Tag Archives: OCR A level

OCR A Level Unseen: Wyndham -The Chrysalids

Once again, an essay for discussion. There is no such thing as a perfect unseen, especially in 45 minutes!  A sound file and discussion is below.

The Chrysalids (1955)

The passage, written by a first person narrator, and therefore fundamentally unreliable in terms of the implications of such a narrative voice, is set in a world which seems to be lacking in advanced technology and in which there is a underlying threat of a society in which even thought can be intercepted and studied.

The opening description of the dream world is one of beauty and freedom. Although set in a city ‘clustered’ around the ‘big blue bay’, the freedom of the alliterative description of the bay counteracts the tight structure of the city. Indeed the verb ‘clustered’ could suggest a city which is deliberately gathered together precisely because of the opportunity offered by the bay itself. The sea is often used to symbolise the possibility of freedom and escape, being a liminal marker that is both obstructive and crossable. A similar idea is explored in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when the clones visit Cromer or Dover and recognise that there is a life beyond the one set out for them, if they might cross it. In this extract, the dream scenario is countered by the recognition that the real world is landlocked – the narrator has never ‘seen the sea, or a boat…’ The ellipsis suggests a thought process cut off in mid-stream as though too upsetting to pursue.

In the dream world the innocent mind from the future sees vehicles redolent of the time of writing – ‘carts running with no horses and fish-shaped things in the sky’. Again his wonder at ordinary 20th century sights suggests a world which has regressed in time, somewhat as England has in Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban. This similarity is enhanced by the mention of the ‘Tribulation’ wrought by God – not necessarily a Christian God – which possibly relates to some form of Nuclear disaster, a very common fear in the 1950s when this book was written. A world devastated by an unexpressed apocalyptic event is a common Dystopian trope of the later 20th century.

The narrator dreams this view both by day and night – the night is not threatening – the light lying like ‘strings of glow-worms’ suggests a peace and beauty to the scene. One in which man and nature seem to happily coincide.

The narrator is young, though has developed beyond his innocent days – ‘when I was quite small’. He is able to refer to a time ‘when I was still young enough to know no better’ and to the need to ask an older sibling for advice. There are no parents in this narrative. He is aware enough to see the dream as ‘beautiful and fascinating’ but also readily aware that as he gets older and his state of innocence drops away, his visions also fall away at the same time.  This path from innocence to experience with a similar reduction of freedom and thought is reminiscent of the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, who gradually lose their freedom to adapt as their Daemons become fixed.  His sister Mary seems to be knowledgeable and understanding although worried – she warns him ‘seriously’, the adverb intensifying the nature of the warning, and refers to a ‘time before’ when the Old People – the capitalisation suggesting a proper noun – a term used of the ancestors as though as part of a folk memory – a very common trope seen in Zamyatin’s We or Orwell’s 1984. She also establishes how unusual he is in having these ‘pictures’ in his head and establishing him as an outsider – a typical narrator in such novels.  His cousin Rosalind, however seems to share the gift of sight.  He and she have a ‘curious understanding’, possibly hinting at a psychic link of some sort which is no doubt explored in the novel.  The name Rosalind is chosen to echo Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It – a girl of great resource  and an outcast who will find love and understanding when banished to the  forest. Possibly this storyline will be followed.

There is also an unsettling comment in that the narrator is already marked out for observation due to his left handedness.  This ‘sinister’ aspect to his character will no doubt be explored in the novel.

The narrator realises the need for silence and his prepared to bide his time.  We are told that he and Rosalind keep quiet about their gift ‘at that time’. Clearly the passage is from the beginning of the novel and much is being set up for future reference. He ‘did not feel unusual’ he says, possibly suggesting that his older self certainly does.

The passage explores the ideas of a ruined world and establishes the idea of a young man who has visions – not unlike the Father in Mcarthy’s The Road,  – of a better past. He is fascinated, just as Riddley Walker is  by these manifestations of a time before and establishes a hook in the relationship between him and his equally different cousin.

Write a commentary on this passage from a novel published in 1955. Relate your response to the study of Dystopian literature.  Time: 1 hour.

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .

And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.

Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the light lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.

It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.

She shook her head, and told me there was no such place – not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time – the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation.

But after that she went on to warn me very seriously not to mention it to anyone else; other people as far as she knew, did not have such pictures in their heads, either sleeping or waking, so it would be unwise to mention them.

That was good advice, and luckily I had the sense to take it. People in our district had a very sharp eye for the odd, the unusual, so that even my left-handedness caused slight disapproval. So, at that time, and for some years afterwards, I did not mention it to anyone – indeed, I almost forgot about it, for as I grew older, the dream came less frequently, and then very rarely.

But the advice stuck. Without it I might have mentioned the curious understanding I had with my cousin Rosalind, and that would certainly have led us both into very grave trouble – if anyone had happened to believe me. Neither I nor she, I think, paid much attention to it at that time: we simply had the habit of caution. I certainly did not feel unusual. I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)


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Merchant’s Tale at AS: model answer

This is an essay by my colleague Laura Dunn. In it she has written a response to an OCR AS-type question about The Merchant and then added the AO assessment in the manner of an examiner… use at will!

Merchant Essay.pdf ljd

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A level unseen: OCR. Never Let Me Go

The passage under consideration is taken from Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which is a study of dystopian society in which human clones are produced for the purpose of providing organs for their human counterparts.

The passage is set in a recognisably contemporary wold, one in which a driver has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ when trying to locate the destination at the end of the journey. The lack of electronic navigation suggests a period prior to the present day, and even slightly in the past when considered against the 2005 date of writing. In this it is comparatively unusual in that many of the best known Dystopian texts tend to be set either in a distant future or a distant past to enable a direct comparison with the present day. A novel such as John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ has a similar relationship to the contemporary society which is depicted and both gain from the apparent normality of all that is described.

The first person narrator tells the reader plenty about the setting of the passage – she often repeats herself and seems to be striving to add details in the long sentences, as though trying to compensate for the inherent unreliability of the first person voice. The setting of ‘The Kingsfield’, a name suggesting grandeur and freedom, is unsettling. It seems to be both secluded, being ‘out of the way’ and ‘awkward’ to find, yet it is not a place of peace: ‘You can always hear traffic on the main roads…’ says the narrator, as though speaking to a friend – the drop into the second person seeming to confer a relationship between the reader and the narrator. Not only is ‘recovery centre’ confusing as a general location, the description of the micro-settings are equally strange. A recovery centre suggests a convalescent environment, yet here the rooms are ‘too stuffy or too draughty’ they cannot allow wheelchair access and the bathrooms – ‘hard to keep clean’- suggest a lack of basic hygiene, let alone the hygiene expected of a medical institution. Indeed this down at hell feeling is more akin to the ‘old world’ elements of a narrative such as Zamyatin’s ‘We’, in which the old cottage stands as a contrast to the crisp new dwellings and apartments, much as this centre is compared with Ruth’s centre with ‘gleaming tiles and double glazed windows’. Even in that description there is no sense of care, however.

The narrator also explores the contrast between the function of the buildings in the past and their current use. Once a ‘holiday camp’, the centre is now in a dilapidated and ‘unfinished’ centre, yet it is described as ‘precious’ conferring some emotional attachment, here unexplained.  This is reminiscent of the scenes in Orwell’s 1984 in which the protagonists find comfort in the dilapidated old room above the shop and believe that they have escaped from Big Brother, only to be caught out in the end. In this passage it is interesting that the narrator comments that the camp was intended for ‘ordinary families’. The suggestion is that the narrator is not from that background. No further information is given but there is a sense that the narrator and those like him/her are not worth the effort of completing the building alterations and are a devalued segment of society. This is heightened in the description of the pool and the diving board in particular. This last image seems to stand, regardless of any danger it might pose, and act as a magnet for the kind of thoughts expressed near the end of the passage: ‘taking a dive… only to crash…’. I tis as though it is a temptation to those inmates wishing to gain a sensation of freedom only to end up in pain or suffering a swift early death.

The narrator is not travelling alone.  ‘Ruth’ is mentioned but seems to be little help. The narrative does not suggest she speaks and does not suggest she engages with the narrator. Indeed, we can surmise that the pair do not travel widely. Although the sound of the ‘big roads’ is clearly audible, the map has to be used to locate the centre. It is the narrator who has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ suggesting not only that he/she is in control of the journey but also that he/she is not a strong navigator. It is also unclear what the relationship is between the narrator and Tommy – the boy they are travelling to meet. One assumes he is a ‘donor’ since he seems to be an inmate, yet Ishiguro uses this term without offering any explanation. In this case, rather as with terms such as ‘recovery centre’ ordinary’ the reader sense a meaning which is hidden from us, but of which the narrator expects us to be aware.  Whilst it is not unusual for Dystopian texts to be narrated by an everyman figure, this figure often seems to be a character of marked intelligence or scientific ability, such as H.G. Wells’ narrator in ‘The Time Machine’ or the protagonist of Zamyatin’s ‘We’. Even Winston Smith, who in many ways is a deeply unheroic figure, has a job of some responsibility and importance in ‘1984’. The narrator here seems to be garrulous and pleasant, but in no way a character of special note.

The language used is plain and matter of fact. Sentences are often extended by significant subordination and the addition of simple clauses after a dash to impart extra information: ‘the Square- the place where you drive in when you first arrive…- an example of this unfinished atmosphere-‘.  In this example there is also the use of the second person as though to address the reader which helps to make the reader complicit in the narrative. Elsewhere the vocabulary is simple, sometimes deceptively so as discussed earlier, but usually suggesting a lack of range in the narrative style of the narrator. There is an informality in the contractions : ‘it’s’ , ‘can’t’ which also suggests that the narrator sees the reader as an equal and helps to build up the conversational tone of the piece.

Overall the atmosphere created on the ominously ‘overcast and chilly’ day is one of threat. Although the passage begins quite easily, the effect of the ‘shadowy’ figures, suggesting both threatening gangs of anonymous youths and even a slightly ghostly aspect, as though the former holiday makers are somehow reimagined in the new setting, it to create unease. When Tommy emerges, his clothes are old and ‘faded’ and he has put on significant weight. The two images together suggest ill health rather than health.  This added to the highlighted difficulty in finding the centre helps to present a society which has been deliberately cut off from the mainstream or ‘ordinary’ families alluded to in the passage. Whereas in Brave New World or A Handmaid’s Tale, the centres for reproduction and other scientific advances are places of awe and fear, the emotion here is lesser. It is sadder, somehow. It suggests more neglect than ‘recovery’.

The passage in question: never-let-me-go-ch19

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People will do anything, no matter how foolish, to get whatever they want…

An essay lesson for OCR English Lit…

A year 13 essay presentation.


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UNSEEN for discussion: The Time Machine. OCR A level

Another unseen for discussion…


unseen: Delirium

unseen: Brave New World

unseen: the Road
I found this one tricky for the reason that I know the text quite well and want to apply that knowledge to the scene described. Resist this temptation! Stick to the text as written. It is a setting (locale)- rich passage. I also struggled with literary context – I’m not sure that Star Wars is really valid… ideas please!

This passage is taken from the late 19th Century and is written by a man who must be seen as the originator of the genre of science-fiction Dystopias. Written at a time when Britain was an imperial power seeking to conquer and rule new lands and to attain new wealth from hostile territories such as South and Central Africa, it is no surprise that the plot line focuses on the discovery of new worlds and of a discussion of their socio-political make-up.

Here, the initial focus is on the narrator, who has evidently just arrived on the ‘shore’ of a new world. His impressions are carefully recorded as he looks at his new setting.

Wells uses colour to help his readers to visualize the scene. The contrast seems to be between ‘scarlet’ and shades of red and the ‘inky black’ of the Northern sky. The description of the sky : ‘scarlet, where cut by the horizon’ suggests a great wound which seems to be threatened by the ‘huge hull of the sun, red and motionless’. The sun is turned metaphorically into some form of ship – the colour may suggest a warship, which is mounting guard over what lies beneath. This landscape, a scene of ‘desolation’ is a possible inspiration for Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, which moves the idea of the desolate and pained landscape from an alien world to a ruined Earth. Aside from the ‘harsh reddish’ rocks, the only colour seen on the ground is the ‘uniform poisonous-looking green’ of the moss-like substance which is growing. The landscape in terms of colour suggests other books by McCarthy such as No Country for Old Men in which McCarthy draws on the colouring of the hostile landscapes of New Mexico as well as writings about the planet Mars, such as his own War of the Worlds. Wells draws attention both to its uniformity and its ‘intensely green’ colour possibly suggesting an unnatural origin.

All can be seen under a sky which is both ‘Indian red’ in hue and also showing a darkness, creating a sense of ‘perpetual twighlight’. The use of the adjective ‘Indian’ is redolent of the time of Empire and would allow the reader to make links in their minds between this traveller and the first colonisers and rulers of the Indian subcontinent. The whole landscape is caught in ‘twighlight’ – a sinking down of the light – not yet fully dark, suggesting the possibility of hope and/or life being present, but on the wane.

Even the stars are described as ‘pale white’ and though they shine ‘brightly and steadily’ they do little to lift the ‘wan’ sky – the colour suggesting ill health and approaching death.

The final element added is the sea. In The Road, the sea is a symbol of hope – the focus of travel, here it is sinister –an ‘oily swell’ that takes on the personified elements of a living thing – ‘rising and falling as though breathing’ – and leaving it’s salt deposits along the shore – pink in the red light of twighlight. As in the science fiction writing of Asimov, the description works best because it is so little altered from our known reality – it unsettles but is not ludicrous.

In this setting, the presumably male protagonist, typical of the genre though not given a clear pronoun here, is seen as a careful and rational character. He stopped ‘ very gently’ and when under threat simply places his ‘hand on the lever and add{ed}s another month’ between himself and the monsters which threaten him. He does not panic under stress, a man of the Empire and the period, just as the hero of Wells’ The War of the Worlds will turn out to be. He has plenty to fear: he has mistaken giant crabs for large rocks and when they move towards him he realizes his mistake. The writing develops into longer sentences in paragraphs 4&5 as the tension mounts and action begins to replace description in the narrative. The crab is a ‘sinister apparition’ suggesting otherworldliness rather in the way that John Wyndham will write about mutated nature in The Day of The Triffids or The Kraken Wakes, it crawls towards him and the slow inevitability of its movement is powerful. Wells has slipped into the second person form of address as his narrator addresses the reader directly to increase the power of the description – ‘Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table…?’ which suddenly places the threat in the same room as the reader and uses the imagination to turn a normal piece of household furniture into a hostile killing machine. It is ‘metallic’, like Wyndham’s Kraken and Wells is careful to use similes which will be easily recognized – antennae ‘like carters’ whips, suggesting both length and potential pain.

When he is touched by one of these antennae, the narrator describes the sensation as like a ‘fly’ landing – inconsequential- but when he tries to remove the antenna it is withdrawn and the focus moves to the mouth of the creature: ‘all alive with appetite’. The mouth is the focus now: the rest is forgotten. The claws’ descending upon me’ are the personified instruments by which the mouth will be fed.

The narrator calmly makes his escape but little has changed as he regards the same shore and the same crabs at a greater distance. He remains seated in or on his machine and makes no attempt to move away or to explore. There are now more crabs suggesting a greater threat and the sky remains red while the language has taken on a more apocalyptic tone – ‘desolation’, ‘Dead sea’ ‘poisonous-looking green’, ‘thin air’, ‘appalling effect’. There is a change however: a ‘curved pale line like a vast new moon’ has appeared in the Western Sky. On Earth in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun sets in the West and rises in the East. If this moon-line is an indicator of rising hope then Wells has neatly reversed the expected cyclical sequence – the moon suggests hope while the sun seems to aid the desolation of the world and the hope is rising in the West.

Wells was a life-long socialist and his views on colonization and treatment of a downtrodden workforce will not chime with the ruling establishment of Britain in 1895. His new world, an alien landscape, is one which seems to be in the thrall of powerful, unfeeling and cruel masters in the shape of the crabs, but which shows indications that there may be a weak force for the good, symbolized by the weal displays of light from the stars and the moon-line. It is a world redolent of George Lucas’ Star Wars films – evidently influenced by Wells description here – and of the landscape of Tatouine in particular.

The passage does not include any real suggestion of how the narrator will act from here on in the story.


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Jerusalem (Butterworth): An introduction for students and teachers

I am putting together an introduction to Butterworth’s play. This is the beginning s of the first draft… it is definitely work in progress, but I welcome feedback.
The play appears on the OCR set text list for AS and can be used, therefore for the coursework element at A level, yet there is no published material on the play and OCR have not produced one of their useful guides to give us a hint at what areas of a splendidly rich text they will be focused upon.
I hope some who read this will get in touch with suggestions and corrections… I am still working on it as you can see.


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Unseen prep: OCR A level

This is my response to a passage from Lauren Oliver’s 2011 novel Delirium. The passage is found below the unseen.

The sound file of the lesson today in which we discussed the passage is included due top absences from the class.  It helps my Year 13 to keep up.

The passage is drawn from a 21st century novel aimed at Young Adults. Dystopia has proven to be a common genre for such writing with the exploration of totalitarian states in works such as The Hunger Games providing material for Hollywood blockbusters.

In this passage the contextual settings of era and the condition under which life is lived is clear and typical of the genre. The piece is set in a future world, one run by scientists and doctors who strive to control the emotions and feelings of the people. Such control has been a staple of this genre since works such as Zamyatin’s  We and Huxley’s Brave New World.  The passage opens with a clear statement that love has been “identified as a disease” by a ruling elite. Time is evidently important to the narrator –a teenage girl- and we are given information about the passage of “sixty four” years and also the countdown to the “ninety five days” before her maturity and the “operation”.  This narrative device – introducing a countdown to an important, yet unspecified event – is a key device in Patrick Ness’ novel The Knife of never letting go, in which the male protagonist is on the run in the days leading up to his birthday and entry to adulthood. Another typical device is the reference to the past as the “dark days”. In a Dystopian novel it is necessary for the “now” to be officially portrayed as the good times and for the “past” to be seen in a negative light.  We see this clearly in works such as Logan’s Run or Brave New World and here the narrator – a girl still in education seems to accept the official notion of a “dark” time which she is lucky to live outside. Her acceptance of the regime is signalled by her choice of “of course” as she opens paragraph Seven by seeming to accept the need for the operations to continue.

Her acceptance is, however , challenged by the two single sentence e paragraphs earlier in the passage. In the first she tells us that the sight of “uncureds” (reminiscent of Orwell’s manipulation of language) remind he of her “mother” and in the second that her life, however good, is marred by “pain”, whether physical or emotional is not clear,  and a possible lack of safety.  The narrator, a girl –a feature of 21st century and especially Young Adult Writing and a break from the stereotypically male protagonists in this genre from HG Wells until the emergence of writers such as Malorie Blackman in Noughts and Crosses made a conscious effort to engage a female readership, is clear in her opening statement. She presents information without embellishment and in a direct manner. Her sentences are simple and straightforward: “ Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already”. The lack of a proper noun for the “procedure” suggests the normality of the action and the level of acceptance  into everyday discourse, much as the clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go refer ot element s of their treatment as ‘donations’ or ‘carers’. The build-up of the unexplained adoption of everyday terms is unsettling and helps to convey the sense of threat found in the new society. She is clear that ‘scientists’ have found a ‘cure’ for the disease ‘amor deliria nervosa’ and the language develops to present love – one of the finest and fullest emotions of a ‘normal’ contemporary world, as something to be feared and shunned.  Again, the idea of controlling emotion to ensure loyalty to a state is a feature of many texts such as 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and so forth.

As she tells the reader about the process in the first paragraph her language becomes more descriptive and emotive: the list of 3 illnesses which can result and the use of a verb such as “writhing” to describe the sensation of love she currently feels suggest an emotional response which is not evident as she begins her narrative.  The descriptions of those who are diseased are graphic and unpleasant – ‘dragging their nails… their mouths dripping spit’. The reader notices first that it is only girls who are seen to be behaving in this way and may also infer that far from being uncured, these are the victims of some unspecified operation devised by ‘scientists’ devoid of feeling and emotion which has itself left the victims in this parlous state. It is reminiscent of the state in which Alex is left following his ‘cure’ in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Love is ‘cured’ and the narrator looks forward to being ‘paired with a boy’ in a world in which presumably pairing is needed for procreation but little else. She is supported by an older sister and an aunt – both given names- who seem to have convinced her that the process is a good thing. Her wedding dreams are another common convention – dreams tend to display a view of reality and the subconscious as seen in McCarthy’s The Road  – and the ‘blurs’ of the face of her husband hints at the lack of closeness that will be found between the couple.  This is accentuated by the onomatopoeic heart beat: ‘womp, womp, womp’ suggesting that there is no increase in emotion between the couple. Indeed the narrator seems proud of this fact, suggesting that he rheart does not ‘skip or jump or swirl or go faster’ – a list suggestive of happiness and freedom. This has no place in her new world.

An interesting feature of the passage is that the school system still teaches elements of the ‘old ways’.  The symbolism of the ‘dark days’ is clear – a time of threat and  a lack of clear vision, yet the narrator is aware that there was a time when love was viewed as ‘something to be celebrated or pursued’.  She drops into a second person narrative, speaking directly to the reader as though to a friend or confidant (‘It affects your mind…) and explores the problems which are contained in the ‘Book of SHHH’ and acronym derived from the tricolon title of the book outlining the rules and structure of the new world order, which suggests from its name that this is an area to be kept silent and not to be discussed.  The full title of the book, linking ‘safety’ with ‘happiness’, suggests a euphemistic approach to controlling the thought processes and practices of this society.

There are moments of the text in which the writer presents a surprising normality. I find it jarring to read of the United States, as though the geo-political order has not changed. Whilst Orwell or Zamyatin are at pains to remove the continental nomenclature familiar to their readers, writers such as Ishiguro or Steven King make no attempt to hide the location of their texts from their readers. Not only has the geopolitical system not changed, but neither has the counting of the months and years – the narrator has a birthday on ‘September 3’.  This tangible link to the world of the reader helps to make the narrative more accessible, perhaps, and creates a heightened horror when reading of the ‘invisible, sweeping tentacles’ with which a personified love is said to be ‘choking us’.  The writer uses the easily recognisable feelings associated with love: heart in the mouth, shortness of breath and so forth in a way to accentuate the negativity that has been gathered around the emotion in this passage. The descriptions of suicides – from the hyperbolic and graphic “tear their eyes out or try to impale themselves on the barbed –wire fences” ( the addition of the adjective “barbed” here raising the emotion significantly) to the girl who “dropped quickly” serve to intensify the feeling of entrapment felt by some members of this society.

It is clear that this society, whilst using television to ensure that the deaths are seen as a warning for all, cannot prevent people from taking the ultimate sanction. The feeling of being trapped in an unfeeling system is clear throughout the passage from the clinical descriptions of the ‘cure’ and the scientists by whom it will be delivered. Only at the end of the passage do we get under the cover of the emotions presented by the narrator. Her sentences become short and direct, almost desperate – ‘I’m nervous of course. … I want to get it over with’ both suggest the impending cure as a rite of passage which heralds adulthood.  Ultimately the narrator used an extremely short paragraph to draw attention to her feelings: ‘the deadliest of all deadly things: it kills you both when you have it and when you don’t’ suggests recognition of the cognitive dissonance of her situation.  She seems to crave love and yet also to crave its removal. The suggestion is of a lose/lose situation –an ideal choice for a dystopia.


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Symbolism in A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

A resource for my Year 13 to download – created during  a class discussion.


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Year 13 Dystopia Unseen

This is another attempt at an unseen to provide discussion and critique for Y13 students studying the OCR A level (Dystopia). The passage is from Brave New World and is found beneath my attempt at writing a commentary. Again I have consciously used the SCASI layout I favour. Possibly the hardest thing to realise in an unseen is that there is no answer which will address everything.  Try to hit the mark scheme, work to a planned format and do not be afraid of your opinions, if they are supported from the text.

50 minutes.

The passage is drawn from Huxley’s 1931 novel ‘A Brave New World’. The novel deals with issues around a futuristic society which has replaced the human reproductive process with a mechanised and highly clinical process of cloning known as Bokanoskification. The novel explores ideas around determinism and scientific advances at a time when such topics were being explored in society, following the First World War.

From the outset of the passage there is a harshness to the setting. Described as ‘squat’, the building stands ‘only’ 34 stories – immediately unsettling the reader of the day for whom skyscrapers were still a rarity by the idea of such an immense building being viewed as short and fat. The sign on the faced of the building proclaims the coldness of the process being carried out – ‘hatchery and conditioning’ suggests not only the animal nature of the reproductive process but also the clinical process of preparing the embryos for their life ahead. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, written in 2006 also deals with cloning and conditioning but the element of science fiction evident in this passage is not found in that novel which focuses more on the moral questions than on the actual process by which the embryos are created.

The ‘enormous’ room within continues to present a ‘harsh’ and sterile setting. The writing focuses attention on a cold and hostile environment: facing ‘north and with a light which ‘glared’ through the windows. The light within is described through a tricolon: ‘frozen, dead, a ghost’ which builds to the conclusion that there was once light in this place – such light is now a mere ghost of its former self. It seems as if the ‘soul’of the building, represented by the light, has been removed. This clinical coldness is perhaps derived from the buildings depicted in Zamyatin’s We (1922) rathe r than from the cosier laboratories found in HG Wells’ novels of the 19th century, such as ‘The Time Machine’.

The room is clearly built on an industrial scale and this is mirrored in the words of the Director when discussing the Bokanovskified egg-  from eight to ninety six buds, and every bud…perfectly formed embryo’. He develops the process over two stages in the writing – ‘buds’ is possibly the only remnant of the idea of beauty and wonder in the act of human fertilisation and it is here being used to describe an inhuman process, devised by an inventor with a name which is Russian in form, suggesting an awareness of the cold regimented life of the new Soviet block, as explored by both Zamyatin and by Orwell in his novel 1984 (1948).

The character of the Director – anonymous and cold, just like the setting, is presented through his speech and his description. His appearance: ‘tall, rather thin but upright, suggests a moral rectitude as well as stature and the students are clearly in awe of him – scribbling frantically as words come from the horse’s mouth. His facial description with the ‘rather prominent teeth and ‘floridly curved lips’ does seem to suggest the physiognomy of a horse -an unsettling image and also one of the few dashes of colour in the overwhelmingly pale interior of the Hatchery. He reveals the hatchery to his ‘boys’ in a manner reminiscent of a magician  –  a man whose dialogue suggests his pride in his achievements. There is none of the revulsion seen in the character of Madame in NLMG.

The worryingly single gender group of students are awe struck by his ‘menacing geniality’, possibly representing a society which can be kind to those who toe the line, reminiscent of so many totalitarian dystopias such as 1984, are singled out as ‘young, pink and callow. Again the colour, suggestive of beauty and fragility of youth is at odds with the harsh white surroundings in which workers pull on ‘corpse coloured’ gloves suggesting that this is what lies ahead for the youngsters – their life drained by the actions and the surroundings in which they work. The workers are ‘plunged’ into ‘scarcely breathing silence’ by the arrival of the Director suggestive of his power and the cowed nature of society, even of the society working in this kind of state sponsored (presumably) establishment.

Huxley presents the passage in a mixture of omnisicent narration and direct speech. The only voice heard is that of the Director and the narrator offers comment which seems possibly ironic when he adds a sentence to the end of one such speech: ‘Rams wrapped in thermogene beget no rams’. It is the narrator who equated the sperm donor to the process of AI in field animals and also the narrator who adds the possibly ironic ‘progress’ to the final paragraph extolling the wonders of science. This could be read as free indirect speech, suggesting the Director’s thoughts, and would be equally valid as a reading – highlighting the Director’s pride at what he does. Huxley also delivers ideas though the use of tricolon ideas such as ‘One egg,one embryo,one adult-normality’. The anaphora stresses the previous status quo – the adult normality of a single embryo from a single egg. The following passage eulogising the new world in which to live clearly stresses the idea of the Brave New World and its apparent progress.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda’s coining of the title of this book is used when she looks on the group of dissolute drunkards who have come ashore on her isl;and. That is the irony of the title: it is not an advancement at all. A Brave New World is a mistaken utopia. Consequently as we read Huxley’s novel we carry this intertextuality in our minds. Nothing is quite a wondrous as it seems at face value. Other ideas running through the text include a suggestion of a divided and controlled society.  The Director’s suggestion that all will get a ‘general idea’ is countered by the narrators comment that all would receive ‘as little of one, if they were to be good and happy members of society, as possible’ The slightly complex syntax draws attention to this statement and suggests a society eager to control access to knowledge and by granting the ‘privelege’ of occasional ‘generalities’ the populace is prevented from accessing a clear contextual knowledge of the world around them rather in the manner of the controlled environments in which the clones live in NLMG. They are allowed contact with the outside world, but never enough to feel that they are part of it. Indeed they show no signs of ambition to be part of it, just as the boys here respond with an unquestioning acceptance of all they are told.



Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, Paedagogy, Uncategorized

A level unseen: Dystopia (OCR)

This unseen is based on a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The passage is beneath the unseen.  This was 55 minutes writing…

My response might read thus: using the SCASI structure as a basis for the writing.

McCarthy’s 2006 novel  is part of the post-apocalyptic dystopian novel group which has appeared since the end of World War 2. It seems that the after-effects of the atom bomb focused thought towards the possible fate for the human race following a disaster of some kind. Novels from the 1950s seem to be focused on the idea of warfare or ‘alien’ interaction, possibly reflecting the anti-communist sentiments of the era – Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids would be an example, whereas the late 20th Century saw in increase in plots derived from the potential danger of medical disasters. A good example might be Stephen King’s The Stand, in which a strain of flu has wiped out civilization or idshiguro’s Never Let Me  Go which focuses on the idea of cloning of humans. McCarthy’s disaster is not clear. The landscape “Barren. Silent. Godless.” resembles that of King’s novel, but there is no hint here of the cause of the disintegration of mankind. In that sense the passage reflects Hoban’s Riddley Walker which, although written in a phonetic language, carries no clear explanation of the actual disaster which has plunged England back into an Iron Age, though in this novel elements of the past civilization are clear to see, just as in The Road, the ‘soft ash’ blew over the ‘blacktop’. The existence of the tarmac suggesting that the disaster was still relatively recent.

The passage presents a double setting to the reader: one the location of the two travellers -the anonymous ‘he’ and ‘the boy’, the second being the nightmarish landscape of the dream. The passage opens with an atmosphere of threat – the woods are ‘dark and cold’ and McCarthy repeats and intensifies the ‘darkness’ in the opening sentences, possibly developing a symbolic Hell on Earth by use of the idea of sin. Even the daytime is tainted: it is ‘more grey’ and the simile likening the day time to ‘some cold glaucoma’ suggests not only a gradually reducing level of light, but also enhances the sense that the planet is suffering from a withering illness, one which is reducing the effectiveness of the eye of the sun.This idea of a ‘sick planet’ is a regular device in Dystopia, recalling the worlds of The Day of the Triffids or Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. The setting does not relent and there is reference to ‘soft ash’  in the ‘ashen daylight’ with image created being one not only of the after effect of fire and destruction but also the pallid ‘ashen’ appearance of a face when struck by horror or fear. In a tricolon group of monosyllabic sentences, McCarthy presents the Earth as ‘Barren. Silent. Goddless. The anaphora builds towards the depiction of a planet devoid of hope, and lacking a humane presence and also uses language suggestive of female infertility: mother Earth is truly dying.

In the Dream sequence, rather than seeing an image of hope – a trope often seen in Dystopia when characters escape form the harsh reality of their lives in a dream, such as in Orwell’s 1984, the landscape takes on imagery and tone resembling that of descriptions of the Rapture or of Milton’s Hell.  Though horrific, the landscape is enormous and awe-inspiring.Sound imagery is used to add to the feeling of grandeur. Thus water ‘dripped and sang’ and the this sound is described as a’tolling’, heightening the link between this hideous underworld and death. Within the confines of this underworld lurks a creature. described in a triplet which focuses first on ‘its bowels’ before moving upward to ‘the brain that pulsed in a glass bell’. The creature is translucent and the whole world has a darkness illumined only by the ‘light’ which is ‘playing over the .. walls’. It is affected by the light so that it ‘loped off’. The verb has a relaxed tone, possibly suggesting that the evil has been turned away for now, but knows that it will return again.

This idea of a light emanating from the pair, but not carried by them is an indicator of a character which is created with reference to ‘the boy’. He is the elder man’s guide to this underworld, possibly, therefore, the source of the light. Given that light in the context of a hellish setting symbolizes godliness and goodness, the final sentences of the passage take on great weight. Here, the man is clear: the child represents the ‘word of God’ as surely as anything and the reader gathers the impression that hope for the future resides in this child. In the passage he is fragile – wrapped in his ‘plastic tarpaulin’ suggesting the utilisation of the detritus of the previous world – a theme common in Riddley Walker- and also being protected by the older man. His dress- ‘blankets and robes’ possibly suggest the dress of some form of Old Testament prophet who may be protecting the boy through the ‘real’ world yet being guided by him in a dream world. It is the older man who scans the horizon, ‘glassing’ the horizon until the daylight ‘congeals over the land’.  This is a particularly unsettling metaphor, suggesting the pair being trapped under some form of tangible cover, possibly reinforcing the idea that there would be ‘no surviving a winter here’. This landscape and fear for the future, coupled with a need to stay on the move recalls the refugees in The Stand, moving to find food and shelter whilst under threat from the hostile armies which are seizing control of the land, or the revlation found by Todd in Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy once he is able to use Viola’s binoculars ot gain a clearer view of his chasers.

McCarthy’s narrative is clear and generally favours short sentences which precipitate the action except when he is describing the hellish cavern. The language here takes on a richness with similes helping to raise the intensity of the image. The pair are described as ‘pilgrims’ reinforcing their inherent goodness, yet the cavern itself is a metaphorical ‘granitic beast’ -the very earth is personified and made terrible. There is a semantic field suggesting the vast history of the place – ‘without cease’ ‘fable’,’ ancient lake’ all of which help, to create a sense of enormity and by doing so to indicate the fragility of the human forms in the story.

At times the language has resonances of Biblical text as in the simplicity of the phrase ‘he rose and left the boy sleeping’ or the ‘but there was none’ was searching for light in the east -the dawn of a new day. This ties well with McCormack’s vision. As with many Dystopian novels, the hope must be found among the ‘normal’ people and among the innocents – the children. In this passage the hope is the child- ‘his warrant’. The use of this word to mean his justification for his actions – pursuing the search for a better world as they head South – suggests the purpose of the passage  -that hope lies in the innocent in a corrupted world.

An extract from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a  novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, date and place unnamed , though the reader can assume it’s somewhere in what was the United States. It begins with a man and boy in the woods.( he believes the boy is given to him by God to take care of) The boy is asleep.  The two of them are making their journey along the road. Neither the man nor the boy is given a name; this anonymity adds to the novel’s tone that this could be happening anywhere, to anyone.


When he woke up in the woods in the dark and cold of the night, he reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights are dark beyond darkness and the days, more grey, each one that what had gone before, like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.  His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.  He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.  In the dream from which he’d awaken, he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand.  Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls, like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast.  Deep stones sleep where the water dripped and sang.  Tolling in the silence, the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease, until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black an ancient lake.  And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool, stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.  It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see.    Crouching there pale and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it; its bowels, its beating heart; the brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell.  It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

With the first grey light, he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south.  Barren.  Silent.  Godless.   He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure.  He hadn’t kept a calendar for years.  They were moving south.  There would be no surviving a winter here.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars, he glassed the valley below.  Everything was paling away into the murk.  The soft ash was blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.  He studied what he could see:  The segments of road down there among the dead trees; looking for anything of colour.  Any movement.  Any trace of standing smoke.  He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.  Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land.  He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said:  If he is not the word of God; God never spoke.


Filed under OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, prose, teacher training