Page 1


Critical Essay (Higher) The most important part of the Higher Critical Essay paper is choosing a question that helps you focus on a specific text. You have to narrow down your choice among the novels, short stories, plays and poems that you have studied and apply the question to one of them. When you are looking at the exam questions it is important that you read them through very carefully. It's tempting to hunt frantically for the first question that looks as though it might suit the texts you know and plunge straight into it without even glancing at the other questions. Remember your answers must be relevant to the questions. Spend a few minutes reading through the paper and make sure you understand all the questions. Once you have considered every question on the paper and put a mark against the 'possibles', you have to make your final choices.

Understanding the question It's important that you understand the question and that you know precisely what it is asking you to do. Look at the following question.

Question Choose a novel which is influenced by the presence of a powerful or overbearing character. Show how the writer creates this impression of the character and discuss to what extent you sympathise with him or her. There are two parts to the question:

Here the question demands that your essay focuses on a novel influenced by a powerful or overbearing character. If you have to search hard to find one, then it is highly probable that you won't have enough information on that character to write an essay with sufficient depth. 2. The second part could be described as the 'body' of the question. This is the most important part of the question and asks you to take your knowledge of the novel and use whatever information you feel is relevant to answer the question. In this case you are asked to look at how the author presents a character to the reader with emphasis on what makes him or her powerful or overbearing. This should reveal how a character's actions or what they say in a text confirm your impressions. You are also asked to what extent you sympathise with the character. Here you should base your opinion on a critical assessment of how effective the author has been in their depiction of that character. At the beginning of the exam paper, before you even get to the questions you are reminded about certain things which you must do in every answer. You are instructed to refer closely to the text and reminds you of things you should include in your essay. This means that you must provide 1.

evidence for the observations you make by quoting what the writer or some of the characters say. You should also make specific reference to incidents, conversations and parts of the narrative. In these you do not actually have to quote from the text but it is important that you identify exactly which part of the novel you are using as evidence for your argument. You are asked to evaluate and analyse by making reference to some of the techniques or features contained in the box at the head of each Section. These are meant to help you. In the case of the question we are dealing with, focusing on characterisation would most obviously be part of your essay. Any of the others mentioned in the box or any techniques of your own choosing could be considered in your answer.

Essay question exam skills Example 1 - Novel Now let's try to break down a question to make sure we understand exactly what it is asking us to do. Let's imagine you have studied Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song. You have looked through the questions and you find one that you think is relevant to the text. Question Choose a novel in which a main character is seen to grow or mature in the course of the story. Show how the novelist engages your interest in the character and his or her development. The question is ideal for writing about Sunset Song. The novel is an account of the life of Chris Guthrie. At the beginning she is a girl and by the end she is has a young family of her own. So no problems with relevancy. The next part of the question asks you to describe how compelling you find the way the author has depicted her

growth to maturity. Are you engaged by Chris Guthrie's story? Why? How has Grassic Gibbon created that interest? Remember that you have to refer to specific parts of the text. This is where you have to justify your opinion by quoting from the novel and describing incidents that will illustrate your answer. In your analysis you will probably have to refer to one or two of the techniques or features in the box at the head of the Section. In this case you would clearly write about characterisation. You might also want to write about the way the novel is actually structured around the periods of Chris Guthrie's young life, or that the omniscient narrator helps us sympathise with her suffering.

Example 2 - Play Let's imagine you have studied Shakespeare's Hamlet. You choose a question on the exam paper that will best show your understanding of the text. Question Choose a play in which a character struggles with her or his conscience. Outline briefly the reasons for the character's dilemma and go on to discuss how successfully the dramatist engages your sympathy for her or him. Well you couldn't really find a more relevant question for Hamlet. The focus of the play is the tragic hero's struggle to find the resolve within himself to exact revenge for his father's death. The 'body' of the question asks you to explain why Hamlet is unable to make up his mind. Be careful here. You are not being asked to retell the story but to describe his inner dilemmas. Here you are also asked to describe how Shakespeare has been effective in making us sympathise with Hamlet. Remember that you have to refer to specific parts of the text. This is where you have to justify your opinion

by quoting from the play and describing incidents that will illustrate your answer. In your analysis you will probably have to refer to one or two of the techniques or features in the box at the head of the Section. In this case you might focus on the famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy scene, illustrating how Hamlet tries to find resolution from his inner conflict. You might also write about the way Hamlet's descent into madness seems to be the price for his inability to take revenge.

Selecting the relevant material You have established the question and the text you are writing about in the Higher Critical Essay paper. Now you have to start planning. This means selecting the relevant information for the essay. Resist the temptation to write everything you know about this text or paraphrase the story. Your task, before you start answering the question, is to select the relevant items of information from a range of possibilities. The features and techniques used in the text might include: •

theme/minor themes

characterisation: main/minor characters

setting: time; period; place

plot and structure: parallels; repetition; key scene; cliffhanger; turning point; resolution •

narrative technique: first/second/third person

language: dialogue; poetic devices; tone

symbolism: imagery; simile and metaphor •

Organising your material

The exam gives you one hour and 30 minutes to write two essays. The next thing to consider then, is 'budgeting' your time. How long can you spend on each essay? Remember to allocate your time equally. If you run out of time, move on. The length of your essays is not the important thing; perceptive critical argument will be rewarded before word count. You can always gain extra marks if you use five minutes reading through each essay at the end to check spelling, grammar, punctuation and sense. •

It's vital that you organise your material before you begin writing your essays. It can be helpful to make a sketch or plan of what you are going to do in the questions: notes, scribbles, arrows, key words or anything else that helps you to focus on the demands of the question. One of the best ways to do this is using web diagrams. These are easy to interpret and should help you organise the information you want to use. Remember selecting the key information is your main priority. Use PEER: •



Explain by Analysis,

Respond in a way the is Relevant to the task

to structure your paragraphs. Don't be tempted to squeeze something irrelevant into the essay however brilliant your idea! •

Let's look at some examples.

Novel Question Choose a novel which you think has a definite turning point or decisive moment. Explain briefly what happens at that point or moment and go on to explain why you think it is so important to the rest of the novel. Writing an essay in response to this question demands that you show detailed knowledge of a key incident in the novel. You must show that you understand the incident in terms of its importance to the novel as a whole and identify the relevant aspects of the text. The structure of the novel would probably suggest ideas about the positioning of that key incident. The incident is probably associated with a main character or with the development of a theme within the novel. Your notes might look like this: Example: Web diagram - Novel •


what are the central ideas in the novel? o does the key incident draw on these ideas? o is the theme specific to the novel/ does it echo universal ideas? • characterisation o

who is involved in the key incident? characters major and minor • narrative o


who tells the story? narrator - 1st/ 2nd/ 3rd

person • structure is the incident a key point in the structure of the novel? when does it come? o


does the incident affect the action of the novel? why is it important? • setting o

where/ when does the incident occur? time/ period/ place - are any of these a focus of the novel? o

Poetry Question Choose a poet who reflects on the idea of change. Show how the poet explores the subject in one or more of his/her poems, and explain to what extent your appreciation of the subject was deepened. In your answer you must refer closely to the text and to at least two of: theme, structure, imagery, tone, or any other appropriate feature. Here you would be likely to base your answer on the thematic concerns of the poem and, as you would be discussing 'change' as an element of the text, it is highly likely that an important feature of the poem's structure would be a turning point. The 'deepening appreciation' aspect of the question is probably going to involve you in discussing the effective use of language and poetic devices, such as imagery. The list of techniques in the box at the head of the Section will help to remind you of the possibilities. In a web diagram your notes might look like this: Example: Web diagram - Poetry • o o • o o •

theme how is change the central idea within the poems? how does the poet reflect on change? imagery how does the poet use imagery and symbolism? what kinds of similes and metaphors are used? language

what features of language and poetic devices does the poet use? • tone o

what is the voice of the poem? what atmosphere/ mood does it convey? is it the poet's voice, or another from within the

o o o

poem? • personal response

how effective do you think the poet is in exploring the subject of change? • structure o

do the poems have an obvious structure? is it important to the overall meaning? is the theme reflected in the 'shape' of the poem?

o o o

Play Question Choose from a play a scene in which one character makes an accusation against another character. Explain the dramatic importance of the scene and discuss how it affects your sympathy for either or both of the characters. The way you have studied a text will shape the features and techniques you focus on in the exploration of the play, but are likely to include things like characterisation, setting, narrative and symbolism. You might approach this essay by looking at the theme and then show how the characters exemplify the idea of evil in the play. Depending on the text you have studied, setting and narrative might add to the exploration. You might then be able to look at the way the evil is symbolised throughout the novel. In a web diagram your notes might look like this: Example: Web diagram - Play •


o o •

what are the important central ideas in the play? are they reinforced in the scene? characterisation

which characters in the play are involved in the key scene? o what is their importance to the play? o major and minor? • language o

what features of language are important in the play - is language used in any way that is remarkable? • dialogue o

what can we learn from the interaction between the characters? • symbolism o

what forms of imagery are used in the play? how does this symbolise the key themes of the play? • setting o

where does the action of the play take place? time/ period/ place? o


Here is an example of how you might use the PEER structure to plan an answer. •



Explain by Analysis,

Respond in a way the is Relevant to the task


Choose a poet who reflects on the idea of change.

Show how the poet explores the subject in one or more of his/her poems, and explain to what extent your appreciation of the subject is deepened. •

In your answer you must refer closely to the text and to at least two of: theme, structure, imagery, tone or any other appropriate feature. •

This question suits Blackberry Picking well, as Heaney uses the poem as a means to reflect on how growing up naturally changes how we see the world. His experiences of childhood summers spent picking fruit - only for the vast amount of it to rot - serves as a metaphor for life in general, where optimism and the focus on immediate pleasure are replaced by a natural conservatism and pessimism. There is a clear theme of change in the poem, as Heaney looks back on his younger self through the eyes of an adult, to see how life has changed. •

Here is a sample paragraph using the PEER structure that deals with the imagery in the poem: •

(P) Heaney is convincing in his use of the extended metaphor, which brings to life his observation that childhood innocence must give way to adult realism. Just as the berries inevitably rot when picked from the bushes, we cannot escape the changes we go through when growing up. (E) After wildly picking every berry in sight, the persona and his friends return to the byre the next day, only to find the "glossy purple" berries have been transformed by a "rat-grey fungus". It becomes apparent in that moment that the berries are rotting and that in the childrens’ "lust for picking" they have failed to consider what might happen to the fruit. (E) By his use of the word "lust", Heaney is suggesting that the children pick the berries with a wild sense of abandon and that their desire to collect them in as vast a quantity as possible is almost uncontrollable. The berries have been transformed from "glossy purple" - connoting life, vitality and freshness - to "rat-grey" – a colour associated ultimately with decay and death. In the context of the poem, this experience clearly highlights •

the human condition itself, which can be summed up as the passage from innocence to experience. (R) It is only when the children have seen what has happened as a result of their efforts that they accept life isn’t always fair. Heaney leaves the reader pondering the fact that change – whether in terms of the berries or life in general - is inevitable, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.

Understanding techniques Sometimes, when writers deal with specific situations or people, they are also trying to address major themes about life and the world in which we live. Techniques are the elements that a writer brings to his or her story to emphasise the theme on which they are focusing. To score highly in your critical essay, you must show that you understand what techniques a writer has used to convey themes in both the specific and the wider context. Your essay should show that you've come away from reading the poem, novel, short story or play with a deeper understanding of these themes.

Example 1

The linking of technique and theme is central to the effectiveness of literature. As a children's story Little Red Riding Hood is a tale about a little girl almost eaten by a wily wolf. In its wider context the story represents the universal theme of evil attempting to destroy goodness; the threat of deceit and malevolence against trust and innocence. It uses two techniques to get these themes across.

Setting The interior of the grandmother's cottage and the external danger in the forest contrast to represent safety and civilisation in opposition to danger and wilderness. The domestic setting of the mother's house is lost as the little girl's journey takes her off the pathway; she is drawn into the woods representing the world's hidden dangers.

Characterisation By using traditional characters representing good and evil, order and disorder, innocence and corruption, the story represents a wider universal theme of the power of order and civilisation over destruction and death. Little Red Riding Hood is the innocent, trusting girl, unaware of the world's dangers. The wolf represents the deceitful, malevolent, murderous chaos of the world. The grandmother is a helpless victim, easy prey for the opportunistic wrongdoer. The father represents a stabilising influence, the restorer of order and justice.

Example 2 It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. This is the opening sentence of the well-known novel 1984 by George Orwell. The main character is called Winston. He lives in a totalitarian state which seeks to control all aspects of its citizens' lives.

It's not coincidental that Orwell chose to set the beginning of his novel in a raw day in April. But we have to think about why he did and about the significance of that setting. He uses two techniques in the sentence above.

Setting One of the ways in which 1984 develops is that we get to know Winston and share with him his experience of falling in love. Because the scene is set in April, there is a sense of optimism with the anticipated return of the sun and of summer. This mirrors Winston's state of mind; he is lovestruck and looking forward with new hope. The bright spring day also represents Winston leaving behind the harshness of the forbidding, totalitarian regime.

Language There is also some dark humour in the sentence. In the reference to the clock striking thirteen we get a sense of the anarchy and disorder lurking in the story. Clearly an indicator that there is disjointed world ahead of us.

Summary Technique and significance have to be linked in a critical essay!

Setting Like other techniques, setting creates atmosphere and tells us something about the characters, as well as representing the broader themes within a literary text.

Example Many of us are familiar with the story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and of how the 'good' doctor changes into the 'evil' Mr Hyde. The author, Robert Louis Stevenson, uses different forms of setting to create atmosphere and help us understand his insights into the human condition.


The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels... This is the description of the back entrance to Dr Jekyll's laboratory. Your task in a critical essay would be to explain the effect of creating a setting like this. Not only is the filthy entrance anonymous and unidentifiable, it is a haven for the outcasts of society.

Time I was coming home from some place at the end of the world about three o'clock of a black winter in the morning. This is the point when the reader is first told about the evil Mr Hyde hidden in the novel. By setting the story at a particular time, the narrator is increasing the sense of foreboding and fear. His curious comment about 'the end of the world' introduces the supernatural other-worldly theme of the novel. Setting our first encounter with Mr Hyde in daylight might have been less effective.

Period Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is set in Victorian London, when Stevenson was alive. Contemporary readers would have been interested in the setting because the novel would reflect in some way the society in which they lived. More importantly, society in Victorian times was deeply divided between the slums of the poor, who struggled to exist and the lavish lifestyles of the rich. This divide in society is useful for an author exploring the divided psychology of the self.

Plot and structure Plot refers to the deliberate sequencing of events in the text. It usually applies to prose and drama. The 'story' on the other hand is simply an account of what happens - without regard to how the writer has sequenced the presentation of the events. Writers may play about with time scales, so a plot sequence may not be chronological (as it happens in real time). You

should always ask yourselves why a writer might have structured a story in sections. How does it add to your understanding of the story or themes? Part of good story-telling is ensuring that readers want to find out what happens next. Authors want readers to persist with stories and experience the resolution or climax, whether in verse or prose. Writers use different devices to maintain the reader's focus and attention; things like suspense, fear and hope. There are some common story-telling devices you might come across: Cliffhangers are deliberate breaks in the story at points of heightened tension. •

Turning points are moments in a text which have a highly significant effect on the characters and/or the unfolding of the future. •

Final resolution depends on what the writer has happen to the characters. What questions are answered or raised at the end? •

Texts have a 'shape'. Think of the structure of a poem, play or novel as being like an architect's plan. The words are the bricks, but underlying this is an overall shape or design. Structure refers to how a text is divided up. Acts, scenes and chapters usually indicate structure and are deliberately used to create meaningful sections of the text.

Example 1 Shakespeare's tragedies (eg Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet) are usually made up of five acts. Typically, the catharsis or key turning point of the play occurs in the third act, with the build-up and disintegration of the tragic characters occurring either side. Example 2 In Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, the novel is broken into six sections: Prelude - The Unfurrowed Field, Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-time, Harvest and Epilude - The Unfurrowed Field. The Prelude provides an insight into the historical

background and values of the society and community in which Chris Guthrie lives, while the Epilude section provides more of an insight into the political context of Kinraddie, Europe and the world in the new post-war order.

Example 3 It is much easier when reading poetry to recognise the importance of structure. Breaking down poems into verses or stanzas allows the poet to separate ideas and shape the development of their ideas.

Narrative There are three forms of narrative point of view. •

First person narrative

This is where the 'voice' telling the story uses the word 'I'. This can have an intimate, believable confessional feel. •

Second person narrative

This is where the narrator refers to 'you', talks to the reader directly. This is often a challenging or conspiratorial mode, inviting our involvement, agreement or even complicity in their actions. •

Third person narrative

This is where the author uses 'he', 'she', 'they' or 'it'. A voice refers to actions, events and circumstances dissociated from both the narrator and the reader. The narrator can be either omniscient (all-knowing) or can merely function to report events as they take place. Writers will often alternate between these modes. It is not uncommon for the narrative to shift from third to first person. This can help us understand the characters from different perspectives; first a detatched and objective view, then more personal and intimate. It is important to note that third person narrators are not always totally detached. Sometimes they favour the opinions and point of view of one particular character. Although the narrative may be in the third person it gives a special insight into the consciousness of one or more characters.

The narrative point of view is then crucial in revealing and telling us about characters - and also in helping the story to be told in an exciting, structured, significant way.

Example Narrative structure is particularly important in novels. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson uses a number of narratives to build up a sense of mystery and suspense. Contemporary Victorian readers would have read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a mystery story, wondering throughout about the connection between the two men. The narrative point of view here is crucial in revealing the truth. •

Mr Utterson's narrative

The story opens with a third person narrative. We are told about Mr Utterson; his personality, lifestyle and qualities. We are told that Utterson is Jekyll's lawyer and that he has some suspicions about the shadowy friend of Jekyll, Mr Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson could have moved on to tell us about other characters including Jekyll and Hyde but instead he stays with Utterson's narrative. Stevenson has a good reason for this. The effect is to keep us (the Victorian readers) in the dark, along with Utterson. We share his sense of mystery, fear and bewilderment as we ponder the situation that unfolds. This makes us focus more clearly on the themes of the nature of evil and man's divided self. Most importantly though, it makes us keep turning the pages. •

Doctor Lanyon's account

The central section of the novel is a short account written by a friend of Dr Jekyll's who gives his eye-witness account of Dr Jekyll's change from human to monster. The link between Jekyll and Hyde is for the first time established two-thirds of the way through the book. This technique is especially effective in that this eye-witness account is explained in Dr Lanyon's own words in the first person narrative. This way despite the horror, because it is seen through his friend's eyes, our sympathies remain with

Dr Jekyll and we remain curious to find out what will happen next. •

Dr Jekyll's letter

The final section is Dr Jekyll's own statement written before Mr Hyde takes him over completely. It takes the form of a letter written in the first person by Dr Jekyll himself. Using this narrative technique, Stevenson is able to give us the sense that we are finding out what has happened from the man himself. It is a first-person 'confessional' narrative and is therefore all the more convincing.

Characterisation Characterisation is the way a writer creates a fictional character. Understanding characterisation is absolutely central to analysing fiction. The most common techniques through which a writer gives us a sense of what a character is like are: •

First person narrative

Third person narrative



Other character's comments

Other character's actions

Writers need characters to express the ideas they want to show us. Often these are universal things about life or what is sometimes called the 'human condition'. So, by showing us the motivations, feelings, actions, regrets, limitations, aspirations and experiences of their characters, writers can give us an understanding of the themes they are dealing with. For this to work, the characters have to seem real and be believable. It is important then, that we actually care about what the characters in a story are going through and what fate the author has in store for them. The characters must then behave in believable ways and say credible things.

Example 1 We can learn a great deal about a character from the narrative point of view. If we read a piece of fiction written in the first person, we feel more closely connected to the character. A book like JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is like reading a diary or a signed confession. Axe murderer or saint, we have access to the character's most private thoughts. Example 2 We can expect to understand something about the lives of the characters through the setting of the story. In a story set entirely in the Scottish countryside and peopled by characters who work on the land, such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, we are quickly familiarised with their motivations and struggles. Example 3 Writers often report that the characters take on a life of their own, seeming to influence the plot. Knowing that characters behave in ways that are consistent with what we know of them, this helps us believe in the forces that drive them and influence them. This is true of the characters in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

Language In a critical essay you should be able to write about key language features used in novels, short stories, plays and poems. Here's a reminder of what they are and how they work:

Alliteration the first letter of a word is repeated in words that follow; the cold, crisp, crust of clean, clear ice. •

Assonance the same vowel sound is repeated but the consonants are different; he passed her a sharp, dark glance, shot a cool, foolish look across the room. •

Colloquial language that is used in speech with an informal meaning; 'chill', 'out of this world', 'take a rain check'. •

Dialect the version of language spoken by particular people in a particular area, such as Scots. •

Dialogue conversation between two people; sometimes an imagined conversation between the narrator and the reader. This is important in drama and can show conflict through a series of statements and challenges, or intimacy where characters mirror the content and style of each other's speech. It can also be found in the conversational style of a poem. •

Dissonance a discordant combinations of sounds; the clash, spew and slow pang of grinding waves against the quay. •

Enjambment a device used in poetry where a sentence continues beyond the end of the line or verse. This technique is often used to maintain a sense of continuation from one stanza to another. •

Hyperbole exaggerating something for literary purposes which is not meant to be taken literally; we gorged on the banquet of beans on toast. •

Imagery similes, metaphors and personification; they all compare something 'real' with something 'imagined'. •

Irony the humorous or sarcastic use of words or ideas, implying the opposite of what they mean. •


a word or phrase used to imply figurative, not literal or 'actual', resemblance; he flew into the room.

Monologue an uninterrupted monologue can show a character's importance or state of mind. Monologue can be in speech form, delivered in front of other characters and having great thematic importance, or as a soliloquy where we see the character laying bare their soul and thinking aloud. •

Onomatopoeia a word that sounds like the noise it is describing: 'splash', 'bang', 'pop', 'hiss'. •

Oxymoron Where two words normally not associated are brought together: 'cold heat' 'bitter sweet'. •

Pathos language that evokes feelings of pity or sorrow. •

Personification attributing a human quality to a thing or idea: the moon calls me to her darkened world. •

Repetition the repetition of a word or phrase to achieve a particular effect. •

Rhyme the way that words sound the same at the end of lines in poetry. Poems often have a fixed rhyme-scheme (for example, sonnets have 14 lines with fixed rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). Try to comment as to what contribution the rhyme-scheme is making to the text as a whole. Why do you think the poet has chosen it? Does it add control or imitate the ideas in the poem? •

Rhythm a repetitive beat or metre within a poem. Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shallot uses a strong internal rhythm to build up the sense of unrelenting monotony in the poem: •

There she weaves by night and dayA magic web with colours gay. She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her if she stay To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott.

Simile a phrase which establishes similarity between two things to emphasise the point being made. This usually involves the words 'like' or 'as'; 'he is as quick as an arrow in flight', 'as white as snow', 'like a burning star'. •

Symbolism often objects, colours, sounds and places work as symbols. They can sometimes give us a good insight into the themes. So, snakes are often symbols of temptation as in the story of Adam and Eve, white usually symbolises innocence and a ringing bell can be a symbol for impending doom. •

Tone the writer's tone or voice or atmosphere or feeling that pervades the text, such as sadness, gloom, celebration, joy, anxiety, dissatisfaction, regret or anger. Different elements of writing can help to create this; long sentences or verses, with assonance (repeated vowel sounds), tend to create a sad, melancholic mood. Short syllabic, alliterative lines can create an upbeat, pacy atmosphere. •

Word choice sometimes called 'register', this is the common thread in an author's choice of language. Authors may use words commonly associated with religion, words describing sensory experience such as touch, smell or colour or 'mood' words that reflect a character's state of mind. •

Higher critical essay guidance