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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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Love is invariably possessive… an OCR A level essay

Texts: A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale.

Time : 50 minutes

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers explore power and gender.

The two texts under consideration are written some 55o years apart, yet there are strong similarities in the socio-historical context of both. Whilst it is clear that the medieval feudal system had developed by the middle of the 19th century, the strata of society were still clearly defined. Where Chaucer places Januarie as a ‘Knight’ who will marry a girl found in the market place, chosen for her mixture of youth and sexual proficiency, Ibsen places the Doll’s House at the centre of a bourgeois middle class as rooted in societal convention and the need to establish position, albeit by wealth and rank, just as much as if the play had been written centuries earlier. At the centre of both texts is the issue of the Patriarchal response to marriage and the position of the female in a society which clearly regards wives as possessions and as symbols of their husbands’ good name and status.

In both texts, the wife seems to be regarded as a lower status to that of her husband: Nora is chosen by Helmer as a result of an attraction developed while he helped her father escape prosecution for unspecified financial irregularities and May  is a town girl who becomes ‘feffed in his bond’ as Januarie embarks on what is clearly a business arrangement, well suited to the business mind of the Merchant-narrator.

Januarie is clear that he desires ownership and seeks his wife in the market place, as though purchasing an item of food or clothing. He seems naive and lists reasons for his confusion – not least that some are ‘riche but hadden badde name’- until ultimately he alights on May. Once married she is reduced to the level of his sexual servant. She says very little, is silent through the wedding feast and lies ‘as a stoon’ when he proceeds to labour atop her while making ‘love’. The merchant is allowed to quote her when she comments that Januarie’s love making was not ‘worth a bene’ and Chaucer skillfully undercuts the sense of male power at this point by foreshadowing the climax of the Tale – that a girl who is experienced in such matters will not remain subject to a single, elderly husband.

Where May is subjected to sexual humiliation at the hands of her husband, Nora is no less his plaything, but she has developed a repertoire of flirtatious games with which to keep him at a distance. It is clear that in Helmer’s Doll’s House, Nora is the prime doll.  We learn that Helmer has chosen all the fixtures and fittings of the house and has enough control that Nora needs to even usher away Christine, because Helmer ‘can’t bear to see work’ in the drawing room. True to convention she remains at home, outwardly supportive of her husband and providing him with children.  Ibsen himself noted that her eventual departure could be likened to an ‘insect’ which after delivering offspring to the hive goes away to die. This interpretation would enhance the idea of a controlled and futile existence within love, yet other writers have seen the play as part of the mid 19th century birth of a feminist movement (what male critics would sneeringly refer to as the ‘woman problem’) probably influenced by thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose writings were having an unsettling effect on the complacent patriarchal bourgeoisie of the time.

Nora is undoubtedly a possession, and her response to this is to flirt with Helmer and with Rank – flicking him with her tights in the half light of Act 2 – before dancing the Tarantella to titillate not only her husband, her doomed lover and presumably the guests a the act 3 party. This flirtation is not open to May – her escape from ownership needs to take place in secret – in the ‘privy’ or in Damyan’s bedroom. For May, the eventual brutal sexual encounter in the pear tree is a clear break away from her role as Januarie’s possession, yet the status quo achieved at the end of the poem suggests that although love may not be possessive, it can be achieved through a compromise. Helped by Proserpina, she deflects Januarie’s accusations and as they leave he places a hand upon her ‘wombe’. At this time, heritage and an heir was crucial to the continuation of a family name. Januarie has clearly stated that this is one of the purposes of the marriage. He may be aware that any child is likely to be Damyan’s, critics disagree on the level of sexual competence he can wield at his age – the garden seems to allow him to actually complete the sexual act in a manner not seen in the palace (‘and spedde’) – but it seems by this action that the compromise – he brings up a bastard as his own and May remains his possession – is complete and is possibly a requirement of the time. In the 14th Century, there was no divorce as we understand it and an adulteress would suffer strong penalty. It is in nobody’s interest to draw attention to the deceit and the loss of his power. Chaucer was himself the husband of a woman of higher status, whose position at the court of John of Gaunt has been discussed by terry Jones as likely adultery, would clearly understand the need for such compromise in the Medieval court.

The end of A Doll’s House relies on the failure to find compromise. Helmer is too tied to his 19th century attitude (aren’t I your husband?’ he demands when Nora has the temerity to resist his drunken advances in Act 3) to accommodate any shift and loss of power. A man who cannot bear to be addressed by his Christian Name is not likely to willingly give up his control of his ‘little squanderbird’. Nora will also find herself unable to compromise her ideals which have become cemented by Helmer’s inability to provide the miracle of miracles. As she leaves, it is clear that the love that both of them had for the other is now destroyed. When the play was premiered, the fact that an alternative ending was required to enable major German theatres to stage the play, the societal constraints on women were such that such a desertion could not be countenanced.

In this world, the world so well illustrated by artists like Holman Hunt, a woman was a possession.  That was not up for debate. In the 21st Century Nora’s leaving is a vehicle for expression of the individual and of the feminine. Critics divide – one camp suggests a play establishing the individual as paramount and other supporting the notion of the specifically feminist agenda – yet one thing is certain: Where Lady May achieves some freedom within the confines of marriage, Nora Helmer breaks out of the trap and shows women from the middle of the 19th century that love need not be ‘invariably’ possessive and that although it may seem foolhardy, freedom lies on the other side of the door.

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Merchant’s Tale: setting and garden, a student response.

Not a perfect examination response, but I know that I would not have written with such assurance in the lower 6th. Take a bow Karan.

L783 (“This gentil May”)- 825 (“under a laurer alwey greene”)

Examine the use of setting in this extract and consider the typicality of the extract in terms of the whole tale.

In this extract Chaucer introduces us to Januarie’s grand idea of making a garden for him and May to be alone. The garden is filled with references to the Bible and nature as well as promiscuity and fertility. The setting used is symbolic, and creates a garden that seems to be littered with sin. At this point one must decide whether this is the Merchant simply telling the tale, or perhaps Chaucer giving his opinion on marriage, and the façade associated with its apparent holiness.

Considering Januarie’s garden is designed for the purpose of isolation so he and May can have sex, the repetitive sexual innuendoes and references should come as no surprise. The most obvious case of this is the “welle” in the garden the lies underneath a “laurer alwey grene”. Here, Chaucer uses the idea of a “welle” as a vagina, and a “laurer” as a phallic symbol. The purpose of this garden, therefore, is very clear. Furthermore, the iambic stress falls on “alwey” and emphasises the fact that this garden is not intended for holiness or love, but for lust. The line then crescendos to the “grene” tree, which once more emphasises the idea that this phallic symbol is always erect. In these two lines alone, Chaucer provides a very clear and precise indication as to what this garden was built for- pleasure and lust. One might also link this “fair” garden to the Garden of Eden, which was intended to be “hooly” but instead became sinful. If Januarie’s “gardyn” is accepted as a direct Biblical reference to Eden, then perhaps this could be Chaucer foreshadowing May’s deceit and sin, much like Eve committed sin in the Garden. We see something that is intended to be holy and pure become the opposite earlier in the Tale with the marriage ceremony of January and May. Their so-called “hooly” ceremony has such a build up before the event, only to last just seven lines.

We later see similar symbolism when Chaucer introduces the idea of a “wyket” and “clyket”. This reference to a key and keyhole is a clear sexual innuendo designed to once again emphasise the garden’s sin and irony. Furthermore, the words “wyket” and “clyket” are a heroic couplet, and are also arguably used to demonstrate Januarie’s obsession with sex, which is why the garden is so important to him. We see this when Chaucer uses exemplar when mentioning “Priapus”, the Roman God of garden and claims that January has made a better garden than Priapus could ever make. Januarie’s obsession with sex may also be shown with the reference of the famous French literature on courtly love, the “Romance of the Rose”, which teaches the reader about the Art of Love and how to please the “Rose” (a common symbol for the vagina). If Chaucer is implying Januarie has read this book, much like he has read “De Coittu” (translating to ‘About Sex’), perhaps it shows his insecurities with regards to his own sexual abilities and belief that this garden will somehow better his sexual performance. However, this reference may just be for ironic purposes or maybe Chaucer demonstrating auctoritas, as it is mentioned in a fabliau text that is designed to mock courtly love.

Chaucer also uses setting effectively when considering the time at which he introduces Januarie’s “fair… gardyn”. Before we are introduced to the idea of a garden, we see May write a “letter” to Damyan about her feelings towards him and then decides to “visite this Damyan”. The juxtaposition between May’s concern with Damyan, and Janurie’s concern with his “fresshe” May is quite ironic and makes it very clear that their marriage is slowly falling apart and is far from “paradys”. We then see Damyan rise “Up..the nexte” morning, with iambic stress falling on “Up” which make have sexual conations of an erection, thus showing his passion and “desyr” for May. Once again we see irony, as if we accept that the stress falls on “Up” to emphasise Damyan’s erection, it becomes even more apparent that Januaries has trouble with sex and must drink “ypocras, clarree and vernage” in order to enhance his sexual feeling and even with these enhancements, May still considers his performance “not worth a bene”. This setting and juxtaposition makes us empathise with Januarie to an extent, and feel sorry for his naivety.

In conclusion, the description of Januarie’s garden demonstrates complete irony between holiness and religion with regards to sin and promiscuity. Furthermore, the countless sexual references and innuendoes clearly show that the garden is a place of pleasure, lust and fertility and is, in truth, unholy. However, the garden also demonstrates something about Januarie’s character. Gardens come about naturally and are not “made” or built. This is arguably a metaphor for May and Januarie’s marriage- that it is not natural, but instead manufactured and fake. Personally, Januarie comes across as a man who doesn’t fully understand beauty, and believes that everything can be manufactured and built to fit his liking.

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Chaucer’s Love Garden: A Merchant’s Tale

Students are usually aware of the narrative form of the poem, one which blends the realistic with the fantastic and the symbolic, yet there is often room for discussion of the symbolic importance of the Love Garden which Januarie builds to allow he and May to perform the acts not done ‘abedde’. Not only does this suggest a certain freedom from societal convention, but we also learn that it is in the garden that Januarie’s love making ‘spedde’. This word has obvious 21st century connotations in terms of speed, but should also be read in the sense of reaching a successful conclusion.  In the marriage chamber he makes excuses for the slow ‘labour’ he will perform. We assume that his singing in bed suggests a successful end to the coitus, albeit with the use of ‘ypocras’ and other herbs and suggestive reading matter, and here we read of him completing the act – the speed connotation may be relevant, as well, but completion is the root meaning of the word.

So, what is it about the garden?

I want to look at both the symbolic Eden reference and also at the symbolism associated with the family and thus with Januarie’s heirs which follows from this.

The garden ‘walled with stoon’ is a clear Eden on earth. The idea of the locus amoenus (intro post) appears as a trope of Courtly love literature and was also an architectural feature of many dwellings of the wealthy and powerful through the 12 and 13 centuries. Essentially a private area in which the lovers could walk without being observed by servants or other hindrances to freedom of action, such gardens were as much a statement of wealth and degree as an attempt to create a little piece of Paradise.

Januarie’s paradise is a limited paradise.  It is bounded by stone presenting a strong and rather cold boundary which cannot be easily crossed and is locked by a ‘wicket’ and ‘clicket’ (itself suggestive of sexual penetration) with Januarie holding the clicket for himself. In the centre is a pear tree, rather than an apple, which will become the focus of the action in the garden at the end of the poem. The garden is already inhabited not by representations of the Christian Divine but by Pluto and Prosepina, the Roman Gods of the underworld.

They provide a context for this paradise. Pluto raped his wife, having lain in wait for her on the slopes of Etna, an echo of Januarie’s rather bathetic mirror in the market place and subsequent brutal and unfeeling wedding night. Potential blasphemy would prevent Chaucer writing in indelicate terms about God and Scripture, but her ewe see a symbolic allusion to this garden not as Eden, but as a kind of anti-Eden – one built on male force, lust (since Januarie is ‘Venus’ knight’) and a total mistrust of women. Here alone is there an echo of the patriarchal misogyny of Genesis.

Once Januarie is ‘soddeynly’ blinded, he has a problem.  He does not trust May and seeks never to leave her side, indeed he goes further and ‘hadde an hand upon hire everemo’.  She, on the other hand, after some months of sexual frustration finally manages to deceive him: to steal the clicket and obtain a duplicate through the offices of Damyan – ‘the lechour in the tree’. Just as in the Biblical paradise, the serpent is already in situ. All this is perfectly to clear to  a student of the Pastoral genre – even in Paradise lurks death: et in arcadia ego.  There is no need for Chaucer to digress about the state of the garden or to provide a quasi-Miltonian debate about gardening and gender roles, instead the action moves directly to the tree.

The tree stands at the centre of the garden, a garden ruled not by God, but by pagan Gods of the underworld and death whose fairies use the space as their playground. Nothing good will come of this. They ‘maken melodye’ in a garden more beautiful than even Priapus could build. Given that the conventional image of Priapus is that of a Satyr-like figure with an immense erection, the sexual connotations of the purpose of the garden seem obvious. download (2) Priapus (from a fresco in Pompeii)

Once ‘fresshe May’ has the clicket, the rest is easy. Damyan at first hides under a bush, presenting a stock Satan-as-serpent image and then climbs into the pear tree itself. The choice of tree is significant, having a clearer sense of lewdness than other fruits. Possibly due to their pendulous shape, somewhat scrotal in appearance, pears were seen as a somewhat lascivious fruit and the choice of this tree again increases the sense of the garden as a setting for lustful congress rather than for any manifestation of Courtly Love. It is Januarie who sets up the visit to the garden and is completely deceived in his blindness. May, just as Eve in the biblical model, is quick to deceive him, suggesting her innocence and her claim to be ‘no wenche’, as she says that she craves fruit. Indeed she ‘moot die’ if she does not get a pear – ‘die’ having the same orgasmic connotation that students are used to from the study of Shakespeare. She finally conquers Januarie who stoops to let her climb onto his back, thus establishing her as the dominant figure at this stage.  The action is swift and utterly without emotion -‘in he throng’- and the satirical image of Eden is now complete.

However the Tree itself can be further discussed.


When May mounts Januarie to climb into the tree, he is quick to agree to her somewhat bizarre wish. May suggests that he ‘The pyrie inwith [his] armes for to take’ which suggests the image of Januarie embracing the trunk of the tree – the ‘stock’ – as she climbs up.

Given that the image of an apple tree was a common model for the depiction of family trees in Medieval and later painting s and documents, the image is again clear. Januarie is desperate to have an heir, a branch from his stock – to use the biblical term. Here we see him symbolically guarding his heritage from the interlopers who have already, cuckoo-like, destroyed his blood-line. Early in the tale he likens himself to a tree -a laurel – which ‘blosmeth er that fruit ywoxen be’. The link to the tree in the garden is clear. If we accept this idea, that the lovers are tainting the blood-line in this way, then we can further suggest that at the end of the tale, as he ‘hire wombe… stroketh full softe’, he is settling for a compromise. The children will not be his offspring, but he can acknowledge them, safeguard his heritage and keep May as his plaything. She has everything to lose from being uncovered as a wanton cuckolder at this time, so she will not complain.

The message of marriage is one of compromise and not forgiveness. Women will always cheat and, thanks to Proserpina, will always get away with it…  That seems a suitable attitude for a man whose wife  lived apart from him, possibly as the Mistress of John of Gaunt and from whom he was estranged for much of his later life. Chaucer could not divorce her and benefited from Gaunt’s stipend for much of his life.

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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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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