With A-Level in mind

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By Augustine M. Tirivangana

The Patriot will be publishing educative material relevant to the prosperity of Zimbabwean students. This week, A-Level literature takes centre stage. A-Level English Paper I, the compulsory paper on ‘Comment and Appreciation – Unseens’ is the most formidable paper of the three papers, especially for students and in some cases, for teachers as well. This article covers Prose and leaves out Poetry and Drama. Critical Strategies on Essay Questions Essay questions usually fall into one of the following categories: explication, analysis, comparison and contrast. Explication is a detailed examination of a passage in order to establish how a writer achieves a certain effect as demanded by the question. It pays special attention to language, i.e. the connotations of words, allusion, figures of speech, irony, symbolism, etc. The simplest way to organise an explication is to move through the passage line-by-line, explaining whatever seems significant. Candidates can structure their essays by discussing various elements of literature, bearing in mind that the aim of explication is not simply to summarise but to comment on the effects and meanings produced by the author’s use of language. An analytical question focuses on a particular part of the passage, e.g. the significance of an aspect of style such as setting, language, point of view and characterisation in the passage. This requires you to discuss the specific element of the passage, explaining how the element contributes to the passage’s overall effect. Comparison and Contrast questions call for a discussion of similarities and differences between passages or elements within the same passage. You may be asked to compare or contrast the use of irony or points of view. Be sure to have a thesis that allows you to organise your essay, a central idea that argues a point about the passage or passages. Major Literary Elements of Prose Different authors arrange various elements of literature to demonstrate their craft. These include: story, plot, characterisation, setting, point of view, symbolism, theme, style, tone and irony. ‘Story’ means events in their chronological order. ‘Plot’ is the author’s rearrangement of incidents in the story. It is the organising principle controlling the order of events. It can be chronological, it can move back and forth or it can begin in the middle (in medias res). ‘Flashback’ is a common strategy of most authors. It is a device that informs us about events before the opening of the story. This device creates suspense in the reader. ‘Foreshadowing’ is another common device which suggests what is yet to come. Good stories normally have conflict, the tension that is the source of the story. The unravelling of the conflict reaches its peak at the climax, the moment of the greatest emotional tension. This is usually followed by the ‘denouement’, also known as anti-climax or, simply, the untying of the knot, the resolution. Characters in a story can be convincing if their actions are motivated. A dynamic character undergoes some kind of change due to the action of the plot. A static character doesn’t change A foil is a character that helps to reveal, by contrast, the distinctive qualities of another, especially the protagonist. A flat character embodies one or two qualities which can easily be summarised. The opposite is a round character who is more complex, has more depth and therefore requires greater attention. Other characters are easily recognisable and these are called stock characters. Setting is a major element It is the total context in which action takes place. It embraces time, place and the social environment that frames the characters. Time refers to part of day, e.g. ‘dawn’ or ‘dusk’. It also refers to epoch, e.g. 17th century. These and other elements of setting can be used to evoke a mood or an atmosphere that prepares the reader for what is to come. For instance, a ‘forest’ may not just be woods, but can be the backdrop of a moral wilderness where anything can happen. Similarly, a dilapidated house may stand for a shattered vision of life. ‘Point of view’ answers the question: who tells and how is the story told? Never confuse the narrator with the author. There are three major points of view namely, the first, second and third person narrators. Each has its implications for the reader. The third person narrator uses ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ and ‘it’. It can be further categorised into the ‘omniscient’, the ‘limited omniscient’ and ‘the objective’. Omniscient means all-knowing: such a point of view can move from place to place and pass back and forth through time, slipping into and out of characters. It can report the characters’ thoughts and feelings through editorial omniscience, sometimes allowing characters’ actions and thoughts to speak for themselves (neutral omniscience) thereby allowing readers some space to make their own conclusions. The ‘limited omniscient narrator’ is more confined to the single perspective of either a major or minor character. This is common in short stories. The stream of consciousness — a technique suggesting a rapid flow of thought in a characters’ mind coming in rapid associations free of conventional logic takes the reader inside the character’s mind to reveal his perceptions and feelings on a conscious or unconscious level. The second person narrator uses ‘you’ as the subject of description. It is quite rare and so spares us space by its omission. The first person narrator uses ‘I’ or ‘’we’. It presents the point of view of only one character’s consciousness, so the reader is restricted to the feelings and perceptions of the narrator. For this reason the narrator may not be entirely relied on as he/she may lack selfknowledge and may be so inexperienced and naïve. ‘Symbolism’ can be derived from a person, an object, event or action which suggests more than its literal meaning. Conventional symbols are widely recognised by a society, e.g. the national flag, the setting sun and the colour green. A literary symbol can also be established internally by the total context. Some symbols can be restricted to a single meaning but others can evoke multiple meanings. For instance, ‘walls’ can symbolise restrictive repetitiveness of office routine, or the materialistic sensibility, or any limitations thwarting human aspirations including death. ‘Theme’ refers to the central idea or meaning of a story. It is the unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols and other elements are organised. The theme can be explicitly or implicitly stated. Take note: It is not always easy to express the theme, but the following guidelines can be handy. Firstly, distinguish between the theme and the subject of the story. These two are not the same.

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