Tag Archives: AQA LitB

Poems on Trial 2

Today Year 13 put poems on trial as part of the preparation for AQA LitB4. I blogged about the idea here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/putting-a-poem-on-trial-at-the-cenotaph-and-futility/
and thought a follow up would be interesting.

Although very close to the end of the summer term and disrupted by absences, the discussion warmed up well and teaching points could be developed. The obvious ones were a tendency to generalise and a reluctance to engage with proof – assertion is not the same as developed thought. However the debate did highlight the issues around personal perspectives which the students need to understand. AQA are clear that a good essay is an essay with genuine debate. This activity has helped the students to realise that the debate that they took part in is the same thought process as the discussion they need to have in their heads when planning and writing – an awareness of alternative viewpoint and a willingness to engage with critical discussion of all viewpoints is vital to the writing of a strong piece of work. The activity helped to show this, especially in the discussion after the actual debate. There is no simple answer to any discussion of relative value of artworks – consequently the debate must be all-encompassing and the thought processes complex. The Critical Anthology has to be used to channel ideas and to provide a structure to the debate, but the ideas must be personal and independent.

If you choose to watch the attached clip, this was in no way rehearsed and is the first attempt at the activity. I hope you find it useful.

the discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d4WTmM3euQ&feature=youtu.be

Intro to Arts element of the IBDP ToK unit poetry composition
poetry composition game (ToK) to develop sense of worth through practical application
TOK arts intro

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Filed under AQA LitB, AQA LitB 4, coursework, teacher training

Putting a Poem on Trial: At the Cenotaph and Futility

As part of their preparation for the AQA Lit B4 Critical Essay, Year 13 are about to put two poems on trial. The format will be that of a MACE debate (2 speakers per side and comment from the floor) and a vote will be taken.
The idea is to develop their understanding of Section C of the Critical Anthology. Beauty and Value in Literature.
Each student needs to prepare both sides of the following motion: THBT At the Cenotaph is more worthy of a place in an A level anthology than is Futility.

All the argument should be based on the poems themselves and the Critical Anthology, using the passage that begins on P29 and breaks down the criteria by which value is often established. Students should remember that their own POV is vital in this task.

The essays that are written at A2 require debate within them – there is no clear and simple answer to any question. My intention is that be externalising that debate, students will quickly see the relevance and power of “alternative viewpoints” when discussing literature. It seems obvious that there can be no clear answer to this question, thus the students will have to fall back onto the debate generated by the use of complex language, of metaphor, of complex ideas and onto the contexts of creation of both poems.

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Filed under AQA LitB 4, coursework, debating, poetry, teacher training

The porter monologue – sound file version

This is a sound file generated by SoundGecko. It is based on the the poerter scene in Macbeth. The text for the sound file is also on the blog. It is an experiment, but I am interested to see whether people find it useful.

sound gecko porter file

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Elements of the Gothic in the Pardoner’s Tale

A short screen cast can be found by following this link…

It is intended as a stimulus for students studying the Pardoner for AQA LitB3.

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The Pardoner at Year 13

An introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale aimed at students sitting AQA Lit B3. This is intended as an overview and a platform to encourage further reading and research. It is not guaranteed to be “correct”!

Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The Pardoner’s Tale: A guide for AQA LITB 3 at
Slough Grammar School
This guide is targeted at students in Yr13 studying the Pardoner’s Tale for Lit B
3. In this syllabus, the General Prologue is not indicated and it will feature only
briefly in my writing. My aim is to introduce and stimulate discussion on key
elements of the Tale whilst ensuring that students are still required to
undertake significant amounts of independent research and thought. I am not
intending to offer model essays or similar responses. The text I am using is the
Oxford Student Text and any line references refer to this edition (Chaucer ed:
Croft, 2006). Further material will be published on the Slough Grammar School
VLE and on my blog: http://www.jwpblog.wordpress.com
Students will be reading this text as part of the Elements of Gothic strand. It is
worth noting, however, that when reading this text the priority should be to
engage with the text per se, rather than being sidetracked by the notion of
Gothic implied in the title. The Gothic elements will be discussed in due
course, but the questions in Part A require a close understanding of the text
first and foremost and the titles of the essays demand a clear focus on the
named texts rather than a general discussion of Gothic elements applied to a
text in a scattergun manner.
A useful guideline should be the AQA descriptors for each mark band, outlined
below:Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
This grid has proven very useful to me when assessing essays. The descriptors
give a good guideline for basic grading. Obviously nothing is in fallible, but by
using this to attach an essay to a particular level at the outset, it has been
moderately straightforward as I have become more experienced, to place
essays in their respective bands. I particularly like the “Some understanding”
band for those essays which move between focused thought and paragraphs
of irrelevance.
Obviously when a range of marks is awarded against the AOs that reflects a
range of Bands, a best fit approach is employed. Running through the whole
process is an understanding that in awarding marks, the question has been
I think this is the area that is most frustrating and one that I shall be reinforcing
all the time next year. Many of the papers I mark simply do not make their
responses relevant to the question. Students seem to have a great deal of
knowledge about genre, historical contexts, critical theory, contexts of
authorship and so on. Sadly, these ideas seem to be used to pad out essays
rather than to help to focus the response. Thus in an essay about the potential
attractiveness of the Gothic Villain (June 2012), a student is struggling to make
a clear link between the title of the essay and paragraphs focusing, among
other things, on the industrial Revolution, James I, characters (especially
female) who are not villains.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
In fact many essays simply set out to write the essay they have e practiced and
take little notice of the thrust of the essay that is set.
This is often most noticeable in Section A where the insistence on focusing on
“elements of the Gothic” makes a focused response on the text difficult to
maintain. The key word is “elements”. No one is pretending that The
Pardoner is a Gothic text, but there are elements in the themes and motifs of
the tale which could be said to reflect those ideas which some 500 years later
will be grabbed by Gothic writers. Students must remember what the
intention of the author was and also be aware of contemporary circumstances,
such as the Black Death, which have to colour Chaucer’s writing.
I will look at character later in the discussion. At this stage the General
Prologue description should be considered.
Lines 675-715 of the General Prologue contain the physical description of the
Pardoner. Chaucer, in the voice of one of the pilgrims, paints a clear image his
hair, “as yelow as flex” hangs lankly down and s spread over his shoulders in
“colpons oon and oon”. He is vain in his clothes, trying to wear his hood “al of
the newe jet”. The sense is one of vanity and almost female attention to his
outward appearance. Certainly, The Pardoner has moved away from the
restrictions placed upon clergy at the time. The description moves on to his
bulging eyes – again, at the time such staring was considered a sign of general
licentiousness and a far cry from what was expected of the clergy. Perhaps the
most interesting line comes at 691: “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare”.
Here Chaucer introduces the twin ideas of eunuchry and femininity. I will not
digress into a long discussion of potential homosexuality, but draw attention to
the twin descriptors. There is more here than a need to fill up a line and
students should have this at the back of their minds. The Pardoner boasts of
having a “joly wenche in every toun” (Tale 167), but this is unlikely in the light
of the description. Indeed the insistence on the padding out of his “lappe”
with his various relics suggests boasts born of an inability to partake of such Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
pleasures. The Host has no doubts about this as we read at the end of the tale
where he wishes to enshrine the Pardoner’s testicles in “an hogges toord”.
Perhaps he regrets that the Pardoner has none to treat this way, rather than
suffers from an outburst of good manners. Any student wishing to follow this
further should look at Carolyn Dinshaw’s essay: Eunuch Hermeneutics
(Dinshaw, 1997).
The Prologue is not wholly critical. The Pardoner is held as a fine example of all
Pardoners. Not that this is huge praise. Pardoners had a reputation for
dishonesty and hypocrisy. Although the Pardoner is a shining example, this
may well be an example of the worst behaviour.
A final comment should be given to his voice. In the Tale we will see the
Rhetorical skills that the Pardoner obviously has in great number, but this is
somewhat undermined by having “a voys… as smal as hath a goot”. This
seems to tie in with his lack of masculinity and also links the Pardoner to the
animal associated with the Devil and with lechery.
This section is not part of the set text for examination but an awareness of
ideas such as outlined above is vital as we begin to study the Tale itself.
In common with much writing of the 14th Century, the characters of the tale
are not drawn with any suggestion of motivation or self-questioning. Often
allegorical, characters are required to illustrate ideas behind the narrative and
in this story the characters are the three Riotoures, the Old Man, The tavern
boy and the Pardoner himself.
The Riotoures, “yonge folk” who resemble modern teenagers to a remarkable
degree, are not differentiated beyond the briefest of descriptions. None have
a name and are merely the “woorst”, the “proudeste” and the “yongeste”.
Indeed there is no way of knowing whether the epithets are to be equally
shared out. This does not matter. In the story they serve the purpose of
illustrating the theme “radix malorum est cupiditas”. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The three are united by a holy oath which they immediately break when they
decide to kill not death but one another. Indeed there is a gentle irony when
“oon of hem spak thus unto that oother/Thou knowest wel thou art my
sworen brother;”(Tale 521-2) thus acknowledging the pact they have sworn
immediately before moving murder of the youngest. Not that the youngest is
any better – he plans his murders with no prompting and is at pains to ensure
that the bottles he borrows are “large bottles thre” (Tale 585) as though
ensuring the maximum quantity of poison for his deed. Indeed it is important
to the Pardoner that they have little to distinguish them from one another.
The vital thing for such an allegory is that they “types” are less clear than the
message. Overt characterisation gets in the way. The one who speaks to the
Old Man has a definite swagger and threatening bluster, but we do not know
who he is other than that he is the “proudeste”. He responds to the Old Man
roughly and with arrogance little suited to the old man’s gentle politeness and
the respect conferred by age.
The Old Man is regarded by many as something of an enigma. He is caring and
polite – he greets the Riotoures and as he departs wishes them well: “God be
with yow… God save yow… and thee amende” (Tale 463-481). The proudeste
riotour draws our attention to the fact that he is disguised in some way and
invites the Old Man to tell his tale. Chaucer sets up the irony of the fact that
the young men seek death to kill him whereas the old man longs to meet death
in order that he himself might die. This serves to increase his melancholy air as
he taps at his “mooder” earth and begs “leeve mooder, leet me in!” (Tale 445).
This prayer has such a strong simplicity that we can only pity this character
who seeks not to challenge and who moves out of the tale having pointed out
the whereabouts of Death. Students should think carefully about the Old Man
and consider Chaucer’s intentions: he may be an obvious contrast and no more
– age confers wisdom and he is challenged by the proudest rioter thus
increasing the contrast; he may represent death itself or even be death in
disguise – he seems immortal and also ensures that the teenagers die a death
that will ensure damnation and therefore possibly acts as some kind of judge
over their morals; he might be seen to represent the idea of the “wandering
Jew” – the stateless outsider who has travelled as far as “Inde” and is doomed
to continue to do so, tapping at the earth in a constant reminder of his Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
enforced immortality; he shows no fear of the youngsters and still wishes them
well. Students should consider whether there is a hint of irony here.
The tavern Boy has no great role in the story other than as a contrast to the
young men. His role is brief, but in his dialogue Chaucer allows innocence to
emerge as he talks of the contemporary scourge: the Black Death. He
introduces the idea of the dead man being drunk as he died and the character
gains sympathy by referring to his mother as he warns the youngsters to be
“redy for to meet him everemoore” (Tale 398). Even his referring to the
questioner as “maister” is calculated to suggest his youth and his innocence.
The Pardoner himself dominates his tale and he should be seen as a key
character. After Chaucer’s introduction in the General Prologue, we are ready
for vanity and arrogance. We are not disappointed. So arrogant is the
character that his prologue openly admits to the Pilgrims that he is as guilty of
the sins he is going to outline as are any of his characters. He lists his lying and
cheating with a pride that even as he subverts the teachings and ideas of the
church, leads us to find him engaging. He admits to adding “saffron” to his
goat-like speech and shows the falsehood inherent in all his relics. He is clever,
though, and we learn that he suggests the worst sins as being beyond his cure
– consequently anyone not approaching him will be suspected of these same
sins. This is market trading of the highest degree.
He is boastful throughout and is clear that although some people may be
absolved, he has only one purpose – to make money. He will preach “radix
malorum est cupiditas” from the position of being a sinner himself. Such
openness and honesty can be rather persuasive and can serve to make the
Pardoner something of an attractive rogue. He is clear in lines 161-75 that he
subverts the church and the role of the clergy. He refuses to follow the model
of the apostles and is even prepared to take “of the povereste wydwe in a
village/Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne” (Tale 164-5). Students should
read his prologue with care and note his boasts and claims. Many will return
at the end of the tale when he seems to have forgotten who his audience is.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
 Prologue
 Sermon
 Tale
 Conclusion
The Prologue serves to outline the character of the Pardoner and ensures that
any readers are fully aware of his own greed, lust and vanity. This is no bad
thing in a sense. A man as full of sin as he can still deliver the moral tale
requested by the host, and he does not disappoint. It is interesting that none
of the Pilgrims interrupt or question him. Presumably the content of the
introduction with its repetition of the “Radix Malorum…” tag comes as no
surprise. He openly acknowledges himself to be a “ful vicious man” and
launches into his sermon after showing the congregation his false relics. These
relics are typical of the kind and the Pardoner reflects his usual audience with a
focus on natural remedies for ill animals and so on. Behind this though, there
is a constant reference to illnesses relating to gluttony and lechery. It should
also be noted that the “horrible” sins mentioned in line 93 carry a much
stronger taint than today and that the sexual sins suggested might link back to
the possible homosexuality of the Pardoner himself (McAlpine, 1997).
The Sermon is based on the use of exempla. Here we see the rhetorical
flourishes of the Pardoner in all their glory. Although clergymen were not
encouraged to develop rhetorical skills, the Pardoner is a fine orator and uses
this along with exempla drawn from the Bible and History to win over an
The Pardoner’s descriptive skill is shown in the sequence describing the drunk:
lines 265-273. He uses onomatopoeia to engage the senses with “Sampsoun,
Sampsoun” being used to mimic snoring (as well as engaging with the fate of
the Biblical character); he uses further sensory description to focus on the
“sour” breath of the drunk and again uses a simile likening the drunk to a stuck
pig to describe the drunken collapse. He is a clever enough speaker to link all
these ideas with local colour since in his development he is able to refer to the
great markets of Medieval London in Cheapside and to the idea that Attila the
Hun was only brought down by drunkenness. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
Another rhetorical device is that of exempla, and students should list each
exemplum used and note the purpose of each reference.
His exempla are largely from the Bible and more often the old rather than the
New Testament. He implies great knowledge for himself and relies and
relative ignorance eon his listeners, however. The story of Lot in the bible says
nothing about his being drunk, for example. The eating of the apple becomes
gluttony and he quotes a minor St. Paul on this same sin. His exempla serve as
allusions rather than direct textual analysis of the sacred texts and as such
raise his status in the eyes of any audience of lesser intellectuals than himself.
This is best shown in the discussion of swearing where he sues the order of the
Commandments themselves to justify swearing being a greater sin than
Heightened language, in particular apostrophe, dominates much of the
sermon. Lines 212-4 see the triplet of lines opening “O” as he cries out to his
listeners. In Line 248 this becomes the glorious triplet “O wombe, O bely, O
stinking cod!” as he again implores his audience to listen. The imagery is now
replete with sensory revulsion as surely as when the host offers to “kysse thin
olde breech” (Tale 662) which are shit stained and filthy. Students should
remember that it is Chaucer, rather than his creation, who is writing this tale.
The Tale is not really introduced until line 375. Our anticipation has been
heightened by the sermon and we are ready for what is a straightforward
allegorical tale about the sins discussed at some length. The tale is dominated
in the telling by Chaucer’s use of dialogue, serving to give character to the
types he produces. There is little or no authorial comment here, whether by
Chaucer or by the fictional storyteller.
The Pardoner’s voice is established in his sermon and now he moves his story
briskly, allowing characters to be differentiated by their speech – the boy is
innocent in contrast to the rough “Riotoures” who are again contrasted in the
language of the old man who greets them “ful mekely”. There is a brutal
energy to much of the rioters’ speech and this sense elf characters speaking
directly to the audience is an important factor when seeking to engage. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The imagery of the sermon and tale is not used for comic effect but has the
effect of heightening the potential Gothic elements of the writing. It serves to
increase the sense of decay and rot which pervades much of the tale and will
later be seized upon by 18th and 19th century writers. Much of this is best seen
in the sermon and the exaggerated care to portray the grossness of Gluttony
(Tale 238ff). All here is distended and stinking and even the cooks “stamp”
“grind” and “knock” their food into submission.
In the tale proper the imagery is subtler – the old oak lies up a “croked wey”
(Tale 475) suggestive of the path chosen by sinners. Death is all around and
treated with a degree of informality – “privee thief” and “false traytour” serve
to reduce the figure to something manageable. That he is the ultimate victor
serves to highlight the fact that the young men are seeking to move well
beyond their boundaries in their action.
Chaucer uses metaphor widely and to good effect. Some examples are listed
above, and students should look for this use and list the effect of the choice of
language. Again the Gothic obsession with corruption is perhaps prefigured in
the references to Christ’s body being ripped apart by oaths…
One technique employed widely is Irony.
The Pardoner is asked for a moral tale, but is himself deeply immoral and
proud of the fact. This does not render him a bad teacher, but should alert us
to the layers of irony that Chaucer employs in telling this tale. Since radix
malorum est cupiditas, the Pardoner is portrayed ironically when he declares
that his “entente is nat but for to wynne” (tale 118). This ironic structure helps
to link the sermon to the tale proper and thus ensure that the audience remain
truly engaged with the moral purpose of the telling.
 In lines 141-5 he is clear that he sees this irony himself and seems to
revel in his underhand nature. Irony in the tale can be found in the oath
sworn by the revellers – one of Chaucer’s “fals swering” which is the
most serious form of the sin (Tale 346)- which is immediately broken
once money has appeared (and is even referred to as a reason for the
two to gang up on the youngest!).
 The revellers are enraged by death, yet, ironically, this rage immediately
dissipates when the encounter money.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
 The Old Man points out a “croked wey” that will lead to an encounter
with death. The greed of the revellers enables them to forget the clear
warning about following the sinner’s path.
 The revellers want to live long and well and seek death to obtain this
wish. The old man points out their death whilst at the same time
mourning his own inability to die.
A further irony might be seen in the Conclusion of the tale. Here, after a swift
denouement, the Pardoner begins to forget himself and tries to sell to the
company. He singles out Harry Bailey, the host, as one who is in greatest need
of pardons. Bailey attacks him savagely threatening to cut off his testicles to
create a new relic. It is ironic that having delivered the precise moral tale
required, the pardoner falls foul of his own arrogance and vanity in this way.
The tale has ended swiftly because Chaucer has no need to develop the deaths
in any way. These allegorical “types” have no family to mourn them or any life
beyond that pictured. The message is the death that comes to them and the
punishment for their sins. They are not characters in the modern sense and
should not be viewed as such.
Handle with care! This year (2012) questions in section B that might have been
used by students who had read this text in particular were:
 “Gothic writing warns of the dangers of aspiring beyond our limitations.”
How far does your reading of gothic writing support this view?
 “How do you respond to the idea that gothic villains make evil seem
The obsession question, whilst interesting, might also have been approached,
though possibly through the Pardoner’s obsession with the sins he preaches
against – a tricky ask. However there is enough here to put together ideas for
the other two questions. Certainly the aspiration to kill death seems to be an
apt aspiration, as might be the willingness to kill to obtain financial reward. In
the other question, students might feel that the revellers are rarely attractive, Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
but what of the Pardoner himself? There is a genuine attraction in the
dynamic and convincing clergyman which will eventually develop into The
Monk (a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis published in 1796). What we
see is a man who uses rhetoric and fear to raise money and ensure some form
of sexual satisfaction. His heavy use of irony can be seen as humour as he wins
over his audience, and only his ill-judged attack on Bailey causes his story to
fail. No other pilgrim seems offended. There is certainly room for discussion
Part A (2012) offered: “A sinister exploitation of people’s fears for his own
To what extent do you agree with this view of the Pardoner’s methods?
Here the need might be to focus on “sinister” and to analyse the tale as a piece
of writing. There is little need to introduce the “Gothic” as such, beyond
reference in terms of imagery or mention of the idea of the perverted
clergyman as being an element of many Gothic tales – this is a precursor to
that tradition and interesting, but the response requires a focused discussion
of the ideas enshrined in the question itself.
This should have given a brief overview of ideas and content as not intended as
finite in any way. Enjoy reading the text and be sure to explore widely on your
Works Cited
Chaucer ed: Croft. (2006). The Pardoner’s Tale. Oxford: OUP.
Dinshaw, C. (1997). Eunuch Hermeneutics. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer: New Casebooks (pp. 108-125).
McAlpine, M. (1997). The Pardoner’s homosexuality and how it matters. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer:
New casebook (pp. 36-50). Macmillan.


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LITB4 advice – critical interpretations.

The critical anthology for LITB4 always throws up some uncertainty in the areas of criticism. Students often try to direct their essays at the obvious – the feminist analysis of Duffy for example, will tell us little, whereas the feminist approach to Dickens can be enlightening.

Students could use these checklists which I have found on line (http://www.ehow.com) to clarify their approaches to the coursework should they be addressing the Critical Theory question.

Many students will engage closely with this and the result of this will be seen in the writing for the LIT B 3 examination where they will eagerly discuss a Marxist interpretation of Frankenstein, for example. Whilst this is to be encouraged during the reading of the texts, they need to be aware that digression away from the specific essay title will not serve them well.

These notes should not replace close study of the anthology and are designed merely to stimulate the thought process.


o 1
Consider the roles and situations of female characters. Make lists of different aspects of the female character’s place in the overall story. Include anecdotal scenarios that will back up a holistic thesis.
o 2
Look at the relationship of female characters to each other. Examine any discrepancies that might shed light on the overall role of females in the book.
o 3
Review the role of female characters in relation to their male counterparts. Literary criticism has its famous set of contrasts, for example, man vs. nature, nature vs. society, that set up points of inquiry. In this case, your fundamental contrast would be woman vs. man.
o 4
Look at the vocational roles of women in the literature. Much of literary criticism can be applied to the workplace. Studying the work that each character does provides a great starting point for analyzing the whole of the work.

o 5
Consider the attitudes of characters and how their world-views contribute to the eventual outcomes in the story. The goals of characters may or may not cause outcomes. Evaluate how “powerful” each character becomes.

Challenges to the Literary Canon
o One major approach to feminist literary criticism revolves around the desire to challenge or redefine the literary canon that has been dominated by men. In particular, as Scherman again notes, “feminist criticism makes space for and listens to women’s voices previously muted or drowned out by dominant patriarchal literary-critical practices.” In this sense, feminist literary criticism takes a particular stand against what the academic community has considered to be the norm for what it considers to be “literature.” This critique of traditional scholarship is an approach that rejects traditional norms on the assumption that traditional literary analysis has a political and ethical agenda biased against women. For this reason, writers like Josephine Donovan hope to recapture the radical basis for feminist literary criticism by reinvigorating it with both the political and ethical components inherent in the inception of the movement. By exploring previously ignored writers and studying the women’s literary tradition, critics hope to unveil previously held assumptions that marginalize the place of women in society.

Textual Analysis
o Another popular approach to feminist literary criticism is to examine closely what the text says, or as the case may be, does not say. In other words, what the text leaves out says much about the writer, literature in general, and society as a whole. By using this “hermeneutics of suspicion” literary critics hope to reveal how women are marginalized in the language of literature, according to Ady. In some ways, this approach to literary criticism assumes that there is an unconscious transference of previously held assumptions to the text through the act of writing. What is written reveals what society believes. Influenced by the rise of post-modernism, feminist literary critics believe that the act of writing is not neutral, instead it is influenced by the values of the writer who then transfers those values to the text, often unintentionally. By understanding these values, feminist literary critics hope to reveal these subconscious ideas to show how women have been marginalized in literature.


o 1
Approach the text with an eye for how the characters interact. Marxist thought relies on relationships between individuals, and even those aspects of relationships that are ‘social’ can be part of a Marxist critique.
o 2
Evaluate the vocational roles of all characters. The Marxist critique includes a focus on a “class system” where the vocations of characters provide the most direct reference to their place within this system. Look at the level of luxury that each individual has and how much they have to work.
o 3
Look at how characters use their free time. Part of the Marxist critique is based on the argument that individuals can use free time productively. Examining the free choices of individuals is actually a large part of Marxist literary criticism.
o 4
Assess the role of government in the piece of literature. Is it draconian? Laissez-faire? Marxist thought relies on government as a model for liberty and also for communalism: look at the tools that government uses. Does the government, in soliciting citizenship, appeal to the capitalist tendencies of individuals or to their innate love of community?
o 5
Use Marxist writers as a guide. Pick ideas outlined by Marxist writers of past eras and apply them to your particular study.

Modelled on the political theories of Karl Marx, Marxist literary criticism contends that all literature can be viewed as a clash between lower and upper classes. It is largely sociological. “Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? And Marxists critics are also interested in how the lower or working classes are oppressed – in everyday life and in literature. Generally, Marxist theory frames literature within the context of economics and how those economics affect both the upper and lower classes.

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AQA LIT B 3 examiners’ meeting

These notes were taken during a training day in May and should be helpful for anyone studying AQA LITB 3 this summer. I have attached marked scripts which have been cleared for public consumption. Please treat these with respect.

My students will be interested to see that Script A does not receive full marks -can you work out why? and that Script D is considered to be a very typical BAND 3 response. Finally, look at the pattern of ticks and notice that irrelevance is simply not rewarded.

marking descriptors

exam paper jan 2112
script A
script B
script C
script D
script E
script F


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Some thoughts on Witches and Macbeth

This is not a definitive article, but written to provoke comment and thought from my Year 13s working on the AQA LitB course – Elements of the Gothic.

Witches in Macbeth: thoughts and ideas.

If we are to recognise the damnation of Macbeth, we need to see the original, undamned state – we see a heroic soldier who is led astray by the promptings of the witches. Often held to be embodiments of evil, the witches act more as catalysts than devils, though the perversion of traditional female temptation is clear to see.
NB, not all the scenes are by Shakespeare. Doubt has been cast on the opening and certainly on the long Hecate scenes in Act 4 which must be interpolations to allow for songs to be introduced. The Octosyllable rhymes are weak and do little to enhance the idea of the “weird sisters”.
Are they EVIL?
Spells in Act 4.1 move from the cruel animals of nature to human archetypes which have been unchristened –Turks, Jews and a baby, but this is hardly the same as being instruments of evil per se. Certainly they are outside society (in 17C this might be enough to prove evil and damnation), but whether they actually commit any evil act is doubtful. Macbeth greets the “Black and midnight hags” and links them to evil by this symbolic association – black is the colour of the devil and the use of night reminds us of the events of nighttime which dominate the play. He clearly sees the sisters as evil, but what do they actually do?
Act 1: Stating clearly the “foul is fair” duplicity which might be said to sum up the play, they launch the action by agreeing to meet Macbeth – they have conventional familiars and must be seen to be ungendered – beards though women – and generally hideous to behold – “what are these/so withered and wild in their attire” B, 1.3, yet they do not impose their wills on Banquo and Macbeth. Their prophecies are followed and become catalysts for action, yet at this stage prophecies are all they are – Lady Macbeth’s prompting is required to turn Macbeth into a regicide. It is Macbeth and Banquo who ascribe the evil to them and Lady Macbeth who calls on spirits to “fill her full of direst cruelty”. This is an idea not visited by the witches and seems to be a level of possession suited to a “fiend-like queen”. The story of the ship-boarding and the wind-providing, prior to Macbeth’s arrival is hardly an example of serious damnation. Even the cauldron-brew in Act 4 which seems outwardly so full of ghastly import, is being used to conjure up a vision of the future rather than to cast a spell or seek to harm someone. In short, the witches need to be more than Classical Sibyls yet have also to be seen as evil to an audience in the 17th Century, for whom witchcraft was a common phenomenon.
Witches and Lady Macbeth:
Act 1.3/5 – both open with either women or LM on her own followed by the women on stage practicing witchcraft – LM’s “prayer” to the spirits- before Macbeth appears and has to be tempted or prodded into action. Both the witches and LM show signs of confused gender and seem to be proficient at summoning dark forces as required. Both seem to undermine the Patriarchal society, but it is LM who is clearest here – note the times she insinuates weakness on Macbeth or seeks to openly dispense with her womanhood whilst demeaning his masculinity – “coward”, not “a man”, the responses to Banquo’s ghost for example, whilst he speaks of having a “barren sceptre” 3.1 as a result of the witches (and by association his wife’s) actions.

LM and the witches stand in contrast to the only other woman in the play – Lady Macduff whose perfect family serve to emphasise the unnaturalness of the Macbeth’s union. Duncan, Banquo, Siward and Macduff all have children who appear in the play. The Macbeths do not. They may not fill a pot with “finger of birth strangled babe”, but the lack of family must reflect the lack of humanity in the couple.
Both Lady Macbeth and the witches seem to be ambivalent as the play develops – Lady Macbeth for all her cruelty can not murder a King who resembles her “father” – and at this point provides an impetus for the sleepwalking in Act 5. Here she seems wracked with guilt and the memories heark back to male related episodes – the old man full of blood and finally to the tender concern for her husband as she tries to make Macbeth sleep, recalling act 3. She may be seen as unnatural, but the ideas here presented suggest that she is not totally removed from traditional gender politics after all.
The witches are “imperfect speakers” whose prophecies in Act 1 are deliberately opaque, yet in the fourth act they become increasingly definite. Macbeth misinterprets the equivocation of both the “wood” and the “man of woman born” yet the visions of the Kings are extremely clear to all concerned – as well as the audience! Indeed the truth of their prophecy is visible on the throne of England at the time. Can they be forces of Evil if they tell the truth? They can if Shakespeare wants the audience to focus on Macbeth as the truly evil figure as the play unfolds. The play ends with a father triumphant (albeit one “not of woman born”) and bearing the head of the evil Macbeth to his monarch. By this act, the patriarchal order is restored. The 17th Century King is seen as father of his people and granted his rule by God. The Fifth commandment exhorts believers to “Honour thy father and mother”. In the 17th century the theologian Filmer removed the need to honour thy mother from this mantra as part of his work Patriarcha – a defence of the Divine Right of Kings. Such an indication of the strength of the male and a reduction of the female around the time of writing is hard to ignore. In this play the women lose their strength as the play goes on – Lady Macbeth fades from sight, her death reported and not mourned; the witches lose their mystery and simply become mouthpieces for a convenient political prophecy and thanks to the death of Lady Macduff, not one woman is on the stage to greet the new order at the end of the play. A return to male rule and male order is complete. Women may frighten, but men will always come out on top.


Filed under AQA LitB, Shakespeare

Suggestions about approaching a “setting” essay.


Many students seem to see use of setting essays as an excuse to write as much as they can about the plot of the novel, whilst opening each paragraph with a comment reflecting the location of the material which they discuss is.

The sad fact is that such “narrative driven” essays will score few marks, particularly at advanced level, and this document has been prompted by a batch of IBDP essays concerning the use of setting in The Awakening (Chopin) and Snow Falling on Cedars (Guterson).


It is important to note that setting refers to the whole “world” of the novel – location, era, culture, use of time of day (“hour”) and that any response should show an awareness of each of these ideas if possible. Ideally the response will be able to consider contrasts within the novel to build a sense of debate in the essay.
Once this is established then the writer needs to consider the link between any of these elements and the themes of the novel or the characters described.
Thus each paragraph should open with a clear statement of intent linked to the title of the essay before the discussion commences.

Using texts familiar to a range of my students, I will look briefly at each of the elements outlined above to suggest some stimuli:


This is the most obvious area of response, and I will look at The Awakening, Macbeth and Of Mice and Men.
The Awakening uses location in two ways – the general difference between the worlds of Grand Isle and New Orleans, and the specific as found within rooms used in the story. The sense of separation caused by placing any narrative on an island is straightforward to se. Grand Isle is different to some due to the regular contact with the “real” world due to the coming and going of Leonce, among others. Nevertheless, the creation of a temporary place of refuge for the women in the story helps to spark the whole story into action – women may well alter their behaviour on the island (the role of the eunuch-like Cajun male seems to suggest this), but it is never long lasting. After a time the freedom of the island, suggested by a relaxed dress code and regular forays into the sea is replaced by the stern societal norms of the city. The houses here have barred windows and columns standing phallically erect outside their doors – this is a man’s world and one in which society is to be obeyed. Given this, Edna’s response to her arrival is shocking.
Her home is carefully described, and the possessions within, including Edna herself, are carefully scrutinised by Leonce. Only after he leaves for New York can Edna begin to Awaken in a passage in which she subverts the “correct” use of the location by eating her (masculine) meal of beer and cheese in the living room. This clear statement of a wish to shatter society is backed up by a contrast of use of the garden in respect of nature. Gardens are often representative of “tamed” nature and here we see the same – although Edna begins to take an interest in her version of tamed nature, we note that it is only in the garden that any link to the sea is created in New Orleans, other than in the view through Mlle Reisz’s filthy windows!
The link to the sea is already established clearly in part one where it is the setting for the Awakening of the title as Edna is able to lose her inhibitions and surrender herself to this liquid, feminine environment.
To this end, we should notice that at the first soiree, Edna, whilst part of the party in the drawing room is seated at a window, half in and half out, listening to the voice of the sea. The personification of setting here used helps to draw attention to the role that specific setting will play in her emotional journey.

In Macbeth setting is again used to deliberate effect. Broadly the choice is between “blasted heath” and Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Any student working on this area should look closely at the castle which prefigures the use of a similar location topos throughout Gothic and Victorian literature. Not only is the castle prison-like, but I want to focus on the idea of the castle representing Hell and thus adding a layer to the character of Macbeth. By the time The Porter opens the gates, Duncan lies dead and Macbeth has “murdered sleep”. From this point, following the idea that the Porter represents the porter of Hell’s Gate (See another essay on the blog); this metaphor helps to render Macbeth clearly as the Devil himself. A change in character from the vacillating warrior of Act 1.

In Of Mice and Men, location can clearly tie in with the central themes of the novel to add a layer of subconscious understanding. Simple points such as the use of Soledad as the location of the action link with descriptions which carefully point out the thought processes behind the locations. The Bunkhouse is described in a manner which contrasts sharply with the natural world in which George and Lennie are so happy. The floor is unpainted, there is a lack of privacy, the small windows let in light in a bar, helping to suggest the sense of a prison or similar building. The first contact with the bunk house focuses on the infestation of “grey-backs” in the beds and on the lack of personal possessions carried by the itinerant workers. After this, the various key events of the novel – The meeting with Curley’s wife, the shooting of the dog, the planning of the dream-farm and so on, are related to this location and the use of light, silence and the development of tensions between the characters are all coloured by the initial description. Much the same could be said of the barn – all seems rather wonderful – quiet, peaceful, rural, close to nature, yet all threatened by the hanging fork which is suspended like an instrument of ill omen or of execution above all that takes place.


Although often referencing the time of writing, the era of setting can again influence the central themes of the novels. OMAM is set in the depression and suggests a lack of hope among the men and a context of failure against which the story is played out.

For Shakespeare, the Historical setting of Macbeth, well accounted in Holinshead, provided an ideal setting for a story designed to promote the rule of King James I. The events are seen as “true”, but from a different age. Given the links between reality and the plot and the closeness of Guy Fawkes’ treachery, for example, the setting enables Shakespeare to promote the idea of a Scottish King without ever having to address recent history directly. There is no reference here in any form to Mary, Queen of Scots, and yet the establishment of a noble line of Kings north of the border is clear to all.

Guterson uses this setting to enable a narrative largely about racism and the inability of society to accept outsiders to present his tale against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest in the period (loosely) 1930-1954. The proximity of the War and the location enables his story to be told without reference to the occasionally clichéd world of the “deep South”. The narrative gains immeasurably from this as readers are forced to think anew of a subject that many think they “know”. Likewise the choice of era targets a time when the USA was riven with McCarthyism and prone to somewhat paranoid responses to anyone not of the norm. Finally the era allows a small measure of technology to be used, but makes the total isolation caused by the snow storm to be totally convincing.
Culture is explored often by use of race and societal expectation. Again Guterson is the focus perhaps in the text we are reading for the use of the Japanese/American clash. His use of Japanese language in the text as Hatsue is taught about her heritage builds a clear barrier between her world and that of Ishmael as well as between that of the reader, when reading in a “western environment”. Such deliberate distancing helps to emphasise the notion that “oceans don’t mix”. Ishmael response that they do “underneath” may well be true, but there is no room for this optimism in a novel which sees the Americans dominate their Japanese neighbours even down to the metaphorical sacrifice of a Japanese virgin each year to assuage the needs of the local community in the Strawberry Fair.

A similar use of the clash of cultural worlds pervades Wide Sargasso Sea and therefore looks ahead to Jane Eyre, novels in which cultures are brought into stark contrast. The hostility faced by Rochester – a tool of a colonial super-power – in the days following his marriage do not find echo immediately in Eyre, but a century earlier, Bronte had focused on a more tangible culture clash as she moves Jane between Gateshead, Lowood and Thornfield. Each has its own culture and Jane has to find her path to success in each. India and the West Indies seem here to provide excitement and a sense of the unknown since in the early 19th century the political response to colonialism was not that to which Rhys responds. Students should be aware of the context of creation as well as the context of the physical setting of the novel.

Time of Day, Hour, is as important as any of the above since writers will use this device to imply subtext and to create atmosphere. Macbeth takes place almost exclusively at night or at the least in locations devoid of the sun. If night time can reflect stratagems and a potential for evil, then this is seen in most of our texts – look at the time of day in Othello, key scenes of the Awakening and most of the Gothic literature you read.
Interesting, then, is the use of “time between time” as a setting which keeps possibility alive. Reading Hardy’s poems should keep one aware of the power of dusk and dawn as magical times. As Hardy watched morning “harden” on the wall following Emma’s death, so the setting moves from dawn to the full light of day just as Emma’s life moves from a fading life to the harsh reality of death. Interestingly Hardy, writing a factual account of his response, has to use the coming of light to signify death – an unusual effect. His choice of the verb “harden” achieves this beautifully as the light seems to bring a harsh clarity to the world – a far cry from the usual welcome release from darkness.

Finally – consider here the use of hour in the play of light that follows Curley’s wife’s death. As the sun sets, Steinbeck tells us of the bars of light in the barn rising up the walls. It is almost as if the fading light, signifying approaching death, produce light which is rising to heaven as the true nature of the poor, dead girl is revealed.

I hope this will be of use to anyone approaching Setting in essay form. As usual, the ideas are my own and I make no promise of a high grade simply by reading this essay.

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Filed under AQA LitB, GCSE support, Hardy poems for KS5, IBDP support, IGCSE support

Finding the “fiend-like queen”.

As a response to an AQA Lit B A2 essay, here are some musings in the form of a give back discussion. These are not the last word, but, as with all I post, be seen as a stimulus for discussion and consideration. Develop your own individual thought processes, but listen closely and join the debate!

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