Lantana the Film: A Brief Synopsis for Year 11 English

Lantana Movie - DVD (Australia) front image (front cover)

For Students in Year 11 English Studying the Film Lantana

Lantana is a 2001 film Produced by Jan Chapman and Directed by Ray Lawrence with the screenplay written by Andrew Bovell, which was adapted from his stage play Speaking in Tongues performed in 1996. Like novels and short stories, films can recount a fictional narrative using characters, events and settings. To study Lantana for Year 11 English it is advisable to view the movie in full at least twice so you can look carefully at:

  1. key scenes
  2. the opening and closing scenes
  3. the introduction of main characters
  4. turning points
  5. crisis points and
  6. the film’s climax

Look at the Film Style

Besides your focus on what actually happens in the film it is a good idea to notice the look and feel of the film in its style. Pay particular attention to the visual images of lightness and darkness. In a close analysis of the film style look at:

  1. Cinematography = shots in the film set up under instruction from the director to show various camera angles to create different effects = extreme close ups, close ups, medium shots, long shots, aerial shots, tilt down shots, tilt up shots and zoom shots
  2. Mise en scene = Literally means ‘staging the action’ referring to the visual elements within the frame of a shot ie. acting style, setting, costumes and lighting
  3. Sounds = Everything we hear in the film ie. music, dialogue, sound effects, voice-overs, for instance like the frequent sound of cicadas

It is important to identify the key elements of film style and how they work together to create an overall impact on the audience and how they tell a compelling story.

For Example Look Carefully at the Cinematography / Mise en Scene / Sounds in Scene 1 of Lantana which Sets up the ‘Mindscape of Terror’

The names of the key players are superimposed over a backdrop of Lantana, thick, tangled and in blossom. While the plant portends danger, it is also attributed criminal responsibility, both as the scene of Valerie’s death and through a play of alignment with Jane.

This opening shot of the Lantana is accompanied by the din of cicadas, which is a very familiar Australian setting, while visually thrusting us towards a deep, dark void. It evokes memories of the humid heat in which cicadas flourish and become noisy, and the rich sticky smells of plants in that climate. The frenzied chirping of cicadas and other creatures is used at an extremely high volume for effect on this occasion.

This unease and remembered discomfort is then rekindled throughout the film by the regular inclusion of the plant at the edges of sets, at the front of establishing shots, or as the scene of dramatic action. This is an archetypal beginning to a cinematic thriller, prefacing the narrative with the crime at its centre.

The camera slowly pans over the bloodied, bruised body of a woman wearing a wedding ring. The movement of the opening shot is significant, replaying an Australian cinematic convention in which the landscape appears to draw its victims into its depths or barren expanses. It is a tracking shot presented from the victim-character’s point-of-view and seems to follow the desire of that character into mysterious manifestations of landscape.

The camera then cuts away to Scene 2 with Leon and Jane engaging in urgent, impersonal sex. Death and sex are continuously juxtaposed in this manner, giving rise to a feeling of quiet desperation lurking within our everyday lives.

What is Lantana About in a Nutshell?

At first glance, Lantana looks like a murder mystery thriller, an essay in love or a darkly playful assertion of the role of coincidence and chance in our lives. In the opening scene, the camera delves into the undergrowth until it comes upon the dead body of a woman. We don’t know who she is or what happened to her, but it soon becomes apparent that this disturbing initial image is a premonition. One of three women, we begin to suspect; will end up dead in those bushes. Will it be Sonja Zat (Kerry Armstrong), the frustrated wife of an ill-tempered Sydney Police Detective? Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), Sonja’s therapist, whose own marriage has been damaged by the murder of her young daughter Eleanor several years earlier? Or Jane O’May (Rachael Blake), who is having an affair with Sonja’s husband? The three seem to be more or less the same height and physical type, and each of them is shown wearing sheer black hose like those we have noticed on the dead woman. Which one is it and why?

These questions will generate plenty of dread and suspense before the answers become clear, but the real mystery of Lantana lies elsewhere. Although its short scenes are tense with danger and implication, and a barely suppressed violence courses through even the most casual snatches of dialogue, the film is not a whodunit or a thriller. The real danger, the real mystery, lies squarely in front of us, in the hurt and puzzlement of daily life. In fact the film takes a view of life in a modern city that is rigorously bleak without being entirely hopeless.

In pretending to be something like a detective story and then refusing the reassuringly balanced equations that the genre offers, Lantana manages to hold complexity and coherence in balance. It is a movie, primarily, about the paradoxes of contemporary marriage, in particular about the ways the most intimate relations engender — and indeed are based upon — secrecy and deceit. A corollary paradox is that honesty is only possible between strangers.

Such pessimism is neither glib nor easy, and the film does not entirely rule out the possibility of love or forgiveness. Nor do the filmmakers — or the actors — entirely overlook the comedy that selfishness, stupidity or desperation can be. All the characters are bundles of flaws and unclear needs, and they blindly collide with one another, setting off sparks of calamity and, occasionally, a glow of recognition.

The Characters are Linked by Proximity and Chance

The characters are linked by proximity and chance, knots in an invisible, shifting web in which work, family and social life intersect:

  1. The central figure is Detective Sergeant Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), Sonja’s husband, who seems capable of only two emotions: morose self-pity and volcanic rage. Leon is a mass of contradictions; he loves his wife and family but is playing around with Jane. Mr. LaPaglia, with his dour presence, is able to suggest a range of feeling that has been drained from Leon by the onset of middle age. Leon carries disappointment around within him like the extra pounds he tries to jog away. His affair with Jane — ”a one-night stand that happened to last two nights” as he brutally puts it — is a desperate attempt to jolt himself into feeling. Sonja’s therapy sessions, which Leon doesn’t know about, serve an analogous purpose: they offer a chance to explore with a stranger the feelings she can’t voice at home.
  2. Sonja Zat is the linchpin that holds the Zat family together as a supportive wife and loving mother of her two sons.       While Sonja has concerns about her marriage she is willing to proactively seek advice from Dr Valerie Somers and enough commitment to try to work through the issues that trouble her. When Leon admits to his infidelity, Sonja forgives him which is testimony to her love.
  3. Dr Valerie Somers, for her part, becomes convinced that another of her patients, a young gay man named Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), is having an affair with her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). There is something superstitious about this idea, which Leon will later latch on to and something seductive as well. Even as she torments herself with the idea of John’s secret sexuality, the thought of him and Patrick together offers an explanation for their domestic misery as neat as the solution to a detective story.
  4. John Knox is Valerie’s husband, a professional academic, Professor of Law. He is a private and reserved man whose response to their daughter Eleanor’s death is diametrically at odds with his wife. He privately grieves his daughter by leaving flowers at the site of her murder. John resents Valerie’s emotional dependence and resists intimacy with her.       By admitting to being home on the night that Valerie went missing it shows the audience he is an equally flawed individual like the other characters in the film. He does love Valerie but admits that “sometimes love isn’t enough” (Scene 72).
  5. Jane O’May is in direct contrast to Sonja.       As the ‘other woman’ in the affair with Leon Jane does not invite our sympathy but we realise she is lonely and vulnerable. She is deliberately looking for new romantic options and joins the Latin dance class as a way to meet people. Jane is driven by disappointment as her marriage has not proved satisfactory, nor is her single status offering the opportunities she had hoped for. She envies Nik and Paula’s relationship and often looks out the window at the comings and goings of the house next door. The final image of her dancing by herself, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other, is testament to what Paula says to her “Haven’t you got anything better to do than spy on your neighbours?” (Scene 56).       The simple answer appears to be no.
  6. Pete O’May is separated from his wife Jane but he struggles with his life without her. The marital break is not of his choosing and he hopes for reconciliation but he is unwilling or unable to move on. Even when Jane asks him for help to mind the neighbours’ children late at night, Pete helps willingly, only to eventually drive away from his home a lonely figure.
  7. Paula D’Amato is a hard-working mother of three young children. Her life is not easy juggling extra shifts at the hospital to cope with her husband Nik being unemployed. Regardless of her considerable responsibility as the family breadwinner she is a contented woman, sustained by her own inner strength and a secure, loving relationship. She loves Nik unconditionally and is prepared to trust him without question. When Nik is a suspect in Valerie’s disappearance, Paula knows Nik had done nothing wrong, simply because ‘he told me’ (Scene 87), which sums up her absolute faith in her husband.
  8. Nik D’Amato is a good-natured, easy going man who loves his wife Paula and family. He is a committed family man who looks after the baby and continues job hunting while Paula works. When he is apprehended by the Police regarding Valerie’s disappearance he calls out for Paul as he needs the reassurance of her love and strength. His generosity gets him into trouble when he stops to give Valerie a lift.       Unfortunately for Nik when Valerie runs frantically into the bush he simply leaves her then disposes of her shoe. Once news of Valerie’s disappearance hits the news, Nik realises he is trapped and asks “Who was going to believe me?” (Scene 85).
  9. Claudia Weis is Leon’s Detective partner in the Police and as a result of their close working relationship, she understands him well. Claudia does not always approve of what she observes and does not hesitate to tell Leon so. She is equally blunt with regard to the marital hole Leon is digging for himself and although she covers for him about his relationship with Jane, she admires Sonja and resents being drawn into any deception.
  10. Patrick Phelan is a client of Valerie’s. He continually tests Valerie’s professionalism as a psychiatrist which in turn threatens her by his provocative manner. As Valerie is emotionally vulnerable she entertains the bizarre, and totally unfounded, suspicion that Patrick is having an affair with her husband John. Patrick sees love as “a contest” (Scene 26) with winners and losers. In the end his married lover goes back to his own family, leaving Patrick alone again.

Structure of Lantana

Certainly Valerie’s disappearance is the catalyst that drives the story line. Andrew Bovell said that “It is like a stone dropped into a still pond, the ripples circling out and affecting all that they touch”. The text commences with reference to her death and then goes back to explore the sequence of events that led to the accident so that the film creeps up on you and you find yourself haunted. However, the plot is also character-driven with a number of interacting narrative threads:

  1. Sonja and Leon’s marital dilemma
  2. Leon’s relationship with Jane
  3. Jane’s estrangement from Pete
  4. Eleanor’s murder and its impact on Valerie and John
  5. The Police investigation into Valerie’s disappearance
  6. Nik’s complicity in the case and its effect on his relationship with Paula
  7. Claudia and her mystery man’s blossoming rapport
  8. Patrick’s affair with his married lover and the way this impacts on Valerie

Significance of the Lantana Bush as a Motif in the Film

Lantana is a noxious weed that has small colourful blooms that hides dense, thorny undergrowth which intertwines itself with other plants and eventually smothers them. The bush is a symbolic motif of the tangled relationships the movie explores — marriage, chance acquaintanceship, the prickly bond between therapist and patient — is clear enough. The movie, accordingly, finds traps and snares beneath the most benign and ordinary interactions as writer Andrew Bovell uses the plant to represent the intertwined relationships in the film. Although the Lantana bush looks beautiful with its brightly-coloured flowers, in reality, it is dense and spiky and this represents how the relationships all look fine on the surface but really there are many factors that contribute to their failings. The epigraph promoting the drama says “It’s tangled”. The Lantana motif also represents the complexity of love itself, its possibilities, its permutations and its dense emotional threads.

Throughout the film the image of Lantana keeps reasserting itself. A common thread is the way in which Lantana hides secrets:

  1. The mystery of the woman’s body at the beginning
  2. The children’s game of hide and seek
  3. Valerie’s shoe
  4. Jane hides from Nik in the thick undergrowth
  5. Eventually when the mystery is resolved, the Lantana yields up its secrets in the form of the body of Valerie

Other Motifs and Meanings in Lantana

Lantana explores the ideals of trust, respect, truth and reality, honesty, love and loyalty, love and marriage, betrayal, yearning and loss through the lens of the many characters in the film. Even characters that are not obviously deceitful are forced into lies or half-truths. Nik lies to Pete about Jane, Claudia covers for Leon’s infidelity, Leon’s son lies to his mother about Leon’s message when he says “He’s sorry, he loves you and he wants you to stop being angry with him”. The film is deliberately constructed to help the audience draw out as much meaning as possible.

  1. Jogging / Running = Jogging or running appears at several key moments in the film. It is often symbolic of a character’s struggle for freedom or escape. Early in the film Leon is seen running, ostensibly to improve his fitness, or may be to impress his new lover. In a very real way he is running from his life and responsibilities, a run that is cut short by the sharp pains in his chest. Even when he is trying to set himself free he is constricted by tightness in his chest, as though his depression has a grip on him. Leon’s collision with another jogger is another reminder of the damage that he is doing to those around him on his quest for personal fulfillment.
  2. Dancing = Dancing appears in the film on many occasions:
  • The Latin dancing classes that Jane, Leon and Sonja attend
  • The Latin Dance Club that Sonja goes to
  • Jane and Sonja dancing together
  • Jane dancing by herself at the end
  • Leon and Sonja dancing together at the end of the film

In many ways dancing stands in for the lack of intimacy in the character’s lives. Sonja seeks the passion that no longer exists in her marriage but in the end Leon is able to rediscover his passion for Sonja and they dance together. Jane is also searching for passion and romance (something that was missing from her marriage). Dancing alone at the end of the film we are aware that Jane is yet to find fulfillment.

  1. Windows = Windows are used throughout the film to signify distance and separation. Jane is constantly watching her neighbours’ ‘happy’ lives unfold through her window but she is not able to participate in this which is an emotional barrier being signified by an actual one. Claudia’s mystery man is seen through the windows of the restaurant highlighting their separation. Then compare this to the end when they meet in the restaurant without any barrier. Valerie and John are kept from their absent daughter by the window at the bookstore but forced to look on and unable to reach her. Patrick is removed from his lover as he looks through the window onto his ‘happy life’ but it is the unattainable he can see but not touch much like Jane. Leon must walk through the windowed door to reach out to Sonja to finalise reconciliation.
  2. Jewellery / Clothing = Jewellery and clothing serve as reminders of things lost in Lantana, drawing out emotion from the characters. Jane’s earring is the first notable personal item, a memento of her past life with her husband Pete, the loss of it during a romantic tryst with another man gives an insight to the audience of the complicated nature of these characters’ lives. Pete also lingers over the pearl earrings when he revisits their home when Jane is out. Both Jane and Valerie’s wedding rings are highlighted at points during the film. Jane discusses cutting hers off as it is on too tight which represents her being unable to extricate herself from her marriage. The marriage has become a burden, a blight and something that needs to be surgically removed, like a cancerous growth. Valerie’s show is the only physical indication of her disappearance, a symbol of Nik’s guilty conscience and later a symbol for Jane’s suspicion as it dominates the sitting room when the Police visit to interview her.
  3. Meals / Eating = Characters very rarely sit together to eat a meal adding significance to the times that they do during the film. They are often times when the characters are able to be open and honest with one another or at least more so than at other times. The breakfast scene with Leon and his family at the start of the film paints him in a sympathetic light, placed at the nucleus of his family home, it would appear to be a moment or normality which is directly juxtaposed with his violence in apprehending a criminal in the next scene. Claudia dining alone at a booth with room for two seems to be waiting, searching for something meaningful to share her life and dinner with. The act of eating together takes on a symbolic value of family connectedness. This idea is further explored in the scene with Patrick’s lover who is sharing a meal with his family while Patrick looks on, isolated and alone.
  4. Cars = Of all the forms of transport, cars are the most isolated and separate from the outside world. Many of the film’s characters travel through the world cocooned inside their cars, disconnected from the world around them, often travelling at night, through the darkness, unable to see what is passing them by. Valerie is forever suggesting to John that they share a car, endeavouring to overcome the distance between them, her suggestions are mostly rebuffed, John preferring to make his own way through the darkness of their lives, he is already disconnected from her. The failure of Valerie’s car, it’s breakdown echoes her own personal, psychological breakdown, she is both literally and figuratively left scrambling around in the dark looking for the way to get ‘back home’. Leon’s final breakdown occurs in his car, it is a personal space where he is protected from the outside world yet he cannot protect himself from his own mistakes and problems, they are locked in with him, his isolation forcing him to face then finally. By getting into someone else’s car (the Latin dance teacher) Sonja is making a connection with another person, a connection which she is essentially uncomfortable with. Nik’s car becomes central to the narrative, it is always on the street / on display / being tinkered with, improved, much like Nik himself his car has nothing to hide. Nik’s car also becomes central to Valerie’s disappearance when he picks her up on a deserted back road.
  5. Recordings / Tapes = The inability of many of the characters in Lantana to communicate directly is emphasized by the use of recordings and tapes to convey important messages. Valerie and Sonja are unable to voice their concerns to their partners but are able to divulge their personal information through the medium of tape. Another symbol of the disconnection between the characters, the tapes serve to bring truth into otherwise confused and secretive situations.
  6. Trust / Deception = Characters in Lantana have an uneasy relationship with the concept of Trust. Sonja and Patrick place trust in Valerie to help them deal with their personal issues as a professional, yet in some way this trust is broken when she disappears. The issues that they come to see her about are to do with whether or not they can trust their partners. Valerie, despite counseling others on the issue, seems to be unable to form a bond of trust with anyone. She assumes her husband is having an affair, she assumes that Nik has an ulterior motive for taking her off the main road. Nik and Paula seem to be the only characters in the film whose relationship is based on trust. Paula’s assertion that Nik didn’t kill Valerie “because he told me” is a damning indictment on the other character’s inability to trust each other.
  7. Grief / Malaise = Both grief and death and grief in relationships are represented in Lantana. Valerie and John’s daughter, Eleanor was murdered several years before, and their marriage has disintegrated as a result of their lack of communication. Valerie has written a book on grief and lectures both publicly and to her patients, but is unable to communicate with her husband. Sonja is grieving for her lost marriage and the distance that has arisen between herself and Leon. Leon’s response to the death of his relationship is more of a malaise, an inability to feel, which drives him towards self destructive behavior and infidelity.
  8. Love / Yearning / Betrayal = Sonja states, in a session with Valerie, that she loves her husband, despite her belief that he is having an affair. For Sonja the pain would not be the affair but the silence that surrounds the affair. Jane has left her husband because she has “fallen out of love with him”. Paula and Nik appear able to weather anything that is thrown at them because they love each other unconditionally. Leon is still in love with his wife but is unable to express this to her until the end of the film. John feels betrayed by Valerie and her public outpouring of grief, his love for her is quiet and painful but very much existent. Patrick is caught out by love, a love that is doomed to end in emotional pain due to the circumstances of his partner.




Montana 1948 by Larry Watson: A Brief Synopsis for Year 11 English

Area of Study 1, Unit 2 – Reading and Comparing Texts

Montana 1948 a novel by Larry Watson is a text to be studied by Year 11 English students in Area of Study 1, Unit 2 – Reading and Comparing Texts. Students are asked to study 2 texts and produce an analytical response to a pair of texts, comparing their presentation of themes, issues and ideas. Students will be asked to investigate how the reader’s understanding of one text is broadened and deepened when considered in relation to another text. Students also explore how features of texts, including structures, conventions and language convey themes, issues and ideas that reflect and explore the world and human experiences, including historical and social contexts.

Comparative Texts – the Novel Montana 1948 by Larry Watson with the Play Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

The most obvious difference in studying/comparing these two texts is that Montana 1948 is a novel and Twelve Angry Men is a play. In a novel the plot is the sequence of events in the text where the characters experience:

  • crisis points
  • climax
  • turning points
  • resolution

In a play the acts and scenes are also structured so that the characters are exposed to:

  • rising tension
  • leading to a climax
  • then a resolution

Therefore both forms of text rely on placing credible characters in dramatic situations, often involving conflict, in order to build tension and explore ideas and issues.

Students should pay particular attention to how the authors position their characters in the sequence of events mentioned above and the common thread in the underlying ideas of both texts. Try to choose at least one main specific idea or issue that will allow you to discuss both texts in detail as well as to compare and contrast them. The ideas, issues and themes in a text are what give it wider meaning and relevance. The details of what happens when, where and to whom are all critical, but exist within the world of the text.

Stick to the Themes, Issues and Ideas in the 2 Texts being Studied

A word of warning: stick to the themes, ideas and issues in the 2 texts being studied only. Be discerning using your points of comparison in the analytical text response essay. The context of the text is important but students must work with the ideas represented in the text and the ways authors convey the themes, issues and ideas in these texts. It is not an opportunity to go beyond the ideas in the text or draw into your writing much broader concepts.

What does Theme, Issue and Idea Mean?

  1. Theme = is the umbrella term for a key focal point in the text
  2. Issue = takes an angle of that theme
  3. Idea = presents a point of view on that theme

Texts being studied explore human experience so the themes, issues and ideas then become a vehicle for the human condition in the text and student’s exploration of that. Anchoring the notion of discussion to human experience and what we learn in each text and comparing those texts is important. In order to explore the themes, issues and ideas students might analyse:

  1. the differences between the narrative voice of a text
  2. or point of view
  3. or structural features
  4. or language features
  5. or characterisation
  6. or relationships between characters
  7. or between different protagonists or antagonists
  8. drawing on settings and key events that take place

Comparing Texts

When comparing the themes, issues and ideas in the texts, students need to ask “What is the authorial message coming through in the 2 texts? Look at comparing:

  1. different quotes from each text to look for what words come up in regards to similar themes, issues or ideas
  2. look at character comparisons, different values, reactions characters make and the different choices made
  3. scene analysis – compare a key scene or a series of scenes from one text and the other text
  4. look at tone, imagery and how the author is exploring this
  5. think of how you would link the above comparisons to a key theme and idea
  6. consider what ways this changes the way we see the characters, text, reactions and action of them
  7. How are readers positioned to see the issues in the texts?

In the end of your analysis you need to able to answer the question “How does one text reflect the theme compared to the other text?

Comparing the Central Theme of Montana 1948 and Twelve Angry Men

In comparing Montana 1948 and Twelve Angry Men an important theme which leads to a common thread of ideas and values is The Importance of Achieving Justice. The central theme in Montana 1948 is whether to choose justice or family loyalty. The central theme in Twelve Angry Men is the importance of a correct verdict that proves the justice system works. A common link between the two texts is prejudice that makes justice difficult to achieve.

How to Structure a Comparative Essay

There are 3 essay structures students can use to respond to the essay prompt related to both texts: a block essay is the most straightforward, block essay with a transition paragraph or block essay structured around the ideas discussed. With each essay it is important that you deal with both texts in detail and your response focuses on the ideas, issues or themes which are in response to the essay prompt. Each essay should have a structure set out clearly with an Introduction, Body Paragraphs (using the TEEL mode of structure) and a Conclusion.

The block essay with a transition paragraph is the essay structure I think gives the most comparisons of the texts including not only ideas, issues and themes but similarities and differences between the texts but it is the least confusing structure to master. Here is the structure:

Introduction: states your position/argument in response to the topic with brief reasons, referring to both texts
Body Paragraph 1 discusses ideas, issues and themes in text 1
Body Paragraph 2 is the Transitional Paragraph, which discusses similarities and differences between the texts
Body Paragraph 3 discusses similar ideas, issues and themes in text 2
Conclusion: discusses both texts in a concluding paragraph

Significance of Where Montana 1948 is Set

The novel Montana 1948 by Larry Watson is set in a small town in north-eastern Montana in the period just after World War II. Watson drew upon his background in North Dakota with his grandfather and father being the sheriff of Rugby, a small town similar to the fictional Bentrock in Montana 1948. Montana is the 41st State of America close to the border of Canada with its countryside barren and windblown and where cattle and sheep outnumber people by 100 to 1. The significance of the setting of Montana in 1948 is that it is not like the Wild West movies where the Indians wear war paint and ride the plains brandishing spears and tomahawks. Montana in 1948 is where dispossessed Indians are marginalised and are forced to live on reservations outside of town. It is where the white community thought the Indians were useless, non-functioning members of society with their culture not acceptable by white westernised ideas and learning. It is where women were oppressed living subordinate roles in an era before women’s rights were recognised. It is where men have the kind of power that leads to corrupt behaviour which is at the core of Montana 1948.

The Structure & Narrator in Montana 1948

Montana 1948 is a novel which reconstructs the events of one summer in 1948 in chronological order told by an adult narrator, David Hayden, who recounts events from the perspective of himself as a 12 year old boy and an adult. It is a story of a boy on the threshold of adolescence, awakening to maturity and finding that the adult world is complex and not always fair or just.

The novel is divided into 3 parts with a Prologue and Epilogue. The Prologue foreshadows the action and contributes to the building of suspense before the story begins. The Epilogue closes with the adult narrator summarising the aftermath of the summer of 1948. The action is divided into parts which mark the progression of events and end at a crucial point of development in the story:

  1. Part One ends with David aware that his father Wesley knows that Frank his brother is guilty of raping defenceless Indian women
  2. Part Two ends with Wesley’s realisation that now Frank is guilty of murdering Marie Little Soldier
  3. Part Three ends with the 12 year old David’s naive belief that his uncle’s suicide has solved all outstanding problems

Truth and Justice in Montana 1948

It is in a setting of racial prejudice that the dark coming of age drama is played out. It tells the story of how 12 year old David Hayden’s uncle is accused of the sexual abuse of Indian women and how the family must choose between loyalty and justice. Characters in the novel find themselves torn between finding and accepting the truth that Frank has sexually assaulted and killed the family maid Marie Little Soldier and then doing what is right. The decision by Sheriff Wesley Hayden to arrest his brother and uphold his duty to serve justice is at odds with protecting Frank and the family’s reputation. In fact truth and justice and acting with moral integrity present choices for the characters in Montana 1948. Each one deals with his/her own conscience in making these decisions.

Wesley’s dilemma of which master he should serve, family or the law is where much of the action of the novel revolves around. Should Wesley be loyal to his family versus justice for a minority group? The question readers need to ask is:- Would the town have reacted differently if the case of sexual assault had been against a white woman?

Gail Hayden is the one person in the novel who maintains the moral high-ground throughout. As a woman in 1948, Gail was on the cutting edge of her society because women were an oppressed powerless group at that time with a low status in society. Gail, however, is an intelligent, non-prejudiced, upright moral citizen who is a positive and protective role model for her family. In fact Gail is the only role model for David who does not appear to be racist towards Indians. The novel clearly shows that no white males in David’s world of Wild West Montana who are without racial prejudice.

Gail’s persuasion of Wesley that Marie Little Soldier has been sexually assaulted by Frank is at the heart of the story. She is the moral fibre that holds Wesley together when he begins to waiver and wrestles with his conscience. She is even willing to protect her family and justice when she waves a shotgun at Julian’s men as they come to set Frank free from the basement.

Complex Themes and Ideas in Montana 1948

Montana 1948 explores many complex themes that are aligned with particular characters. Below is a list of themes and ideas to help you:

the importance of family prejudice family feuds & disagreements growing up / adolescence
abusing power justice / injustice suicide opinions
guilt sexual harassment deceit law and order
loyalty bravery trust responsibility
racism innocence oppression discrimination
truth / lies / secrecy murder favouritism moral integrity

Is Justice Served?

We wonder whether justice is served at the end of the novel with the family feud. Frank committed suicide to save his reputation, however, Wesley and his family are left behind to deal with the reality of Frank’s actions. They are ostracised by the rest of the family, forced to leave their home and Wesley’s job as Sheriff. The real culprit has died and has been buried with all the honour that a hero would command. Justice has not been served and family loyalty has been compromised. There are no winners or losers when these two issues are opposed.

What Does this Novel Say About Society?

Some thought-provoking questions for students to consider when studying Montana 1948 are:-

  1. It is better to keep your mouth shut when you know the truth will hurt?
  2. When do you have to speak out against evil?
  3. Does justice mean jeopardising your family and future?
  4. Does power and influence wash you of your crime?
  5. Should we ignore our moral obligation for a more convenient and easier life?
  6. Is doing ‘the right thing’ the right thing after all?
  7. How much does what other people think matter?
  8. Is it worth it?
  9. Look at history, are people who stand up for what they believe in rewarded for their efforts, or crucified by the crowd?



Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose: A Brief Synopsis for Year 11 English

Twelve Angry Men

Area of Study 1, Unit 2 – Reading and Comparing Texts

Twelve Angry Men a play by Reginald Rose is a text to be studied by Year 11 English students in Area of Study 1, Unit 2 – Reading and Comparing Texts. Students are asked to study 2 texts and produce an analytical response to a pair of texts, comparing their presentation of themes, issues and ideas. Students should consider 12 Angry Men compared with either Montana 1948 or Joe Cinque’s Consolation in Reading and Comparing Texts.

Students will be asked to investigate how the reader’s understanding of one text is broadened and deepened when considered in relation to another text. Students also explore how features of texts, including structures, conventions and language convey themes, issues and ideas that reflect and explore the world and human experiences, including historical and social contexts.

The Basics of the Case of Twelve Angry Men:

At the beginning of Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, the jury has just finished listening to six days of trial proceedings. A 16 year old is on trial for the murder of his father. The defendant has a criminal record (and a lot of circumstantial evidence piled against him). The defendant, if found guilty, would receive a mandatory death penalty.

The jury is sent to a hot, crowded room to deliberate.

Before any formal discussion, they cast a vote. Eleven of the jurors vote “guilty.” Only one juror votes “not guilty.” That juror, who is known in the script as Juror #8 is the protagonist of the play. As the tempers flare and the arguments begin, the audience learns about each member of the jury. Slowly but surely, Juror #8 guides the others toward a verdict of “Not Guilty.”

The relationship between the 3rd and 8th juror is the central one in the play:

The conflict between the 3rd and 8th jurors is based not just on their different opinions of the defendant’s guilt, but also on their different interpersonal styles. The 3rd juror is frustrated by the 8th juror’s slow and patient approach and his willingness to re-examine evidence and his admission that he does not honestly know whether or not the defendant is guilty of the crime. In fact their conflict represents the broader conflict throughout the play. It also is symbolic illustrating the nature of their conflict. It foreshadows how that conflict will ultimately be resolved since the 8th juror will not relinquish his position; the 3rd juror is ultimately forced to step down, changing his vote.

The Characters in the Play:

Instead of organizing the jurors in numeric order, the characters are listed in the order they decide to vote in favour of the defendant.

Juror #8:

He votes “not guilty” during the jury’s first vote. Described as thoughtful and gentle, Juror #8 is usually portrayed as the most heroic member of the jury. He is devoted to justice, and is initially sympathetic toward the 19-year-old defendant. At the beginning of the play, when every other juror has voted guilty he is the only one to vote: “not guilty.” Juror #8 spends the rest of the play urging the others to practice patience, and to contemplate the details of the case. A guilty verdict will result in the electric chair; therefore, Juror #8 wants to discuss the relevance of the witness testimony.

He is convinced that there is reasonable doubt. Eventually he persuades the other jurors to acquit the defendant.

Juror #9:

Described in the stage notes as a “mild, gentle old man, defeated by life and waiting to die.” Despite this bleak description, he is the first to agree with Juror #8, deciding that there is not enough evidence to sentence the young man to death.

Also, during Act One, Juror #9 is the first to openly recognize Juror #10’s racist attitude, stating that, “What this man says is very dangerous.”

Juror #5:

This young man is nervous about expressing his opinion, especially in front of the elder members of the group. He grew up in the slums. He has witnessed knife-fights, an experience that will later help other jurors form an opinion of “not guilty.”

Juror #11:

As a refugee from Europe, Juror #11 has witnessed great injustices. That is why he is intent on administering justice as a jury member. He sometimes feels self-conscious about his foreign accent. He conveys a deep appreciation for democracy and America’s legal system.

Juror #2:

He is the most timid of the group. Juror #2 is easily persuaded by the opinions of others, and cannot explain the roots of his opinions.

Juror #6:

Described as an “honest but dull-witted man”. Juror #6 is a house painter by trade. He is slow to see the good in others, but eventually agrees with Juror #8.

Juror #7:

A slick and sometimes obnoxious salesman, Juror #7 admits during Act One that he would have done anything to miss jury duty. He represents the many real-life individuals who loath the idea of being on a jury.

Juror #12:

He is an arrogant and impatient advertising executive. He is anxious for the trail to be over so that he can get back to his career and his social life.

Juror #1:

Non-confrontational, Juror #1 serves as the foreman of the jury. He is serious about his authoritative role, and wants to be as fair as possible.

Juror #10:

The most abhorrent member of the group, Juror #10 is openly bitter and prejudice. During Act Three he unleashes his bigotry to the others in a speech that disturbs the rest of the jury. Most of the jurors, disgusted by #10’s racism, turn their backs on him.

Juror #4:

A logical, well-spoken stock-broker, Juror #4 urges fellow jurors to avoid emotional arguments and engage in rational discussion. He does not change his vote until a witness’s testimony is discredited (due to the witness’s apparently poor vision).

Juror #3:

In many ways, he is the antagonist to the constantly calm Juror #8. Juror #3 is immediately vocal about the supposed simplicity of the case, and the obvious guilt of the defendant. He is quick to lose his temper, and often infuriated when Juror #8 and other members disagree with his opinions. He believes that the defendant is absolutely guilty, until the very end of the play. During Act Three, Juror #3’s emotional baggage is revealed. His poor relationship with his own son may have biased his views. Only when he comes to terms with this can he finally vote “not guilty.”

Reginald Rose’s drama, Twelve Angry Men ends with the jury agreeing that there is enough reasonable doubt to warrant an acquittal. The defendant is deemed “not guilty” by a jury of his peers. However, the playwright never reveals the truth behind the case. Did they save an innocent man from the electric chair? Did a guilty man go free? The audience is left to decide for themselves.

The Triumph and Fragility of Justice in Twelve Angry Men

The play is, in one sense, a celebration of justice, showing the workings of the American judicial system in a favourable light. Although initially the jury is inclined to wrongly convict a man without any discussion of the case, the persistence of Juror Eight ensures that the right verdict is reached in the end.

The play is also a warning about the fragility of justice and the forces of complacency, prejudice, and lack of civic responsibility that would undermine it. Several jurors show that they are virtually incapable of considering the matter fairly and listening to opposing points of view. Juror #7, whose only desire is to get out of the room quickly, is clearly unfit for jury service. Juror #3 insists that there is nothing personal in his negative comments about the defendant and that he is merely sticking to the facts. He denounces the arguments put forward by Juror #8 as emotional appeals. But there is an irony here, since the truth of Juror #3’s position is the opposite of what he claims. He is dominated by his own emotions arising from his bad relationship with his son. Because of this, he cannot look at the case dispassionately. He harbours an unconscious desire to vicariously punish his son by convicting the defendant, who is of similar age. Juror #8, on the other hand, refuses to let emotions interfere in the case. Unlike Juror #3 and Juror #10, the bigot, he brings no personal agenda to the deliberations and is solely interested in ensuring there is no miscarriage of justice.

Whether the play is regarded as a celebration of justice or a warning about how easily justice can be subverted depends on one’s views about the likelihood of a juror similar to Juror #8 being present in every jury.

 Major Themes to Consider in Twelve Angry Men:

  1. Facts
  2. Justice and the justice system
  3. Compassion
  4. Prejudice and stereotypes
  5. Conflict
  6. Human fallibility and memory
  7. Reason and logic versus emotion
  8. Integrity and courage of conviction

There are 2 sides to an Issue:

There are 2 sides to an issue for and against. In 12 Angry Men social justice could be seen as an issue because of the setting of the play in the 1950’s whether all people in society have equal access to justice.

Values in society to consider:

  1. Honesty
  2. Personal responsibility
  3. Equality
  4. Freedom of expression
  5. Compassion
  6. Tolerance
  7. Justice
  8. Loyalty
  9. Trust
  10. Honour

Each author reveals their own values through the characters in the text. Positive values are often associated with characters that hold a positive viewpoint that is more likely what the author thinks. Whereas characters that hold a negative viewpoint are often rejected by the author.


Should Journalists be Bystanders or Moral Combatants in Relation to the theme of Conflict?

Encountering Conflict was part of the old VCE English context curriculum prior to 2017.  Students can use these ideas related to conflict as a theme not a context in their essays.

This information is for general information only and is NOT part of the new VCE curriculum from 2017 onwards.

In the VCE English Exam from 2010, the essay prompt was:

‘It is difficult to remain a bystander in any situation of conflict’.

How to Tackle the Prompt?

Purpose of the piece: To explore the degree of difficulty associated with particular types of ‘bystander’ when confronted with defined ‘conflicts’. In an expository piece, you are essentially exploring the connection between ideas.

Examine the prompt:

  1. What is a bystander?
  2. An impartial observer
  3. An accomplice
  4. A reluctant or eager participant

What situations of conflict are there?

  1. Internal/conscience/external
  2. Interpersonal
  3. Mental/physical
  4. Familial/generational/domestic/class/cultural/racial
  5. National/local community/international
  6. Is it difficult?
  7. The nature of the difficulty
  8. The degree of difficulty
  9. The consequences, how individuals/society respond and react

Some ideas about conflict:

What are the lasting consequences of conflict for individuals, families and communities? Conflicts rarely end once the war is over, or the fight has been won. There are winners and losers in every conflict, who remain affected long after the conflict is over. The consequences may range from trauma, physical and emotional pain to more positive outcomes such as change, opportunity and growth. One thing is certain; people are changed by experiences of conflict.

Some ideas about being a bystander:

We are all bystanders. In the process of our development as individuals we have the chance to both observe and participate in the mass of challenges that confront us daily. This will inevitably force us to question and evaluate our own morals in the context of our upbringing and culture. Our responses will also challenge our own sense of pride and dignity and force us to question ourselves. There are times when we will face forces beyond our control but the test of our character will be in how we respond.

The passive nature of some character’s observation could suggest they approve of what is taking place. At the very least it suggests the bystander does not have the moral courage to intervene or is simply scared to break what is an accepted schoolyard practice. This incident is a microcosm of those who watch others being persecuted in society without taking action.

Expository Essay Response Plan


First:                      Outline what the terms are (place any re-definitions you have here.) Add a Hook that brings the readers into your essay showing you understand the bigger picture behind the context and the text.

Second:                State your contention clearly.

Third:                    Outline your arguments briefly and carefully remembering your points will be used as topic sentences in your body paragraphs.

Body paragraphs

Support your argument. The support comes from the examples you wish to use, be that from the text, big ideas beyond the text, history, the world view, relevant current news, a famous person, your own opinion all relevant to the issue. In an Expository Essay you cannot use your own life or friends experiences, as this is more reflective. What do you want to say about the topic & the text studied? You must use TEEL to build your paragraphs:

  1. Topic sentence: In your topic sentence state your argument. The argument must exist alongside the text even though you spend the majority of the paragraph discussing a particular text or example.
  2. Evidence: State the example you’re looking at.
  3. Explanation: Explain how the example shows your argument, giving more evidence as you do so. Include quotes from the text where relevant.
  4. Linking sentence: Link your argument to your contention and use connective words to link logically onto the next paragraph.


Identify the discoveries and insights you have made. These should be clearly evident in your explanation. Use these insights to conclusively state what it is to be a bystander, the specific nature of the difficulties faced and how comparable these outcomes are to the various types of conflicts you have explored. Conclude with your text studied so that your readers are clear on how it is difficult to remain a bystander in any situation of conflict for the characters of the text you are studying.

Using the text Everyman in this Village is a Liar by Megan Stack we ask this question:

Are journalists bystanders or moral combatants when reporting on conflicts?

Consider these 2 questions in your expository or imaginative hybrid essay:

  1. Should journalists ditch the pretence of neutrality and express an emotional “attachment” to the good guys in any given conflict?
  2. If journalists allow themselves to become moral combatants, crusaders against “evil” rather than mere reporters of fact, is there a danger that they will be treated as combatants?

Megan Stack as a reporter of conflict

At first the 25-year-old Stack is avid and “naïve”, as any young reporter maybe, to be thrown unprepared into a war zone:

“I was a reporter,” she recalls, “who didn’t really know how to write about combat, covering America from outside its borders as it crashed zealously into war and occupation… It would be my generation’s fate, it seemed, to be altered by September 11. I got excited and felt that I was living through important times and went rushing in, and years later came away older, different, with damage that couldn’t be anticipated beforehand and can’t be counted after.”

And later, the awareness that to be there, on the spot, brings cachet among peers and the profession: “It was something we strove for, competed for fiercely, a privilege. And when we were done with it we simply went away again.”

In emphasising attachment over neutrality and emotionalism over objectivity, the new breed of attached reporters become more like an activist, an international campaigner, rather than a dispassionate recorder of fact and truth.

They become moral players in, rather than simply observers of, foreign wars. Other people in the media criticise the “bystander journalism” of the past – what was once known as being objective – and praise those new journalists who have self-consciously made themselves into “players” in conflict zones.

Inevitably Stack’s book ends as it has begun, with the line, “You can survive and not survive, both at the same time”. The emotional damage is palpable. There is no “redemption” – a favoured American urge to resolve a narrative – no explicable “clarity of vision” of this Middle Eastern excursion. Maybe, she implies, it will never come.

Journalists as Passive Bystanders to Stakeholders

When reporting a story as a foreign journalist, at what point do journalists transform from being a passive bystander to a stakeholder in the story being covered? The tension between these two identities raises questions that journalists have searched their souls about for generations: When does the reporter put down a notebook to try to change the outcome of a tense situation? Or is it enough simply to describe what others are doing? When should a photographer drop the camera and intervene? When is snapping the picture a way of intervening, rather than just a form of recording? Does the risk of an emotional wound bear on whether the journalist should act or stand by?

The idealistic journalists, with a moral conscience, may put aside the camera or notebook when there’s a reasonable chance their actions will help others or prevent harm. In the process, they can recognize the symptoms of stress and emotional injury in themselves and others, and they can better convey the emotional dimension of their stories.

People who are not willing to be bystanders in conflict

In Every Man in this Village is a Liar Atwar Bahjat a female Iraqi reporter is an example of a journalist who was not prepared to be a bystander but a moral combatant. It is individuals like Atwar Bahjat who act defiantly, and yet non-violently, in a regime that tries to repress them that must be recognised for their nobility. The horrific and suppressive nature of conflict has the ability to suspend individuals in fear and immobilize any chance of societal progression. It is this paralysis that oppressors in a conflict rely on to ensure that they can maintain the way of life that they demand.

Megan Stack’s memoir documents the ongoing religious conflict in Iraq, a country “united in fear”. She exposes the degradation of women and the divide between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites. Western readers are overwhelmed by the violent and bloody history of Iraq and are confronted with the peculiar perception that it is an accepted part of life. However, Stack challenges this perception and shows that just as in any conflict, there are insurgents that are essential to leading the way for societal advancement.

Atwar Bahjat, a female, Iraqi reporter, is symbolic of a united Iraq; undivided by religious differences. Regardless the restraints put on her as a woman in a patriarchal society, Bahjat used her access to the media as a means to stimulate discussion of an alternate future for Iraq. Although Bahjat’s death may be perceived as a failed attempt for change, her presence in Iraq was essential to stimulate discussion and demonstrate the courage required to peacefully challenge the status-quo.


Every Man in This Village is a Liar by Megan Stack A Brief Synopsis for VCE Year 12 English

Encountering Conflict was a context in the old VCE curriculum for English and is NOT part of the new English curriculum from 2017 onwards.

What is Every Man in This Village is a Liar about?

A few weeks after the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre on 9/11, journalist Megan Stack, a 25-year-old national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was thrust into Afghanistan and Pakistan, dodging gunmen and prodding warlords for information. From there, she travelled to war-ravaged Iraq and Lebanon and to other countries scarred by violence, including Israel, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, witnessing the changes that swept the Muslim world, and striving to tell its stories.

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is Megan Stack’s unique and breathtaking account of what she saw in the combat zones and beyond. It is her memoir about the wars of the 21st century. She relates her initial wild excitement and her slow disillusionment as the cost of violence outweighs the elusive promise of freedom and democracy. She reports from under bombardment in Lebanon; documents the growth of unusual friendships; records the raw pain of suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq; and, one by one, marks the deaths and disappearances of those she interviews.

The Prologue

The Prologue is Megan’s way of looking back on 10 years of killing and dying. She says that “… the first thing I knew about war was also the truest, and maybe it’s as true for nations as for individuals: You can survive and not survive, both at the same time” [p.4]. Megan reflects that the US determination in the wake of the September 11 attacks to go out and ‘tame all the wilderness of the world’ was an instinctive response. With the benefit of retrospect Megan surveyed the damage this folly has done to the US, to the affected nations in the Middle East and to her. In the end she judged that September 11 was the beginning of a ‘disastrous reaction’.

The quote “Every man in this village is a liar”

Megan realises that in the new reality of the war on terror, truth is no longer an absolute but the servant of political necessity. In Pakistan someone said to Megan, “Every man in this village is a liar” [p.9]. She explains it as “… one of the world’s oldest logic problems … If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth. That was Afghanistan after September 11” [p.9].

Encountering Conflict in the Text

The text is primarily concerned with Megan’s encounters with violent military conflicts in the Middle East. It does also deal with conflict on many levels. Not only does it examine deadly force used by countries at war it also considers how people subjected to this invasion or assault live with the constant fear of arrest, torture or death.

Megan also contemplates her own survival of what covering these wars has done to her as a person. In effect she documents the political and also moral price of the war on terror for America. She speaks about ‘sacrifice’ in chapter 8 [p.96] in countries that have historical conflict that stretches back over centuries. As a result Megan asserts that “Violence is a reprint of itself, an endless copy” [p.96].

Writing a Context Essay on Encountering Conflict

The challenge when writing a Context Essay is to think outside the box when it comes to the IDEAS that the Context is based on. The task in the SAC’s or Exam is to determine the exact nature of the relationship between an idea and the text. The set texts are chosen so that they reflect the issue of encountering conflict on many levels. It is a good idea to use the characters in the set text as a way to explore the context but also to consider the implications of their actions, responses and efforts to resolve their conflict. The next task is to use the prompt you are given in the SAC or Exam as a starting point for your ideas in your own writing.

Ask yourself questions about Conflict

The Context Encountering Conflict asks you to question the types, causes and consequences of conflict. There are many different types of conflict, ranging from:

  1. Internal conflict: When a person is confronted with a difficult choice to make. It is a mental or emotional struggle that occurs within a character‘s mind.
  2. Conflict of conscience: When a person struggles internally either because they have done something they feel is wrong, or are being asked to overcome their conscience and do something that they feel is wrong
  3. Cultural conflict: When people from different cultural backgrounds disagree, find it difficult to live with one another or even fight because of their inability to understand one another (either literally, in terms of language, or because of different beliefs, traditions and cultural practices)
  4. Interpersonal conflict: When two or more people disagree or fight
  5. Physical conflict: When there is a conflict that leads to physical violence
  6. Familial conflict: When there is conflict between people from the same family
  7. Generational conflict: When there is conflict between people from different generations (this often overlaps with familial conflict)
  8. Class conflict: When there is conflict between people of different social classes
  9. International conflict: Conflict between countries. Think about the text Every Man in this Village is a Liar by Megan Stack where conflict in the Middle East is on a regional level that involves countries after 9/11. Think about the complexities and issues of Conflict and nationhood / Conflict and political power / Conflict and cultures / Conflict in paradox / Conflict without hope or despair /Conflict and conscience.
  10. National conflict: Conflict within countries, such as different ethnic groups.
  11. Local community or neighbourhood conflict
  12. Science and Religious conflict: Conflict between science and religion is based on two conflicting ways of knowing, one based on faith and authority and the other on observation, reason and doubt. Think about the text Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht where the great religious powers of the Catholic Church bring all their ideological firepower to battle against Galileo’s science because he was a threat to their supremacy in the universe. Think about Conflict and power / Conflict and morality / Conflict and truth / Conflict and the individual. In terms of more recent conflict with the Catholic Church have a think about writing on the Royal Commission Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse in not only Catholic institutions but also other groups who abused children. Think of the consequences for the victims of conflict and the emotional stress and trauma taking on the might of the Catholic Church long after the physical conflict is over.

Encountering Conflict also asks you to think about how conflict arises

What are the causes of a particular conflict, or conflict in general? The causes of conflict may range from ignorance and prejudice, to self interest and fear, to the struggle for power, justice or truth. One might even argue that conflict is an essential or inevitable part of human life.

Finally, Encountering Conflict asks you to think about the consequences of conflict

You might like to think about how individuals, or a society as a whole, respond and react to conflict. The way an individual or a community responds to conflict reveals a lot about them, especially their strengths and their weaknesses. You might also like to think about the lasting consequences of conflict for individuals, families and communities. Conflicts rarely end once the war is over, or the fight has been won. There are winners and losers in every conflict, who remain affected long after the conflict is over. The consequences may range from trauma and physical and emotional pain to more positive outcomes, such as change, opportunity and growth. One thing is certain: people are changed by experiences of conflict.



The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman A Brief Synopsis for VCE Year 12 English

The Complete Maus

Area of Study 1, Reading and Responding to a Text

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel in the category of multimodal texts from List 1, Area of Study 1, Reading and Responding to a Text for Year 12 English 2016.

It requires a combination of reading the text closely together with the visual elements of the graphic novel to create a rich and complex narrative. It still requires students to analyse the inner workings, discussing themes, ideas and values that it explores but also recognising the importance of the visual elements of the story. Students are required to write an analytical response essay for assessment in Area of Study 1, Reading and Responding to a Text.

What is Maus?

  1. It is a graphic novel or actually a graphic memoir since it is a true story. It is a complex story told in pictures and handwritten captions, as opposed to only typeset print. Therefore, it is a piece of visual as well as literary art. By using imagery and limited words, Art Spiegelman has used the art form of cartoons to portray the horrors faced by the Jews as prisoners of the Nazi Regime during World War II.
  2. It is an oral history and a memoir. An oral history is an extended interview where a witness to historical events is asked to recall what he experienced. Someone else writes it down. A memoir is the story of a life written by the participant or another person. Art Spiegelman interviews his father Vladek between 1972 and 1982 to relate stories of Vladek’s horrific experiences in Nazi Germany during which he survived 10 months in Auschwitz death camp. The stories of the past and present clash and collide so readers also become aware of the difficult relationship between Art and his father.
  3. It is the story of one concentration camp survivor; a Jewish Polish refugee and his family: Vladek and Anja, and their son Art Spiegelman. Another son Richieu died in the war; so did the other members of Anja’s and Vladek’s families. After Anja’s death Vladek married Mala also a survivor. It addresses the guilt and fear of survivors from the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the subsequent impact on their children.
  4. It is the story of a historical genocide known as the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the name for the systematic persecution and murder of 6 million Jews from 1933 to 1944 by the Nazi regime in Germany. In particular the story focus is on Polish Jews.

What is Maus About?

In Maus, Vladek Spiegelman’s story of surviving the Holocaust is told in tandem with the story of his post-war relationship with the author of the book, his son Artie. Although Artie Spiegelman emphasises the resourcefulness of Vladek to survive and his capacity to overcome the dreadful feeling that he was abandoned by God during the Holocaust “But here God didn’t come. We were all on our own” (p.189). Maus is just as much about surviving life after the Holocaust as it is about experiencing the Holocaust itself. Artie says to his wife Francoise towards the end of the book, “But in some ways he didn’t survive” (p.250). Certainly for Vladek the Holocaust was an emotionally crippling experience, reducing him to what Artie says is a “caricature of the miserly old Jew” (p.133) who is concerned more with “things than people” as Mala said. The need to constantly be resourceful and pragmatic had for Vladek overwhelmed other less material approaches to life.

The cartoon graphically relates the Holocaust story and Vladek’s experiences of horror but it is also Artie’s story as a child of a survivor which is at times humorously and poignantly interwoven in with Vladek and Anja’s story. As these stories of the past and present clash and collide, so readers become aware of the pain of broken, disrupted relationships. The second part of the story ‘And Here my Troubles Began’ from pages 169-296 continues the story of Artie’s parents’ incarceration in Auschwitz but also includes more of Artie’s own personal story as he seeks to understand the delayed trauma of an Auschwitz-related son. One of his most pressing points is that the scars are generational ie. the psychological scars of the parents continue to haunt subsequent generations.

An important part of Artie’s story is relaying a snapshot of his father’s post-traumatic stress that suffocates him as he tries to deal with the enormity of his loss. A touch of black humour conveys this depiction, which is both poignant and mocking. Artie ridicules his father’s neurotic obsession with pills and death and his traumatic relationship with his second wife Mala who Vladek imagines her constantly stealing his money.

What is safe to say about Maus is that the graphic images belie the complexity of the psychological pathology that was a result of the Holocaust both for the survivors and the generation that the survivors gave birth to. What is also true in Maus is that the characters, mostly Vladek and Artie, are burdened with feelings that they don’t always understand are often in conflict with each other. If there is a message in Maus it is this: people are complex and nothing is simple.

The Distinctiveness / Techniques /Symbols of Graphic Novels like The Complete Maus

Pages in graphic novels and graphic narratives are made up of words, images and panels. To read them effectively, and to understand their complex and subtle meanings, requires attention to the ways in which both images and words work independently and together. Each has its own logic and way of organising meaning.

One of the things that is important in writing about Maus, is to write about it as a graphic novel. In other words, how does Art use the elements of the graphic novel to tell the story of Maus in a way that is distinctive from the medium of the novel or film?

The Basic Techniques and Symbols Art uses to tell the story are:

  1. The Panel = Just as the paragraph and sentences within the paragraph are the basic way of dividing up parts of the narrative in a novel, so too is the panel and the speech bubbles the basic way of organising the story in a graphic novel. In Maus Art uses the panels in different ways – with boxed black borders designed to be read from left to right, top to bottom which is a standard way to develop a narrative. The panel boxed within a border conveys the sense that these words, or actions or feelings are happening at this exact point and no other. When there is no border a sense of space or freedom is created – that the words, actions or feelings might link to more than just this point in time. Art also changes the size of panels in order to emphasise the significance or impact of the feelings, words or events within the panel. He does this often at crisis points in the novel such as the arrival of Vladek at Auschwitz. Panels also overlap with other panels to show how words, feelings or events in that panel overlap, impact on or link to the surrounding panels.
  2. Gutters = The space in between panels – known as the gutter is important – we almost need to ‘read between the lines’ or infer what has happened. In many cases, this doesn’t require much effort, because what is depicted in one panel can come almost directly after what was in the previous panel. Sometimes there is a space between panels in terms of place or time which makes us as readers wonder what happened in between In the scene (p.111) the Gestapo have orders to evacuate Zawiercie where Tosha and the children Bibi, Lonia and Richieu are living but Tosha says “I won’t go to their gas chambers. And my children won’t go to their gas chambers” (p.111). In the scene we do not see Tosha administering the poison to the children but we are left to fill that blank in ourselves based on the image of the small, innocent children looking up.
  3. Animal Characterisation = Perhaps the most basic and effective technique Spiegelman uses to tell the story of Maus, is the characterisation of Jews as mice, Nazis (and Germans as a whole) as cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. In this comic story Art utilises this anthropomorphic imagery of the cat and mouse to depict his parent’s experiences in Nazi Germany which also relates the story of the Holocaust. There are a number of layers to this imagery. The first layer is the idea we immediately associate with mice as innocent and small and cats as big, predators of mice. In terms of characters, the Jews were innocent victims; the Nazis were the sinister predatory killers. The second layer involves a subversion of ideas.
  4. The Language = The story recounted in Vladek’s voice is related in broken English, awkward grammar but giving the impression of spontaneity and authenticity. At times it is extremely sincere but other times it is dramatic but uncaring. Through the language Spiegelman gives his reader a number of cues that can assist in understanding the plot, voice and levels of narrative. It is through the language we are able to comprehend aspects of the characters’ motivations, their relationships with one another and their place in the narrative.
  5. Eyes = Are a fundamental point of characterisation to humanise or dehumanise characters in graphic texts. The eyes of the Jewish mice are nearly always visible throughout the text and convey the feelings of anger, sadness, frustration or determination. However, the eyes of the Nazis are often not visible; they are shaded by their helmets or caps, signifying how their humanity has been shaded by the role they fulfil. When their eyes are seen they are as sinister looking slits of light.
  6. Holocaust dominated by Nazi Swastika = Spiegelman represents how over-whelming the Holocaust was in the lives of the Jews who lived through it and survived by his visual representations of Nazi symbols dominating the landscape within panels or being the dominant background behind panels. The panels of pages 34-35 show the swastika prominent in towns even in 1938 in conjunction with texts “This town is Jew Free” (p.35). The panel on page 127 shows Vladek and Anja walking in the direction of Sosnowiec with the path imagery as a swastika. The imagery indicates Vladek and Anja’s predicament of having nowhere to go because in Poland at that time (1944) all paths for Jews led to the Nazis and ultimately to Auschwitz and death.
  7. Masks = Characters wear masks at two different points in the story. Before Vladek and Anja were captured and sent to Auschwitz, they were able to avoid being caught in Srodula by disguising themselves as Poles (pig masks). Masks at this point are a functional way to avoid detection by pretending to be someone else. In Book II Spiegelman draws himself as a human character wearing a mouse mask which represents his confusion about the suicide of his mother in 1968. He asks questions about why his mother committed suicide. Was it his fault? Why did he feel guilty? How can he move on? Who in fact was he?
  8. Dying faces, dead faces, hanging and dead bodies = The horror of the Holocaust is reinforced throughout Maus by the graphic representations of the dead and dying. Hanging bodies are used at a number of points with a particular haunting effect. They evoke feelings about the dehumanisation of Jews who were left to hang like carcasses and their powerlessness. Often the dead or dying are portrayed with their mouths wide open, screaming in agony, fear and desperation. The images evoke within the reader a picture of true horror of what the Jews suffered during the Holocaust.

Guilt as a Major Theme in Maus

Guilt swirls in the comic strip. The relationship between Vladek and his son is important in the narrative because it deals extensively with feelings of guilt. Of particular relevance is guilt with members of the Spiegelman family. Artie mocks the fact that Maus should have a message and that everyone should feel ‘forever’ guilty. “My father’s ghost still hangs over me” (p.203). The primary types of familial guilt can be divided into three categories:

  1. Artie’s feelings of guilt over not being a good son
  2. Artie’s feelings of guilt over the death of his mother
  3. Artie’s feelings of guilt regarding the publication of Maus

The second major form of guilt found in Maus is thematically complex. This guilt is ‘survivor’s guilt’ which is found in both Vladek and Artie’s relationships with the Holocaust. Much of Maus revolves around this relationship between past and present and the effects of past events on the lives of those who did not experience them which manifests itself as guilt. While Artie was born in Sweden after the end of World War II both of his parents were survivors of the Holocaust and the event has affected him deeply. Artie reveals his guilt to his wife Francoise “Somehow, I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some form of guilt about having an easier life than they did” (p.176).

Vladek too appears to feel a deep sense of guilt about having survived the Holocaust while his family and friends did not. Pavel (Artie’s psychiatrist) thinks that Vladek took his guilt out on Artie the “real survivor”. So Vladek’s guilt was passed down to his son establishing the foundation for the guilt that Artie now feels towards his family and its history.



The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville A Brief Synopsis for VCE Year 12 English

Encountering Conflict was a context in the old VCE curriculum prior to 2017 it is not part of the new curriculum from 2017 onwards.

This information is for general information only regarding the text itself.

There are different types of conflict to be investigated in studying The Lieutenant:

  1. Conflict between English colonists and Aborigines = extra-personal conflict
  2. Conflict between the English colonists = interpersonal conflict
  3. Conflict within individuals = internal conflict
  4. The conflict between duty and conscience = internal conflict
  5. Ways of preventing conflict when encountering it = the antidote to conflict
  6. The outcomes of conflict = a stage of conflict
  7. Verbal and physical conflict = external conflict

Historical Conflict Set in Early Colonial Australia

The novel explores a historical conflict through the lens of a personal journey of her protagonist Daniel Rooke an astronomer and linguist. Grenville explicitly drew her material from the historical figure of William Dawes, who was a young Lieutenant of Marines, an astronomer, mathematician and linguist on the First Fleet of 1788. Dawes wrote language notebooks of his relationship with an Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang of the Cadigal tribe

Set in the world of great change and conflict the text explores British colonialism after defeat by the American colonists in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The massive historical conflict and upheaval in British/American history sees the British desperately wanting new lands and New South Wales becomes a delivery point for their convicts.

Through the powerful white colonial settlement Grenville depicts the Australian colonial narrative of a confrontation between the colonists and the Indigenous people with irreconcilable cultural differences. The biggest and most fundamental difference is that of lifestyle and views and values about land ownership, power and control.

Ownership by “white man’s terms”

Colonial ownership is by “white man’s terms” which is about staking out boundaries, marking the land and erecting signs. New South Wales becomes “the possession of King George the Third”. The Governor awarded “James Gilbert sovereignty over every black or white, every object great or small, and every relationship of whatever sort that might take place in his kingdom” (p.170).

Endless Examples of Conflict in the Text

There are virtually endless examples of types of conflict within the text but few are notable given the setting in early colonial Australia. The conflict between white settlers and Indigenous Australians can be seen to manifest itself not only in physical clashes between the two groups, but in the internal, intellectual and cultural responses of those involved.

Rooke’s Conflict between Duty of Obligation

Within the British Empire a strict hierarchy exists in which allegiance is demanded of subjects. Acceptance of authority is unquestioned. However, the text discusses the internal conflict of Daniel Rooke who does not totally accept the colonial narrative of superiority and conquest over the Indigenous people. The consequences of disobeying the obligations to duty to the Empire are clear to Rooke very early in his military service. Yet his conscience about the treatment of the Indigenous people is at odds with his duty. In Rooke’s ultimate decision to follow his personal sense of duty to behave compassionately towards the natives he must break his obligation to the military and the Empire.

Themes, Ideas and Values in The Lieutenant

The Lieutenant raises many themes, ideas and values in relation to the Context Encountering Conflict. See below the different types of conflict and the evidence in the forms of quotes extracted from the novel for use in your essays.

Theme, Idea or Value Evidence from The Lieutenant Page #
Conflict between people “War was a species of conversation”. 108
“He watched her face, tightened against him, half hidden by her hair, her chin obstinate”. 225
“They none of them can be trusted”, Willstead said. “they have never been known to attack in fair fight”. 241-242
“It was a wicked plan, sir, I am sorry to have been persuaded to comply with the order.   I would not for any reason ever again obey a similar order”. 285
“The governor’s face was slack with astonishment. Rooke watched him, saw all his prospects wither life a leaf in the fire”. 285
Antidotes to conflict, conciliation “It was like being taken by the hand and helped step by step in the dark”. 149
“It was like a dance between the two of them, or the voices of a fugue”. 163-164
“He would not miss a third chance. He rehearsed it: the laying down of the musket, the stepping towards them with empty hands outstretched. He would not wait for the governor, he would take the initiative”. 98
Fear “Do you understand man? There are too few of us, and God knows how many of them”. 102
“I wish to God I had not done it! He should not have given the order, but I wish to God I had not obeyed!” “Gardiner was shouting, the words filling the hut and sailing out of the window”. “For God’s sake, man! Have a care what you say!” 113
The power of one’s conscience “It was not thought, not logic, not calculation. It was just an impulse of the body, like breathing or blinking: a reflex that was beyond reason”. “I cannot be part of this he said aloud”. 282
“It was a wicked plan, sir. I am sorry to have been persuaded to comply with the order. I would not for any reason ever again obey a similar order”. 285
Positive, life-enhancing relationships “Worogan forgot to be shy, so entertaining was Rooke’s performance. By the time he was creeping on all fours they were staggering with laughter, their dark cheeks slick with tears”. 162
“When she saw his face clear with relief, she left off pouting and laughed with pleasure at what they had made together. He laughed too, astonished at it, so rich and layered”. 183
The importance of words, language and names “By God, Rooke, they are as loath to part with any speech as a miser with his gold! Silk said”. 136
“He was pleased to have been named: it was a gift”. 143
“He was not simply learning another language. He was remaking his own”. 177
Self-understanding and personal growth “Perhaps he was not, after all, such a solitary soul. That was something about himself that he had not known before. Had it always been there, but never brought to life by the right circumstance?” 187
“Now he saw how far he had travelled from the world he once shared with Silk.   Tagaran seemed to have led the way down some other road altogether”. 204
Violence and cruelty “Now there was nothing, only this pain in his head, and his heart, which had seen into the vile entrails of life and smelled the evil there”. 34
“You know the governor is wanting to speak to the natives and they will not come near.   He came up with a way to settle the thing. Decided in his wisdom to seize one of two by force”. 110
“Rooke heard the shocking wet slap of the cat landing on split flesh, twenty times, thirty times, fifty times”. 197
“Tagaran was energetically acting out an angry face, a hand rising and falling”. 213
The inter-connectedness of all life “They may be savages, we call them savages. But their feelings are no different from ours”. 111
“Newton had snared it in words. Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle”. 195
“In company with Tagaran he had glimpsed how everything found its place with everything else”. 234
The crossing of boundaries “A boundary had been crossed and erased”. 178
“He knew only that he was prepared to welcome the stranger”. 282
“He was watching one universe in the act of encountering another”. 137
The uniqueness and importance of all people “A face like this one in front of him now, laughing with an expression half sly, half amused, and the human soul behind it, with all its exquisite nuances of feeling”. 275
The exquisite instruments of astronomy could add new stars to the sum of the world’s knowledge, but it took a soul to wonder at the beauty of those already discovered”. 291



I for Isobel by Amy Witting: A Brief Synopsis for Year 12 English

Front Cover

Area of Study 1, Reading and Responding to a Text

I for Isobel by Amy Witting is a text from List 1, Area of Study 1, Reading and Responding to a Text for Year 12 English. It requires reading the text closely and analysing its inner workings, discussing themes, ideas and values that it explores, then writing an analytical response essay.

I for Isobel is a Narrative Text

Narratives tell stories which draw us into circumstances, relationships, fortunes and misfortunes of people’s lives and the themes, values and ideas in the story.

Key Knowledge for Writing an Essay on a Narrative Text

To write a High/Excellent essay in the 80-100 level for assessment in Reading and Responding to a Text, students need to know:

  1. How structures, features and conventions such as narrative viewpoint, settings, symbols are used by the author to construct meaning and explain how they impact on the reader.
  2. The characters, ideas and themes in the text. How characters change and develop. How the important ideas and themes are presented can be through the behaviour and beliefs of characters. Characters embody values through their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and actions.
  3. Social, historical and cultures values embodied in the test. Analyse how the values are presented that could be through the characters or authorial comment.
  4. Ways in which different interpretations are possible might be through the positive or negative outcomes for the main character.
  5. Analysis and interpretation of the text are closely related but do differ. An analysis of the text looks at key textual features such as plot, narrative voice, characterisation and the role of key sections of the text such as beginnings, crisis points and resolutions. Whereas an interpretation pulls together the different elements of a text to present an explanation of what the text means.

No Viewpoint or Interpretation of a Text is the Ultimate or Right One

In fact interpretations of the text can vary significantly by personal responses in the way readers respond differently. The interpretations and readings can also differ in the literal or surface meaning of a text as well as deeper levels of implied meanings. Many views are possible and may be equally valid. It is a student’s task to support your viewpoint by using compelling evidence from the text and a logical sequence of ideas to create a credible argument. It is important to identify:

  1. What is the narrator really telling you about the world they describe?
  2. Do the characters decide their own fates?
  3. Or are they in a world in which their fates are decided for them?
  4. How you respond to the characters is important because you may lean towards being sympathetic to one and more critical of others. Back up your view identifying the characters using key quotations to focus your interpretation on critical points in the text.
  5. What happens to these characters – are they punished or rewarded in the text?
  6. What is your view of the text’s ideas, themes and values? Do you agree with how the author has presented them?

Interpretation of I for Isobel

In Charlotte Wood’s Introduction to I For Isobel : ‘A Potent Victory’, she describes the text as “… a simple coming of age story, the tale of Isobel Callaghan who must pretend to be nicer, stupider, duller than she is, because the reality of what she is, intellectually gifted, powerfully desiring, is a threat not only to her family but to society itself” (viii).

On the surface, I for Isobel seems to be a simple fictional narrative about a girl growing up in a family and society that show her few kindnesses. Yet, on a much deeper level, I for Isobel is about loneliness, child abuse and the lack of love; it is the story of a girl, who from a young age, is verbally attacked by her mother and mostly ignored by her father. Not surprisingly, this childhood produces an adolescent who has low self-esteem, lacks confidence and is liable to panic attacks.

However, the novel is also a portrait of the artist as a young woman with imagination, intelligence and courage to finally recognise, with joy, her true self and the writer she is to become. The last sentence that Isobel joyfully says “I met someone” (p.181) is a revelation that in fact Isobel has ‘met’ herself attaining a sense of unity and purpose. Isobel’s escape from the forces that shaped her is a victory, a powerful claim for selfhood. It is an irrevocable statement of ‘I’, I for Isobel.

Isobel Callaghan is Protagonist and Narrative Voice

Isobel is the novel’s central character, its protagonist. The novel’s title contains her name and the narrative voice is third person limited perspective meaning that every person, scene and incident is described from Isobel’s point of view. Therefore, as readers learn about the world in which Isobel lives, they also learn about Isobel herself. Sometimes the narrative voice shifts between third person and first person, and between past and present tenses. This technique allows the narrative to shift between the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, as if permitting the reader to inhabit that character’s consciousness, and a more distanced, detached point of view.

The Opening Chapter 1 “The Birthday Present”

I for Isobel opens with Isobel’s mother, May Callaghan’s words “No birthday presents this year!” (p.3) Every year at the same time May said this, every year Isobel chose not to believe it, but in fact “experience told her that there would be no present” (p.3). While older sister Margaret always received birthday presents, Isobel never does. From the beginning of this narrative it is clear that there is an ongoing pattern of emotional abuse inflicted by May Callaghan on Isobel.

The opening of the narrative is significant because it gives readers a clear path to their own interpretation of I for Isobel (as identified above). What the narrator is telling us about their world, the people in it and their fate is largely determined by the ways in which Isobel tries to satisfy her mother’s expectations, or at least, avoid being punished or scolded. Isobel is repressed, her mother is abusive and she has trouble fitting into school as she is too smart. In effect, Isobel is not acceptable at home or school. Isobel observes the world as warily as an alien trying to pass for a native.

The Opening Chapter tells us about Emotional Abuse and Being a Victim

Throughout her childhood, Isobel is emotionally abused by her mother. The narrative’s unsympathetic portrayal of Mrs Callaghan and its emphasis on the debilitating effects of abuse are integral to the reader’s understanding of Isobel as an alienated artist figure. The narrative charts the writer’s struggle for self-expression against the obstacles placed in her path. Therefore, Isobel’s recognition of herself as a writer is inseparable from her experience of childhood abuse. In fact, one interpretation could be that Mrs Callaghan may represent society’s indifference to the artist or even to art.

May Callaghan’s Cruelty is her Power over Isobel

One fact stands out and that is May Callaghan’s hatred for Isobel is commonplace throughout the novel and it is devastating. It manifests in the most vindictive emotional and psychological abuse of Isobel. Mrs Callaghan insults Isobel at every opportunity, calling her an idiot, a liar and a ‘nasty little beast’ (p.34). May Callaghan’s dismissal and disregard for Isobel is evident in horrible childish competitiveness and the scoring of petty points is so transparent, even nine year old Isobel recognises it.

The unspeakable truth in this narrative is that May Callaghan does not love her child but uses her power over Isobel for cruel purposes. If Isobel refuses to react to her mother’s cruelty, she makes her mother even angrier prompting her to find alternative ways to upset her. However, if she does react, she sets herself up as a victim of her mother’s control. This engenders a form of powerlessness that Isobel must overcome later in her life.

Isobel’s quest for a sense of identity is the story of the novel

How people establish a sense of their own identity both socially and privately are at the centre of the novel’s thematic concerns. Isobel’s quest for identity, including her self-doubts, the obstacles in her path and her eventual sense of purpose and wellbeing is clearly signposted by the novel’s title. “I” is the first letter of Isobel’s name and it is also the letter/word by which people identify themselves as themselves. Isobel is not so much at ease with the flesh-and-blood people she meets, and least of all with herself, until a lucky encounter and a little detective work reveal her identity and her true situation in life.

The Truth about the Cat Poem and the Cruelty of her Parent’s Deception

In Chapter 5 “I for Isobel”, Isobel revisits the key settings of her childhood, the church, the school and her childhood home in an attempt to discover “… a small authentic piece of her lost self” (p.166). Isobel’s greatest shock is when she meets Mrs Adams, who had been a neighbour of the Callaghan’s. The source of Isobel’s anxiety when meeting Mrs Adams, is a poem Isobel wrote when she was nine, about Mrs Adam’s cat, Smoke, which had been published in the newspaper. Her parents convinced her that Mrs Adams would be furious because her name had been published in the paper. Mr Callaghan’s “…pompous talk about libel and slander” (p.177) was ridiculous but, to Isobel’s childish innocence, seemed terrifying plausible. Her parents’ teasing caused Isobel “… years of misery … years of terror” (p.174). To find the truth that Mrs Adams not only liked the poem but wanted to thank Isobel by giving her a scrapbook strikes Isobel as forcibly as anything in her life. As Isobel struggles with her emotions she cries “Artesian tears, rising from the centre of the earth” (p.177). As Isobel hurried crying along the street she remarked her parents were “Cruel, deceitful bastards” (p.177). Then she roared aloud, “Spiteful tormenting bastards” (p.177).

The Revelation “I am a writer”

Once her tears are released, Isobel gains a new sense of her identity: “I am a writer. I am a writer” she tells herself (p.177). In order to make her new self-belief and identity become real and tangible, Isobel purchases an exercise book from a corner store. For Isobel, reading had been, and continues to be, a means of escaping from the reality of family and social life. Writing, however, involves a retreat from society in order to reflect on and better understand it. The ability to ‘be’ in the world on her own terms leads, in turn, to greater self-acceptance than Isobel has ever known.

Themes, Ideas and Values to consider in I for Isobel

Emotional abuse and being a victim

  • Types of abuse in particular emotional or psychological abuse
  • Isobel’s negative self-image
  • Other victims and the desire to see oneself in others
  • Transformation of victim into writer


  • Isobel’s ‘double’ personality is related to her uncertain sense of identity
  • Embroidery a metaphor for self-images

Truth and lies

  • Realism versus subjectivity – may be due to Isobel’s tenuous grasp on reality
  • Hope and idealism versus experience


  • Knowing the time is to be able to order experiences
  • Isobel has the opposite experience of never being prepared for events or able to anticipate what other people expect of her

The word factory

  • Is a metaphor for how Isobel perceives the words that seem perpetually inside her head, words are both a gift and a burden to her
  • Speech and tone of voice – during times of great emotion, Isobel is virtually speechless
  • The word factory as a loom – the words are spinning inside Isobel’s head for what reason?


  • Words and serious literature becomes a medium between Isobel and the world, enabling her to take a more confident and assured place within in it.

Other Values to Consider in Isobel’s Experiences in the Novel

  1. Love / hate
  2. Rejection / shame
  3. Life / love
  4. Madness / intellect
  5. Isolation / coming in from the cold
  6. Domestic life / artist
  7. Repressed / accepted
  8. Bullied / standing up
  9. Despair / saintly