Posts Tagged ‘English literature’

Unlike the Area of Study, Module C and, to some extent, Module A—which are concept based—Module B, the Critical Study, is text based. By this I mean that rather being about an idea (belonging, conflicting perspectives, context or the role of humanity), Module B’s focus is on studying the core text. The Module B Syllabus Rubric says,

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

Each elective in this module requires close study of a single text to be chosen from a list of prescribed texts.

Students explore the ideas expressed in the text through analysing its construction, content and language. They examine how particular features of the text contribute to textual integrity. They research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations of the text. Students discuss and evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts. They extrapolate from this study of a particular text to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.

Students develop a range of imaginative, interpretive and analytical compositions that relate to the study of their specific text. These compositions may be realised in a variety of forms and media.

Let’s break it down.

Reception in a range of contexts: students need to acknowledge that different people read texts differently and that these differences arise from variations in world view. World view is a useful idea. It means exactly what it sounds like: it’s how someone sees the world. This is influenced by historical, social and cultural context. Think about how your text was received in its original context and how that is similar to or different from how it is read now.

Example: The idea of the Divine Right of Kings was very popular in Europe during Shakespeare’s time. This notion, that kings rule because God wants them to, could be one of the reasons that Hamlet hesitates to kill his uncle. To a modern audience this makes less sense (living as we do after the French and Russian revolutions) so we look for answers in Hamlet’s character or in his personal ethical code.

If your text is a more recent one, such as Cloud Street, it might be useful to think about different communities within our modern society. Examine the significance of the house in the novel for an Aboriginal Australian who was a member of the Stolen Generation or what the novel might mean to someone who is unfamiliar with that aspect of Australian history.

Textual integrity: this is a tricky concept and the BOS uses the term differently from the way my university lecturers used it. In Module B, textual integrity means the way in which the different elements of the text work together to form an integrated whole.

Example: The plot, characters and language in Hamlet all work to reinforce the theme of decay and corruption. The gothic atmosphere of Moor House is integral to understanding the plot and character motivations in Jane Eyre.

Significance: another one of those tricky words with too many meanings. An interesting way to think of it is that meaning is the message of the text as the author intended while significance is the meaning of the text to a reader. This ties together the previous two ideas. If the elements (plot, setting, character, theme and style) all work together to create a message, then the text has textual integrity. The way message is interpreted or received in a given context is its significance.

I recommend reading CS Lewis’s essay on Hamlet entitled The Prince or the Poem. It very cleverly explains the way in which subsequent generations have read Shakespeare’s play, and how each critic has seen their own ideals and values reflected in the play’s titular hero.

Attacking this module might mean doing a little a self reflection and engaging with the world. What are your values, how are they shaped by your context and how do they affect your own reading of the text? That last question is important because it is your own reading of the text that the markers want to read. Don’t read a bunch of criticism and regurgitate in the exam. Engage with the text and its world, engage with yourself and your own world, think about the connections between the two and then write about it.

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While (re)reading Frankenstein it is worth asking the question, “who is telling this story?”

The structure of the novel is layered. There are a few different visual representations that can help us to understand how it works.

The first is a series of concentric circles…


…with the Creature’s story in the centre, then Victor’s, then Walton’s letters. You may like to add the overheard De Lacey story as an extra layer in the centre.

Another one, that my students came up with, is a stack of books…

…with Walton’s letters at the top and bottom and the other stories wedged in between.

The final image, and my favourite (again, an idea from my students) is this…

Walton is the moon to Victor’s Earth while the Creature is the sun around whom all stories revolve.

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The Preface is key to understanding the context of Frankenstein and Module A has a really strong focus on context. Unfortunately, the ugly edition chosen by the Board of Studies does not deign to include Mary Shelley’s Preface so it might be worthwhile finding another edition. I recommend the one from Vintage and have included a link to its Amazon page below.

When you read the Preface, consider Mary Shelley’s purpose in writing the novel. Remember that context can be historical (the Romantic movement and the French Revolution are both relevant here); social (questions surrounding the rights of men and women were important at this time); cultural (consider the importance of poetry and art as well as religion and the questioning of religion). Context can also be personal or biographical. Read and think about the story of the specific circumstances that inspired the writing of Frankenstein.

Here are some questions to help you get started with your study of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, if you’re well into Module A, you could use them for revision.


Letter I

  • What is the effect of the epistolary novel?
  • Walton writes like a Romantic poet. Find at least three quotes where he describes sublime landscapes.

Letter II

  • How is the theme of isolation introduced here?
  • Walton only knows the sea through poetry and books. What is the significance of this for his character?

Extension: Read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. How does the language compare with Walton?

Letter III

  • How does Shelley introduce the theme of men as divine beings here?

Letter IV

  • This is our first glimpse of the creature. How is he described? How is the creature contrasted with Victor? Write a list of the adjectives/adverbs used by Walton to describe the two characters.

Chapter I

  • Personal response: compare Victor’s childhood with your own. Would you describe his as happy or tragic?

Chapter II

  • How is Victor’s dangerous ambition foreshadowed here? (Think about the confrontational/antagonistic relationship between Victor and Nature and compared with the Romantic view).
  • How is the contrast drawn between Victor and his friend Henry Clerval?(Draw a table or venn diagram to show their similarities and differences).

Chapter III

  • What is the effect of the death of Victor’s mother on
    • Victor’s ambition?
    • Elizabeth?
    • The tone of the novel?

Chapter IV

  • Explain Victor’s ambition. How might it be seen, in a Romantic or Christian sense, as “unnatural”?

Chapter V

  • Compare Victor’s reaction to his creature with Walton’s earlier description.
  • How are the themes of isolation and sickness developed here?

Extension: look up William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. List parallels with your reading of Frankenstein so far.

Chapter VI

  • What is the significance of Victor’s reconnection with Nature in this chapter?

Chapter VII & VIII

  • What responsibility does Victor bear for the deaths of William and Justine?

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The epigraph to Frankenstein reads:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”

This is Adam addressing his Creator in Book 10 of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This epic poem has been hugely influential, not just on Frankenstein or the Romantics but also on Western Christian thought.

Take a look at the powerpoint below. It is not comprehensive but it should give you some idea of the relevance of Milton’s great work to your study of both Frankenstein and Blade Runner.

Paradise Lost and the (post)Modern Prometheus

The image of Satan by Gustave Dore, like Milton’s text, emphasises the fallen angel, heroic rebel aspect of the character. His bat-like wings distinguish him from the angels of heaven but his pose is that of a victim and Dore has drawn him in the armour of a classical hero.

William Blake was one of the earliest of the Romantic Poets*. Nature was deeply spiritual to Blake and, as a child, he often saw visions, including one of a tree filled with angels. The bible, often mediated through interpretations such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, was important to Blake in both a literal and an interpretative way. He, like many of his time, saw the French Revolution as a sign of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation. The image of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar** turned into a beast of the field, carries the same warning as Frankenstein and Blade Runner: there are serious consequences for humans who play at being gods.

Jacob’s Ladder, again by Blake, shows a Romantic interpretation of the vision of Jacob (one of the patriarchs of the Israelite nation) from Genesis chapter 28. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven; this was, the bible tells us, a sign that through Jacob’s lineage, all the inhabitants of the earth would be blessed. This reminds me of Victor Frankenstein’s insistence that his creation would be of benefit to mankind (though I notice that neither the almighty nor Frankenstein explain exactly how their blessing will work). Like Dore’s Lucifer, Blake’s angels are classical figures, showcasing the abandon with which the Romantics mixed biblical and classical mythology.

The Romantics and their influences are key to understanding the context of not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

If you have any specific questions relating to posts or resources, please ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond.

*The Romantic Poets can be thought of as two groups or generations: those who were old enough to experience the French Revolution (either first hand by visiting France or through the many political pamphlets written about it) and those of the subsequent generation. The first group includes Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth; the second, Byron, Keats and Shelley.

**If you would like to read explore this story further it can be found in the biblical book of Daniel, chapters 2-4.

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The composers of Frankenstein and Blade Runner both use non-human characters to shine a spotlight on the human experience. In addressing questions related to these texts we must ask ourselves, what are the fundamental needs, experiences and desires shared by human beings? We are all born, we all need nurturing, we all desire to know the answers to questions such as, ‘why am I here?’ ‘what is my purpose?’ We all want companionship at different levels, from acquaintances to friends to romance and sexual fulfillment. We are all aware, at some level, that we will one day die and we all fear that end of our existence, yet we all hope that something of ourselves, whether it be children or achievements or just moments in time, will live on after we are gone.

Thinking about these issues in relation to the characters and themes in key moments of both texts will help you to deepen your understanding of the texts and the module. Focus on scenes that have resonated with you as reader and viewer. Spend time reviewing them and journalling your responses. The more engaged you are with the texts and concepts of a module, the better your responses will be and, more importantly, the more you will enjoy it.

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Biblical allusion is a key technique in both texts for the Comparative Module: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott. In an increasingly secular and multicultural country, it can no longer be assumed that students know the bible verses being alluded to in various texts. Here are some suggested verses and associated notes to help you out.

Matthew 6:22-23

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.

Of course eyes are a key motif in both texts. It is the creature’s eye opening that disgusts Victor. And it is Roy’s eye surveying the city (Los Angeles = City of Angels) at the beginning of the film. The above verse is one of the sources of the saying “the eye is the window to the soul”.

Unto the last generation

This phrase is used so often in the Bible I won’t bother to list all the references. Victor uses it to describe who will benefit from his creation: “all mankind to the last generation” (p4).

Deliver us from evil (part of the the Lord’s Prayer)

The creature says to Victor, “Yet it is within your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil.” This reinforces the notion that Victor is playing god.

Isaiah 14:12-15

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.

First of all, isn’t that a beautiful piece of poetry? This passage is probably actually about Babylon but, since the Mediaeval period has been taken to describe Lucifer’s fall from heaven. This works beautifully with our texts in a number of ways. The Creature says to Victor, “I ought to have been thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel” (p118). The Prelude to Frankenstein quotes from Paradise Lost (check out Book 2 of Milton’s epic for a deeper understanding), which was clearly inspired by this chapter in the bible. Finally, Roy’s confrontation with Tyrell and subsequent death can be seen as an allegory of Lucifer’s challenging of god’s authority.

There is, of course, far more to it than that. In the film Roy can be linked with the prodigal son, Adam and–at his death–the crucified Christ. Key place names include (the already mentioned) Los Angeles and, in Frankenstein, ArchAngel and St Petersburg. Victor talks about Paradise and Providence. He describes his mother, Caroline, as a “guardian angel”. The Tyrell Corp building is a pagan pyramid, while the Swiss Alps are pictured as “domed” cathedrals.

Then there is the theological question raised by both texts: do the created beings (Frankenstein’s “daemon” and the replicant Roy Batty) have souls?

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A colleague of mine recently mentioned that, in the race to meet a billion outcomes, we had perhaps lost some of our love of and fun with language. One of my teaching resolutions for 2009 is to spend more time on activities that inspire a love of our crazy language. Here’s an interesting start:

This is what happens when you put the complete works of Shakespeare into Wordle. It generates a cloud of the most common words, size indicating frequency. I think this would be a great tool for creating vocabulary lists that are a bit more interesting and a bit less listy.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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During discussion in class today a student asked, “isn’t that the one where they randomly burst into song?” He was, of course, referring to one of my chosen appropriations, the Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice (see previous post for an example of a musical number from the film). This got me thinking about the links between the cultural context of a text, the values portrayed (and questioned) in the text and the narrative and stylistic conventions of the genre. Characters randomly burst into song because it is a Bollywood film, not because it is an appropriation of a Jane Austen novel.

Similarly, Bridget Jones chronicles her weight loss and gain and smoking and drinking habits as well as the ups and downs of her love life, not because she is supposed to be a modern Elizabeth Bennett but because she a single woman of a certain age. What she shares with Lizzy (and with Bride‘s Lalita) is the pressure to marry and to marry well. In all three texts marriage equals social mobility, something that is valued across the three texts and their cultures.

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Following the example of Dr Shann, I have decided to begin work on the Term 3 project being undertaken by the Preliminary Extension English classes. These journal entries will chronicle my progress and, hopefully, serve as a guide to the students who are tackling the idea of a learning journal for the first time. This is an important skill as it will be one of the major assessment pieces for those undertaking the Extension 2 course. My core text for the major project will be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the most popular of her completed novels but not, I must confess, my favourite. At least part of the ongoing appeal of this text has to be attributed to Austen’s construction of characters through dialogue and the technique of free indirect speech (which she pioneered). The two main characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett (or as I like to think of them Mr Pride and Ms Prejudice) still charm audiences with their wit two centuries after being written. This choice of text will also, of course, require me to not only reread the novel but to view the two most influential adaptations, the 1996 BBC mini series starring Colin Firth and the 2005 Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen effort

For my two modern appropriations I am considering the Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice and the novel by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Both are very deliberate appropriations of Austen’s novel, in terms of character and plot. Both also transpose the characters and plot of the original into interesting and different settings that come with their own culture, values and narrative traditions.

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