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Five Practical Tips For VCE Literature
« on: January 18, 2019, 10:32:52 pm »

Hello ATAR Notes fam! A friend asked me to give them some tips regarding VCE literature recently, so I’ve decided to have a go at writing one and putting it on the AN forums. A fellow user on AN was kind enough to me out with writing it (and also giving an advice of their own) as this is my first time writing a guide. Hopefully future literature students will find this helpful.

Some background info first, I completed VCE literature in 2018 as a year 11 student and received a 50 raw. Lsjnzy13, the user who helped me out with writing this, received a raw 47. The texts I studied were Robert Browning’s poem selection, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Nikolai Gogol’s short stories selection, Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s poem selection, and Heart of Darkness. To be honest, I’m not a great writer and really struggled in term one. However there are so many tricks that you could do to significantly increase your scores.

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1. Forget themes. Make a list of oppositions.
Making a list of themes may have gotten you through year 10 English class, but in VCE literature, you’re expected to go beyond. They are a good place to start, but don’t stop there! Exploring the oppositions within the text allows you to better understand the text, the author’s message, why such message was needed, and really makes your response stand out.

So what are oppositions? Well, literature is built on oppositions, generally towards established traditions, authority, or sometimes emerging ideas. They form the meaning of the text, and it’s your job as the reader the interpret them.

I made this list while studying Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

2. Do NOT ignore seemingly minor details
I’m sure many of you may have seen memes of literature teachers overanalysing texts. As hilarious as those memes are, overanalysing is sometimes necessary in literature. Sometimes, seemingly insignificant and minor aspects of a text are important. One rule of thumb to keep in mind when doing Literature is to just imagine that EVERYTHING in the text is deliberate and EVERYTHING has a hidden meaning.

One particular aspect which I found was incredibly useful for analysis is a character’s entrance and exit, particularly the entrance. Other points include, but are not limited to, a character’s choice of clothing, speech, stage directions (if you’re dealing with a play), what type of people they interact with etc. Aside from characters, other details can include the time and place of a dialogue, the length of sentences etc.

Example 1
In the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the character of Mae was introduced holding a hunting bow. Why’s that significant? Well, in Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of hunting and childbirth, and was often depicted with a bow. Mae in COAHTR represents fertility. Hunting can be seen as barbaric, or it could also represent stealth and greed – trying to gain something that does not belong to you. COAHTR was set during the age of the Baby Boomers. So what could Williams be saying about fertility, an important aspect of the American Dream, through this use of imagery?

Example 2
In short stories such as The Overcoat and The Carriage in Nikolai Gogol’s short stories collection, we see various male characters interact with objects and/or animals that seem to take on rather feminine qualities. It’s worth to note that the Russian nouns for both ‘Overcoat’ and ‘Carriage’ are feminine in gender. So, keeping in mind that Gogol, the author, was a homosexual man living in a highly stringent and conservative Orthodox Russian society, what message could he be sending out here?

3. Focus on the naming choices and titles
Authors don’t use darts to decide what to name their characters or their works. You can usually find a lot of symbolisms these names. Seems obvious, but it’s often forgotten during analysis, particularly the title of the text.

It is often a good idea to try and link the title of the text into the analysis as a way of bringing together your points in the conclusion. I know many people struggle with the conclusion, particularly with trying not to make it sound like a paraphrased introduction.

Example 1
In Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we are introduced to the character of Skipper. The moniker ‘Skipper’ means captain. In the play, the character of Skipper, far from being the captain, was in fact a substitute player on his football team. What could this be saying about 1950s America as a global superpower? How does this reinforce the theme of mendacity – the fact that Skipper’s name is a lie?

Example 2
Let’s look at the title of Williams’s play - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play explicitly states that the ‘Cat’ is Maggie, but who else could be the cat? Every member of the Pollitt family is, in some ways, trapped on a hot tin roof. Could Williams be suggesting that American society itself is on top of a hot tin roof from which it refuses to escape? What is this hot tin roof in American society?
Another way to discuss this is to ask yourself, why ‘Cat’? Why is the title not Dolphin on a Hot Tin Roof? What characteristics of a cat can also be linked to the Pollitt family, and to the greater 1950s America?

Example 3
Let’s look at two particular poems from Robert Browning’s collection:

Porphyria’s Lover – the poem itself is shocking and misogynist, yet see how the title says ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. The male character is reduced to something belonging to Porphyria. What could this suggest?

Two in the Campagna – the entire poem is about how the narrator wants to desperately become one entity with his lover. Yet the title says ‘two’. Again, what could Browning be suggesting here?

Example 4
For those of you studying Gogol’s short stories, note the repetitive use of names by the author – Akaky Akakievich (The Overcoat), 2 x Ivan Ivanovich (The Quarrel), Grigory Grigoryevich (Ivan Shponka and his Aunt). The second part of their name isn’t the characters’ SURNAME, but rather their PATRONYMIC, which is their fathers’ names. (SIDE NOTE - You’ll see some websites translating these names as ‘John Johnson’. This is wrong. A more correct translation would be ‘John, son of John’.) Now let’s see what Gogol could be symbolising here, by having his characters’ own names preposterously repeat their fathers’ – possibly a stagnant society unwilling to change, or a lack of free will as they’re predestined to relieve the banal lives of their predecessors?

4. Do in-depth character studies
Doing in-depth character studies is a technique most easily applied to plays. People who have done theatre productions may be familiar with this – it’s where actors compile everything about their character into one spot to really learn about who they are. It’s sort of like gathering all the evidence from a crime scene. For example, say we’re trying to learn more about character ‘X’. This would usually include jotting down the following four points:

   1) Everything X says about themselves.
   2) Everything X says about others.
   3) Everything others say about X.
   4) All stage directions applied to X.

Granted, it’s a heavy workload if you’re trying to analyse a lead character with pages of lines. Generally, this is best used for minor characters.

See attached files below (for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

5. Write, write, WRITE!
I’m sure you’ve all heard this millions of times, but I cannot stress this enough! Write as many practice essays as you can, and do so under timed conditions. This might seem a bit unrealistic, but as you get closer and closer to the exam, try to write at least one per day. I’ve always been a slow writer (if you go to the Literature Question Thread, you’ll find that the first question is from me complaining about writing 1000-word essays). At first it’s hard, and when I first started I could only write about 300 words in an hour. About a week later I was able to write up to 600 and by the third week 1000 words became a breeze. You’ll also realise that you don’t have to sit there waiting for ideas to come to you, as many times you’re expanding upon the same points.

For close passage analysis, try finding one to three sections of the text yourself (I found that finding texts myself was a good way to improve my analysis, as I was putting myself in the examiner’s shoes), give yourself 7 minutes of reading time, then one hour writing time. This can also be done with a prompt for literary perspectives. Relating back to Tip 1, this can also be a good way to expand upon your understanding and analysis by picking a pair of oppositions and giving yourself one hour to write as much as you can about it. You can also combine this with Tip 4 – giving yourself one hour to write all you can about a particular character.

Two things to keep in mind – one, make sure that you are always seeking feedback for your work; two, try to always handwrite every essay, as appealing as typing may be.

All the best to future literature students!! :)

VCE: Literature [50] Methods [50] Further [48] Chemistry [40] Biology [33]
2022: Bachelor of Science (Mathematical Economics) @ ANU


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Re: Five Practical Tips For VCE Literature
« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2019, 10:47:48 pm »
This is an excellent guide! I know what I’d be reading if I had my time again with VCE Lit  ;D
BA (Linguistics) I University of Melbourne
Tips and Tricks for VCE English [50]

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