woman travelling alone through the bush was synonymous with danger and irresponsibility. Davidson rejects this ideology and refuses to succumb to the violent sexism she encounters, or compromise her journey.
Tracks is not an explicitly feminist text, but it clearly echoes the philosophies of feminism. In the years since the trek, Robyn Davidson has become a feminist symbol of defiance, endurance and strength. Thus to consider Tracks from a feminist perspective is important when studying this text, Davidson’s criticisms of Australian misogyny inform our understanding of this historical context, and the significance of her actions.
Some example sentences:
Davidson exposes the realities of misogynistic Australian culture in the 1970s.
Davidson’s journey emerges as a defiant example of women’s strength and independence.
Davidson’s friendship with Gladdy Posel suggests the injustices of women’s financial dependence on abusive men and condemns the limited options for women, particularly for those in rural settings.
Tracks challenges the constraints of gender through a narrator that cannot be defined by stereotypical images of the domestic and passive female.
Indigenous Rights in Australia
The 1970s saw the first attempts to improve the lives and rights of indigenous Australians. In 1971 Indigenous people were counted in the census, and in 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established. Davidson’s time with Mr Eddie exposes her to the harsh reality of the living conditions of Indigenous Australian’s throughout the 1970s, as well as inspiring a deep appreciation for the culture and connection with the land. Davidson is frustrated with the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Australia, and feels ambivalent about her status as a white, privileged, outsider in their community. Davidson confronts the racist and discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes towards Indigenous Australians, and experiences first hand the realities of the issues these people face. Davidson encounters intense generosity and friendship in the Indigenous community that she admires and presents as a stark contrast to the intolerant attitudes of white Australians in Alice Springs.
“The blacks were unequivocally the enemy – dirty, lazy, dangerous”
“Ceremonies are the visible link between Aboriginal people and their land. Once dispossessed of this land, ceremonial life deteriorates, people lose their strength, meaning and identity.” (p. 167)
Some example sentences:
Davidson renegotiates her identity and relationship with the land after learning from the Indigenous Australians.
Davidson condemns the racist attitudes of white Australians towards the aboriginal people.
Davidson embodies the changing attitudes of young Australians towards aboriginal Australians, endorsing a respectful relationship with the traditional land owners.
INTO THE WILD
Social criticism of materialistic excess
While Into the Wild is set in the 1990s, McCandless’ formative years were the 1980s – a decade characterised by the consumerism, extravagance, and materialism of President Reagan’s America. The reverberating effects of this time period inform McCandless’ general outlook and disdain for American society. Whilst this contempt for consumerism is one motivation for McCandless’ actions, he is equally troubled by the family violence and dysfunction he experienced as a young man. This traumatic past informs his extreme actions and outlook.
Penn exposes the effects of materialistic society on young impressionable people.
Penn explores the consequences of experiencing childhood trauma, and how this manifests in adult actions.
Penn condemns the expectations of 21 st century nuclear families.
Penn endorses the liberating power of familial love and relationships.
Depiction of the unparalleled power of nature and man’s inability to contend with it
Inspired by Thoreau and London, Chris seeks enlightenment in the wild. Despite a philosophical understanding of the power of nature, Chris believes he can survive the untamed wilderness of Alaska. Although nature is the locus for self-realisation and growth for Chris, it is also what destroys him. As the viewer watches him slowly deteriorate, we come to fully comprehend the force of nature – suggesting man’s inability to control it.
Some example sentences:
Penn’s depiction of McCandless’ deterioration suggests human’s inability to control nature.
Penn endorses the liberating power of literature, but cautions the idealism contained within romantic depictions of nature.
An important aspect of Into the Wild to consider is that McCandless’ story, while true, is told through Sean Penn’s directorial lens, which is in turn based on Jon Krakeur’s book. The story is informed by McCandless’ writings, and interviews with those who knew him, but is ultimately a work of artistic interpretation. Consider how this affect’s a viewer’s perception of Chris, does this raise questions around representation and identity? This is in direct contrast to Tracks, which is a first person, linear past tense, autobiographical account of the writer’s experience. Where Robyn is completely in control of her narrative, McCandless’ is subject to the artistic interpretation of others.
Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. Robyn repeatedly personifies the animals she encounters. The camels in particular take on their own human personalities in her life. This technique, called anthropomorphism, can be used to complement a discussion of the theme of isolation. Robyn attributes distinct characteristics to each camel, suggesting her need for companionship and the powerful absence of human connection in prolonged periods of isolation.
Davidson’s depiction of her dependence on animals reveals deeper meanings about her inability to depend on, and communicate with, humans in the same way. Robyn’s reliance on her dog, Dookie, becomes more intense as the journey continues. Upon Dookie’s death, both the reader and Robyn experience the dog’s death as a powerful blow.
“I am quite sure Diggity was more than a dog, or rather other than dog. (p. 207)”
“But I said goodbye to a creature I had loved unconditionally, without question. ... I walked out into the morning and felt nothing. I was numb, empty. All I knew was I mustn‟t stop walking. (p. 223) ”
“Diggity had become a cherished friend rather than simply a pet. (p. 227)”
Kate: “remembered humans and hated them”
Zeleika: “had a lovely gentle nature” “the street-smart, crafty, unfazable, self-possessed leader”
Dookie: “nominally king, but if anything untoward happened he was the first to hide behind Zeleika’s skirts”
Goliath: “cheeky, pushy, self-centred, demanding, petulant, arrogant, spoilt and delightful”
Prompt: Discuss the ways in which the environment assists the protagonists in their journey for self-discovery.
Introduction: In forging connections with the environment and people around us, humans end up inadvertently discovering themselves. It is this notion that resonates throughout both Robyn Davidson’s 1970 memoir, Tracks, and Sean Penn’s 2007 film, Into the Wild, where the relationships that the protagonists form throughout their journeys leads to intense self- discovery and growth. Both Davidson and McCandless seek knowledge and guidance through both the individuals they meet and, specifically to McCandless, the books he reads, citing it as a means of grappling with the fundamental stages of self-discovery. Whilst Davidson and McCandless experience different relationships with their immediate family, it is ultimately the concept of family that underpins their motivations and inspires them to pursue their journeys – both physical and psychological. Further, the respective temporal environments in which both protagonists are immersed in emerge as a distinct theme that facilitates each stage of self- discovery in the climatic lead up to the ultimate self-realisation.
Body Paragraph 1: Both Into the Wild and Tracks endorse the guiding power of influential figures on both protagonists, as a catalyst for their growth. Davidson commences her self-described ‘lunatic’ journey with little knowledge of the wild to substantiate her mammoth ambition. That her drive outweighs her preparation manifests in the early moments of the text, wherein Davidson endures a grueling internship with the impulsive ‘maniac’ Kurt Posel. This man appears the epitome of the ‘biased, bigoted, boring and above all, brutal’ man she describes as the stereotypical ‘Aussie male’. Kurt is abusive to both Davidson and his wife, but his eccentric and impulsive ways expose her to the harsh realities of bush living. Ultimately, Kurt’s guidance allows Davidson to gain the fundamental skills she needs to train camels, whose dispositions reflect the erratic nature of Kurt himself. In direct contrast to this tense, exploitative relationship, is Davidson’s nuanced and spiritually rewarding relationship with Mr. Eddie, an aboriginal elder whom she describes as a “sheer pleasure to be with”. Despite an ostensible language barrier, Eddie’s instruction of the Indigenous Arts and Culture leave an impressionable impact on Davidson’s character and personality. By accepting Eddie’s guidance at a pivotal point in her journey, Davidson’s ambivalent sense of self, the overwhelming feeling of being an imposter, is diminished. Davidson becomes more grounded and connected to her environment; the knowledge that she derives from key characters contributes to a distinct conformational change in her personality and thus critically assists her in developing a strong sense of one self. A similar theme resonates in Into the Wild, where Chris McCandless heavily relies upon the guidance of various prominent figures he meets throughout his journey as well as ‘the characters of the books he loved from writers like Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau’ whose words he could and often would ‘summon….to suit any occasion’. The fact that McCandless readily referred to the words of the likes of Tolstoy, London, and Thoreau amidst times of mental angst and challenge, is a significant reflection of not only the quintessential teacher and student relationship he shares with them, but also the level of impact they have had in shaping in the ideological processes that define Chris’s values and sense of oneself. This very idea is furthered by Sean Penn when he depicts Christopher McCandless quoting soviet Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, suggesting that humans ‘ought to call each thing by it’s right name’, following which he acts impulsively and with great haste, engineered with rapid and distorted camera movements. In doing so, Penn illustrates the importance that Chris places upon the words of such idealists to the stage where he acts upon their advice without giving them proper consideration within his literal, temporal context. The protagonists of both Into the Wild and Tracks, both rely upon the knowledge and guidance of individuals, be they physical or via literature, as a means of grappling with their fundamental understanding of the human spirit and in doing so their intricate understanding of themselves.
Body Paragraph 2: Both texts demonstrate a degree of discontentment and resent towards the institutionalized, '20th century convention' of family. Davidson describes the notion of family as “invisible ropes and chains” of guilt, she comments that families lack for the most part, a true sense of love. This sentiment is starkly contrasted with Davidson’s intense engagement with the wild, which she describes in the language of love and connection. “I love you. i love you sky, bird, wind, desert, desert, desert’ proclaims Davidson, as she describes having “no more loved ones to care about” and “no more ties” to bind her to material existence. Davidson laments the distortion of her journey for public consumption, stating “so far people had said that i wanted to commit suicide, that i wanted to do penance for my mother’s death…” this comment is one of the only references to her mother’s suicide, which can be interpreted as a catalyst for her ambivalence about the notion of family. This experience evidently informs Davidsons’s somewhat impenetrable exterior and suggests a deeper complexity to her resistance of 20th century societal expectations. Similarly, Christopher McCandless articulates a powerful contempt for family. McCandless feels impeded in his personal motivations by the familial concepts of ‘graduating college’ and ‘getting a job’ which he describes as “20th century inventions” inextricably linked with “this world of material excess”. McCandless expands on this point, commenting that his pursuit for self-discovery has ultimately resulted in ‘the killing of the false being within’, the ‘false being’ that was bound to the societal expectations and the material conventions of the time. Chris’ departure into the wild is as much of an act of punishment for his family, as it is about Chris discovering true freedom and metaphysical spirituality. It is this idea of ‘telling the world’ of his family’s misdeeds that continually motivates Chris to continue on with his journey, which is depicted by Penn through the countless solo enactments and impersonation of both Chris’ mother and father, often depicting a negative experience which has quite evidently scarred his ‘crystal like’ mind. Family is thus, a primary motivation for both key characters within Tracks and Into the Wild to firstly partake on their journey, but more significantly to discover an uncorrupted, unbiased ‘true’ version of them that had been lost amidst ‘this world of material excess’.
Conclusion: Both Tracks and Into the Wild explore the inextricable link between ones environment and their personal growth. Nature is emphasised as a world removed from the materialistic excess of modern urban life, in which one can engage with an alternative, radical set of values. Both Davidson and McCandless escape from the confinements of their lives and experience profound transformations over the course of their journeys. Thus, both Davidson and Penn comment on the omniscient, multifaceted nature of the environment around a person being instrumental in moulding each stage of the journey of self-discovery and transformation.
*A big shout out to Suraj Hari, 2017 graduate and currently studying Medicine in Tasmania, who is a contributing author of this blog post.
Introduction and Key Themes of Reckoning and The Namesake
Families. Love them or hate them, everybody has a family in some shape or form.
Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning both explore just how complex family dynamics can be. In particular, both texts take an intergenerational approach, which means that they look at how children might struggle to understand their parents’ psyches, and vice versa. They also look at how these struggles can play out into adulthood and throughout the course of one’s life in complicated and poignant ways.
And of course, it gets trickier from there: Lahiri and Szubanski tell the stories of families, yes, but they also tell stories of migration, trauma, and heritage. In both texts, these ideas colour the experiences of the central families and are thus just as crucial for our analysis. Let’s go over the key characters of each text first, before having a closer look at how they compare on each of these themes. In particular, we’ll be going through snapshots of scenes from both texts and comparing what they have to say about these themes.
Characters in Reckoning and The Namesake
Lahiri’s novel revolves around the fictional Ganguli family: Ashima and Ashoke have two children, Sonia and Gogol, the latter of whom is the protagonist. The novel spans over three decades, starting from Gogol’s birth shortly after Ashima and Ashoke’s move to America. By the time it finishes, both Gogol and his younger sister have grown up, and Ashoke has passed away. Thus, this story traces the development of this fictional family over time, illustrating how their relationships with one another change over time.
Szubanski’s memoir, on the other hand, is largely about her own family, including her Scottish mother Margaret and her Polish father Zbigniew. In particular, Reckoning is a family history of her dad’s side, who were living in Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939. There is some exposition of his family, including his parents Jadwiga and Mieczyslaw, his sister Danuta, and her family as well.
Zbigniew would eventually fight as an assassin the Polish resistance, and Reckoning reflects on how that impacted and shaped his relationship with Magda. The memoir is described to be “as much a biography of her father as it is about her.”
In the process, we learn about his migration, moving to Scotland after the war (where he met Margaret), then to England, then to Australia, with Magda their youngest child aged 5. The memoir covers her life from there onwards, including a journey back to Europe to reconnect with the rest of her family.
Themes in Reckoning and The Namesake
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENTandDIVERGENTstrategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative ebook. I use this strategy throughout my discussion of themes below and techniques in the next section.
Family in Reckoning and The Namesake
Evidently, this theme largely underpins the stories of both texts. In particular, The Namesake and Reckoning both show that relationships between family members—whether that be parents, children or siblings—can be really complicated.
Let’s start with The Namesake. Motifs of parenthood and marriage are evident front and centre right from the novel’s get go, as a pregnant Ashima reflects on her life as it stands in 1968. When Gogol is born, his parents’ love for him is also evident: “Ashoke has never seen a more perfect thing.” At the same time, while Ashima is starting to see “pieces of her family in [Gogol’s] face,” her own grandmother is passing away—it’s thus important to remember that parenthood runs both ways (this’ll be important for both texts).
In any case, Ashima struggles with the first few years of parenthood - despite settling into a schedule, she finds herself “despondent” when Gogol begins nursery school. However, she grows accustomed to it in time, making “forays out of the apartment” and settling into some semblance of a routine to keep herself somewhat occupied.
Parenthood isn’t really shown to get any easier though—at his 14th birthday, we see a somewhat awkward exchange between Ashoke and Gogol, now “nearly as tall” as his father. What Ashoke thinks is a nice gift actually sets off a decades-long identity crisis for Gogol regarding his name: “from the little that he knows about Russian writers, it dismays him that his parents chose the weirdest namesake.”
This scene demonstrates how there can be miscommunications between parents and children that make it difficult for them to understand each other. Without explaining his name to his son, Gogol and Ashoke are unable to truly connect; Gogol is annoyed if anything, answering his father “a bit impatiently”. Parents and children may want to understand each other better, but this is evidently not always possible. The consequences of this can often span over years, with Gogol changing his name to Nikhil and training himself to “ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas” once he goes to college.
Still, familial love perseveres over time, though it sometimes shifts and changes along the way. With Gogol and Sonia both grown up, Ashima reflects on the separate lives they now lead, noting that she “must be willing to accept” her “children’s independence”, and her son’s partner Maxine despite her misgivings. Culture also plays a role here, which we will explore more in the next section. However, what is evoked in this passage (near the start of chapter 7) is that parents have their child’s best interests in mind. Indeed, similar themes flow through both texts.
That said, familial love can be harder to see in Reckoning—in particular, Magda’s father is characterised throughout the memoir as emotionally distant to the point of cruelty. When she first learns of the Holocaust, she finds Zbigniew’s “lack of feeling…monstrous.” She doesn’t understand how he can be so detached from the war having lived “right in the centre of it.” She also doesn’t understand why he yearns more than anything to escape that period of his life.
The texts are similar in that both of them illustrate how parents and children often struggle with barriers in communication despite their love for each other. In particular, children may not always understand their parents’ experiences from before they were born, or how those experiences affect them in the present.
It’s not all bad though—love perseveres, and sometimes parents can surprise you. When Magda finally comes out to her parents, their response is generally quite receptive, and her father is perhaps uncharacteristically touching in this scene:
“Whatever his misgivings were he didn’t dwell on them and he never let the come between us. As I was about to leave they both put their arms around me. ‘We love you,’ they said.”
Trauma in Reckoning and The Namesake
Additionally, both texts deal with parent-child relationships that are affected by experiences of trauma that parents attempt to suppress.
In The Namesake, it’s largely Ashoke’s brush with death that jars his world view, to the point where he names Gogol after the author whose book saved his life after his accident. However, because he doesn’t process his trauma or tell Gogol the story, it leads to a gap in understanding that compromises some elements of their relationship.
These themes are more strongly present in Reckoning, where Zbigniew’s experiences in the war shape many of his opinions and attitudes, as well as his approach to parenting. Tennis, for example, becomes a vehicle for him to teach Magda about winning and losing, “never once let[ting Magda] win.” They have a similarly clinical experience with hunting, where Zbigniew “los[es] patience” with Magda for mourning the death of a rabbit.
Correctly, though retrospectively, Magda hypothesises that this came from a need to “prove himself” after the war ended, and to “discharge the pent-up killer energy inside him.” Even though she would only understand this in time, it didn’t change how her father’s trauma shaped her childhood in ways that she couldn’t have understood at the time.
Reckoning also shows that trauma can be intergenerational, or as Magda puts it “passed on genetically.” She discovers that her maternal grandfather Luke lived through the Irish famine, and watched ten of his siblings die of poverty, causing her to wonder about the “gift of [her] Irish inheritance” that was left on her psyche.
What’s worth remembering here is that it isn’t just the fathers who bury traumatic events from their past (surprising, I know). When Magda’s mother slaps her for the first time, it is because Magda repeats one of her own deepest regrets, soiling a dress made to visit their respective fathers in hospital: “I understand now, of course, that it was herself she was slapping.”
So, while it is true in both texts that traumatic memories impact how parents relate to their children, Reckoning is a deeper and broader exploration of intergenerational trauma. In particular, Magda not only looks at her relationship with her parents, but also her parents’ relationship with theirs.
Migration & Heritage in Reckoning and The Namesake
This is the final piece of the puzzle in terms of major themes and how they fit together. With how characters relate to culture and heritage, we also see both texts evince some rich, intergenerational differences.
In The Namesake, there’s a marked cultural schism between Gogol and his parents. Gogol is desperate to escape his ethnicity, and his status as a second-generation migrant means he is well-assimilated into American culture—he wears his shoes in the house, addresses his parents in English, and dresses like an American. He is also comfortable dating American people, feeling “effortlessly incorporated” into Maxine’s family and daily life. On the other hand, Ashima is demonstrated to struggle more with the move, describing it as a “lifelong pregnancy”, a burden that people treat with “pity and respect.” There are ties to other themes here as well—for example Ashima’s homesickness is sharpened by the fact that she is separated from her family, in particular her parents. It also means that she becomes a part of the life from which Gogol is so desperate to escape.
In Reckoning however, this generational gap is reversed. It is Zbignew who yearns to escape his home culture, while Magda desperately wishes to understand her father: “while I was racing backwards towards my Polishness, my father was rushing in the other direction, assimilating at a rate of knots.” Though this is reversed, there are still ties into other themes: intergenerational misunderstandings for instance are perpetuated by their differing stances on migration. Trauma is also relevant, as Zbigniew is trying to escape it, while Magda is simply working towards understanding her father.
Put this way, we can understand how familial relationships can be complicated by migration, trauma, and the different attitudes it can engender.
Reckoning and The Namesake are two texts that explore many similar themes—family, migration, trauma, heritage, identity—over the span of decades. I would probably argue that family is the central theme that grounds many of the others; it shapes the identity of children—migrant children—and brings out traumatic memories in spite of your best efforts to suppress them.
Hopefully, this gives you a good overview of the themes across these two texts, how they fit together, and how they are similar or different. Don’t forget that themes can overlap and intersect, as is often the case here.
Reckoning and The Namesake Essay Prompt Breakdown
The topic draws on two quotes:
“But in the meantime I had been given a great gift—my parents’ unconditional love.” (Reckoning)
“‘Don’t worry,’ his father says. ‘To me and your mother you will never be anyone but Gogol.’” (The Namesake)
And the prompt itself is:
Compare what the two texts suggest about parent-child relationships.
Topics for comparative essays are usually pretty broad, but let’s pull out some key words and questions that the topic and the quotes seem to raise.
The one that stands out the most to me is this idea of ‘unconditional love’. For parents, this usually means they’ll love and support their child no matter what mistakes or choices they make. In the context of Reckoning, this was brought up in terms of Magda’s sexuality, which is neither a mistake nor a choice, but consider how it permeates through the memoir, and how it’s always been there in some of her parents’ thoughts, words and actions. And how might it compare with The Namesake?
The other quote is a little more interesting, in particular the ‘to me and your mother’ bit, which I think complicates the idea of unconditional love. Is love still unconditional if parents define who you are and who you will “never be”? I think what’s implied here is that you want to include some discussion of parental expectations, which is another can of worms. It might include things like how parents want you to behave, what career choices they might want you to make, whether or not they approve of your friends or romantic partners.
Now, let’s dive into a possible plan to tackle a topic like this...
So firstly, let's establish that parent-child relationships are often laden with expectations.
It may not be the obvious example, but Ashima’s family had undoubtedly expected her to marry Ashoke, a PhD student in Boston at the time, as conveyed through “her mother’s salesmanship”. We see this mirrored in the life of Moushumi as well, whose parents orchestrated a “series of unsuccessful schemes” to see her married in her adolescence. Gogol experiences expectations that aren’t all so intentional—while his parents don’t mean him any harm by naming him Gogol, he feels trapped by the name, “always hated it” in fact. Still, his parents are markedly “disappointedly” when he chooses Columbia over MIT, and are “distressed” by his low income while he’s at college.
Szubanski’s parents have somewhat similar expectations in this regard: “the ranks of the second generation are full of doctors and lawyers and professionals.” She felt that “all of the family’s educational hopes rested on [her].”
These examples mightn’t be the most obvious, but they’re effective for making this point, and don’t need too much explanation to tie it into the prompt.
Let’s keep this in mind for our second paragraph: trauma can be passed on intergenerationally through how parents treat their children, and this can bring its own set of expectations as well.
Gogol feels trapped by his name, but it is a result of his father’s traumatic experiences. What Ashoke might not realise is that this has caused Gogol even more distress of his own. This is probably stronger in Reckoning, where Peter’s emotional capacity is compromised as a result of war. When Magda looks through the book filled with pictures of decomposing bodies and feels uneasy, her father’s comment, “don’t be silly, it’s just a picture,” makes her feel ashamed of herself for her “stupidity and weakness”. So, parental expectations can be distorted by their traumatic experiences, which only serves to pass that trauma on.
To conclude, let’s flip this around to look at how children respond to their parents: in both texts, there’s a sense that being able to confront these expectations and memories from the past helps children to synthesise their own identity and move forward in their own lives.
In The Namesake, Gogol only reads The Overcoat after his father dies, in fact saving it from a box that was about to be donated, “destined to disappear from his life altogether.” The novel ends here, which could represent that he is able to move into a new phase of his life only after having grappled with this one. Szubanski’s pilgrimage back to Poland and Ireland come from similar desires to better understand her parents. She “wondered if Europe might provide the sense of home [she] craved” particularly given her father’s desire to never look back at his traumatic past there.
I think the bottom line is that parent-child relationships are already complex, and can be further complicated by a number of factors. Still, it’s up to children to grapple with the burden of expectations, and to forge our own path forward from there.
To understand the works of Franklin and Ziegler, we are going to take a look at the historical contexts in which the texts were written. By doing this, we’ll establish a proper understanding of some of the language and concepts that you might have experienced in class. The three specific historical contexts that we will address are life in 1950s London, uncovering the enigma of DNA as well as 19th-century rural life in Australia. As you continue to read this study guide, you may wish to refer back to this section if you find some of the terminologies and references confusing!
Life in 1950s London (Photograph 51)
Photograph 51 is set during the 1950s in London. This was a challenging time for everyone, largely due to Britain’s impaired economy after the war, as well as the financial obligations of the nation to the United States. An iconic local feature of this time was the fact that the government encouraged everyone in the nation to grow food for themselves and their communities. Everywhere you looked, land was being used to farm crops! Indeed, people would grow food everywhere that they could because government rations were strictly enforced and the 1950s was a decade marked by the struggle for parents to find enough food for themselves and their children. This was a difficult situation in which to live and work. However, in this time after the Second World War, Britain experienced changes on a scale never experienced by the country before. The war had cost Britain its status as a nation of monumental power, and in the 1950s the nation was looking to rebuild itself. This was a period of enthusiasm and optimism, in which many technological and scientific developments were made. Computers became more sophisticated, and humanity deeply desired to explore the workings of the world.
Nonetheless, during this time of hope and progress, women were remarkably undervalued, and female professionals were often treated with contempt. We are provided with a snapshot of what this looked like in Photograph 51. As a Jewish woman in the 1950s, Rosalind Franklin is depicted as a target for prejudice in the world around her. For example, she is not permitted to dine with her male colleagues at lunch, which renders her unable to engage in meaningful conversations with her colleagues and debate about their research and ideas. Additionally, despite the fact that she is just as qualified as Wilkins, he continually ignores her qualifications and achievements. We see this as he refers to her with the patronising nickname ‘Rosy’, which underscores the reality that he sees her as inferior to him. It is evident that the professional world was a challenging place for women and minorities during the 1950s in London. However, Rosalind Franklin was willing to persist with her important scientific work in this formidable social setting.
19th Century Rural Life in Australia (My Brilliant Career)
My Brilliant Career was published in 1901. This was the year when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed, as the colonies of Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales united as one nation. The text is set in areas around Goulburn in Australia in the 1890s, which is around 195 kilometres - or a two-hour drive - in the South-West direction of Sydney. To put it bluntly: Australia was a challenging place to live in in the 1890s. Take a moment to consider the harsh realities of life in this time and place. During this time, most of Australia was a rural environment and this was an era in which Australians were confronted with drought, economic hardships and high unemployment rates. Indeed, the period of prosperity during the 1850s gold rush was, unfortunately, coming to a close, international investment in Australia was devastatingly declining and the price of wool and wheat was dropping at a dangerous pace. The dire economic situation was certainly not helped by the long drought, which created a distressing situation for the agricultural industry. As we see in the text, Sybylla’s father is a dairy farmer, and her family lived through this unbearable summer heat, the harsh drought and the pain caused by dying livestock. Miles Franklin convincingly uses Sybylla and her family to illustrate the extent to which the adversity of the time had an impact on everyone and the fact that nobody could escape it.
During this period, many women had to take up jobs to support their families, due to the turbulent economic times. Having said that, this was a challenging environment for a woman to pursue a career. Marriage was seen as the only appropriate venture for a woman, and women were expected to marry as soon as they were able to. It was basically unthinkable for a woman to work and pursue a career unless she was working while she waited to be able to depend upon a husband for support. Those who chose not to marry were treated poorly by the world around them. In particular, women could be traded and bartered as labour, and we see when Sylblla becomes a governess to repay her family’s debt.
During this challenging time, it was becoming increasingly common for young women in Australia to publish books, with Miles Franklin being one of them. Nevertheless, Miles Franklin - officially born Stella Franklin - ensured that ‘Miss’ was excluded from her name on the cover of her text. Presumably, she did not want her readers to assume that My Brilliant Career was written by a woman, as this may have harmed sales. Despite this, it is undeniable that social perspectives surrounding gender roles were gradually shifting towards permitting women greater rights within society. For instance, women were eventually granted the right to vote in federal elections in Australia when the Franchise Act was passed in 1902. We see such a progressive attitude represented in the text through Sybylla. Despite the social expectations placed upon her, Sybylla has aspirations for her future. As part of her aspirations, she must choose between the traditional route of marriage to Harry Beecham or her plans to pursue a career. Through this, we see that Miles Franklin welcomes the potentiality for increased social freedom for women to pursue meaningful occupations. In defiance of what society expected of her, she wanted to do something with her life and have a meaningful career! Much like many women of the day in rural Australia, pursuing such a path was no easy task and she faced much opposition.
2. Plot Summaries
We’re now going to take a quick look at the plots of My Brilliant Career and Photograph 51. However, I cannot overemphasise the importance of setting aside the time to read these texts in detail and annotate them for yourself. You may wish to use these summaries to refresh your memory about the plot, or to stay on track if you get lost or confused while you read! We’ll provide you with a general overview of what happens, with a particular focus on the key events in each text.
Summary: My Brilliant Career
My Brilliant Career is an Australian literary classic by Stella 'Miles' Franklin which is set in rural New South Wales in the late nineteenth century. The story is presented in an autobiographical format and depicts the life and travels of Sybylla Melvyn and her family. The novel is written in a fairly free-flowing format, which Sybylla unapologetically explains is the result of her life being unstructured and lacking a plot. At times you may be frustrated with Sybylla’s pessimism and cynicism. At other times, you may hold back tears as you reflect on the adverse circumstances she faces as she pursues her goals and strives to find purpose in her life.
The novel commences with Sybylla and her family living in Bruggabong. Sybylla is content with her life here, with the freedom to roam around and ride horses as she pleases. However, as the first chapter comes to a close, we are told that Sybylla’s father, Dick Melvyn, intends to sell his stations and move his family to Possum Gully. He hopes that Possum Gully will present him with greater financial opportunities through trading farm animals. Sybylla is frustrated by the move and perceives her family’s new home as boring and monotonous. At the same time, life is hard for her mother, who becomes increasingly critical of Sybylla who seems to be developing into a rebellious child. Dick inflicts a great deal of pain upon his family, as he spends too much time in town, loses money with every sale and becomes an alcoholic. The drought certainly doesn’t simplify matters, with the scorching heat taking a toll on Sybylla, her family and their animals.
Eventually, we learn that Sybylla’s grandmother has decided to take Sybylla to live with her in Caddagat. Sybylla enthusiastically agrees and celebrates the opportunity to experience life in a different location away from the difficulties of Possum Gully. Whilst in Caddagat, she lives with Grandma Bosser, Aunt Helen and Uncle Jay-Jay. During her time there, several men approach Sybylla with an interest in marrying her. The first is Everard Grey, a wealthy lawyer from Sydney with a keen interest in the performing arts. She is denied the opportunity to travel with him and he neglects her upon hearing this news. Frank Hawden, a farmhand to the family, is attracted to Sybylla, but she sharply rejects him due to his unsophisticated demeanour. Finally, she meets Harold Beecham of Five-Bob Downs. They enjoy spending time together and he brings out Sybylla’s playful side. They eventually become engaged. However, Sybylla never intends to marry him and only agrees to the engagement on the condition that it is kept a secret between the two of them. She shares to her audience that she intends to break off the engagement as a means of stirring up and confronting Harold. Eventually, Harold is forced to leave Five-Bob Downs due to his financial misfortune resulting in the loss of his property. However, he and Sybylla agree to maintain their engagement and commit to marrying after a few years. Having said that, Sybylla never really has any intention of marrying Harold, for she views marriage as restrictive and unnecessary controlling of her freedom to pursue her own life.
Shortly after Harold’s departure, Sybylla is confronted with the news that her father’s debt to Peter M’Swat means that she will be required to travel to Barney’s Gap to work as a governess for the M’Swat children. It would be an understatement to say that Sybylla is dissatisfied with this new state of affairs! She absolutely hates working for the M’Swat family! She finds that the house is filthy, the children are disobedient and she has very minimal personal space. All she wants is to go back and live with Grandma Bossier and Aunt Helen. However, her mother denies her this privilege, for she must repay her father’s debt. The experience at Barney’s Gap becomes so bad for her that she develops an illness due to the emotional strain that she experiences. Accordingly, Mr. M’Swat sends her back home to Possum Gully to be with her family.
Sybylla hardly receives a warm welcome from her parents. Her mother continually treats her as ungrateful, and her father’s drinking has had a significant impact on his demeanour. Her younger sister, Gertie, is sent off to live in Caddagat, and Sybylla feels as if Grandma Bossier, Aunt Helen and Uncle Jay-Jay have forgotten about her. To make matters worse, she feels as if Harold Beecham, who has been unable to return to Five-Bob Downs, is falling in love with Gertie. Eventually, Harold travels to Possum Gully. Sybylla is expecting her to ask Dick for permission to marry Gertie. But to her surprise, he actually intends to ask Sybyllla if she will marry him, even though she made it clear through her letters that she had no intention of doing so. For fear of hurting him and due to her view of marriage as restrictive, she rejects Harold again and sends him on his way.
And that’s basically the story! Sybylla concludes with some reflections on her position and purpose in life. She sees her purpose as completing the monotonous tasks that nobody wants to complete and she is thankful for the opportunity to earn her living through hard labour. Overall, we know that her ambition was to become an author, and this book is her final product as she writes about her various experiences.
Summary: Photograph 51
Photograph 51 is a play by Anna Ziegler which tells the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. The title takes its name from the photograph taken by Raymond Gosling and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College in 1952. The play has been constructed by Ziegler with a bit of artistic license, and she herself admits that she has modified timelines, altered facts and events, and recreated characters. If we take a step back and look at the big picture, we have a great representation of events that makes some bold statements about injustice within the scientific community and society at large.
It is important to mention that this play is full of characters who break the fourth wall - a performance convention in which we usually imagine that there is a wall that separates characters from the audience when we watch a television show, movie or play. Ziegler has deliberately constructed this play in a manner where the characters that feature in the play provide commentary on the events to the audience. And this is how we start, with Rosalind directly speaking to the audience alongside Wilkins, Watson, Crick, Caspar and Gosling. Rosalind shares that the play will be about ‘powerful’ scientists accomplishing incredible feats. Shortly after this, our story begins (with frequent interruptions from the male scientists who want to bicker with each other and give their own commentary on the events).
Rosalind arrives at King’s College in London to work in the field of genetics. However, much to her surprise and dissatisfaction, she is told that she will be working on uncovering the structure of DNA. She also learns that she will be working with a doctoral student, Gosling, under the direction of Wilkins. Wilkins and Rosalind clearly don’t get along, and they are often fighting about something! Meanwhile, Gosling is clearly lower in the chain of hierarchy and awkwardly tries to have a say in matters.
Now, pay attention to this part, because it will be important for the end. Shortly after her arrival at King’s College, Rosalind goes to see a production of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Ziegler doesn’t get into the details, but basically, this play features King Leontes and Hermione, his wife. Leontes murders Hermione upon suspecting her of unfaithfulness. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is able to pray Hermione back to life! Why is this significant to Photograph 51? Just remember for now that Rosalind can’t seem to remember who played Hermione in the London production, whilst she can recall who played Leontes. We may say that this represents the misogyny that Rosalind has internalised after facing a life of sexism from the world around her.
As Rosalind and Gosling work closely on taking photographs of DNA, Gosling urges her to go home and rest on several occasions. She refuses, as she wants to persist in her work! He also pleads with her to be careful around the beam, but she is reluctant to listen. It is clear that she disregards her health and well-being because she is fixated on the task at hand.
We are introduced to two other scientists, Watson and Crick, who are also competing in the race to discover the structure of DNA. Another character, Caspar, is introduced around this time. He’s a PhD student who is captivated by Rosalind’s work and writes to her for assistance with his research. He eventually finishes his PhD and obtains a fellowship at King’s College where he develops a close relationship with Rosalind.
Over the course of the play, Wilkins works progressively closer with Watson and Crick, and eventually shares Rosalind’s Photograph 51 with them. This image, having been captured and developed by Rosalind and Gosling, was crucial to their discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick are also able to access Rosalind’s unpublished paper which details all of her findings.
Rosalind and Caspar are having dinner together and Rosalind admits to the audience that she has feelings for Caspar. However, she does not share this information with him. During this time, Rosalind has some pain in her stomach and it is revealed that she has cancer, with two tumours in her ovaries. It is likely that this came about due to her close work with X-rays. She becomes very sick and eventually dies at the age of thirty-seven.
We are informed that Watson, Crick and Wilkins all receive the Nobel prize for their work on uncovering the structure of DNA. Meanwhile, Rosalind receives no credit, even though her research was what helped them with their breakthrough.
In the final moments of the play, Rosalind and Wilkins talk about The Winter’s Tale. Wilkins shares that he saw her entering the theatre on the day when she saw the play, but he decided not to enter with her. He regrets this and it is clear that he has lived a life full of regret. Wilkins wishes he could bring Rosalind back to life, just as Leontes does with Hermione in Shakespeare’s play. However, he regrets that this is not possible and must carry on his life with guilt and regret for the decisions he has made and the way that he has treated Rosalind.
3. Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas
Through discussing themes, motifs and key ideas, we’ll gain a clearer understanding of some super important ideas to bring out in your essays. Remember that, when it comes to themes, there’s a whole host of ways you can express your ideas - but this is what I’d suggest as the most impressive method to blow away the VCAA examiners. We’ll be adhering to the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy. While this study guide doesn’t go into too much detail about using LSG’s CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy, I’d highly recommend you familiarise yourself with it by reading LSG'sHow To Write A Killer Comparative.
Within Photograph 51 and My Brilliant Career, we are presented with characters with profound ambitions to overcome adverse circumstances. Indeed, both texts featured major and minor characters, who yearn to overcome their circumstances and make the most of their unfortunate situations. At the conclusion of My Brilliant Career, Sybylla questions the nature of 'vain ambition'. She reflects on the inevitability of death, and that all will die, regardless of one’s status as a 'king or slave'. Ultimately, Sybylla wants to be 'true' to herself, and in striving to do so, she finds contentment. Likewise, Rosalind is satisfied with 'painstakingly' trying to accomplish success by discovering the truth in her work. She is highly diligent, for she wants to discover the truth, and she will not permit herself to make a mistake. In doing so, she '[pays] attention to every detail'. However, as part of this, Watson and Crick are able to take advantage of her, and ultimately achieve success at her expense.
Rather insightfully, Caspar reflects that 'the things we want but can’t have are probably the things that define us'. This reflects the reality for characters across both texts. In particular, Rosalind has a deep 'yearning' for various things throughout Photograph 51. This is not strictly for success in her research, for she admits that she yearns for friendships, peace, to be able to sleep well at night and for a deeper relationship with Caspar. Rosalind works diligently with her research, admitting that she doesn’t believe in 'laziness'. She regularly stays up all night, which likely contributes to her significant health complications. At the same time, this has an impact on her ability to form meaningful relationships with the people around her. Ultimately, she is not able to attain any of her aspirations, for her life is cut short by her unfortunate death. Likewise, Crick acknowledges that his ambitions in the scientific community have negatively impacted his relationship with his wife. Whilst he may have started out with the desire to 'support [his] family, to do science, to make some small difference in the world', it is clear that he became overwhelmed with his desire for success, and this has cost him dearly.
One of the most significant characters with aspirations in My Brilliant Career is Dick Melvyn. He clearly possesses great ambition at the beginning of the text, which motivates him to move his family from Bruggabrong to Possum Gully. However, this ambition for financial prosperity turns him into a man who is 'a slave of drink', as well as someone who is overall 'careless' and 'bedraggled in his personal appearance'. Indeed, his ambition has taken a challenging toll on him and the life of his family. Unlike Dick Melvyn, who has been harshly impacted by his ambition for success, the M’Swat family seem to be genuinely supportive of their children, and others outside of their family. This is evident in their care for the Melvyn family in their time of financial need. It is evident that a desire for success and 'the possession of money' does not necessarily lead to ruin.
The leading characters in My Brilliant Career and Photograph 51 differ in the extent to which they display selflessness as they approach life. Whilst Sybylla’s perception of her circumstances may not be entirely accurate, we can see that she approaches her despairing circumstances with ultimate altruism that leads her to neglect her own desires and focus on how she can be useful in serving the needs of others. At the conclusion of the text, Sybylla sees that she is most suited to 'wait about common public-houses to look after [her] father when he is inebriated'. She seems to be content to submit to her circumstances in order to look after the needs of her family. In contrast, Rosalind seems to be limited in her capacity to discern the needs of others, and the fact that others also require resources to complete their work. This is highlighted when Wilkins complains that 'she’s keeping [him] from [his] work'. Indeed, she seems to hoard 'all the best equipment'. Whilst Wilkins may be exaggerating the extent of the situation, this still highlights Rosalind's uncharitable approach to her work.
At the heart of these differences are the contrasting worldviews of the leading characters, and the way in which they each find meaning in life. Rosalind ultimately views society as opposed to her, and her response to this is to stand her ground tenaciously. She finds meaning in persevering and avoiding mistakes at all costs. In this approach to her world, she is able to justify her occasional cruel treatment of the men around her. On the other hand, Sybylla finds purpose in being able to fulfil a functioning role in the society around her. By the time the novel reaches its conclusion, she has essentially given up fighting for any of her own interests and seems to be content in serving the needs of those around her. This is evident when she rejects Harold for the final time. She notes that Harold is like a ' child pleading for a dangerous toy', and that '[her] refusal was for his good'. In doing so, she demonstrates selflessness, for she genuinely believes that she is acting in Harold’s best interest. The key contrast between Rosalind rejecting the assistance of Wilkins and Sybylla refusing to marry Harold is that Rosalind isolates herself and rejects others because she sees other people as unreliable, and sees that she will 'work best' if she works 'alone', whereas Sybylla rejects Harold for she believes she is acting for his good.
4. Sample Essay Breakdown
As with all our essay topic breakdowns, we'll follow LSG's THINK and EXECUTE strategy, as taught in our How To Write A Killer Text Response study guide. The LSG's THINK and EXECUTE strategy follows three steps in the THINK phase:
Analyse Brainstorm Create a Plan
Learn more about this technique in this video:
Step 1: Analyse
This ‘discuss’ topic prompts us to evaluate the topic in light of My Brilliant Career and Photograph 51 and reach a conclusion. This is also a theme-based topic, relating to perception and self-awareness. Accordingly, it would be wise to ‘discuss’ how key themes CONVERGE and DIVERGE across our texts. With our given theme, we will need to consider what we mean by ‘perception’, how it occurs in both texts, and the conclusions we can draw from this that will feature in our analysis.
Step 2: Brainstorm
In order to address this topic, we need to consider the notion of perception and how this connects with self-awareness. Crucially, the topic prompts us to consider where characters think they have perceived their situation accurately, when in reality they have actually accepted a form of illusion or false perception. We want to broadly consider where this occurs, which will enable us to group characters together later on. We also want to address the reality that something usually occurs to cause a person to realise that they have been perceiving their reality incorrectly.
Step 3: Create a Plan
We will approach this topic with a chronological structure. This means that we are going to broadly consider 1) the behaviour of characters with a false perception of reality, 2) the nature of crises that cause someone to confront their perception of their world, and 3) how characters respond to such crises.
As we think of examples to include in each of our paragraphs, we need to also be considering CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT points of comparison. We can base these around the themes from the Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas section of LSG's Photograph 51 & My Brilliant Career study guide.
Paragraph 1: Living with a false perception of reality
At this point, we should discuss the CONVERGENT ideas analysed in the Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas section of LSG's Photograph 51 & My Brilliant Career study guide. We should make sure that we focus on Sybylla and Rosalind at the beginning of their respective texts. In particular, we can focus on the naivety of Sybylla and how this connects to her as an unreliable narrator, as well as how Rosalind’s steadfast determination causes her to lose sight of reality.
On top of this, we also want to draw connections between the themes and the minor characters of the texts. We mustn’t limit our discussion to one that centres solely around Sybylla and Rosalind, so we’ll take a look at Harold’s relationship with Sybylla, as well as Watson and Crick’s publication of false data.
Paragraph 2: Crises that confront a false perception of reality
Now we want to focus on the ‘middle’ sections of each of our texts. Take note: ‘middle’ doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly halfway through the book. However, it should be around the point where there is a significant turn of events. My Brilliant Career actually has a few of these, but we’ll focus on Sybylla having to travel to Barney’s Gap. In Photograph 51, we’ll discuss Rosalind’s discovery of her cancer diagnosis.
As we trace our secondary characters, we’ll look at Harold’s financial troubles, as well as Watson and Crick’s ridicule due to their flawed model.
Paragraph 3: Responding to crises and evaluating a false perception of reality
As we conclude our essay, we want to discuss the impacts of the crises on our characters. For Sybylla, we’ll talk about how she continues in her naivety. However, the crisis does prompt Sybylla to evaluate some of her values. For Rosalind, she doesn’t really change her ways, however, it does give her more urgency. These are some of the DIVERGENT ideas that will feature in our discussion. We also need to address Watson and Crick, who end up taking an even more cunning approach to their work, which results in them achieving international recognition for their research.
Want to see the the fully written and annotated version of the essay we've just planned here? Check our A Killer Comparative Guide: Photograph 51 & My Brilliant Career. Not only can you find the full version of this essay, there are also 4 other (5 in total) full, A+ essays fully annotated, as well as more themes, analysed quotes, exploration of different interpretations and lenses and more!!
Just when you thought you had finally become accustomed to the complicated art of essay writing, VCE decides to throw you a curveball in the form of a reading and comparing essay that addresses not just one, but two texts. Being introduced to a comparative essay for the first time, it is not surprising that many students encounter difficulties in structuring their writing. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
(An accurate representation of the common VCE English student attempting to write a comparative essay)
Luckily, there are quite a few tips and tricks out there that will help you on the journey to a well-structured essay!
What is reading and comparing?
This area of study relates to comparing and contrasting two texts in order to unearth the common themes, ideas, motifs and issues explored. By drawing upon similarities and differences, we are enabled to gain a more profound comprehension of both texts. However, aside from merely comparing what is presented on the surface of a text, (symbols, characters, motifs, themes etc) it is also imperative that you delve a little deeper. Some questions you might want to ask yourself as you are planning a comparative essay are:
- What message are the authors trying to convey?
- What is the significance of symbols, themes, characterisation and motifs in relation to the texts as a whole?
- What was the setting/context in which the authors wrote their texts?
- Why did the authors choose to write about a specific setting/context? Were they directly involved in the social/political issues explored in the texts themselves?
- What are the main similarities and differences and how can I link them together?
Congratulations! Once you have thoughtfully considered these questions, you are one step closer to piecing together your essay!
Because there's such an emphasis on drawing insightful text connections in this area of study, in the LSG Comparative study guide we show you how to use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to identify unique points of comparison. In the study guide, which has been written by 45+ study scorers, we also explain how to strengthen your comparative discussion through Advanced Essay Paragraph Structures which truly showcase the power of the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy. I don't discuss the strategy in detail here, but you can check it out in How To Write Killer Comparative.
How to structure your essay
Since the purpose of this task is to evaluate the similarities and differences between two texts, (unless you’ve royally misinterpreted the nature of reading and comparing!) your body paragraphs will need to address both text A and text B. As with all exceptional VCE essays, I would stress that you DO NOT disregard the significance of beginning your essay with an introduction that neatly and briefly outlines your arguments in relation to the essay topic. You SHOULD also have a conclusion to close your essay, which functions as a summary to the ideas you have conveyed in your body paragraphs.
Although there are a few ways in which to structure a comparative essay, with students generally opting for whichever approach works best for them, I will focus upon two different methods, which I find to be the easiest and most concise.
You can choose to address one text per paragraph and alternate between them, for example:
BP1: Text A (theme/idea 1)
BP2: Text B (theme/idea 1)
BP3: Text A (theme/idea 2)
BP4: Text B (theme/idea 2)
As you can see from the structure above, you would need to refer in your first two paragraphs to a common theme or idea prevalent in both texts, comparing how the texts explore such ideas and drawing upon any similarities or differences, before repeating this pattern in the next two paragraphs. In this structure, it is easiest to solely focus upon text A in body paragraph one and then in body paragraph two to put most of the attention on text B, whilst also comparing it to the elements of text A examined in paragraph 1.
- Easy for the assessor to recognise which text is being discussed since this is a very straightforward structure
- Whilst writing the essay, you won’t be confused about which text you are focusing on in each paragraph
- Limited capacity to go in depth when comparing and contrasting the texts, which may lead the assessor to believe you haven’t really grasped the core concepts of either text
This approach is a bit more complicated than the first and will definitely take practice, patience and perseverance to master.
BP1: Text A and Text B (theme/idea 1)
BP2: Text A and Text B (theme/idea 2)
BP3: Text A and Text B (theme/idea 3)
In the body paragraphs of this structure, the writer will constantly alternate between the texts and a good essay of this form will make it clear which text is being referred to, even if the discussion constantly changes from text A to text B. Within each paragraph, the writer will consistently use comparative language to contrast both texts. Typically, each paragraph will place emphasis on a different theme or idea.
- This is a more sophisticated structure than the former; if it is done well, it will highlight to the assessor that you are able to utilise complex structures in a concise way that goes into minute detail when comparing the texts
- Capacity to implement more comparative language
- As you are writing an essay of this form, you might momentarily become sidetracked and confused as you will be constantly changing between referring to text A and text B, thus, it is easier for your ideas to become convoluted, rendering it difficult for the assessor to follow your line of thought.
For more information on essay structures, watch this video:
A key component of structure is not just the layout, but also your choice of vocabulary. Assessors will be looking for key words that prove you are not merely discussing the texts separately in relation to the prompt, but that you are actually able to compare the texts. Some useful terms and expressions include:
These texts are dissimilar in that…
These texts are not dissimilar in that…
On the contrary…
Text A contrasts text B as…
On the other hand…
In a similar fashion to text A, text B…
However, this text takes a different approach…
(This text) parallels/mirrors (the other text) in the sense that…
These texts are alike in the respect that…
Both texts are related as they…
Finally, you have completed that tedious reading and comparing response and I strongly believe that that deserves a sweet treat and a pat on the back.
Although it may have been super challenging, I can assure you that as with everything, the more you practice, the easier it becomes! Consistency is key!
Ransom and Invictus are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film ‘Invictus’ centers on the events following the election of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black President in the post-apartheid era. The film follows President Mandela’s attempt to infuse a deeply divided country with new energy, by supporting the South African rugby team’s victorious 1995 World Cup Campaign. The unlikely bond formed between President Mandela and Francois Pienarr, the captain of the rugby team, illustrates themes of unity and reconciliation in a divided nation. The film begins with the image of a deeply divided society in 1990, as Mandela is released from 27 years of incarceration. A poignant opening scene sees Mandela drive along a long dirt road that runs between two playing fields, on one side, young black children shout excitedly as Mandela passes. On the other side, immaculately dressed white boys stare vacantly, as their coach proclaims, “This is the day our country went to the dogs.” This tumultuous period in South African history is of central concern to ‘Invictus’, as Eastwood portrays the lingering racial prejudices imbedded in this society. The film portrays the tension between the bitter resentment of black South Africans towards their former oppressors, with the fear and uncertainty of white Afrikaners under Mandela’s political leadership. Eastwood masterfully depicts the true story of the moment when Nelson Mandela harnessed the power of sports to unite a deeply divided South Africa.
Set during the Trojan War, one of the most famous events in Greek mythology, David Malouf’s historical fiction ‘Ransom’ seeks to explore the overwhelming destruction caused by war, and the immense power of reconciliation. Drawing on the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer, Malouf focuses on the events of one day and night, in which King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy Greek encampment to plead with the warrior Achilles to release the body of his son, Hector. Maddened by grief at the murder of his friend Patroclus, Achilles desecrates the body of Hector as revenge. Despite Achilles refusal to give up Hector’s body, Priam is convinced there must be a way of reclaiming the body – of pitting new ways against the old, and forcing the hand of fate. Malouf’s fable reflects the epic themes of the Trojan war, as fatherhood, love, grief and pride are expertly recast for our times.
Malouf and Eastwood both depict societies on the brink: Troy faces annihilation by the Greeks, while South Africa faces an uncertain future as it emerges from the injustices of the apartheid era, both worlds are in dire need of true heroes to bridge the great divide. Together, these two texts echo the significance of hope in the enactment of change. To learn more, head over to our full Ransom Study Guide (covers themes, characters, chapter summaries, quotes and more).
The power of shared human experiences
Both texts are centrally concerned with the significance of the universal experiences of love, loss, grief and hope to unite a divided people. Both Invictus and Ransom explore how societal forces divide people into different, often conflicting groups – whether this be race, history, culture, or war. Each text appeals to the universal experiences that define the human condition, and emphasise the significance of opportunities to cross-cultural divides.
In ‘Ransom’, Malouf is centrally concerned with the theme of fatherhood. This concept links the mortal and godly realms, which King Priam straddles over the course of his journey. The relationship between Priam and Somax illustrates this complex theme most clearly. The two men, despite being deeply separated by their class, education and power, share their common familial experiences. Priam confronts the poignancy of their shared experience of losing sons, questioning whether it “meant the same for him as it did for the driver”. Malouf thus presents Priam as initially lacking in terms of his understanding, Somax’s friendship and stories are the catalyst for Priam to engage in deeper, empathetic understanding. Somax’s trivial yet symbolically significant story about the griddle-cakes represents a moment of anagnorisis for Priam, wherein the shared bond of humanity in fatherhood allows Priam to obtain insight, and progressively grow as a human and as a leader. This incident fuels the journey to appeal to Achilles “man to man”, Priam’s insight into the power of empathy allows him to appeal to their shared bond as suffering fathers.
Just as Priam goes to Achilles “as a father”, using their common quality, fatherhood, to further understand each other, Mandela, too, emphasises the point that you must “know [your] enemy before [you] c[an] prevail against him” and thus he “learned their language, read their books, their poetry”. Mandela attempts to unite Black and white South Africans, despite the mutual animosity and distrust fostered by decades of apartheid. Black and White South Africans share almost nothing in common, with significant cultural and societal barriers to their reconciliation, including different dialects. Rugby emerges as the most poignant manifestation of this divide as the White South Africans support their national team, but the black south Africans barrack for the opposing side. The scene wherein Pienarr and Mandela meet over tea is symbolic of this sentiment of fostering unity amongst deep divisions. President Mandela literally hunches over to pour the tea for Pienaar, this inversion of status demonstrates his willingness to reduce his dignity as a superior and speak with Pienarr, and by extension, white south Africans, on an equal level, modelling an example of how race relations in his nation should be carried out. This equality is also symbolised by the passing of the tea to Pienaar, the close up shot where both arms of the individuals are depicted on an equal level reinforces this sense of mutual equality and respect, extolling the virtues of empathy and integrity as a uniting force.
Leadership and Sacrifice
Mandela and Priam symbolise how leadership must inevitably entail familial sacrifices. Both leaders self-identify with their nation and people. Priam embodies Troy itself, his body is the ‘living map’ of the kingdom. The ‘royal sphere’ he embodies is constrained by customs and tradition, full of symbolic acts that separate him from the mortal world. To an extent, these royal obligations and ritual suffocate Priam’s individuality and he is unable to show his true nature, or connect with his family in the way he would desire to. He regards intimate relationships with his children as “women’s talk” that “unnerves him” as it is not “his sphere”. This articulation of the disassociation of the “royal sphere” with natural human bonds of family reveals the secondary role that family and love must take when one’s role as a leader is paramount. Similarly, Mandela claims “I have a very big family. Forty-two million people”. Unlike Priam, Mandela seeks human connection, predicating his leadership on democratic ideals. This takes a physical and emotional toll, as shown by Mandela’s collapse in his driveway. The cost of leadership here is evident, as Mandela has effectively sacrificed his family for the good of his nation. His strained relationship with his daughter Zindzi further reinforces this, as she disapproves of Mandela reaching out to Pienarr, likening him to one of the white “policeman who forced (her) out of her home”, showing the disconnect between father and daughter due to the sacrifices necessitated by Mandela’s life of leadership, including his 27 year imprisonment.
Fatherhood and Masculinity
In ‘Ransom’ Malouf presents an enclosed, limited and unemotional masculine world, with particularly stringent expectations for men’s behaviour. This is a world characterised by war, wherein the expectations of violent masculinity are paramount. In presenting Achilles inside of “a membrane stretched to a fine transparency”, Malouf reveals the constant tension between the emotional, domestic human nature inside Achilles and the hierarchical violent external society that he is expected to abide by, revealing the constricting nature that the society has on defining men’s actions. Malouf uses words like “knotted” and “rope-like” when describing Achilles’ muscles, implying that his conventional great strength, the source of his fearsome reputation, represents a confinement that the society enforces on him and other men. Further, through a degree of compassion, Priam is able to touch the “sore spot whose ache he has long repressed” in Achilles, a symbol of the emotions that have been supressed by the dominant patriarchal nature of this society.
Whilst the world of ‘Invictus’ is less overtly masculine and patriarchal, the narrative of the film is primarily focused on the male experiences, with female characters assuming a largely secondary role. Zindzi’s strained relationship with her father exemplifies the sacrifices involved in leadership. Whilst Mandela is seen to have sacrificed a close connection with his daughter, this is suggested to be in service of the nation, “I have a big family. Forty two million people”.
Character analysis and comparison
- aging king of troy
- individuality has been subsumed by the ceremonial functions of his high position
- self-identifies with nation
- life of obligation
- foregoes convention and embraces chance with his proposal to offer ransom for his son’s body
- becomes more attuned to the natural world
- gains a greater appreciation of his true self as a man, rather than a symbolic figurehead
- historic figure, symbol of peace
- spent 27 years in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government while he was trying to gain civil rights for all south Africans
- tackled institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality
- suffered under apartheid
- pursues reconciliation, prepared to face down calls for retribution
- in his speech to the sports council, he defends the traditions of the people who persecuted him
- interacts easily with people of all social standings
- charismatic, in touch with the people
- embody essential role that leadership plays in achieving just resolutions to conflict
- sacrifice family for leadership
- illustrate that effective leadership takes a toll on the individual
- exemplify that reconciliation requires unexpected and difficult acts. Such as Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks and Priam’s appeal to Achilles “man to man”
- both show effective leadership involves expressing empathy and understanding the humanity of your enemies
Literary and cinematic techniques
- In one of the first scenes in Mandela’s office after he is elected President, Eastwood strategically frames the racial segregation and tension between the two groups via the mise-en-scene; they stand on separate sides of the room, wearing distinctly different clothing and calling Mandela either “Mr President” or “Madiba”, representative of their own identity. The lingering tension between the two groups permeates the entirety of the film, and the microcosm of the bodyguards acts as a symbol of the chasm within the wider nation.
- The deeply symbolic scene wherein Mandela and Pienaar have tea, Eastwood strategically uses a close up shot to frame the passing of the tea cup so that both arms of the individuals are depicted on the same level, reinforcing this sense of mutual equality and respect. It is this sharing of hope that ignites Pienaar to reciprocate Mandela’s egalitarian actions. As Pienaar brings a ticket for Eunice, recognising that “there’s a fourth” family member, he mimics Mandela’s value that “no one is invisible”. Consequently, it is demonstrated that regardless of skin colour, characters reciprocate Mandela’s empathy and compassion, revealing the limitless power such human qualities to reach across the boundaries of division.
- The wide shot of the passing of the trophy from Mandela to Pienaar is framed against the large crowd, metaphorically representing South Africa’s support with the unity of the black and whites, reflecting Mandela’s desire to “meet black aspirations and quell white fears”. Their diegetic cheers work to create the idyllic depiction of the lasting power of this change, implying the true limitless nature of hope in their society.
- Priam’s moment of anagnorisis in which he discovers the concept of “chance”, marks the beginning of his enactment of change through the power of hope. Despite his family who wishes that he would “spare [himself of] this ordeal”, Priam’s vision guides him to overcome familial and societal obstacles in pursuit of reconciliation.
- Symbol: Griddlecakes – represent pleasure in common things, but also the growing realisation within Priam of his distance from such pleasures. The love and care with with Somax’s daughter cooked the cakes has a value that surpasses the conventional riches associated with the ruling elite. This is a catalyst for a moment of realisation for Priam.
Pride and Prejudice is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, follows the titular character of Elizabeth Bennet as she and her family navigate love, loyalty and wealth.
When Mrs. Bennet hears that a wealthy, young and eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingley, has moved into the manor of Netherfield Park nearby, she hopes to see one of her daughters marry him. Of the five daughters born to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, Jane takes an early liking to Mr. Bingley despite his friend, Mr. Darcy, initial coldness and apathy towards her younger sister Elizabeth. Though Mr. Darcy’s distaste soon grows to attraction and love.
While Jane and Mr. Bingley begin to fall for each other, Elizabeth receives and declines a marriage proposal from her supercilious cousin Mr. Collins, who eventually comes to marry Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte. While Mr. Darcy is in residence at Netherfield Park, Elizabeth finds and enjoys the company of a young officer named Mr. Wickham who too has a strong disliking for Mr. Darcy. Mr. Wickham claims it was Mr. Darcy who cheated him out of his fortune, which then deepens Elizabeth's initial ill impression of the arrogant man.
After a ball is held at Netherfield Park, the wealthy family quits the estate, leaving Jane heartbroken. Jane is then invited to London by her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, which Mr. Darcy fails to tell Mr. Bingley as he has persuaded him not to court Jane because of her lesser status.
When Elizabeth visits her newly married friend Charlotte, she meets Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s (Mr. Darcy’s Aunt) other nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam. While there, Mr. Darcy appears and proposes to Elizabeth unexpectedly claiming he loves and admires her. To Mr. Darcy’s surprise, Elizabeth refuses as she blames him for ruining Mr. Wickam’s hopes of success and for keeping Jane and Mr. Bingley apart. Mr. Darcy later apologies in a letter and admits to persuading Mr. Bingley not to pursue Jane, but argues that her love for him was not obvious. In the letter, he also denies Wickam’s accusations and explains that Wickham had intended to elope with his sister for her fortune.
Elizabeth joins her Aunt and Uncle in visiting Mr. Darcy’s great estate of Pemberley under the impression he would be absent. It is there that Elizabeth learns from the housekeeper that Mr. Darcy is a generous landlord. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy then have a chance encounter after he returns home ahead of schedule. Following her previous rejection of him, Mr. Darcy has attempted to reform his character and presents himself amiably to Elizabeth’s Aunt and Uncle as she begins to warm up to him.
Mr Darcy happens upon Elizabeth as she receives the terrible news that Lydia has run off with Wickam in an event that could ruin her family. Mr. Darcy then going out in search for Wickham and Lydia to hurry their nuptials. When Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy return to Netherfield Park, Elizabeth is pleased to see him though Darcy shows no sign of his regard for her. Jane and Mr. Bingley soon become engaged.
Soon thereafter, Lady Catherine visits the Bennets and insists that Elizabth never agree to marry her nephew. Darcy hears of Elizabeth's refusal, and when he next comes, he proposes a second time which she accepts, his pride then humbled and her prejudices overturned.
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy
Mr. Charles Bingley
Lady Catherine De Bourgh
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner
Within the text the theme of pride is ever present as it plays a major role in how Austen’s characters present themselves, their attitudes and how they treat each other. For much of the novel pride blinds both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth of their true feelings and hence becomes something both characters must overcome. While Darcy’s pride makes him look down upon those not immediately within his social circle, Elizabeth takes so much pride in her ability to judge the character of others that she refuses to amend her opinions even when her initial judgements are proven wrong. Indeed, this is why Elizabeth despises the benign Darcy early on in the text, but initially takes a liking to the mendacious Wickham. By the denouement of the novel, both Datcy and Elizabeth have overcome their pride by encouraging and supporting each others own personal evolution. Indeed, as Darcy sheds his elitism Elizabeth comes to realise the importance of revaluation.
The tendency of others to judge one another based on perceptions, rather than who they are and what they value becomes a point of prolific discussion within Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, the title of the text clearly implies the related nature of pride and prejudice as both Darcy and Elizabeth are often shown to make the wrong assumptions; Darcy’s assumptions grounded in his social prejudice whereas Elizabeth’s is rooted in her discernment led astray by her excessive pride. As Austen subtly mocks the two lovers biases, she gives the impression that while such flaws are common faulting someone else for the prejudice is easy while recognising it in yourself is hard. While Austen’s representation of prejudice is aligned with personal development and moral growth as she wittingly condemns those who refuse to set aside their prejudices like Lady Catherine and Caroline.
The family unit that Austen displays with Pride and Prejudice becomes the social and domestic sphere as it forms the emotional center of the novel in which she grounds her analysis and discussion. Not only does the family determine the social hierarchy and standing of its members but provides the intellectual and moral support for its children. In the case of the Bennet family, Austen reveals how the individuals identity and sense of self is molded within the family as she presents Jane and Elizabeth as mature, intelligent and witty and lydia as a luckless fool. Not only this, Austen reveals the emotional spectrum that lives within every family as shown through Elizabeth’s varying relationship with her parents; the tense relationship with her mother and sympathy she shares with her father.
At the center of its plot, Pride and Prejudice examines the complex inequality that governs the relationships between men and women and the limited options that women have in regards to marriage. Austen portrays a world in which the socio-economic relationship between security and love limits the woman and her choices as it based exclusively on a family’s social rank and connections. Indeed, the expectations of the Bennet sisters, as members of the upper class is to marry well instead of work. As women can not inherit their families estate nor money, their only option is to marry well in the hope of attaining wealth and social standing. Through this, Austen explains Mrs. Bennet’s hysteria about marrying off her daughters. Yet Austen is also shown to be critical of those who marry purely for security, thereby offering Elizabth as the ideal, who initially refuses marriage as she refutes financial comfort but ends up marrying for love.
Class and Wealth
As Austen focuses much of her novel on the impacts of class and wealth, she makes clear of the system that favours the rich and powerful and often punishes the weak and poor. Characters like Lady Catherine, whose enforcement of rigid hierarchical positions often leads her to mistreatment of others. Other characters like Mr. Collins and Caroline are depicted as void of genuine connection as they are unable to live and love outside the perimeter of their social standing. In contrast, characters such as Bingley and the Gardiners offer a respectable embodiment of wealth and class through their kindness and manners. Indeed, Austen does not criticise the entire class system as she offers examples that serve to demonstrate the decency and respectability. Darcy embodies all that a high-class gentleman should as though he is initially presented as flawed and arrogant, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is capable of change. Always generous and compassionate, his involvement with Elizabeth helps to brings his nurturing nature to the foreground, evident in his attempts to help the foolish lydia. Ultimately, Austen suggest through Darcy’s and Elizabeth's union that though class and wealth are restrictive, they do not determine one’s character nor who one is capable of loving.
Symbolism, imagery and allegories
Three Act plot
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (ch.1)
When writing on any text in Text Response, it is essential to use quotes and analyse them.
Let’s take this quote, for example.
“it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”
This is the opening line of the novel. It is satirical, ironic and mocking in tone. Austen makes fun of the notion that wealthy bachelors must be wanting to marry in order to be valued in society. By using this tone, she subverts this “truth universally acknowledged” and encourages readers to question this societal presumption of wealth and marriage.
Have a look at the following quotes and ask yourself, ‘how would I analyse this quote?’:
“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” (ch.3)
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." (ch.20)
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (ch.34)
“They were all of them warm in her admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (ch.43)
“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” (ch.58)
1. What do the various relationships shown in Pride and Prejudice tell us about love, marriage and society?
2. Austen shows that even those of the best moral character can be blinded by their pride and prejudice. To what extent do you agree?
3. Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact does this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response because it’ll dramatically enhance how much you can take away from the following essays and more importantly, to then be able to apply these in your own writing.
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Character-based Prompt: Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact could this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
Elizabeth Bennet holds a radical view of marriage for her time. What impact could this attitude have on the other characters' lives and relationships? Discuss.
A character based essay prompt is pretty self-explanatory as the prompt will have a specific focus on one character or a group of characters. While they may look relatively simple and straightforward, a lot of students struggle with character based questions as they find it is hard to discuss ideas in a lot of depth. With that in mind, it's important that we strive for what the author is saying; what is the author trying to convey through this specific character? What do they represent? Do they advocate for specific ideas or does the author use this character to condemn a certain idea and action?
Step 2: Brainstorm
This question is looking at the attitude Elizabeth Bennet has in regard to the expectation and institution of marriage and how her view could impact the lives of the people around her. As always, we want to make sure that we not only identify our key words but define them. I started by first defining/ exploring the attitude Elizabeth holds towards the institution of marriage; as marriage was not only an expectation in the times of regency England but a means to secure future financial security, Elizabeth’s outlook that an individual should marry only for the purpose of happiness and love was not only radical but dangerous. Her outlook, while noble, could and did put her family at jeopardy of being cast out from their estate as without a union between one of the Bennet daughters and Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins would have every right to do so as the only male inherent. I also looked at the wider implications Elizabeth’s outlook could have on the lives of the other characters such as Charlotte, Darcy and Bingley.
Step 3: Plan
Contention: Your contention relates to your interpretation of the essay prompt and the stance you’re going to take – i.e. are you in agreement, disagreement, or both to an extent.
While radical for her time, Elizabeth's progressive view of marriage can be seen to advocate for the rights of women and love and happiness but also, can jeopardise the livelihoods of those around her as Elizabeth is guided by selfish motives.
P1: The radical view of marriage Elizabeth holds can be viewed as selfish and guided by her own self interest which is shown to negatively impact the lives of her family.
P2: As Elizabeth diverts from the traditional approach to marriage, she encourages her friends and loved ones to follow their own hearts and morals rather than society's expectations.
P3: Because Elizabeth is depicted as a bold and beautiful woman, she is unable to recognise that her radical view is a luxury that not all characters have access to.
If you'd like to see an A+ essay on the essay topic above, complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can emulate this same success, then you'll definitely want to check out our Pride and Prejudice Study Guide: A Killer Text Guide! In it, we also cover themes, characters, views and values, metalanguage and have 4 other sample A+ essays completely annotated so you can kill your next SAC or exam! Check it out here."
Since September 2014, the current affairs has been raging with numerous controversial topics – perfect for your oral presentation! Here are some of the more interesting issues that would be a good starting point for your oral. Remember to offer an interesting and unique argument, even if it may mean adopting the unconventional or unpopular point of view on the issue!
Should medicinal cannabis be legalised in Australia?
Should US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny be allowed to give talks in Australia?
Should children be vaccinated?
Should ‘pick-up artist’ Julien Blanc have been banned from visiting Australia?
Is social media negatively impacting on student studies?
Should women be allowed to breastfeed in public?
Should we have more stringent surrogacy laws?
Should music be free?
Freezing women’s eggs
Sexualisation of women in the media
The media’s portrayal of ‘terrorism’
Freedom of speech (Charlie Hebdo)
Creativity in schools
Should children be allowed to roam unsupervised by their parents?
The Golden Age is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our VCE Text Response Study Guide.
Even though this hasn’t been one of the more popular choices on the VCE text list, Joan London’s The Golden Age is a personal favourite of mine for a number of reasons. This is a novel about the experiences of children recovering from polio inside a convalescent home in Perth. With a sympathetic and warm approach, London tells the tragic yet brave stories of these children, as well as the stories of their parents and carers.
The novel essentially revolves around Frank Gold, a Hungarian Jew and a war refugee, and London blends his mature voice with the innocence of a coming-of-age narrative, all set against the backdrop of World War II.
As you’re reading the book, watch out for her literary or poetic language, and keep track of the story’s overall mood. These will be important considerations for text study, particularly if you are to write a creative response on this text for your SAC. With this in mind, I’ve included writing exercises throughout this blog post for you to practise writing creatively on this text.
If you are writing analytically on this text, either for your SAC or for your exam, you may still complete the exercises—each one should still be insightful for your writing in some way. Also, feel free to check the video below; it breaks down an analytical prompt for this text.
This novel is set in Perth during the early 1940s, which gives rise to a couple of interesting historical elements all intersecting in the book.
Crucially, the events of the novel take place for the most part while World War II is raging in Europe. This is important for understanding the backstory of the Gold family: they are Hungarian Jews who have escaped their war-torn home of Budapest to seek safety in Australia. In particular, we know that at some stage, Meyer had been taken away to a labour camp, and that Frank had had to hide himself in an attic.
Their Hungarian heritage, however, is something that distances them from other Australians, and they never really get a good chance to settle in, always feeling like they just weren’t on the same wavelength as the locals. In many ways, the story of the Golds is underpinned by tragedy—not only are they war refugees, but young Frank then contracts poliomyelitis (known to us just as polio), which forces the family to reassess all the plans they had for him to settle into an ordinary, Australian life.
However, Frank was far from the only victim of polio at the time—the entire nation was rocked by a wave of polio, with major outbreaks during the 1930s-40s. This was quite a nerve-wracking, and causing great fear for our country and its active, outdoors-y culture. The prospects of death, paralysis and permanent disability were understandably terrifying. About 70,000 people were affected, and almost half of them eventually died as a result. Almost every Australian at the time knew or knew of someone who had polio.
Task: You are Ida, composing a letter to Julia Marai after Frank’s diagnosis. Convey succinctly (in 250 words or less) what you think and how you feel.
Key Themes & Implications
I like to think that a lot of the themes in this book exist in diametric or opposing pairs. For instance, London gives Frank a voice that is wise beyond his years, yet uses it to tell a tender story of first love. She also plays on the paradox that while some characters have become isolated due to the unfortunate events that have befallen them, these very events end up becoming the thing that unite them.
Essentially, London plays with a lot of these thematic tensions, showing us that life isn’t really ever black and white, but there are whole lot of grey areas in every day life.
Central to the novel are ideas of innocence or childhood. These ideas are really explored in the friendship between Frank and Elsa, who are both on the cusp of adolescence. While they are set up as young lovers in the eyes of readers, we know that they are far too young to truly have romantic feelings for each other. In actual fact, their interactions are permeated by a sense of innocence.
However, these interactions are also punctuated by a sense of maturity, a desire for more. This is evident to the extent where nurses are getting hesitant about leaving them alone with each other (even though their parents still trust them entirely). In actual fact, these parents serve as an important point of contrast. Some manage to recapture the magic of youth even as adults—consider Ida reigniting her love for the piano, or Meyer jumping on opportunities to start anew. In this sense, innocence and maturity are a pair of themes that are interestingly not always found where one might expect.
Another key thematic element of the novel is tragedy or adversity, which are relevant to a far wider gamut of characters. Considering the story’s geographical and historical setting, it seems evident that these ideas will play a major role in the story. A particularly poignant example lies in Sullivan, who contracts polio right on the cusp of adulthood, and readers can’t help but feel a sense of loss for what might have been.
However, on the other end of this spectrum is the strength required to cope with their suffering. While Sullivan had his indefatigable sense of humour, other characters have developed different mechanisms to stay strong in the face of adversity. In some cases, you might say that they’ve transcended or risen above their tragedies, and become stronger for it.
Finally, London also tackles the idea of isolation, which can be seen as a consequence of tragedy—characters become isolated because they lose their ability to relate to others, and others feel unable to relate to them. Symbolically, the Golden Age hospital is surrounded by four roads and therefore cut off from the world, almost as if quarantined. However, the solidarity and unity of patients inside becomes a great source of strength—I’ll leave it to you to think about what London was trying to say with this!
Task: Selecting one of the above themes, write a poem from the POV of an imaginary spectator in the novel, outlining how you perceive/experience these themes in other characters. Use all five senses(how you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, and touch/feel it)
I haven’t written too extensively about characters for a range of reasons: on one hand, it’s important for you to form your own interpretations about what they’re like and why they do the things they do, but on the other hand, I wanted to leave you with some key points to consider and/or some essential points about their characters to incorporate into your writing. This will allow you to hopefully feel like you’re capturing them accurately when writing your creatives, but without feeling restricted by an extensive set of traits that you have to invoke.
the central character, he is cerebral, intelligent and mature (which we can tell from his narrative voice, or how he ‘sounds’)
he is, however, still very young, wide-eyed, inquisitive in spite of the tragedies which have befallen him (consider how he sees his relationship with Elsa)
also significant is the motif of his poetry; not only does it highlight his maturity, but it also acts as a way for him to voice or articulate his feelings and experiences in the hospital—you could try incorporating some poetry in your writing (either original poems or quoted from the novel)
another central character who becomes quite attached to Frank (they are the two eldest children in the Golden Age)
she is warm, caring and selfless, demonstrating an emotional maturity beyond her years (because of having to bear the metaphorical albatross of polio)
a lot of what we know about Elsa comes from Frank’s perspective (though we do get some insight from her own, and some from her mother’s)—how does this shape the way we see her? Consider London’s use of imagery, portraying her as an angelic figure.
Ida & Meyer
Frank’s parents, Hungarian Jews, and war refugees who come to Australia to cleanse them of their pasts and to have a fresh start; some of this is purely by circumstance, but there are parts of their past that they willingly and actively eschew e.g. Ida’s piano
note that Hungary is a landlocked country in the midst of European hustle and bustle with easy access to other nations/cultures/peoples, but Australia is an island on the other side of the world—consider how this affects their sense of isolation
on the other hand, they do form new connections with people here and in their own individual ways; Ida by reclaiming her pianist talents and Meyer by taking up a new job
Task: You are Elsa, Ida, or Meyer and you’ve just discovered Frank’s poem book. What are your thoughts and feelings towards his writing? Consider the context of your chosen character’s own experiences
I’m sure you’ve heard it by now, but any piece of text-based writing (creative or analytical) can be strengthened by diversifying the range of characters that you write about. Even though you’ve already differentiated yourself from most VCE students by even doing this text at all (very few people choose it, so props to you!), some inclusion of more minor characters might help to distinguish yourself further. I’ve picked some that I think are interesting to talk about, but feel free to experiment with others as well!
a young man who contracts a severe strand of polio right on the cusp of adulthood, thereby exemplifying the theme of tragedy—however, his sense of humour remains active in spite of his immobility, so perhaps he not only exemplifies this theme but subverts it as well
London poses the complex question of whether or not he’s actually unhappy or defeated as a result of polio; there’s no clear answer, since there’s many ways to interpret his humour (is it a sign of strength or is it a front for inner turmoils expressed through poetry?)
in addition to his humour and poetry, his relationship with his family could also be an interesting point of discussion to address some of these questions
a young girl in the hospital who is quite close to Elsa (almost in a sisterly way)—how have they developed this relationship, and how does this relate to the theme of unity/companionship/human connection?
notably, she wanted to rehabilitate herself after polio took away her ability to feed the brumbies in her desert town—think about how this might represent strength as well
Julia Marai & Hedwiga
Ida’s former piano teacher and her flatmate/partner who live at the top of an apartment block in Budapest; they shelter Frank in their attic under no obligation whatsoever, but purely out of the kindness and selflessness of their hearts
again, there’s this subversion of what it means to be isolated: on one hand, their apartment is so cut off from the rest of the world below, and they lead a largely self-sufficient life together, but on the other hand, the fact that they’re together means that they’re not entirely isolated consider the power of human connection in this context as well
Task: Pick a minor character from this list and a character from the above list of major characters, and write about them meeting each other for the first time. Pick two that do not already interact closely within the novel e.g. Elsa meeting Sullivan
I hope this gives you some ideas or starting points about writing creatively on this text!
Download the PDF version of The Golden Age study guidehere.
Dissecting an A+ Essay using 'The Golden Age'
Picture this: you’re sitting down at your desk, fumbling your fingers, inspecting the new stationary that you convinced yourself you needed for year 12, resisting the urge to check your phone. Your text response SAC is in two weeks. You’re freaking out because you want, no, need an A+. You decide to write a practice essay for your English teacher. Practice makes perfect, right? You stay up for hours, pouring your heart and soul into this essay. The result? B+. Where did I go wrong?
That’s where I come in! Writing an A+ essay can be really tough without examples and specific advice. Before reading on, make sure you've read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Responseso you are up to scratch.
I will be explaining some basic dos and don’ts of writing an essay on The Golden Age, providing a model essay as an example.
The following prompt will be referenced throughout the post;
‘The Golden Age’ shows that everyone needs love and recognition. Discuss.
Planning: the silent killer of A+ essays
I’m sure your teachers have emphasised the importance of planning. In case they haven’t, allow me to reiterate that great planning is compulsory for a great essay. However, flimsy arguments aren’t going to get you an A+. The examiners are looking for complex arguments, providing a variety of perspectives of the themes at hand. From the above prompt, the key word is, ‘discuss’. This means that you should be discussing the prompt, not blindly agreeing with it. Make sure you don’t write anything that wouldn’t sit right with London.
Don’t plan out basic arguments that are one-dimensional. This may give you a pass in English, but won’t distinguish you as a top-scoring student.
Paragraph 1: The children at TGA need love and recognition.
Paragraph 2: Ida and Meyer need love and recognition
Paragraph 3: Sister Penny needs love and recognition.
The above paragraphs merely agree with the statement, but don’t delve into the many aspects of the novel that could contribute to a sophisticated essay.
Do create complex arguments, or paragraphs with a twist! If you can justify your argument and it makes sense, include it in your essay. There are many ways that you could answer this question, but my plan looks like this:
Paragraph 1: Frank Gold yearns for mature, adult love, not recognition from onlookers or outsiders
Paragraph 2: Ida Gold does not seek recognition from Australia, but love and validation from herself
Paragraph 3: Albert requires love from a specific kind of relationship – family, and Sullivan may view love from his father as pity which he rebukes
See the difference?
The introduction: how to start your essay off with a BANG!
Personally, I always struggled with starting an introduction. The examiners will be reading and marking thousands of essays, so if possible, starting your introduction with something other than Joan London’s ‘The Golden Age’… is a great way to make you stand out from the crowd. Having a strong start is essential to pave the way for a clear and concise essay. You could start with a quote/scene from the text! This is not essential, but it’s a great way to mix things up. This is my start:
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the power of love and recognition more than the bond between Albert Sutton and his older sister, Lizzie, in Joan London’s ‘The Golden Age’. Many of London’s characters exhibit suffering that requires compassion and support to heal and grow, to distinguish present from past. However, London explores the perspectives of such characters from different aspects of trauma, and emphasise that love and recognition do not always work to heal and mature. Frank Gold, the novel’s resident “sneaky” boy who adjusts to newfound life in the Golden Age Convalescent Home seeks love as an adult, rather than eliciting sympathy as a supposed victim. Here love and recognition are unsuccessful in amending Frank’s troubles when given from the perspective of an outsider, a judgemental onlooker. In a similar sense, Ida Gold seeks recognition not from Australia, who she views as a ‘backwater’, but validation in herself after having been ousted from her Hungarian identity. London, however, makes sure to emphasise the impact that Sullivan has on Frank Gold’s life. Sullivan, a boy only a few years older than Frank, seems content with his future, with his fate, despite his sacrifice of rugby and conventional life. There is a lacking sense of urgency for love and recognition in Sullivan’s life, rather, it appears that Sullivan accepts his fate, regardless of his father’s sympathy or support. Thus, London explores a myriad of ways in which love and recognition may or may not heal wounds inflicted upon individuals.
Remember, there are many other ways you could start your essay.
The body paragraphs: To TEEL or not to TEEL?
I’m sure you’ve heard of TEEL countless times since year 7. Topic sentence, evidence, explanation, link. The truth is that these elements are all very important in a body paragraph. However, following a rigid structure will render your essay bland and repetitive. It is also extremely important to note that you should be using evidence from multiple points in the text, and you should be making sure that your paragraphs are directly answering the question. Write what feels natural to you, and most importantly, don’t abuse a thesaurus. If you can’t read your essay without rummaging for a dictionary every second sentence, you should rewrite it. If vocabulary isn’t your strong point (it definitely isn’t mine!), focus on clean sentence structure and solid arguments. There’s nothing worse than you using a fancy word incorrectly.
Don’t overuse your thesaurus in an attempt to sound sophisticated, and don’t use the same structure for every sentence. For example:
Prematurely in the paperback London makes an allusion to Norm White, the denizen horticulturalist of The Golden Age Convalescent Home…
That was an exaggerated example generated by searching for synonyms. As you can see, it sounds silly, and some of the words don’t even make sense. I mean, “denizen horticulturalist”…really?
Do mix up your paragraph structure! If vocabulary is your weak point, focus on clean language.
Early in the novel, London makes reference to Norm White, the resident groundskeeper of The Golden Age Convalescent Home. Norm White hands Frank Gold a cigarette, “as if to say a man has the right to smoke in peace”. Here, there is a complete disregard for rule and convention, an idea that London emphasises throughout the text. This feature provides a counter-cultural experience for Frank, pushing him to realise that he is a strong human being rather than a mere victim. This is a clear contrast to the “babyishness” of the home, and is used as evidence of true humanity in an era where society judged upon the unconventional. Frank yearns for a traditional Australian life after his trauma in Hungary; “his own memory…lodged like an attic in the front part of his brain”. Hedwiga and Julia Marai’s caring of him pushed him towards fear and reluctance to trust, yet also pressured him to seek acceptance in a world that ostracises him for his Jewish heritage and polio diagnosis. This here is why Frank desires a mature, adult connection – love that regards him as an equal human being. Frank seeks Elsa’s love and company as she too loathes being reduced to a victim, an object of pity. Frank thereafter uses humour to joke of his wounds; “we Jews have to be on the lookout”. Elsa sees “a look in his eyes that she recognised”, thus their bond enables both characters to heal. London alludes that Frank requires love and recognition not from the perspective of a sorrowful onlooker, rather he longs to be recognised as a mature adult.
I firmly believe in short and sharp conclusions. Your body paragraphs should be thoroughly explaining your paragraphs, so don’t include any new information here. A few sentences is enough. Once again, write what feels natural, and what flows well.
Don’t drag out your conclusion. Short and concise is the key to finishing well.
Do write a sharp finish! Sentence starters such as, “Ultimately…” or “Thus, London…” are great.
Although trauma is often treated with love and compassion, London details different perspectives on this idea. Whilst Frank Gold requires a specific kind of recognition, Ida and Meyer seek validation in themselves and their relationship, whilst Sullivan is at ease with his fate and does not yearn sympathy from his father.
I'll finish off by giving you an exercise: brainstorm and write up a plan for the essay topic shown in the video below. I'd recommend you do this before watching Lisa's brainstorm and plan. That way, you can see which of your ideas overlapped, but also potentially see which ideas you may have missed out on. Good luck!
The Golden Age Essay Topic Brainstorm
The takeaway message for this video will be to utilise minor characters here and there to deepen your argument. London has really developed all her characters to feel three-dimensional and real, so it’s important not to just write about Frank and Elsa when there are so many others worth touching on.
Let's head straight into background information:
Joan London’sThe Golden Age is a novel about children recovering from polio in a convalescent home in Perth. She tells the stories of these various children, their families, and their caretakers, focusing on FrankGold and Elsa Briggs, the young protagonists who are just starting to develop romantic feelings for each other. Though they, and many of the other children, have faced much hardship and misfortune, London tells a story of hope and human connection in times of misery.
On that note, today’s essay topic is:
The Golden Age is primarily a tragic tale of isolation. Discuss.
Let’s break this prompt down and define some keywords. The keywords we’ll be looking at first are isolation and tragic. We’ll be defining them quite briefly, but be sure to think about these in terms of how they relate to the novel. In particular, see if any scenes, passages or characters jump to mind.
Isolation is a state of being alone or away from others and can be associated with a sense of powerlessness or insignificance. Tragic can simply just mean sad, depressing and loaded with sorrow or ‘pathos’, but there are also literary implications to this word: you might’ve done a tragic Shakespeare play and learned this before, but in general, a tragic story centres on a hero who encounters misfortune, and treats their demise in a serious or solemn way. Note that a good essay will discuss both these terms, and will address not only isolation but also the question of whether or not it is treated tragically.
The other important word is ‘primarily’. This word in the prompt suggests that The Golden Age is for the most part about these ideas - for you, that means you should ask yourself how central you think they are, and make a call on whether they are the most central.
Well, it’s definitely true that elements of isolation and separation do exist in The Golden Age, but these themes are not primarily tragic ideas in the novel -London explores the way in which hope can shine through in times of hardship. In fact, the novel overall has a message of kinship and hope, and this would be the primary thematic focus, as well as the main treatment of otherwise tragic ideas. So how might this look in paragraphs?
Paragraph 1: Let’s concede that the novel does evoke sadness through its frequently sombre tone and treatment of isolation
We see this through characters such as Ida and Meyer, who have been cut off from the world in their escape from their war-torn home, and forced to transition from their landlocked Hungary to an island on the other side of the globe. Their struggle to adjust is evoked through symbols - for instance, black cockatoos, which represent a “homely, comforting” omen to locals, sound “melancholy [and] harsh” to Ida. In particular, London’s solemn characterisation of Ida as constantly “frowning”, and as having a “bitter little mouth that usually gripped a cigarette ”works to emphasise her ennui or her dissatisfaction with being cut off from the world. Their homesickness is evoked through this constant longing for home, though sometimes much more literally: Meyer feels that “never again on this earth…would, he feel at home as he once had.”
Similarly, the story of Sullivan Backhouse, confined in an “iron lung” and physically isolated from outside contact, is also primarily tragic. London develops this character and gives him a backstory - he has “just turned eighteen” and had been the “prefect [and] captain of the rowing team.” This gives readers an idea of the life he might have had if not for the tragedy of his condition. Even in spite of his “good-humoured nature”, his poetry belies the pessimism within - his book, morbidly entitled “on my last day on earth”, closes with the line “in the end, we are all orphans.” We can thus see how lonely he must have felt when he tragically passed away.
In this paragraph, we’ve considered three different characters, whereas a lot of people writing on this text might just do a character per paragraph, so this is a good way to really show the examiners that you’ve considered the full extent of what the book offers. Let’s continue this as we move onto…
Paragraph 2: We disagree, however, since the novel includes various other moods and thematic material - in particular, London explores notions of resolve and hope in times of hardship
Now, the first character that comes to mind would have to be Elsa - London uses particularly powerful imagery, such as her “translucent”, “golden wave” of hair or even her “profile, outlined in light”, to portray her as angelic or elysian. For the children, Elsa evidently represents hope - even in her state of isolation, her “graceful and dignified” demeanour and her quiet acceptance that polio “was part of her” is courageous and worthy of admiration.
Moving onto a minor character who was perhaps inspired by Elsa - the young Ann Lee, who was quite close to Elsa, also has a story which is more inspiring than tragic. When polio first crippled her, she found herself unable to give water to the brumbies in her desert town. As a result, she perseveres, “step after painstaking step” so as to be able to return home and “give a drink to thirsty creatures.” Her compassion and determination to work against her isolation become the focus of her tale.
Paragraph 3: In fact, the novel’s focus is on hope rather than tragedy
A range of other characters demonstrate the power of love and human connection in the face of adversity, and London seems to be focusing on these ideas instead. Plus, it’s not just the children who are brave in the face of tragedy, but ordinary people prove themselves to have the potential for strength and courage. Take Julia Marai and Hedwiga, who hide Frank in their attic during the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Even though their apartment is “on the top” of the block, and isolated in its height, suspended from the world, they become “provider[s]” for Frank. London writes that in difficult times, “kindness and unselfishness were as unexpected, as exhilarating, as genius,” and it’s easy to see how these qualities form a counterpoint to the tragedies that permeate the novel, allowing hope to shine through.
And that’s the end of the essay! Being able to explore minor characters like we did here is a really good way to show examiners that you have a deeper understanding of a text, that you’ve considered it beyond just the main characters on the surface. The Golden Age is a really great one for this because London has done so much with her cast.
1. “Being close made them stronger.” In The Golden Age, adversities are tempered by camaraderie. Do you agree?
2. Despite the grim context, The Golden Age highlights and celebrates the potential of life. Discuss.
3. Memories of past successes and failures have significant lingering effects on characters in The Golden Age. Is this an accurate assessment?
4. “[I would be] a fox, following a Palomino.” How do animals such as these contribute symbolically to The Golden Age?
5. It is largely loneliness which defines the struggles of the children in The Golden Age. Discuss.
6. In what ways is The Golden Age a novel of displacement?
7. Fear of the unknown is something which permeates The Golden Age. Is this true?
8. What is the role of family in Joan London’s The Golden Age?
9. Isolation in The Golden Age exists in many oppressive forms. Discuss.
10. Throughout The Golden Age, London draws attention to beauty rather than to suffering. Discuss.
11. In spite of their youth, it is the children of The Golden Age who understand best what it means to be an individual in the world. Do you agree?
12. How do characters from The Golden Age learn, grow and mature as the novel takes its course?
13. Due to the range of different onset stories, each of the children and their families in The Golden Age face a different struggle with their identity. Discuss.
14. “Home. She hadn’t called Hungary that for years.” In spite of all their struggle, the Golds never truly feel any sense of belonging in Australia. To what extent do you agree?
15. Explore the factors which drive Joan London’s characters to persevere.
Wondering what VCAA examiners might be looking for in a high-scoring essay? Each year, the VCE EAL Examination Reports shed light on some of the features that examiners are looking for in high-scoring responses for the Listening and Language Analysis sections of the EAL exams. Let's go through 5 key points from the reports so that you know how to achieve a 10/10 yourself.
For advice on how you can apply the VCE EAL Examination Reports to strengthen your skills in the listening section, see Tips on EAL Listening.
Tip #1 Analyse How the Overall Argument Was Structured
‘The highest-scoring responses analysed argument use and language in an integrated way. Some responses used a comparative approach that analysed arguments and counter arguments from both texts in the same paragraph. However, only comparatively few responses focused on how the overall argument was structured.’
So how do we write about/analyse ‘how the overall argument was structured’?
To save time during the exam, we can adopt templates that can help us transfer our thoughts into words in a fast and efficient way. You can construct your own templates, and you may want to have various templates for various scenarios or essays. Below, I have provided a sample template and I’ll show you how you can use this template in your own essays.
(AUTHOR)’s manner of argument is proposed in real earnest in an attempt to convince the readers of the validity of his/her proposal of...by first…and then supplying solutions to...(DIFFICULTIES), thus structuring it in a logical and systematic way.
The above template ONLY applies to opinion pieces that satisfy these 2 rules:
The opinion piece commences by presenting the ‘bad effect/consequence/situation’ of the topic
The opinion piece supplies the solution to resolve the ‘bad effect/consequence/situation’ of the topic
For example, say the author, John White, contends that plastic bags should be banned and does so by:
commencing the piece with the fact that plastic bags can travel long distances by wind and water. They litter our landscapes, float around in waterways, and can eventually end up in the oceans, ultimately polluting the ocean and posing a threat to marine animals
then supplies solution to ban plastic bags
When we use our template here, the intro may look like this - note that I’ve bolded the ‘template’ parts so you can clearly see how the template has been used:
John White’s manner of argument, proposed in real earnest in an effect to convince the readers of the validity of his proposal of banning plastic bags by first exposing the deleterious nature of these bags to our environment and natural habitat and thensupplying solutions to ban plastic bags, putting it in effect in a logical and systematic way.
‘Students are encouraged to use the key words in the questions as a focus for their listening...Short-answer questions require concise and precise answers. Responses that demonstrated understanding provided what was asked for without including extraneous information.’
Some students tend to add unnecessary information in their answers. Although the answers are correct, they will NOT earn you any extra marks. Listening answers should NOT be a mini essay. Writing irrelevant information will not only waste time but may also compromise the accuracy and overall expression of your response.
Tip #3 Practice Makes Perfect
The examination reports frequently point out that students struggle with identifying and describing the tone and delivery. For example, the 2017 VCAA EAL Examination Report states:
‘Identifying tone and delivery is challenging for students and emphasis on this is needed...Students are encouraged to use the key words in the questions as a focus for their listening’.
The good news is, just like most skills, listening and identifying the tone can both be improved with practice. In fact, VCAA acknowledges the importance of daily practice as well.
‘Students need to develop their critical listening skills both in and outside of the classroom. They are encouraged to listen, in English, to anything that interests them – current affairs, news, documentaries and podcasts can all be useful.’(2017 VCAA EAL Examination Report)
Practicing listening does not necessarily mean sitting down and doing Section A questions; it can be as simple as talking with classmates, teachers, neighbours, friends from work, church, etc.
VCAA encourages us to write answers that make sense to the reader and are grammatically correct. Make sure you do address, and ONLY address, what the question is asking, because marks will not be rewarded for redundant information.
‘Short answer questions require concise and precise answers. Responses that demonstrated understanding provided what was asked for without including extraneous information. Expression skills need to be sufficiently controlled to convey meaning accurately.’ (2017-2019 VCAA EAL Examination Report)
HINT: This may sound super simple, but a lot of EAL students struggle with it. If you do, you are definitely not alone. Some students seek to use complicated words and/or sentence structures, but we should not compromise clarity over complexity.
Tip #5 Use a Range of Precise Vocabulary
VCAA acknowledges the importance of sophisticated vocabulary. This phrase ‘analysis expressed with a range of precise vocabulary’ has been repeatedly used to describe high-scoring essays in the examination reports from 2017 onwards
Below is a listof commonly misspelled, misused and mispronounced words. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, check out Collins Online Dictionary for definitions OR you can use a physical copy of the Collins Dictionary (which you are allowed to bring into the exam and SACs).
Words That Look the Same/Have Super Similar Spelling:
Abroad vs. Aboard
Adapt vs. Adopt vs. Adept
Affect vs. Effect
Altar vs. Alter
Angel vs. Angle
Assent vs. Ascent vs. Accent
Aural vs. Oral
Baron vs. Barren
Beam vs. Bean
Champion vs. Champagne vs. Campaign
Chef vs. Chief
Chore vs. Chord
Cite vs. Site
Compliment vs. Complement
Confirm vs. Conform
Contact vs. Contrast vs. Contract
Contend vs. Content
Context vs. Content
Costume vs. Custom
Counsel vs. Council vs. Consul
Crow vs. Cow vs. Crown vs. Clown
Dairy vs. Diary
Decent vs. Descent vs. Descend
Dessert vs. Desert
Dose vs. Doze
Drawn vs. Draw vs. Drown
Extensive vs. Intensive
Implicit vs. Explicit
In accord with vs. In accordance with
Later vs. Latter
Pray vs. Prey
Precede vs. Proceed
Principal vs. Principle
Sweet vs. Sweat
Quite vs. Quiet
For an overview of the EAL study design plus tips and tricks for reading comprehension, time management and more, check out The Ultimate Guide to EAL.
If you, like me, grew up Asian in Australia, you might think you already know a thing or two about, well, growing up Asian in Australia. Our stories can be pretty similar—just have a scroll through the ‘subtle asian traits’ Facebook group, or have a conversation with literally any Asian Australian about their parents.
At the same time, it’s also important to recognise that everyone’s experiences are diverse, especially given how broad an identity ‘Asian’ can be. Also important is to recognise how broad and intersectional identity can be in general—intersectional meaning that race isn’t the only thing that defines any one of us. Things like gender, socio-economic status, ability, sexual orientation and religion can also be really central, for example. Each of these things can impact the way we navigate the world.
Covering a broad range of these stories is Alice Pung’s anthology, Growing Up Asian In Australia. Some of the contributors in this volume include Sunil Badami, Matt Huynh, Bon-Wai Chou, Diana Nguyen, Michelle and Benjamin Law, and Shaun Tan, and already this cross-section is fairly diverse in nature. You can also click on their names to find out a bit more about each of their work. I think this is worth a few minutes, just to get acquainted with the sheer range of Asian-Australian creatives who are represented in this book, and to locate their work within the themes they write about—in other words, having a think about the ways that cultural heritage, or experiences with family, or economic hardship permeate their work, both in the anthology and in their lives outside it.
The anthology is (perhaps quite helpfully) divided into sections which revolve around key themes, which is also going to inform the structure of this guide. I’ll be using this guide to go through an exercise that I found really helpful when learning the text, which involves:
taking two stories per section and drawing up some dot-point similarities and differences
translating two of those points into paragraphs, a bit like a ‘mini-essay’
We’ll go through some an example of what this might look like, and why it’s a helpful exercise to try.
Strine is what’s called a syncope, a shortened way of pronouncing Australian (a bit like ‘Straya’)—it refers to Australian English as it’s spoken by locals. This section of the book is all about language, and about the difficulties of juggling two languages growing up, and Badami and Tseng’s stories are great examples of this.
1. Similarity: connections to one’s mother tongue fade over time. Tseng recounts how, one by one, she and her sisters stopped learning Chinese as they progressed through their Australian education. Badami on the other hand compromises his name which stood out as too Indian when he “just wanted to fit in.”
2. Similarity: for ‘third-culture kids’, losing knowledge of their language also strains their relationship with their forebears. Badami’s mother is shocked to hear the anglicisation of his name despite the significance it carrie for her (“she spat my unreal new name out like something bitter and stringy”), and Tseng describes the experience of communicating with her father in “Chinglish” so that they can both understand each other.
3. Difference: language can be an internalised, personal experience, or a highly exposed and interpersonal one. While Tseng feels her loss of her language as a “sense of shame, a vague unease”, Badami is almost bullied into changing his name, “Sunil? Like banana peel?”
The Clan (Law & Chau)
This section delves into the complex ties that hold migrant families together. Chau’s poems are starkly different to Law’s story, so it’ll be interesting to compare how these different narrative forms work to explore those ideas.
1. Similarity: it can take at least one generation for migrant families to dig their roots into their new home. While Law’s parents are proud tourists at Queensland theme parks, he and his siblings “groan” at their comportment. Chau’s poem ‘The Firstborn’ traces his ancestry forward until he arrived, “an ABC” and his son “by amniotic sea”, both of them born into Australia.
2. Similarity: family dynamics are still traditional and therefore gendered. Law notes how his mother’s health suffered when divorcing his father, and Chau notes that the women members of his family were “cast off” the family tree “as if they were never born.
3. Difference: family history and heritage can vary in importance. Chau’s family traces back “twenty-eight generations” of history, whereas Law’s family very much lives in the present, the only tie to older generations being his “Ma-Ma”, or grandma.
4. Difference: families show their love in different ways. Whether it’s dedicating a poem to his son about his life as one of “ten thousand rivers” of Chinese diaspora into the Australian sea, or taking the kids to theme parks on weekends, all sorts of affection can hold families together.
Putting it together
So I’ve tried to choose two sections (and four stories) that are all a bit different to try and mix it up and get some rich comparative discussion out of these. You might be studying this text alone, but even as one text, remember that there’s a lot of diverse experiences being represented in it, so discussing how stories connect, compare and contrast is just as important as discussing the content of individual stories themselves.
If we do a mini-essay, we might as well go about it properly and pick some sort of contention. Without a fixed prompt though, it might be easier to start with those dot points and pick which ones we want to write out and string together. Let’s pick two—connections to mother tongue fading over time (Strine similarity 1) and digging roots into Australia over time (The Clan similarity 1). A contention covering these points might look like:
While second generation migrants may struggle with loss of culture, they also constitute a unique and significant part of the diaspora.
Many migrants lose connections to their heritage over time, and these connections are often in the form of language. Particularly for Asian migrants, there is not as strong a need to preserve their mother tongue in the English-speaking Australia, and as such their knowledge of those languages can be easily lost. Ivy Tseng, for instance, recalls how she was never able to “grasp the significance” of learning Chinese as a child, and eventually she and her sisters would prioritise “study” and other academic pursuits over learning Chinese. Because tertiary study and education as an institution generally carry a lot of weight in migrant cultures, there is often a compromise made at the expense of heritage and language. These compromises can come from other factors as well, particularly the group dynamics of being in white-dominated Australia. Bullying is a frequent culprit, and Badami for example is indeed peer-pressured into resenting—and ultimately anglicising—his name, “Sunil? Like banana peel?” More generally speaking, a sense of shame for one’s difference is a common part of the migrant experience—Law experiences it as well at theme parks, where he and his siblings attempt to “set [them]selves apart” from the faux-pas of their parents. Not always an intentional goal, but a general willingness to compromise connections to heritage underscores many Asian Australian migrant stories, particularly of second-generation migrants.
However, the extent to which migrants feel socially integrated in society shifts generationally and over time as well. Second generation migrants are thus unique in that they have the closest connection to their heritage while also initiating this process of integration. Law and his siblings exemplify this, with their “Australian accents” and “proper grammar and syntax.” While some loss of their native Cantonese takes place, they are also the first in their family to sound Australian, one step closer to being Australian. They constitute part of the distinct, third culture of “ABC”—Australian-born Chinese—to which Chau alludes in his poem, ‘The Firstborn’. Distinct from first-generation migrants, ABCs are a product of diaspora and spend their formative years immersed in the Australian way of life. Chau’s poem goes on to highlight how sizeable this demographic now is—“the sea is awash with the unfathomable Chinese sons.” Thus, we can see how ABCs, or second generation Asian migrants, represent a unique and significant social group exemplified by great compromise, but also great change.
Why is this useful?/How can I apply this?
I like this exercise because it gets you thinking creatively about the key implications of the stories. Within a section or theme, you want to identify similarities in how both stories contribute to our understanding of that theme. You also want to identify differences to explore how stories can be unique and nuanced, which will provide your essay with more depth when you ultimately need it. Then, putting it all together helps you synthesise new connections between themes.
For an analytical study of this text, you’d flesh out those ideas until they become paragraphs, introducing relevant evidence and mixing it up with explanatory sentences as you go. Explanatory sentences keep you analysing rather than story-telling, and they usually don’t have any quotes—an example from above might be “because tertiary study and education as an institution generally carry a lot of weight in migrant cultures, there is often a compromise made at the expense of heritage and language.”
For a creative study, you’d take away those ideas and look at how else you might explore them in other stories. Feel free to challenge yourself for this; I remember falling back on more personal writing when studying this creatively, but don’t neglect other genres or forms! If second generation migrants are in fact more on their way to belonging, write a speculative story about how an apocalypse tests those connections to white Australians. I dunno, but don’t be afraid to really push the boundaries here and test the implications you draw from the stories.
Give it a go
Try it for some of these:
UnAustralian? (Loewald & Law) and Leaving Home (Diana Nguyen & Paul Nguyen)
Battlers (Dac & Law/Huynh) and Mates (Phommavanh & Ahmed)
The Folks (Lazaroo & Tran) and Homecoming (Beeby & Larkin)
Growing Up Asian in Australia Essay Prompt Breakdown
The essay topic we’ll be looking at today is short and sweet;
To belong is to sacrifice. Discuss.
The key terms are evidently “to belong” and “to sacrifice”, so these are the words and definitions that we’ll have to interrogate.
Belonging is a feeling of being accepted by someone or being a member of something, so we’d have to ask who is doing the accepting, and what are the writers seeking to be members of. On the other hand, sacrifice is loss, it’s giving something up—it’s implied that seeking belonging means you may have to navigate compromises to what you have, how you live, or maybe, who you are. Have a think about what sacrifices are made by whom, and why.
With that in mind, let’s brainstorm a contention. We usually want to avoid going fully agree or fully disagree to create a bit more ‘grit’ for the essay—and in this case, the prompt is pretty deterministic or absolute; it’s saying that belonging is all about sacrifice.
I’d probably argue that belonging is sometimes about sacrifice, and for migrant children they often give up some of their culture or heritage for Western lifestyle or values. That being said, belonging in these cases is probably more about synthesis than sacrifice—it’s about being able to negotiate and bring heritage into increasingly Australian ways of life.
The brainstorming section of writing a killer essay is where my THINK and EXECUTE strategy comes in. If you haven’t heard of it before, essentially, it’s a method of essay writing that emphasises the importance of really thinking about all aspects of a prompt and exploring all the different avenues you can go down. To be able to EXECUTE a well-reasoned, coherent and articulate essay that contains enough nitty-gritty analysis, you have to do enough THINKing to get some meat on the essay’s skeleton, so to speak. To learn more, check out my top selling eBook, How To Write A Killer Text Response.
In paragraphs, we could start by looking at some of the sacrifices people make in order to belong. The poem, ’Be Good, Little Migrants’ has a more of a cynical take on this, suggesting that migrant groups are expected to sacrifice economic mobility and even personal dignity in order to gain favour with locals: “give us your faithful service”, “display your gratitude but don’t be heard, don’t be seen.”
Economic sacrifices are seen across many stories, from the working class “decent enough income” in ‘Family Life’ to the failing business in ‘ABC Supermarket’. Other forms of sacrifice might be less material—for example Benjamin Law’s sacrifice of his Mariah Carey cassettes in an attempt to fit in at school from the story ‘Towards Manhood’. This example is interesting because it isn’t a cultural sacrifice, but a gendered one—it’s a good reminder that identity is always multi-layered.
For migrant children though, the sacrifices usually revolve around their race and culture. Diana Nguyen for example notes language as a key sacrifice: she quits Vietnamese school because she didn’t feel like she belonged with the grade ones in her class, and her ultimate “lack of interest in learning [Vietnamese] created a lasting barrier” between her mother and her. In Sunil Badami’s story, ‘Sticks and Stones and Such-Like’, the sacrifice is his name, as he Anglicises it to Neil. When his mother finds out, “she spat my unreal new name out like something bitter and stringy, too difficult to swallow.” The common denominator here is that Asians growing up in Australia often have to navigate sacrificing some of their heritage in order to belong in western society.
However, the challenges faced by the Asian diaspora growing up abroad are more complex and more nuanced than just sacrifice. More often than not, they’re required to synthesise a ‘third culture’ identity that balances their heritage with western values and lifestyles.
Diana Nguyen goes on to discuss her career trajectory in becoming a “working actor” in Melbourne’s entertainment industry, carving out a path for herself in spite of her parents’ disapproval, and going on to represent a new generation of Asian Australians in the media. The story ‘Wei-Lei and Me’ also points to this shifting demographic in Australia, as Gouvernel and her best friend stave off a racist primary school bully only to see their home change for the better as they grew up, with new restaurants from their home cuisines opening up. At the same time, they “had become what [they] thought [they] could never be: Australian,” describing a way of life in Canberra that is unmistakably Australian.
So, belonging isn’t necessarily all about sacrifice—it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your passions or become ‘Australian’. Sure, sometimes sacrifice is necessary, but ‘third culture kids’ synthesise conflicting identities in order to belong.
Having arrived at the contention, let’s just have another think about the takeaway message - being able to bring other themes into an essay topic that only really raises one theme. To answer this topic fully, a good essay wouldn’t just discuss belonging and sacrifice, but it would also bring in discussion about family, friends, careers and cultures, just to name a few. Hopefully this is something you can translate into your own future work!
Growing Up Asian In Australia is an anthology with a lot to unpack, but there are plenty of unique stories with plenty of interesting links to be made. However you’re learning this text, being able to draw conclusions from stories and extrapolate them into your writing is a really important skill.
As you go, ask yourself about the implications: ‘so what?’ and ‘why?’. These sorts of questions will help you get richer insights and write about the anthology in a more interesting way.
Metalanguage is language that describes language. In films, we also need to consider cinematography – the technical side in the making of the film. For a detailed discussion, see What is metalanguage?
The prospect of writing a Text Response or Comparative essay on a film can be daunting—it’s difficult to know how to identify filmic devices let alone analyse why the director has used them to give meaning to particular scenes. To start us off, below are some filmic devices commonly used by directors that all students should be aware of when studying films.
This refers to the amount of space that is seen in one frame, which can be used to emphasise different aspects of the film’s setting or characters.
Example: An extreme close up of a character’s face to portray their emotions.
The way in which the audience is positioned to view the setting or character/s. This can enhance the audience’s understanding of the relationship between characters, or the way in which a character is feeling in a particular situation.
Example: a low camera angle can be used to demonstrate how a character is feeling empowered at a particular point in the film.
Any sound where the source of it can be seen in the scene (or is implied to be present)
Example: Voices, are diegetic. Any sound that comes from outside the scene itself, for example, soundtrack, is non-diegetic. We can analyse the way in which sound enhances the mood of the film.
In the Made in Dagenham clip above, diegetic sound such as the pouring rain, spoons tapping on cups, radio in the background are all used to offer viewers a 'real' sense that we're in the cafe too.
The way in which the scene is lit can create interesting effects in what it suggest about the characters in the scene.
Example: if the main source of light comes from the side of the screen, lighting up one side of a character’s face, this can create a sense of mystery.
How a character is dressed in any given scene is very important; their clothes can say a lot about their present state of mind or their physical situation.
In-depth analysis using Mabo
Even once we know all this, it can still be difficult to use these devices as evidence to support our ideas in a text response essay. So let’s put our knowledge into practice and take a look at a few scenes from the film Mabo, directed by Rachel Perkins.
Opening scene: Perkins uses a series of long shots of Murray Island in the opening scenes of the film, with high camera angles. This is done to contextualise the setting, as well as foreshadow the great significance the land will have on the events of the film. The subsequent low camera angle shots of the trees on the island present them as being tall and majestic. Paired with the upbeat, vibrant native music (non-diegetic sound) that is playing, it is evident that Perkins is celebrating the beauty of the land and emphasising its importance, not just in the film, but in the islanders’ lives.
Benny Mabo and a young Eddie walking the beach: a mid-shot is initially used in this scene to show father and son walking in the water. This alludes to the strength of the connection that the Mabos have to the island in depicting them as being immersed in water. The subsequent close ups of their faces, conveying their contentment, with the waves of the ocean in the background, indicate that this connection to the land goes beyond the mere fact that they live there; the pair are shown to have a profound spiritual and emotional connection with the island. This is emphasised by the soft, peaceful music that plays alongside Benny’s recital of Malo’s law.
Killoran exiles Eddie off Murray Island: side lighting is used in this scene to shadow some of Killoran’s face. This has a sinister effect. It suggests that his intentions toward Eddie are not honest, and further symbolises the corruption and lack of transparency in the Australian government in their dealings with the Indigenous. The cloud of cigarette smoke that surrounds him further highlights he toxicity of his presence on Murray Island, as does the solemn, foreboding music that plays throughout his conversation with Eddie. The close up shots of Eddie’s face convey the strength of his resolve in refusing to “[work] as a slave” for Killoran in penance for his crime.
Eddie on the railway tracks: this scene is all about Eddie’s internal conflict; his desire to return to his homeland, and the allure of the opportunities that the ‘mainland’ offers him (in particular, Bonita). The high camera angle is used to show him dancing across the railway tracks, which is heavy with symbolism, representing the choice between his old and new life. The close ups of his face as he sings his native song convey his emotional attachment to Murray Island and the depth of his despair at
not being able to return to it. His costume is comprised of old, dirty clothing, which is representative of his confused, weary and sorrowful state of mind. Yet the use of backlighting as he dances suggests that his decision to embrace his new life on the mainland will empower him. It further foreshadows the significance of this choice in enabling him to pursue the land rights case.
The Indigenous protest: Perkins deliberately uses archival/stock footage in this scene to enhance the viewer’s experience of the Indigenous’ protest at the Mayday march. By using real life footage from this actual historical event, Perkins adds authenticity to this scene, in order to effectively convey the importance of Eddie’s decision to participate. The high angle shots, and long shots, are used to show the sheer number of people who were fighting for change. The music quickens in pace to indicate a change, a turning point in Eddie’s life, in which he can no longer overlook the racism that his people have suffered. The close ups of his and his wife’s face during this scene express their passion and determination in supporting this cause, as well as their strong love for each other.
List of film techniques
These are just a few examples of the way in which you can use the techniques discussed to make your ideas more credible in text response essays. Some teachers may say that these filmic devices are a secondary source of evidence, but I believe they are equally as important as quotes in demonstrating a thorough understanding of the text—as long as you analyse why the director has chosen to include them.
Remember: the director only has a certain amount of time to tell the story, so every scene is important, and every technique is deliberate. That being said, don’t use these devices at the expense of quotations!
This study guide is written by Gabrielle O'Hagen (Mabo examples), and Lisa Tran.
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