Posts Tagged ‘HSC’

I often struggle to help students who want to improve their writing for English without realising that this means improving their writing in general. This article from Lifehacker explains why accuracy in your writing – all your writing – matters.

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Themes in Hamlet

I know quite a few students are apprehensive about Paper 2 due to the breadth of themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I have had students ask me how they can possibly prepare effectively when they could be asked anything about the play. Although it’s true that Hamlet is a complex text, it’s not infinite. Most of the themes overlap or are linked in some way. In the exam, if you take the time to really read the question, you should be able to relate the themes therein (assuming it’s a theme-based question, and there’s absolutely NO guarantee of that) to your own well developed and relatively broad reading of the play. Here’s an example of how I organised a long list of themes:

Themes in Hamlet

There are two other approaches that I think would also work well.

1. Associations. Organise a list of themes into a list of synonyms/related terms. E.G.

Patriarchy Sovreignty Kingship Politics
Propiety Piety Faith Confession
Loyalty Honour Duty Revenge

You can see from these three examples how this activity will move you from broad themes to more specifics and through a spectrum of connotations; for example, loyalty is a largely positive term and revenge a mostly negative one but they are related through the concepts of honour and duty.

2. Binary oppositions. Organise a list of themes into a list of opposites. E.G.

Action / Delay
Privacy / Surveillance
Reason / Faith
Order / Disorder
Honour / Betrayal

You might notice that not all the themes in these lists are in the mindmap above, which brings me to another important point. You need to have developed your own interpretation of the play in order to be successful in Module B, and that includes having decided which themes you think are significant.

I should also mention that my initial approach to this task involved writing each theme on a post-it note and arranging and then rearranging them on my desk. Try it.

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Note: this is the final “Notes on Frankenstein” post. I know, I know. There’s a whole other volume but I didn’t get that far and I just don’t have time at the moment. Sorry.

Science and philosophy

  • “watching and endeavouring to discover the motives which influenced their actions” (p131) – the creature uses observation to make discoveries about his world.

  • “I ardently longed to comprehend” (p135) – the creature’s desire to know, and the way in which he expresses it, is eerily similar to Victor’s.

  • Victor, a scientist who relies on his senses, is unable to overcome them, “I sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred” (p179).

The creature as reader

  • “I also learned the science of letters” (p142)

  • Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, The Sorrows of Werther (p154) – these represent a pretty well rounded education: religion, history, Romantic philosophy.

  • He finds them, “similar, yet strangely unlike” (p155)

  • As an empathetic being, he “sympathised with and partly understood” the texts.

Historical context

  • “I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants” – like the Romantics, the creature sees hunter gatherer populations as closer to nature, perhaps somehow more human – this idea is known as “the noble savage”.

  • In contrast, there is also a sense that European cultures are superior and more civilised, Safie’s mother, “born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet.” (p149)


  • “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred but I was unable to solve them.” (p155) – the creature’s use of rhetorical questions highlights his struggle to discover his identity and purpose, a struggle shared by all humans.

Biblical allusion (because we can never get enough)

  • The creature sees himself as being “like Adam” but soon decides on “Satan as the fitter emblem” (p155) – this makes sense if you have some understanding of Paradise Lost. Many scholars read Satan as the hero of the story.

  • “God, in pity” (p158) and “No Eve soothed my sorrows” (p159) both reinforce and question the creature’s deification of Victor.

  • He then goes on to do the same with De Lacey, “You raise me from the dust” (p163) – like God creating Adam.

  • “I, like the archfiend” (p164) – another reference to Satan.

  • The creature even uses the same logic used by Satan in Paradise Lost, rather than attacking the source of his pain – Victor – he decides to kill something the creator loves (p175).

  • Victor’s rebuttal to the creature’s “prayer” – “Shall I create another like yourself, whose joint wickedness might desolate the world?” (p176)


The use of direct speech at the beginning of Chapter 8 reminds us that we are dealing with layers of narrative.

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Biblical allusion – most of the references to heaven and hell, angels and demons in both texts are filtered through either Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno (there’s a hint of Blake in Blade Runner to look out for as well). It is useful to have at least a passing knowledge of these texts.

  • Victor “wandered like an evil spirit” in “a hell of intense tortures” (p105).

  • Elizabeth: “I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding, and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss” (p109).

  • “nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe” (p110).

  • For the creature, the De Lacey cottage is a “divine retreat as Pandemonium appeared to the daemons of hell after their sufferings in the lake of fire” (p125) – again, this is Paradise Lost. Reminds me of a line from Percy Shelley’s diary: “my mother fancies me on the high road to Pandemonium”.

Motif of sickness – reinforces Victor’s capacity to feel emotions deeply

  • “This state of mind preyed upon my health” (p105).

The sublime – and Victor’s Romantic imagination, which allows him to take spiritual comfort from the beauty of nature

  • “the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence” (p111).

  • “augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all” (p111).

  • “glorious presence – chamber of imperial Nature…they elevated me from all littleness of feeling” (p113).

  • “the presence of another soul would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene” (p114) – see Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ for a similar sentiment.

  • “sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul” (p115) – look out for references to Shelley (Percy, not Mary) around here.

Motif of ice and fire

  • “pallid lightnings that played above Mont Blanc” (p112).

The ideal of the noble savage

  • “Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings (p115) #humblebrag.

The relationship between creator and creature

  • “almost too horrible for human eyes” (p116) – Victor is horrified by the creature because of its appearance. Perhaps we, as readers, empathise with the creature precisely because we can not see it. Consider this idea when comparing descriptions of the creature with the physical beauty of the Replicants.

  • “How dare you sport thus with life?” (p117) – the creature challenges Victor.

  • “I am thy creature, and I will be ever mild and docile to my natural lord and king” (p118) – irony?

  • “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel” (p118) – probably the best quote in this novel, allusion to Paradise Lost.

  • The creature emphasises the divide between itself and humanity, “your fellow-creatures” (p118).

  • “Yet it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil” (p119) – allusion to the Lord’s Prayer (and deliver us from evil), suggesting Victor is a god-like figure, which is reinforced by…

  • “I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were” (p120).

The creature as complex being with a Romantic imagination of his own

  • “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me” (p121).

  • “Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure” (p122).

  • “I wished to express my sensations in my own mode” (p123)

Scientific belief

  • “the light from my eyes” (p122) – I think (and this might be a stretch) that this is a reference to a Renaissance belief that the ability to see is linked to our eyes creating light.

  • “I knew nothing of the science of words of letters” (p130) – and yet the creature learns by applying the scientific method, reinforcing the Enlightenment idea that men are inherently rational.

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Discussions of what are and are not appropriate human pursuits foreshadows the disastrous consequences of Victor’s passions (p57).

Look out for high register language, particularly from Victor. In spite of his horror of the creature he still speaks with pride, “the accomplishment of my toils” (p59).

Eye motif

  • “dull yellow eye” “watery eyes” (p59)


  • “I had selected his features as beautiful” (p59)


  • Victor’s dream about Elizabeth.

Victor Frankenstein as Romantic hero. Not only his relationship with the sublime natural world but also his capacity for extreme depth of feeling. Perhaps undermined by his hubristic pursuit of knowledge and power?


  • “divine spring” (p66) water symbolises birth and renewal.


  • Justine “learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being” (p70). Contrast with the treatment of the Replicants in Blade Runner. This may also be Shelley’s critique of the way in which servants were treated in England.


  • Clerval is described as an “Orientalist” (p75). The Romantics were fascinated by other cultures, often seeing them as being closer to nature. See Coleridge’s Kubla Khan for an example of Romantic Orientalism.

  • “Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating to a degree I never experienced in studying the authors of any other country” (p75).

  • “How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome” (p75). Romantic reaction against the Classicism of the Renaissance.

  • Gothic image of Caroline kneeling by her father’s coffin (p86).

  • Shakespearean allusion, “my prophetic soul” (p101) – see Hamlet I.v and Sonnet 107.

Motifs of fire and ice:

  • “I contemplated the lake: the waters were placid, all around was calm; and the snowy mountains, ‘the palaces of nature’ were not changed” (p82).

  • “the lightnings playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures” (p83).

  • “so beautiful yet terrific” (p84) – remember that “terrific” means “terrifying,” not “great”.

The inhumanity of the creature

  • “the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity” (p84).

  • “living monument of presumption and rash ignorance” (p89).

Motif of sickness

  • “the nervous fever with which I had been seized just at the time…would give an air of delirium (p85).

Guilt and innocence

  • Justine

    • described as “poor,” “good,” and “innocent” (p88) and “the most amiable and benevolent of human creatures” (p95) – note the contrast with Victor’s descriptions of the creature.

    • “her countenance, always engaging, was rendered, by the solemnity of her feelings, exquisitely beautiful” (p91).

    • “God knows…how entirely I am innocent” (p93).

  • “every human being was guiltless” (p89) [really Victor? Even you? – sorry, sometimes I can’t help editorialising…wait for it…]

  • Victor: “I, the true murderer” (p98).


  • “all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer than that one guilty escape (p97) – this is the inverse of the Enlightenment ideal of the presumption of innocence, or “innocent until proven guilty” a term coined by Enlightenment lawyer Sir William Garrow.

  • Judges are described as “harsh, unfeeling, reasoning” (p100) – the opposite of the Romantic ideal.

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The role of women:

  • “Caroline Beaufort possessed a mind of an uncommon mould.” (p26)

  • “the guardian angel of the afflicted” (p29) – Shelley reflects contextual values by portraying women as angelic helpers of men

Victor’s idyllic childhood with perfect parents

  • “Harmony was the soul of our companionship” (p32) – an example of romantic relationship that Victor has experienced first hand but fails to achieve for himself or to provide to his creation. [see post on Playing God in Frankenstein and Blade Runner]

Victor’s passion, however, is for knowledge, not love

  • “I was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge” (p32)

  • “I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine.” (p32) – “smitten” “delight” “desire” – romantic imagery but Victor’s passions are misplaced

Clerval as a foil to Victor

  • “deeply read in books of chivalry and romance” (p33)

  • “occupied himself with the moral relations of things” (p34) – highlighting that Victor did not consider these at all

  • It is the loss of companionship that allows Victor to lose his moral compass, “I, who had ever been surrounded by amiable companions…I was now alone.” (p43)


  • “Natural philosophy is the genius that regulated my fate” (p35) – “genius” here could mean spirit

  • “immutable laws of Destiny” (p39) – note the personification of Destiny through the use of capitalisation

  • “chance – or rather evil influence, the Angel of Destruction – led me first to M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy.” (p44) – it seems to me that Victor’s continual references to fate are an attempt to avoid responsibility for his actions.


  • “Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth.” (p36) – for a neat contextual link to Blade Runner,

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos[first published 1980]

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Walton feels alone, foreshadowing the loneliness of the creature:

  • “most severe evil, I have no friend” (p8) If loneliness is the most severe evil, what does that suggest about Victor’s treatment of his creation?

The positive qualities of humanity:

  • “gentle yet courageous…of a cultivated as of a capacious mind” (p8)

  • “some feelings, unallied to the dross of human nature, beat even in these rugged bosoms” (p9) – “dross” is also a biblical allusion, see Proverbs 25:4

  • “retains some of the noblest endowments of humanity” (p9)

Poetic allusions:

  • repetition of the word “romantic” (pp8-10)

  • “Ancient Mariner” (p11) – too obvious to be an allusion, this is really a reference to Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

  • “I shall kill no albatross” (p11) – allusion to the above poem

The idea of the Noble Savage

  • “southern cape of Africa or America?” (p12)

Walton’s first glimpse of the creature…:

  • “a being which had the shape of a man” (p15) – as distinct from an actual man

  • this view led to a sense of “unqualified wonder” (p16)

…Which contrasts with Walton’s first impression of Victor:

  • “a human being” (p16)

  • “He was not as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island [I suspect this is an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest] but an European.” (p16)

  • “I begin to love him as a brother” (p19)

  • “noble creature” (p19)

Victor’s description of the creature…:

  • “the daemon” (p18)

…And its dehumanising effect on him:

  • “inhuman in me to trouble you” (p18)

Ethics (or Shelley’s message to the reader):

  • “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought.” (p20)

  • “You seek for knowledge and wisdom…a serpent to sting you.” (pp22-23) – biblical allusion to Genesis 3.

The setting – sublime:

  • “wild and mysterious regions” contrasted against the “tamer scenes of nature” (p23)

Fate and foreshadowing (expressed in high modality language):

  • “nothing can alter my destiny” (p23)

  • “irrevocably determined” (p23)

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I recently discovered an old notebook filled with my own study notes on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Rather than simply throw it out, I thought I would type the notes and share them here.

[Page nos refer to the BOS preferred edition]

The Northwest Passage – literally a trade route through the Arctic Ocean; however, during Shelley’s time its existence remained theoretical (it was discovered in 1902 and has only really been useful as a sea lane since 2009). In this letter it represents the hope that there is still room for discovery and heroism in the world.


This technique is popular in gothic novels and gothic novels were popular during this era. In fact, they were so popular that parodies such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey were written and published before Frankenstein.

  • Margaret’s “evil foreboding” (p3)

  • Walton’s “foretaste” (p3)


This is a technique where opposites are juxtaposed. I think this really captures something of the depth and complexity of Romantic thought.

  • “frost and desolation” vs “beauty and delight” (p3)

  • “courage and resolution” vs “spirits…depressed” (p6)

  • “soon or never” (p7)

  • success vs failure (p6)

Biblical Allusion

This has to be the number one technique in Frankenstein (and it’s prevalent in Blade Runner too).

  • “eternal light” “all mankind to the last generation” “heaven” “soul”(p4)

  • “paradise” “consecrated” (p5)

  • “St Petersburg and Archangel” (p6)

  • “blessings” “testify” (p7)

Shelley also puts the Christian language of the bible in a broader spiritual and Classical context.

  • “temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated” (p5)

Science and Technology

  • “intellectual eye” (p4) also keep an eye out for the eye motif in both texts

  • “maths, medicine, physical science” (p5)


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I’ve been reading about the idea of the flipped classroom, where the traditional lecture-style elements of lessons are assigned for homework (students watch videos) and homework tasks such as answering questions, are completed in class. This appeals to me for a couple of reasons: students can absorb lectures at their own pace, they can rewind, pause or fast forward the videos, depending their own prior knowledge and interest; the flipped model also frees up class time for one-on-one interaction, hands on activities, group collaboration, and, for an HSC English classroom, exam practice.

For students wanting expand their understanding of this most rich and ambiguous of texts, or teachers wanting to explore flipping some elements, here are some of the best video resources (that I’ve found) on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

One of the most useful videos I have ever come across for helping students to understand the essential themes and enduring resonance of Hamlet is Hamlet: A Critical Guide, featuring Professors Stanley Wells and Russell Jackson.

Harold Bloom is one of the most influential literary critics alive today. Any student approaching Module B with any seriousness must have come across his name. His 40 minute lecture for Yale University begins, “There is no god but god and his name is William Shakespeare,”  which proclaims at least one perspective on the enduring nature of Hamlet.

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Getting back into it

Hopefully you’ve spent the summer break productively, reading ahead in your texts and related material, and completing a veritable feast of practice exams with which to feed your English teacher. (Sorry teachers, I hope you’ve had a good break too). If, however, the thought of a book or any kind of writing failed to enter your relaxed holiday brain, don’t despair, it’s not too late.

Step One

Make a study plan and stick to it. The best way to make a workable plan is to be realistic. Don’t say that you’re going to study for four hours every evening when, in the past, you’ve spent most of that time with friends or on xbox live. Do mix things up. Studies have shown that students retain more information if they regularly switch between subjects. So rather than working on English for two hours at a time, cut it down to twenty minutes and intercut it with Maths or PDHPE.

Step Two

Summarise, refine, rewrite. The first part of each study session should consist of revising what you have done in class that day. Take a highlighter and annotate significant points from the lesson. Copy these points out and expand on them: how will they be useful to you? Make connections between what you have learned and knowledge you already possessed. This might mean annotating or making new copies of previous notes or reorganising ideas into visual formats, such as mindmaps or flow charts.

Step Three

Practice exam responses. This breaks the twenty minute rule above if you’re undertaking a section (forty minutes) or a whole exam (two hours); however, you can improve your exam technique by tackling questions as five minute essay plans, five minute paragraphs, or ten minute pages. Change it up by using an essay question as stimulus for a creative response or by experimenting with writing from different perspectives. One way to really test your interpretation of a text is to write a response arguing the opposite, or an alternate viewpoint.

Step Four

Revise consistently. If you completed the Area of Study in Term 4, 2012 and you’re now into Module A, ensure that a significant portion of your study time is spent revising and practising Area of Study. Once you move into Module B, keep practising both AoS and Module A. This might sound like an exponential increase in work but once you’ve refined your ideas sufficiently and completed each module, the only addition will be practice responses.

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