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Critical Essays

The aim of these essays is four-fold. They are designed:

a. to help you prove that you have not only understood the events of the text which you have read but also that you have fully understood its main ideas and central concerns. You must also show that you have fully understood what the question is asking you to do. Critical essay questions always require you to ‘prove’ or ‘show’ or ‘examine’ something. You cannot just recount the text.

b. to help you prove that you are able to analyse the way the writer explores his/her text’s central concerns in terms of its technique, style, language, structure and so on. Mere identification of technique is not sufficient. You have to show you are able to comment critically on these elements and show how they contributed to the overall impact of the text.

c. to help you prove that you can evaluate different aspects of the text and its techniques, ie you can weigh up the effectiveness of various technical elements, offer your comments on them and justify these comments with detailed and relevant evidence from the text.

Also you must show that the text, its ideas, and how the writer explored these ideas technically had some personal effect on you.

d. to help you prove that you can do a, b and c whilst remaining absolutely relevant to the question you were asked. You must do all this in about 650 words, clearly structured and fluently expressed using all the usual ‘rules’ of essay writing such as coherence of thought, correct spelling, punctuation, linkage and so on.

If you cannot communicate your intended meaning clearly, and develop a line of thought entirely relevant to the question, then mastery of skills a to c alone will not be enough to merit a pass.

Planning Your Essay

First you must carefully examine the question which will tell you exactly what to do, for you will not be given a free hand to write in any way you like. The question will be framed to prevent you merely recapping the events of the text. You will be required to ‘show’ or ‘outline’ something which means that you will have to develop a specific line of argument to answer the question.

Example

Show how, in the poem King Billy, Edwin Morgan effectively creates a sense of what life was like in Glasgow in the 1930s.

The question is very specific about what it wants you to do. It wants you to show how the poet creates the impression of 1930s Glasgow, so you must mention:

what impression of 1930s Glasgow you actually got from the poem and whether you thought this was the impression the poet intended;

the actual words and phrases which best helped to give you this impression and how they did this;

any other techniques which helped create this impression and how they did this.

When you look closely at how the question is broken down you can begin to see a sort of plan beginning to take shape. In this case it might be:

an introduction;

the impression you got from the poem of 1930s Glasgow;

how the poem’s language and other techniques helped to create that impression. Examples and quotations;

a concluding section.

Once you’ve planned out the basic structure of the essay you can begin to think in more detail about the contents of the paragraphs within each ‘section’ of that structure.

Beginning to Write

Any essay – Critical or otherwise – will begin with an introductory section (not necessarily one paragraph). You can use this section to establish to the reader the text you intend to evaluate. It can be especially helpful to a reader who has not read the text itself if you also use this section to provide a very brief synopsis or summary of the text’s main events and ideas. A very basic, though perfectly acceptable, way of doing this is to use the wording of the question itself to frame your opening.

Example

Write about a poem which has as its stimulus an everyday incident or moment which has personal significance to the poet. Show by close examination of the poem’s techniques how this personal moment is developed to take on a more universal meaning for us all.

A typical opening section in response to this question might read:

A poem which I have read which develops a personal moment into having a more universal significance is “In The Snack Bar” by Edwin Morgan. The poem recounts a moment when Morgan is asked for assistance by a blind man in a cafe , and whilst helping him, Morgan “concentrates my life to his” and considers what it must be like to be blind and to have to rely on strangers for help every day. By the end of the poem “his personal moment” has been developed into an analysis of life from someone else’s viewpoint, and of how we all take the little things in our lives for granted. The poem also considers the nature of human inter-dependence but manages to do so in an original way
which is at the same time emotionally provocative.

Analysing and Evaluating the Text

Apart from the concluding paragraph, the remaining paragraphs of your essay should both analyse and evaluate the text’s technical elements. In this section you identify and deal with individual technical elements of the text, offering some commentary on the effect or impact of these devices not only on the meaning of the text but also on you emotionally or intellectually as an individual. Any comments you make have to be justified within the terms of your argument, and must be backed up textually, either with a direct reference to the text or better still by a direct accurate quotation. Each paragraph of analysis and evaluation should include an implicit or explicit reference to the wording of the question in order to ensure relevance throughout.

Example
A typical analytical and evaluative paragraph might read something like this:

However it is not only visual imagery which Owen exploits in this poem. Further to reinforce the horrific impact of the scene Owen employs a number of auditory devices, the first of which is the onomatopoeia of;

“deaf even to the hoots
of gas shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick boys! An ecstasy of fumbling …”

“Hoots” conjures to me the sense of a sound in the distance which has not yet arrived. There is a vague awareness of it as background noise, and this is entirely as it would have been for the exhausted soldiers unable to pick out one more vague sound in the cacophony of battle. But this vagueness is disturbed by a sudden realisation of what the noise is, dropping gas shells. The repetition and capitalising of the word ‘gas’ reflects the shouting and panic which would have gone on and the repetition of ‘s’ sounds over three consecutive lines reflects the hissing of the escaping gas. To me there is a definite sinister tone in this hissing. It makes the attack seem underhand, sneaky, repellent. We associate hissing with snakes, creatures symbolically represented in literature as evil, and the implication is that this form of warfare is evil and devilish.

Owen compounds the effects of these sounds with later descriptions of a gassed soldier “gasping”, “guttering”, “drowning” and we get to hear him drowning in his own fluids as the gas and its effects gather in his “froth corrupted lungs”. So not only are we given a camera like view of what is happening before Owen’s eyes, but we also get to hear what it sounds like. The effect is to pitch us right into the action making the whole scene gruesomely vivid even to those of us who have never experienced warfare.

Note the way these paragraphs have identified a particular technique to be analysed – sound effects – and have concentrated solely on these and their effects. Other techniques would be dealt with in other paragraphs.

Note how the candidate has analysed not only how the writer used this technique, by giving examples and references, but has also analysed why the writer has used it – to create realism and to make the reader feel as if he or she too is experiencing the scene.

Note also how the candidate has evaluated the effect or impact of these sound effects, not only on the drama of the poem but has also evaluated the effect it had on him or her emotionally.

Finally, note how each comment has been backed by a reasoned case or by quotation, or both.

Each important technique or element of the text you deal with would adopt a similar approach.

Bringing Your Essay To A Conclusion

The concluding section of your essay is your opportunity to draw all the loose ends of your thinking together. It is important to refer directly to the wording of the question again to underline to the reader the relevance of your remarks. But don’t just repeat everything you have already said. Try to add something new to close on. It is perfectly acceptable to recap the gist of the argument you have outlined but the conclusion is the place for you to identify the cumulative effect of the various techniques you have been analysing and evaluating.

An example might be:

So “In The Snack Bar” is more than just a recalling of a moment of personal significance. It is much more than that. The combination of imagery, unusual associations , and transferred narrative viewpoint gave me a horrific insight into what it must be like to be blind, or indeed just different. Morgan exploits your emotions without ever being cynical or preaching, and brings out initially disgust, then sympathy, and finally sheer admiration for the way this unfortunate man just gets on with his life. There is no doubt that reading the poem forces you to examine some of your own comfortable views about life.

Expression and Linkage

Remember that a critical essay is, above all, an essay. It must conform to all the conventions of essay writing such as being properly spelled, sentenced, punctuated and paragraphed. Try to keep your language simple and precise. Many candidates adopt an absurd pomposity in these essays, but no marks will be deducted for simple yet effective language – indeed markers will be grateful for the respite.

Try to ensure each idea, and each paragraph flows smoothly and logically into the next. Topic sentences which contain words which refer to the content of the previous paragraph and indicate the topic of the new paragraph can be very helpful. (See separate note on paragraphing if you’re unsure about this.)

Offering Comments

Make sure when you comment on a word or technique you say something meaningful about it. Too many candidates simply go through the text outlining the denotation of words or phrases, without ever attempting to comment on their connotation. Markers know what a text denotes; what they don’t know is what the text connoted to you. You must tell them this.

Personal Response

Be sensible about this. Don’t go overboard. You have to show that you were “engaged” by the text. This usually means that you were interested by its ideas and were perhaps provoked, amused, angered or moved by it. It is more controlled to write something like:

“This moving image evokes anger as well as sympathy …”

rather than, say;

“And this made me very sad and very angry.”

Implicit expressions of emotion are also helpful, such as:

“sadly”

“… presenting a pathetic vision of …”

Such implicit expressions help prevent the slightly strained explicit versions such as:

“and this aroused my sympathy.”

Some Literary Conventions

Offer your analysis of the text in the present tense.

“The poet uses an extended metaphor …”

“He develops the idea of the hospital being a ship …”

Offer your evaluation of the text in the past tense.

“I thought the idea of an unborn foetus narrating the poem was particularly striking …”

“The poet uses an extended metaphor which I found especially effective …”

Incorporating Quotations

Rather than always breaking up your narrative with a whole battery of inverted commas to denote quotations (although there is nothing inherently wrong in this), it can add a touch of style to your writing if you adopt the following convention when incorporating quotations within the narrative of your essay.

If you are quoting a single word, incorporate the word within the narrative and underline it:

e.g. Lady Macbeth makes a pun on the words guilt and gilt.

If you want to quote a line or less, incorporate the line within the narrative, enclose it within inverted commas, and ensure it fits grammatically into the sentence.

e.g. Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to go through with the act of killing Duncan.”

If you want to quote several lines from a text, separate the quote from the main narrative by missing two lines (double – spacing) before and after the quotation; indenting the quotation from the margin, this time omitting the inverted commas. (If you are word-processing use italics.)

e.g. Eventually Macbeth has “supp’d full of horror” to the extent that he no longer seems capable of feeling any human compassion. Even when he hears
that his wife is dead, he takes no time to consider the loss. His thoughts on the matter are fleeting;

She should have died hereafter
There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
Until the last syllable of recorded time.

These words mark the lowest point of Macbeth’s fortunes . .

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Restricted Response Questions (Practical Criticism)

This part of the course requires you show that you can analyse and appreciate the meaning and technical structure of a text (or excerpt) which you have never seen before. The skills required to do this are a blend of those you use in writing a critical essay, and those you use in answering Interpretation or Close Reading questions.

The questions you will be asked will be those of Analysis and those of Appreciation.

Questions about analysis will ask you:

what a writer has said, and;

how he or she said it.

Questions about your appreciation of the text will ask you to explain:

your personal reaction to the text, and;

your evaluation of how effective you found its ideas and techniques to be.

For both types of question, you must always answer on the basis of offering a comment or opinion and then justifying that comment with a direct textual reference or quotation.

Setting Out Your Answers

A crude rule of thumb is to think along the lines that to gain a mark you must make a comment (1) and a reference (1). At this level candidates tend to score marks as twos (comment + reference) rather than as ones. Hence, if a question is worth, say, 4 marks, you should be looking to offer two analytical comments and justify these comments with two direct references; 6 marks would require 3 comments + 3 references, and so on. Remember, this is only a guide. Ensure, above all else, that you do what the questions ask you to do.

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Answering Analysis Questions

The questions themselves are framed to help you answer. For questions about analysis think about what the writer said, how (s)he said it, and what effect (s)he was trying to achieve by saying it this way. Imagine a poem is the unseen text, and the following analysis question has been asked about it.

In lines 2 -8 the poet illustrates the difference between the ripe and unripe berries. Using at least 2 examples, show how the poet’s use of imagery makes this difference clear. (4 marks)

First, you must work out what the question is asking you to do. It requires you to:

identify at least 2 examples of the poet’s use of imagery between lines 2 and 8;

show or explain how this imagery illustrates the difference between the ripe and the unripe berries.

Next, look at the value of the marks, here, 4. The logical way to set out your answer would be:

to explain or show how one image illustrates the ripeness of the berries;

to explain how another image does the same for the unripe berries.

Your answer might be set out thus.

The writer illustrates the ripeness of the berries with the imagery of their “flesh was sweet, summer’s bloodstains”. (reference) This suggests ripeness because we usually associate “blood” with life, vitality, redness. We can imagine picking the berries and the child’s fingers being stained red, like “bloodstains”. The ripe fruit breaks easily. “Summer” and “sweet” connote the warmth and colour of the soft ripe fruit in the image. (comment)

In contrast the imagery to describe the unripe berries is colder and lacking in vitality. This fruit is “hard as a knot” and “inked up”. (reference) The previously “sweet flesh” is now “hard as a knot” and this suggests the texture of something or someone old, lacking in warmth , softness and colour. “Blood stains” have now become “inked”, connoting writing at school which the child berry-picker would find a lot less natural and pleasant than the “bloodstains” of the ripe fruit picked on warm summer days. (comment)

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Note the detailed commentary and the frequent references throughout the answer. Such a process can be applied to most analytical answers.
Answering questions on Appreciation of the Text

Questions about appreciating the text tend to be less like Interpretation questions and can be thought of as mini-essays worth somewhere in the region of ten marks. The same rule of thumb of comment + reference applies, although here your answer will have to be longer.

Imagine the unseen text you have been set is a poem and you have been asked the following question about your appreciation of it.

Appreciation

Comment on the significance for you of the idea of “waiting” in the whole poem. In your answer you should consider the poet’s treatment of the idea, and your reactions to it. (10 marks)

To gain the ten marks a candidate would have to be able to offer five or six comments, evaluating and explaining the significance of the various ideas about “waiting” in the poem, backing these with quotations. It might be set out thus.

This whole poem is really all about “waiting”. It is striking that the very first and last words in the poem are “waiting”. It is especially effective to finish on this word because it is the very last thought we are left with. It sticks in the mind making you wonder what the woman is waiting for.

The title “Waiting Room” was also effective because its meaning was ambiguous. Literally it is a room where one waits for a train but I thought its real significance was that, the woman especially, but also the others in the room are waiting to die. The significance is that death is inevitable. It is quite a chilling thought.

There is pathos in the metaphorical treatment of her life having moved into its final stages where she is now “waiting for winter” and “waiting for the rain to stop”. Just as winter indicates the death of the old year so it is with the woman. Her best years are behind her now. This bleak tone is reinforced by the mention of “waiting for the rain to stop” which not only adds to the gloomy, grey tone of the poem, but “rain” could also signify tears, the unhappiness of life, almost suggesting she might be happy to end her suffering by dying.

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Also interesting was the way that the poet has almost suggested that from the moment we are born we begin the process of dying. This is achieved by a combination of the constant repetition of the word “waiting” and the development of how she waits as she gets older. At first she “waits neatly”, then “graciously”, then “defiantly” and finally, as an old woman, she now is “waiting to obey”. This signified to me that she was waiting “to obey” the forces of nature – the unavoidable journey towards death. The effect of this journey through her life is that it brings out not only your sympathy for, but also your admiration of, the old woman because we get to see her at various stages in her life and not just as an old woman.

Note the way the candidate has offered five or six comments or opinions about techniques in the poem, has commented on the effect of these techniques on the meaning of the poem and on him or her, and has justified all of this by backing everything said with direct references to the text and quotations.

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