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Qualified English Teacher, BA/BT UNE, Registered with VIT, located in Berwick Victoria 3806. Contact 0418 440 277, email contact@englishtutorlessons.com.au

Creative Essay on ‘The Boat’ short story in Island by Alistair MacLeod

Image result for picture of the boat in alistair macleods short story

Unit 3 AOS1, Outcome 1 Reading & Creating Texts: Creative Response

Creative Essay on ‘The Boat’ from Island by Alistair MacLeod for Year 12 English

Creative Prompt:

Years later, one of the daughters has to tell her daughter about her childhood, the role of the island and why she eventually left Cape Breton.  Refer back to the story in Island ‘The Boat’.


  • Scottish Gaelic names for father = dadaidh formal, dadai = dad or daddy
  • Scottish Gaelic names for mother = mathair
  • Scottish Gaelic girls names = Ainslie, Fiona, Alana, Annis, Morag, Catriona
  • Scottish Gaelic name for island = Innis

Creative Story Based Around ‘The Boat’ Short Story

Looking through my kitchen window over the Cape Cod seashore I heard the sharp laughter of a gull.  The moment was broken as my 15 year old daughter Alana called out “Hey ma, I have to do a literature assignment on our family’s ancestry which is due Friday can you help me with it?”  This middle daughter was just like me and her grandfather.  We all loved literature and reading.  Yet she was tall, willowy with fine facial features set off by long dark hair tinged a reddish copper colour, energetic and beautiful like her grandmother.  “Sure” I called back to Alana as she lopped into the kitchen with her notebook and pen; “What do you want to know?”  “I need information about where you came from, you know ma, the traditional stuff you never talk about”.  I looked at her striking face and my mind wandered back to an old-fashioned kitchen with a wood and coal burning stove next to a heavy table, around it stood five wooden homemade chairs.  Alana said “For instance ma why did you give the three of us girls a weird middle name like ‘Innis’, what does it mean?”

“Innis is Scottish Gaelic for island” I told Alana.  “I wanted to link you and your sisters like a chain of tradition back to my home land of Cape Breton.  It was my way of retaining the custom of someone of the sea like my mother’s people”.  Was that my real reason for calling the girls ‘Innis’ I wondered?  My five sisters and brother Callum were all born at Cape Breton but my three girls Fiona, Alana and Catriona were born at Harwich Port Massachusetts.  Looking over the Cape Cod seashore and the Atlantic Coast, Harwich Port is 848 miles from the bitter windswept island of Cape Breton.  No one at Harwich Port had to carve out an existence as a fisherman or give up their dreams to sustain a family of seven children.  Not like my old father who yearned for a life taken from the imaginative stories in his books away from the sea.

As children we called our father by the Gaelic ‘dadai’ an informal way of speaking to him while he was in his room lying on his bed smoking his handmade cigarettes.  His ashtray overflowed with tobacco shreds and ash as my sisters, one by one, sat on his bed or in a single chair reading his stack of paperbacks.  No one called our mother anything but the more formal ‘mathair’ because we were all scared of her as she would look at us with her dark and fearless eyes.  ‘Mathair’ never thought reading trashy books would help anyone in life.  I remember clearly she slapped my sister so hard she left the print of her hand upon my sister’s cheek just because Fiona was reading one of ‘dadai’s’ paperbacks.  We all knew it was difficult to defy our ‘mathair’ but the call of reading books outweighed our restlessness and we lost interest in darning socks and baking bread.

“So who are your mother’s people of the sea then?” Alana asked me.  I explained the ancestry story as clearly as I could; “The Cape Breton Islanders were mostly families from the Highlands in Scotland who were forced to leave their homes in the 1800’s.  ‘Mathair’s’ family were all inshore fisherman sailing Cape Island boats in search of lobsters, mackerel, cod, haddock and hake.  Her brothers all had large families to sustain.  In fact my uncle Bryce had thirteen children to support while he worked with my ‘dadai’ on our boat the Jenny Lynn”.

Alana was intrigued and followed up with a question about what the people of the sea were like and the importance of the ‘boat’.  As I told her about the boats racing out to sea with their traps I could see in my mind uncle Bryce tall and dark like ‘mathair’, standing at the tiller guiding the boat between the floating pans of ice and my ‘dadai’ in the stern with his hands upon the ropes that lashed the cargo to the deck.  I remember watching from the kitchen window of our old house that faced the sea, while my ‘dadai’ was away fishing in the boat.  We were always working on repairing clothes, preparing food or just looking for the return of the boat.  When ‘dadai’ returned home the first question my ‘mathair’ would ask was “Well, how did things go in the boat today?”

Alana stretched out her long legs and stood up with a yawn and said “OK I know about dad’s family history settling in Boston from 1630, but why did you choose to leave Cape Breton for Harwich Port?”  How do you explain to your own daughter that restlessness that you get at 15 looking for a life elsewhere and the imaginative world that books inspire?  Each of my five sisters felt the need for change from raising hens to growing vegetables.  When the Sea Food Restaurant opened it catered to tourists that flooded the island during July and August.  I got a job as a waitress and met people who were not classified as “our people” according to ‘mathair’, but they were fun, carefree and well educated.  Sometimes my sisters and I would stay out late on hot summer nights and try to dodge ‘mathair’s’ questions about who we were associating with.  ‘Dadai’ understood as we talked softly to him late at night about our ambitions beyond the island while the music of his radio floated up the stairs.

I cleared my throat and said to Alana “Then one day your father and his family came to Cape Breton for a summer holiday.  I was swept off my feet by your father’s brilliant smile and his welcoming family.  I didn’t care that ‘mathair’ believed he was not one of ‘her people’ or that she couldn’t understand I wanted a life outside of ‘the sea’ at Cape Breton”.  “Wow ma that’s why we never see our grandmother but what happened to your ‘dadai’? Alana asked me.

It was long after I left Cape Breton and settled in Harwich Port with my husband and three young daughters when I received a call from Callum to say that ‘dadai’ had drowned at sea.  It seemed nonsensical that my father and my uncles who were all experienced fisherman sailing the Atlantic waters could not swim a stroke.  The news of my father’s drowning devastated all of us.  It left Callum with a terrible choice whether to continue the seafaring tradition of ‘mathair’s’ family or leave Cape Breton for his own dream of becoming a university professor.  In the end the Jenny Lynn left my mother with bitterness that neither her husband nor her son was able to sustain the fisherman’s life.

Answering Alana as best I could I just said “My father drowned at sea during a violent storm when he was fishing with Uncle Callum.  The towering waves hit him as he stood in the stern of the Jenny Lynn and he went overboard”.  As Alana hugged me I did not tell her the details of how my father’s body was found at the base of rock-strewn cliffs where he had been hurled and slammed many times so there was not much left of him physically but for the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.

Comparisons of Symbols & Imagery in Ransom & Invictus

Image result for ransom picture david maloufAOS1 Unit 4, Year 12 English: Comparative Texts: Ransom & Invictus

Both Ransom and Invictus focus on men who have become leaders in difficult times and who have sacrificed their own personal needs for the greater good of the people whose futures depended on them.  Malouf and Eastwood offer insights into the lives of notable men within the context of exploring ideas about change, inspiration, forgiveness and sacrifice for one’s society.  Both texts explore issues about what it is to be a man, presenting notions of leadership, family, work and battle in politics, war and sport.

Image result for invictus picture of movie

While there are similarities in the themes between characters, the purpose of each text is different.  The film directed by Clint Eastwood celebrates Nelson Mandela’s remarkable determination to work with, rather than against, his former enemies as he built the new multi-racial South Africa.  However, the novel written by David Malouf revisits an old story in Homer’s Illiad about individuals in times of war, thus in a sense celebrating storytelling itself.  Malouf’s idea was to tell ‘untold tales’ by reimagining the heroic world of Achilles and Priam, which differs markedly from what is described in the Illiad and history books.



Priam, name meaning ‘the price paid’ After Troy is defeated by Heracles, he offers the young, six-year old Podarces as a gift to Hesione, Podarces’ sister and he becomes “the price paid, the gift given to buy your brother back from the dead”.  Thereafter, Priam remembers the ransom, the “price paid”, as one that is humiliating and degrading.  Heracles changes Podarces’ name (to Priam) “so that each time he hears himself named, this is what he will recall.”
Somax Somax is representative of the ‘common man’ in Ransom.  He is chosen to escort Priam to Achilles.  His simple and plain presence is contrasted with Priam’s royal status.
ransom In Priam’s case, the ransom, or fee paid to Achilles consists of a cartload of precious booty.

Symbolically, too, the ransom is also the “fee paid in advance” for life as Priam immerses himself in a personal journey for meaning.  This dual symbolism captures many of Malouf’s central concerns.

In addition, the act of ransom also functions as a structuring device as Malouf sets up important contrasts between Priam’s ransom and other traditional forms of ransoms that are embedded in the text.

Hector’s body Sporting Achilles’ personal armour, Patroclus is struck down by Prince Hector, son of Trojan King Priam. Achilles slays Hector in revenge, and, barbarically destroys Hector’s body which he drags through the dust.  His body symbolises how revenge is not the answer to any battle, since dealing with a tragic loss through revenge does not gain anything, but only more pain and suffering.
Jove’s eagle Jove’s eagle is a representation of the eagle, a bird renowned for its keen sight. The presence of Jove’s eagle during Priam and Somax’s departure hints that the gods will safely guide their journey as the bird behaves as a lookout. Furthermore, the symbol of the eagle’s powerful vision is contrasted with Priam’s ‘blindness’ at the beginning of the journey since he is yet to experience the outside world. It is during the journey that he learns about himself and others, and thus improving his ‘sight.’
cart Somax ‘common work cart’ depicts his determination for a simple approach to Achilles.  This simplicity highlights Priam’s desire to become just another man and father, anonymous in the plain cart with the hopes of retrieving Hector. The common cart is directly the opposite to Priam’s royal cart used to alert others that royalty was present.
Griddle cakes The cakes Somax brings along during the journey highlight Priam’s lack of knowledge of even the simplest things.  For Somax, the little griddlecakes are a regular and delectable snack, yet Priam ‘ha[s] never seen them before.’  Priam’s unfamiliarity with the cakes represents his isolation from the ‘real world’ since he has been deprived from things that even commoners view as ordinary.
Somax sniffing (sadness) Priam thinks it an ‘odd habit’ to describe Somax’s sadness demonstrates how Priam has never truly felt the loss of his sons.  On the return journey with Hector’s body Priam is transformed from someone who failed to empathise with Somax’s tears at the beginning to a man filled with emotions demonstrates that Priam undergoes both a physical and metaphysical journey of self-development & appreciation of the world.




The apartheid-era flag of South Africa The apartheid flag symbolic of Afrikaner white elite rule is flown in protest against Mandela when he is released from prison and at earlier rugby match by white Afrikaners who considered him a terrorist and were afraid of the challenge to its authority.
Springbok supporters Springbok white supporters refuse to applaud Mandela instead jeering his arrival.  It shows the division in society and their prevailing beliefs, history & culture.
The rainbow flag of South Africa The rainbow flag of 6 colours adopted in 1994 signifies unity and inclusion along with the Springbok flag.
Springbok flags / Springbok cap / Springbok jersey Springbok flag initially represented white Afrikaners rule that played rugby in schools only white children attended.  Once the Springbok team was accepted by black South Africans it represented unification at least in terms of sport.

Nelson Mandela accepts a Springbok cap wearing it and the Springbok jersey with pride signifying acceptance and belonging a meaningful message to many of the white players who were opposed to his presidency.

The gesture is mirrored when Sipho accepts a cap from the policemen outside Ellis Park Stadium and holds the cap to his heart in a gesture of acceptance.

Mandela’s clothes When Mandela is released from prison he wears professional suits but then he starts to wear colourful silk shirts depicting indigenous flora and fauna.  His rejection of suits is against the former white administration who wore formal suits and he acknowledges his cultural heritage.
Toi Toi dance The police and Sipho dance the toi toi together when the Springboks win the Rugby World Cup.  The political war dance usually reserved for native South Africans in townships suggests that the antagonistic gulf between them is closing.
‘Invictus’ the poem The poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley was read by Mandela while in prison and gave him strength to remain undefeated.  Mandela gives Pienaar a handwritten copy of Invictus endorsing his leadership in trying to create unity, heal his country and bridge the racial divide.
Afrikaners language For 27 years while in prison Mandela studied the Afrikaners language so that when he became President he wanted to have an understanding of the white elite and find ways to include all South Africans together
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica is the new national anthem that Pienaar wants his rugby team to learn.  The players are reluctant to learn the anthem as they are products of the apartheid era and tradition is hard to forget.  Pienaar uses inclusive language to coax his team to embrace the fact that they are all one country with 43 million South Africans supporting the Springboks.


Introductions for Essays on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent Year 12 English AOS1 Unit 3 Reading & Creating Texts

For students studying mainstream English in Year 12, consider these two Introductions to essay prompts regarding Burial Rites by Hannah Kent that may help you with your essay writing for Section A: Analytical Response to a Text in the VCE English Exam.

Look carefully at the Introductions and pick off the main topic sentences to include in your body paragraphs and conclusion in the structure of your essay.  Stick to these ideas without going off track so that you will be able to write a well structured and precise essay in the exam.

Essay Prompt #1:“This valley is small and she had a reputation for a sharp tongue and loose skirts”.  Burial Rites explores how a society measures an individual’s worth.  Discuss.

Quote: Dagga, Mistress at Undirfell told Toti this quote chapter 4, p.92


19th century Iceland was a conservative society deeply divided by class with power residing in the hands of a relatively few men dominated by an uncompromising religious ethos and traditional gender expectations.  It is clear in the novel Burial Rites by Hannah Kent that the measures Icelandic society used to value an individual’s worth are based on prejudice, ignorance and bias, cruelly stereotyping people according to gender and social status.  Kent explores how society as a whole did not look favourably upon women of low social standing who were ‘too clever’ or who deviated from their conventional roles as an obedient wife or daughter.  According to Kent, the protagonist Agnes Magnusdottir struggled against the limitations and expectations forced on her by society, some of which are due to her gender and others that are the consequence of her position as a landless servant.  In a conservative context Agnes is viewed as ‘different’ by many who know her and she is resented for the perceived airs she gives herself.  This is apparent in the quote which represents the negative opinion of Agnes by Dagga, Mistress at Undirfell.  The text examines how many characters view Agnes’ qualities and her worth in both negative and positive ways that set her apart from her peers.  The fact that Agnes is ‘different’ makes it easier for people to believe the worst and contributes to the stereotypical perception that she must also be a ‘murderess’.  Ultimately Kent allows Agnes to go on a figurative journey that involves reclaiming her worth as an individual at least in the eyes of Toti and the family at Kornsa with whom she establishes a connection.

Essay Prompt #2 “Discuss the ways in which Kent manipulates the reader’s compassion for her characters”.


19th century Iceland society harshly judges those on the margins.  In her novel Burial Rites Hannah Kent cautions readers about stereotyping those individuals confined to a marginalised position in society through no fault of their own.  Kent criticises the harsh religious and social policies of the patriarchal institutions that stereotype Agnes as a murderer.  In order to manipulate the readers’ compassion for her characters the author compares the binary of evil characters against the good to develop our empathy for those who support Agnes.  Then she takes Agnes, Toti and Margret on a spiritual and emotional journey transforming them at the start of the novel from a judgemental mindset to value compassion at the end of the novel.  By encouraging readers to recognise the ambivalence of Agnes’ crime she suggests that there are often extenuating circumstances that need to be considered before judging her guilty.  As Agnes divulges her personal stories of her life to Toti, Margret and the family at Kornsa, she searches for forgiveness and compassion in her listeners.  Kent is able to manipulate the readers to view those characters with kindness as the listeners develop and change responding to Agnes’ emotional demands.  The ultimate journey towards compassion is shown in the cathartic and confessional aspect of Agnes’ story telling mission that gives her a renewed passion for life.

The Road to Rankin’s Point in Island by Alistair MacLeod

Image result for pictures of cape breton nova scotiaThe Road to Rankin’s Point – Perspective of the Story with Quotes 

For students in Year 12 studying the text Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod, one of the main short stories is ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’.  Below is a perspective of the story utilising quotes that can be incorporated into your essay as evidence to back up your topic sentences. Page numbers referred to in this summary are from the Vintage Books Edition 2002.

Timeline = 1970’s

Characters = Grandmother 96 & Calum 26

Setting = Cape Breton, isolated farm at the end of Rankin’s Point, in need of repair and the opposite of the wider world, many people have left the area with remains of ruins where houses once stood, she rejects modernity, but the sense of place is significant to the grandmother, it is the place of her ancestors.

Themes = tradition, transition, belonging & death

Grandmother = is strong and independent, rejects the world, rejects change, self sufficient, is happy to keep being the same as she has for decades.  She has glimpsed the world like the nursing home that her family want to move her to, she hates and rejects it, but also fears it in many ways because it is not part of her life, it’s not her home.  She has a limited vision of the world beyond her farm and the road beyond it means nothing to her.  She sees as far as the next island Prince Edward Island but for her that’s the end of the world.  She sees her farm, the town and the island and nothing else.  Her individual strength to survive and not take life easily but work hard at it is clear.  She dies alone but it is the way she wants it to end.  Her death brings the end of an era.

The family wanting her to move = her children ask the same question every year “What are we going to do about grandma?”  This question intrudes on her way of life.  The family think they are doing the best for her but don’t realise they are not.  The reunion photo is really fake trying to show everyone is happy but they are not.  The world has moved on but the grandmother through her old age and unwillingness to leave refuses to change.  The family hope Calum can convince her to move but he is dying of leukemia at 26.  The grandmother hopes he is her saviour from moving that he will help her with the farm.

Descriptions = use the good quotes below to incorporate in your essay:

The road to Rankin’s Point = The road needs repair but it is not part of the wide world.  “At the village’s end [the road] veers sharply to the right … begins to climb along the rocky cliffs that hang high above the sea” p.145-146

Getting to the grandmother’s house = The house is isolated, not connected to the modern world.  “At the wall’s base and at the road’s end nestles my grandmother’s tiny farm; her buildings and her home.  Above this last small cultivated outpost and jutting beyond it out to see is the rocky promontory of Rankin’s Point.  It is an end in every way” p.146  Significant as it is also the grandmother’s end with her death.

Where the grandfather died = “The sharp, right-angled turn and its ascending steepness has always been called by us ‘The Little Turn of Sadness’ because it is here that my grandfather died so many years ago on a February night…” p.148

Grandmother’s house = the porch is “filled with tools and clothes and items from the past” p.155.  In the kitchen the grandmother sits at her table drinking her tea.  She is staring out the window that looks upon the sea“ p.155  Three black and white border collies raise their eyes.  They lie about the floor.  “One is under the table, one against the wood box at the stove and the third beside the grandmother’s chair” p.155  She has homemade biscuits and tells Calum “Get yourself some biscuits from out of the tin” p.157

Grandmother’s violin = “It is a very old violin and came from the Scotland of her ancestors” p.158.  She plays “Never More Shall I Return” a lament of the MacCrimmons her husband’s clan.  This clan was able to play music and had a gift for foreseeing their own deaths.  This is significant because the grandmother dies that night.

Grandmother’s experience of death = She has had a lot of her family die before her, her husband, 3 brothers and 3 sons.  Calum thinks that the grandmother must be lonely “How lonely now and distant these lives and deaths of my grandmother’s early life.  And how different from the lives and deaths of the three sons she has outlived” p.160

Nature descriptions = “Outside the window the blackbirds and cowbirds hop with familiarity around the brindled cows” p.161  “A single white tailed hawk glides silently back and forth” p.161

Grandmother dresses before the party = “… She leans to one side and combs [her hair] away from her body” p.162  “She fastens a brooch of entwined Scottish thistles to the collar of her recently ironed dress” p.162

Wanting Calum to stay with grandmother = “Oh stay with me Calum and I will tell them so when they come.  You can make a good life here for all of us.  I have left you everything in my will” p.164

The advantages the family think of the nursing home = “The advantages of the nursing home are privacy and being with people near her own age and not having to worry about meals” p.166

Getting through the party and the solution = the grandmother dances and thinks “If I can only hang on for another little while, I can win this.  I will not be defeated” p.171  She is resilient  and strong “No one has ever said that life is to be easy.  Only that it is to be lived” p.172  Tension mounts but the grandmother tells her family “I hope none of you are worrying about me.  Calum has said that he is going to stay here with me and now everything will be just fine” p.172  The grandmother smiles as they all leave as “if she has played her great trump card and looks about her in temporary triumph” p.173

Calum tells grandmother “It is no good Grandma.  It is not going to work because I am going to die” p.174  Grandma says “Don’t be silly.  You are only 26.  Your life is just beginning” p.174  When the grandma realises the serious nature of Calum’s illness she is tearful “Oh Calum.  What are we going to do?  What is to become of us?” p.175

The Collie dogs howl where the grandmother lies dead on the road = The night is still but the lonely coastline that leads from Rankin’s Point as “the howls of the three black and white border collies” come across from “The Little Turn of Sadness” p.177.  Grandmother “… lies in the middle of the road at the spot where the little brook washes over the roadbed before the steepness of the final climb” p.178  “The twinning Scottish thistles are still pinned to the colour of her dress.  This is the ending that we have”.  She cannot “see Prince Edward Island now nor ever will again” p.178

Language Analysis Years 11/12 Brief Summary

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For students studying VCE Years 11/12 English here is a very Brief Summary of what to look for in Language Analysis:

  1. What’s the issue? = Briefly state the big issue behind the articles (1-2 sentences maximum) and why the issue has provoked a various range of opinions.
  2. Who is the author? = Knowing the author you can work out their stakeholders/audience they are appealing to and their style of language used
  3. What is the main contention of each article/cartoon/photo? = annotate each article and cartoon/photo so you are clear on your techniques & examples
  4. What are the argument strategies used?
    1. Is it a positive or negative approach to the subject
    2. Logically based on reason or highly emotive based on appeals
    3. Techniques = are they clearly set out = use examples of them in your analysis
    4. Typical examples = rhetorical questions/facts/stats/credible witnesses/appeals/repetition/inclusive language/emotive language
  5. Tone = must include tone in your Introduction
    1. Is the tone positive or negative in its approach
    2. Does the tone start off optimistic and then change = why = you must recognise the change = how does the tone affect the audience = how is the audience positioned to agree with the writer
  6. Preparing to Write the Essay & Comparing the Texts/Visuals
    1. Look at each article and how do they agree or disagree with each other
    2. If there is a photo or cartoon is it a separate document to the other 2 articles = it could be a stand alone with its own viewpoint = if it has its own view then you MUST include the photo or cartoon in a paragraph on its own explaining the visual techniques that position the reader to agree with them = some cartoons satirise one article and promote the other = in this case you must compare/contrast the cartoon along with the articles
  7. Writing the Essay
    1. Briefly in no more than 1-2 sentences state the main issue under debate
    2. Introduction = one brief paragraph introducing the main contentions of each article/cartoon/photo = must include their tones
    3. The Block Approach = each article handled separately = compared later (or use the Integrated Approach = use the approach your school prefers)
      1. Article1 = one brief paragraph outlining the main contention = separate paragraphs ( approx. 2) thereafter with the arguments/techniques/how audience is positioned
      2. Article 2 = one brief paragraph outlining the main contention explaining how this article agrees or disagrees with article 1 = separate paragraphs (approx.2) thereafter with the arguments/techniques/how audience is positioned
      3. Article 3/Photo/Cartoon = one paragraph outlining the main contention explaining how this visual agrees or disagrees with articles 1 & 2 = or it could have a stand-alone viewpoint of its own = point out the visual techniques/how audience is positioned
      4. Conclusion = one brief paragraph outlining the articles & visual contentions and how they agree or disagree with the main issue under discussion



Construction of Meaning & Author’s Agenda in Texts

Analytics Text

Why is Construction of Meaning, Structure and Author’s Agenda Important in Analytical Texts?

Students studying VCE Years 11/12 Mainstream English must complete essays for assessment in SACs and the exam in AOS1 Reading & Creating Texts and Reading & Comparing Texts.  In order to achieve a high mark for essays students need to interpret the texts analytically which includes understanding the implications of how the author constructs meaning and structure in a text and then explain what the author’s purpose or agenda was in writing the text.  If you just write about the narrative only you are NOT answering the key criteria of AOS1.

Assessment Key Criteria for Analytical Essays in AOS1

Looking carefully at the Assessment Criteria for Analytical Essays you will find the following specifics that MUST be in your essays:

  1. Understanding of the text includes
    1. Provide context for text & introduce text with clear links to question
    2. Identify genre & discuss its elements
    3. Demonstrate knowledge of characters & relationships, themes & central ideas of text
  2. Interpretation of the text in response to the topic
    1. State your contention clearly providing relevant discussion on key elements of question
    2. Use quotes to support your ideas
    3. Consider how characters portray a specific theme or idea
    4. Explore the complexity of each character and their role in the text
  3. Discussion and analysis of the ways in which the author constructs meaning and expresses views and values
    1. Consider specific elements of the text, structure, different narrative voices
    2. Identify author purpose in creation of text and construction of a character
    3. Make use of qualifying language about author intent
    4. Use examples of symbols/motifs/style/form
    5. Discuss the role of language specific to text
  4. Use of evidence in response to the topic
    1. Discuss action of text in relation to settings, time text is written
    2. Consider different ways key ideas/themes are portrayed
    3. Consider religious values of characters and actions of characters in relation to central ideas
    4. Use relevant quotes as evidence to support discussion in a range ie. dialogue, themes, structure, characters
  5. Control of the features of an analytical essay and use of relevant metalanguage
    1. Use appropriate metalanguage to identify textual features
    2. Use topic sentences in paragraphs, structure the essay
    3. Refrain from using narrative but use analysis
    4. Refrain from using quotes to narrate
  6. Expressive, fluent and coherent writing
    1. Use a range of appropriate analytical verbs, connectives, sentence starters and structures for your discussion
    2. Avoid informal language
    3. Proof read carefully to eliminate spelling/grammatical/punctuation errors

HOW does the Author Construct Meaning and Structure in a Text?

When reading texts to construct meaning, readers increase their understanding by recognising the craftsmanship of the writing and the choices the author made to portray the topic in a certain way.  Readers go beyond the literal [factual] meaning of the words to find significant and unstated meanings and authors rely on their reader’s ability to do so.  The reader’s mind then pieces together evidence to make sense of the text as a whole.

Essentially the reader needs to find out in the texts how the author:

  1. Sees something: their views ie. his/her opinion, perspective, way of thinking, impression or observation.
  2. Thinks about something: their values ie. his/her principles, morals, ethics or standards.
  3. Ways the author uses to construct the text:
    1. type of text
    2. setting
    3. style of writing and language
    4. narrative structure and plot
    5. social and historical context
    6. characters and their relationships
    7. themes, issues and values in the text
    8. symbolism and imagery

WHY the Author Writes his Text is his/her Purpose or Agenda

Depending on the purpose, authors may choose all different sorts of writing formats, genres and vernacular [language].  There are 3 main categories of author’s purpose:

  1. To Persuade = the author’s goal is to convince the reader to agree with the author.
  2. To Inform = the author’s goal is to enlighten the reader about real world topics and provide facts on those topics.
  3. To Entertain = authors write to entertain with a goal of telling a story.

Also consider the Big Picture behind Why the author wrote his/her story.


English Exam Revision Preparation for VCE Year 12

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The English Exam for VCE Year 12

The English exam on November 1, 2017 is a 3 hour exam divided into 3 sections covering Section A: Analytical interpretation of a text, Section B: Comparative analysis of texts and Section C: Argument and persuasive language.

The First 15 Minutes is Reading Time

The first 15 minutes of the exam is dedicated to reading time and you are not allowed to write anything during this time.  Look at Section A and Section B prompts for your specific texts and mentally pick a prompt that you know you can answer.  Then move on quickly to Section C and read the language analysis article or articles and visual texts.  Use this time to annotate in your mind what are the persuasive techniques used and the main contention and if the visual texts endorses the article or opposes it.

Section C: Language Analysis

As soon as the 15 minutes reading time is up, go straight to Section C: Language Analysis and prepare to annotate the texts.  Read over the articles again while annotating the texts and be careful with your time, allow yourself 3-5 minutes only with annotation.  Then get straight into writing your analysis.  Be careful that you do not write YOUR opinion about the topic.  You are writing what THE AUTHOR thinks, his argument, not yours.  Don’t forget how important his argument and persuasive techniques are to POSITION the READERS.

Timing During the Exam

Remember that the English exam is 3 hours, but out of that time 15 minutes is reading time.  Divide your time carefully between the 3 sections in the exam and stick to it.  I suggest that you allow yourself 50 minutes to write each essay. Try to give yourself about 3-5 minutes at the end to proof read and check spelling.

If you find that your 50 minutes is up and you are still writing one of the essays, then to conclude just use dot points.  At least the assessors will know where your essay was headed at the end rather than a blank page with absolutely no conclusion. The assessors are really good but definitely they are not mind readers so at least give them something to read instead of nothing.

If you have time at the end of the exam in the 5 minutes left, go back to those dot points you did not finish and see if you can make them into sentences that are more cohesive.

Practice Past Exam Papers

Remember that the Study Design for VCE Year 12 for 2017 is the first year of assessment so you will not find Section B: Comparative text prompts in past exam papers.  You may find those texts you studied as single texts that may have been previously in Section A. Look at those prompts anyway, every bit is good practice.  Also check the VCAA Past Exam Reports that assessors give their advice on Sections A and Section C.  Look at the language analysis in those previous exams and use them as your practice analysis pieces, noting carefully the assessors comments.

Don’t Stress, Believe in Yourself, Revise Carefully

You have worked all year towards this exam along with your other subjects and the best advice I can give you is to not stress.  Believe in your own abilities. For the remaining time before the exam focus on revising carefully by brainstorming plans that will answer the prompts.  Learn quotes related to themes and characters that will be used as your evidence in essays.  Practice language analysis articles from past exams and also think about topics in the media over the last 6-12 months that may be used in the exam.  Often language analysis is based on a topic from the media for example ‘Changing Australia Day Date’.  This topic is just an example only it may NOT be in the exam.

Good Luck for the Year 12 English Exam

I send all my very best wishes to every student sitting VCE Year 12 English on November 1, 2017.  In particular, good luck to every one of the VCE Year 12 students I have tutored this year.  It has been a privilege to teach you.

AOS1 Unit 2 Reading and Comparing Texts Gattaca and 1984

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Image result for 1984 book cover

In AOS1 Unit 2 Reading and Comparing Texts for some students in Year 11 Mainstream English they will compare the film Gattaca directed by Andrew Niccol with the novel Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell. Other students may consider studying a comparison of Nineteen Eighty Four with Stasiland by Anna Funder.

In this brief analysis I will concentrate on comparing Gattaca with Nineteen Eighty Four using the 1997 DVD edition of the film directed by Andrew Niccol and the 2011 edition of the book published by Penguin Books.

Brief Framework to Compare Gattaca and Nineteen Eighty Four


Gattaca = Science fiction genre, thriller along with some film noir elements such as dark lighting, shadows & angled camera shots.  The film has a dystopian view of genoism.

1984 = Dystopian literature & social criticism genre, a fiction novel based on a dystopian futuristic totalitarian state.


Gattaca = The movie was released in 1997 and has a premise of being set in the not too distant future with film qualities of rockets launching and old black cars with a futuristic sound.

Costumes are neat, distinctively 1950’s, reflecting a uniform society that is bleak and sterile where perfection is desired and imperfection discriminated against.

The Gattaca Aerospace Corporation is where Vincent and Irene work.

1984 = Published in 1949 the novel’s setting is in 1984, 35 years into the future.  Airstrip One, London, in Oceania is a futuristic totalitarian state described in a grim tone in chapter 1 scoured by a ‘vile wind’ (p.3) with run down apartments that lack functioning facilities.

Everywhere was a poster with an “enormous face” and the words “Big Brother is Watching You” (p.3).

Winston Smith works in the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth for the Party whose leader is Big Brother.

Writer’s Meaning

Gattaca = The opening quotations of the film set the scene for the debate of technological advancement versus natural order “Consider God’s handiwork, who can straighten what He hath made crooked” Ecclesiastes 7:13.  Niccol presents the moral and ethical ramifications of genetic engineering in the film.

He exposes an authoritarian regime in power where society is divided into classes with the elite ‘Valids’ being genetically superior race who wield the power and the ‘In-valids’ are the bottom of society, powerless and unable to escape the status cast upon them.

Gattaca is a selfish, egotistical society where worth, relationships and status is decided by DNA and rights of individuals are meaningless concepts.

The most powerful meaning of Niccol is the story of one man’s courage to achieve his dream despite his imperfections.

1984 = In writing 1984 George Orwell’s main goal was to warn of the serious danger totalitarianism poses to society.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate the terrifying degree of power and control a totalitarian regime can acquire and maintain.  In such regimes, notions of personal rights and freedoms and individual thought are pulverized under the all powerful hand of the government.

Witnessing such regimes in Russia and Spain and the rise of communism, Orwell believed in the potential for rebellion to advance society.

In creating the dysopian society of 1984 Orwell gave the world a glimpse of what embracing a totalitarian system like communism might lead to if allowed to proceed unchecked.


Gattaca = Gattaca is a film and as such is subjected to a ‘running sheet’ of the action which can be broken into 28 sections: (1) Opening titles, (2) The not too distant future, (3) Ten fingers, ten toes (4) The natural way, (5) The unspoken contest, (6) Discrimination down to a science, (7) The DNA broker, (8) Becoming Jerome, (9) The interview, (10) The Hoovers, (11) Cavendish club, (12) Invalid, (13) The eyelash, (14) Irene’s confession, (15) A close call, (16) Random checkpoint, (17) Blood from the vein, (18) The dance, (19) Who is Vincent?, (20) The morrow, (21) Irene’s warning, (22) The investigator’s visit, (23) An overlooked specimen, (24) the confrontation, (25) The other side, (26) Travelling too, (27) For future reference, (28) Going home.

1984 = The novel is divided into 3 parts and chapters.  Part 1 introduces Winston Smith and describes the oppressive world that he inhabits.

Part 2 depicts Winton’s relationship with Julia and how they take more risks actively seeking to join the Brotherhood to bring down the Party.  This section ends with them being arrested by the Thought Police.

Part 3 shows what happens to Winston as he is tortured by O’Brien inside Room 101 of the Ministry of Love.

The final section shows Winston submitting to the Party after his subsequent torture and thus removing any shred of resistance within him.

The final chapter demonstrates the triumph of the Party over Winston as he sits in the café and declares “He loved Big Brother” (p.342).  Any hope of resistance against the regime is gone.

The Society

Gattaca = The future world of Gattaca, based on the science of genetic discrimination, offers a hostile world for those who believe in a natural birth classifying those individuals “Invalid” owing to the inferior nature of their random birth.

In this futuristic science fiction thriller, Andrew Niccol creates a science dictatorship, whereby human aspiration is repressed in favour of genetic perfection.

Society is strictly divided into the Valids and Invalids where there is an entrenched discrimination caused by genetic engineering.

1984 = The society of 1984 is highly controlled and segmented.  The Inner Party along with the Thought Police maintain control over the Outer Party and Proles by a surveillance system (telescreen) monitoring all citizens at all times.

The Inner Party members have access to all luxury goods and can turn off their telescreens but the Outer Party members and Proles experience scarcity of commodities.

The society is also in a constant state of war with a changing enemy.

Point of View

Gattaca = Born an Invalid Vincent’s struggle, is to fly to Titan, Saturn’s moon as a First Class Navigator working for Gattaca Aerospace Corporation but he must change his identity and borrow the DNA of a Valid to achieve his dream.  Vincent is a determined and courageous protagonist who refuses to accept his limitations.

Is there hope?  Yes, there is hope that Vincent can overcome the system of control, oppression and discrimination.  On his personal and dangerous journey he achieves his dream but also realizes the value of human fraility and imperfections.

Director Andrew Niccol celebrates the power of self-belief to inspire individuals to scale the heights of their dreams.

1984 = Winston hates the reduced circumstances of his life; he is afraid of the Party but takes the risky move of writing in his diary ‘Down with Big Brother’ which is the beginning of his struggle to rebel against the Party.  He questions the existing social and political system and helps readers recognize the negative aspects of the dystopian world through his perspective.

Is there hope?  No, there is no hope for Winston as the Party is in absolute control and remains so.  His efforts are useless and ultimately he is tortured into submission.  His dream that the Proles may provide some hope to overthrow the Party and therefore hope for humanity is eliminated in chapter 7.

The individual cannot overcome discrimination and oppression.  Big Brother is all powerful.


Gattaca = Vincent Freeman = Protagonist, born genetically inferior as an Invalid with a heart defect, could not keep up with his Valid brother Anton, was set to die at 30.  In order to achieve his dream of becoming a navigator at Gattaca he becomes a ‘borrowed ladder’ and uses a Valid man’s DNA to circumvent the genetic system.

Anton Freeman = born genetically perfect as a Valid he was always praised and admired by his parents and had all the privileges Vincent lacked.  Security Chief at Gattaca in charge of the Mission Director’s murder.  Cannot accept that Vincent could become part of Gattaca.

Jerome Eugene Morrow = born a Valid but tortured by his failure at coming ‘second’ he is confined to a wheelchair after failed suicide, gives his DNA and identity to Vincent, realizes his potential through Vincent.

Irene Cassini = born a Valid but does have a flaw in a weak heart, she is cool and aloof and in control of her emotions until she falls in love with Vincent who challenges her to accept his Invalid secret allowing him to complete his dream.

1984 = Winston Smith = Protagonist, late 30’s, an unhealthy man, a lowly placed worker in the Outer Party.  Is afraid of the consequences of standing up to authority but rebels in a political act that results in his torture and destruction of any resistance to the Party.

Julia = younger than Winston, works in the Ministry of Truth in a mechanical job.  She hates the Party and rebels against it as much as possible and is adept at subverting the restrictions of society.  Becomes Winston’s lover but when tortured betrays him.

O’Brien = a member of the Inner Party, a powerful figure who tricks Winston into believing he is a member of the Brotherhood who are supposed to be dedicated to overthrowing the Party.  However O’Brien reveals himself to be a loyal Party member when he has Winston and Julia arrested.  He has them tortured breaking down any of their resistance against the Party.

Big Brother = is the public face of the Party that watches over the citizens of Oceania from posters and telescreens.  Accompanying the posters is the slogan “Big Brother is Watching You”.  He embodies the surveillance state that monitors every moment of society.

Mr Charrington = owner of the antique shop where Winston buys his diary, coral paperweight and later rents the upstairs room for the liaisons with Julia.  He is actually a member of the Thought Police and was in disguise to inform on Winston.

Control in a Totalitarian State

Gattaca = Surveillance by genetic DNA testing of blood, saliva, urine and cells on all citizens.

Complete data base of DNA genetic blue print of all citizens kept by the Police.  Police strike terror into people when they swoop on the Invalid quarters and in the restaurant when people flee in tear.  People’s liberties are infringed at will with random testing of all people at any time of day or night in the community and in the workplace.

Job interviews are by blood or urine testing.

There is no line drawn against genetic engineering.

Gattaca presents a society where perfection is worshipped and anyone less than that is not acceptable and discriminated against.  Society is divided into a class system of Valids who have opportunities and Invalids who are denied legitimate status as members of society.

Technology and science reign supreme, humanity takes second place and genoism becomes endemic.

1984 = Constant fear by surveillance, manipulation and control through use of telescreens, Thought Police, the slogan ‘Big Brother is Watching You’, informers/spies even children in families to betray signs of illegal thoughts against the Party.

Eradication of words and use of ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink’ along with propaganda to manipulate language and communication to control individual questioning and thought.

Constant changing of records makes memory impossible and truth is according to what the Party says.  Along with fear of unending war with alleged enemies to create anxiety so no one will attempt to overthrow the system.

Control of emotions and love/loyalty is for Big Brother. During the ‘Two Minutes of Hate’ emotions of hate are then directed to the state designated enemy Goldstein.

Fear of interrogation and torture by the Party in Room 101 is disincentive for citizens to break the law.

Major Themes

Gattaca = Control, oppression & discrimination in a dystopian society, individual versus society, technology versus fate/natural order in search of perfection, courage & heroism determination, morality & ethics, science versus religion, human flaws/imperfections versus genetic engineering, facets of identity, the notion of an imposter and lack of individuality in a world of uniformity.

1984 = Control, oppression and discrimination in a dystopian society, language & communication, language as mind control, philosophical viewpoints, political power, dangers of totalitarianism, warfare, violence, torture, technology, psychological manipulation, physical control, repression, rebellion, control of memory and the past, control of information and history.


The Secret River by Kate Grenville Analysis for Year 11 English 2017


For students studying Year 11 Mainstream English in 2017, The Secret River by Kate Grenville will be studied under Area of Study 1, Unit 1: Reading and Creating Texts.

All pages numbers referenced in this brief analysis are taken from the 2013 edition of The Secret River by The Text Publishing Company (front cover shown above).

Genre and Historical Setting of The Secret River

The Secret River is a historical fiction novel with the characters’ stories told within the larger context of the social, cultural and political surroundings of the early colonial settlement of NSW from 1806 onwards.

Each of the 3 landscapes in the text traces protagonist William Thornhill’s life from London, Sydney and Thornhill’s Place and the different kinds of conflict that arise.

The narrative is a story of colonisation, identity and the relationships between settlers, the land and the Aborigines – it’s a story of belonging, ownership and ultimately the bloodshed that results when a people is displaced.  In The Secret River, the land represents money and a future for the characters of English descent which contrasts sharply with its meaning for the Indigenous Australian characters.  For the Indigenous Australians the land represents their capacity to survive in the present, their future and their past.

The setting of colonial NSW becomes important to the main characters that are caught up in the historical narrative of the settlement and conflict.  It is from Part 2 ‘Sydney’ to Part 6 ‘The Secret River’ that we witness the most obvious conflict between the Indigenous Australians and the white characters.  It is in this colonial setting of NSW that we see William Thornhill’s inner conflict through the complexities and challenges he faces and the extent to which conflict is all consuming.

Structure of The Secret River

Grenville adopts a traditional realist structure and framework of the narrative which is strictly chronological.  The novel is broadly divided into three main sections: those that deal with the characters’ experiences in London, Sydney and Thornhill’s Point.

Prologue: ‘Strangers’ = William Thornhills first encounter with Indigenous Australians

Part 1: ‘London’ = William and Sally’s earliest life in London

Part 2: ‘Sydney’ = Transportation to Sydney, colonial settlement in NSW 1806

Part 3: ‘A Clearing in the Forest’ = The Thornhills move from Sydney to settle Thornhills Point

Part 4: ‘A Hundred Acres’ = Potential for violent conflict with the Indigenous Australians becomes increasingly prominent as the settlers realise the Aborigines are not leaving the land.

Part 5: ‘Drawing a Line’ = The conflict between the settlers and the Indigenous Australians reaches the point where the Governor issues a proclamation that the settlers should shoot the black natives.

Part 6: ‘The Secret River’ = The incidents of theft and violence between settlers and Indigenous Australians climaxes in the poisoning at Darkey Creek and culminating in the massacre at Blackwood’s place.

Epilogue” ‘Thornhill’s Place’ = The epilogue is set 10 years after the massacre and it is pervaded by a sense of remorse by William Thornhill.

Relationship between Conflicts of Space, Place & Identity

The novel has important conflicts of space, place and identity and the relationship between the three which allows distinct comparisons to be made.  It is also important to note that intrinsic to these ideas is the notion of culture, especially the cross-cultural conflict that Grenville is primarily concerned with.  The division of the novel into these sections is clearly differentiated by location which is an important reminder that place is a significant factor in this text.  The structure of the novel also reminds us of another important theme – the importance of a sense of belonging.

Language and Dialogue of The Secret River

Grenville’s prose is designed to complement the historical setting with her characters adopting some phrases and words from the settings both in England and Australia.  Instead of using quotation marks for dialogue, Grenville uses italics so that her characters speak within the text instead of traditional line breaks.  Some of the terminology that Grenville uses was common to the era and often reminds the reader of the cultural background of the characters.

It is an interesting point with the dialogue that Grenville chooses not to use any Aboriginal languages in The Secret River.  Unlike her other novel The Lieutenant where interactions with Aboriginal characters were given in traditional Indigenous language of the Eora people, The Secret River is spoken through William Thornhill in English.  Therefore the focus is on Thornhill’s point of view and readers have no real access to the understandings and perspective of the Indigenous Australians in this text.

A significant distinguishing factor between the white settlers and the Indigenous Australians is not just in the lack of dialogue for the Aboriginals but their lack of names.  William Thornhill is given his surname as his identity but the Indigenous Australians are named by their appearance “old grey beard” and “the younger one”.  The difference in ways of naming highlights the ignorance of the English characters as well as allowing them to be detached from the characters that they are harming.

The Significance of the Title

The title could mean symbolically a river that has held secrets or aspects of Australia’s history hidden.  It could also refer to undercurrents in personal relationships.  The actual river is the Hawkesbury north of Sydney where Broken Bay hides the entrance and is the ‘secret river’ where William Thornhill finds his land.

Themes, Issues and Ideas in The Secret River

  1. Home and Belonging = are constant themes from Thornhill’s childhood in London to his old age in NSW. The need for a home and a sense of belonging are universal in the text implying that the values of love and personal identity are universal human values.  Through his love for the land Thornhill develops his own identity as “something of a king” (p.314) – a man with a home to which he can belong and in which in turn belongs to him.
  2. Ownership = what defines ownership is a major theme in this novel. It is actually the question of ownership that lies at the bottom of the conflict between the settlers and the Australian natives.  The English believed that by “marking” a piece of property with a crop they made it theirs.  The natives, on the other hand, had free rein of the land for decades before Australia was claimed for England.  They saw the settlers as taking over land that had been theirs for centuries.
  3. Conflict = this theme is developed in a variety of forms as between racial groups, between individuals, within families, between beliefs and actions, between dreams/aspirations and reality and between differing philosophies.
  4. Guilt = Despite all his success, Thornhill began to feel a sense of unforgiving guilt for his treatment of the natives. He is considered the richest man in the area, a dream desired since he was a child in poverty.  Yet his accomplishment came at a cost, for his family and himself.  He no longer spoke to Dick and his relationship with Sal grew apart.  Furthermore, Thornhill’s unresolved conflict with the natives is conveyed through his encounter with Long Jack.  He and Sal offer Jack help with food, clothes and utensils in hope of reconciliation between the two.  Jack slapped his hand on the ground and declared “This me, he said.  My place” (p.329).  In the end Jack ‘‘… never put on the britches or the jacket … the clothes lay out in all weathers decaying into the dirt” (p. 328).  The exaggeration of time interpreted through the words ‘never’ and ‘decaying’ forebodes that the time for reconciliation has yet to come for Thornhill.
  5. Clash of Cultures = the clash of civilizations that began when Captain Cook first stepped foot on the land that become known as Australia. Throughout the novel, Grenville juxtaposes British and Aboriginal understandings of several important social concepts: personal property, clothing, hunting and farming, family relationships, and relationship to the natural environment.  The incomprehension with which each culture regards the other leads to the majority of conflicts in the novel.  The British concepts of private property and settlement, backed up by the guns and might of the Empire, eventually win the battle between the two civilizations.
  6. Aboriginal Culture = Grenville presents Aboriginal culture as a lost idyll. Although the novel focuses on William’s journey from the gutters of London to Australian gentry, Grenville places almost equal weight on the Aborigines and their way of life.  She is careful to refute the label of savage that the settlers give to the Aborigines.  Grenville conveys the richness of their culture and their deep attachment to the land.  She contrasts the over-consumption of Western civilization with the Aborigines’ understanding of the delicate balance of nature.  Grenville suggests that the white settlers could have learned much from the Aborigines and, by extension, that the modern world with its disregard for the natural environment should open its eyes to the wisdom of native peoples.
  7. Social Hierarchy = the theme of social hierarchy and its levels of power runs throughout the novel. Beginning with William’s first visit to Christ Church through to the placement of the stone lions on the gateposts of Thorhnhill’s Point, Grenville explores the impact of social ranking on individual development.  The humiliation that William experiences as a waterman in London marks his character for life and informs the choices he makes throughout the novel.  He craves the thrill of wielding power over another person.  For William and the other settlers (the majority of whom are convicts), their status as white men gives them permission to look down on other human beings (the Aborigines), for the first time in their lives.  Their treatment of the Aborigines is informed by their understanding of how one should treat a racial and social inferior.
  8. Self Creation = the story of modern Australia is essentially a story of self-creation. The convicts sent from England were given the chance to receive a full pardon and start their lives over.  The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill one of those first settlers who arrived in New South Wales as a convict and an outcast and who eventually carved out a place for himself in Australia’s incipient ruling class.  The structure of the novel reflects the importance of this theme.  Grenville opens the novel not with William’s youth in London but with his first night in New South Wales. She ends the novel with William sitting on the veranda of his grand house, Cobham Hall.  He has re-written the story of his life both physically and metaphorically.
  9. The British Class System = The Secret River examines how the harsh British class system of the 18th and 19th centuries condemned people like William to a life of crime. Grenville exposes the harsh choices that people of William’s class faced in order to survive.  It was not a question of good or bad but of starvation or theft.  In her chronicle of William’s life in London, Grenville wants the reader to understand that the convicts who first settled modern Australia were not bad, just desperate.  Australia has chaffed under its moniker as a land of convicts since its inception.  Grenville’s empathetic account of William’s life represents an attempt to embrace Australia’s convict past and give it a human face.
  10. The Disorientation of the Immigrant = through the character of Sal, Grenville explores the disorientating experience of the immigrant. While she works hard and rarely complains, Sal has a difficult time settling in to their new life in Australia.  The very trees with their greyish leaves tell her she is no longer at home.  Sal feels the wild continent pressing in on her from all sides, and she misses the smells and sounds of London.  While William thrives in the new land, Sal finds it harder to adjust because she did not suffer the same level of humiliation as William.  Sal clings on to her memories of Britain, recreating her life in London as much as possible.  Grenville uses Sal to explore the persistence of British culture in Australia and the lingering concept that Britain was ‘Home’.
  11. Fate vs Free Will = at first the poor life in London disempowers Thornwill but as he gets older he sees things happen to him independently of his choices. Ending up in NSW he tends to base his behaviour more on the idea of fate.
  12. Alternate Path of Australia’s Development = Grenville sets up two paths to the development of Australia, embodied in the characters of Smasher Sullivan and Thomas Blackwood.  Smasher Sullivan represents the path of racial, social, and physical domination of the Aborigines that the British did follow in their colonization of Australia.  Thomas Blackwood, on the other hand, represents the choice of peaceful co-existence that was originally available to the British colonists if they had not been blinded by racial prejudice and greed.  Grenville gives the reader a glimpse of the possible development of future generations of Australians through the character of Dick Thornhill.

‘Guilt’ in Grenville’s Trilogy

Grenville’s The Secret River (in 2005) was the first in a trilogy: it was followed by The Lieutenant (in 2008), and Sarah Thornhill (in 2011).  The theme of all three novels is guilt—the guilt of white Australia at its treatment of Aboriginal people.  Guilt poisons William Thornhill’s life, and that of his daughter, Sarah Thornhill.  In The Lieutenant, Daniel Rooke, based on the historical William Dawes, avoids guilt only by disavowing (to his face) the governor’s orders to capture and kill six of the local Cadigal people.

The Message of The Secret River – It’s Relevance in Australia Today

On first reading the text focus of The Secret River is its exploration of the conflict between convict William Thornhill and the local Dharug people – whose land he tries to settle on.  But on closer examination it seeks to make a deeper point, about the relationship of Australians to the past – in this case to the Aboriginal people who were here so long before us.  The climactic event of The Secret River, a massacre of Aborigines on the Hawkesbury River that, in the book’s chronology, is placed at some point around 1814, is intended to place readers in the reality of a situation that we know happened in many places in Australia’s early history.

Actress Ningali Lawford-Wolf explained that “This country has a black history and how they came to be here was through massacres”.  Director Neil Armfield of The Sydney Theatre Company said that the tale of racial divides are, in many ways, still present today.  “That’s the contradictory reality that we’re still living, that actually all First Nation people are dealing with – that there are two different notions of possession” Mr Armfield said.  Trevor Jamieson, a renowned Aboriginal actor, explained there are vivid similarities between past issues and those bubbling today.  Adapting the text for the stage as a play, writer Andrew Bovell, said “I don’t think we can understand who we are as a people, unless we understand who we were”.

Comparisons with The Secret River and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

It seems obvious that Grenville drew heavily on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when she developed her protagonist William Thornhill in The Secret River.  In Heart of Darkness, protagonist Marlow acts as an impartial observer of the effects of the ivory trade in Africa.  His journey into the heart of Africa reflects his symbolic discover of his own self and human nature.  In effect Marlow sees the ‘heart of darkness’ (greed and evil) found in all men and suppresses this urge but others like Kurtz succumb to them.

When Marlow discovers Kurtz he has become so ruthless and greedy that even the other managers are shocked.  He refers to the ivory as his own and sets himself up as a primitive god to the natives.  He has written a seventeen-page document on the suppression of savage customs, to be disseminated in Europe, but his supposed desire to “civilize” the natives is strikingly contradicted by his postscript, “Exterminate all the brutes!”  Marlow is careful to tell his listeners that there was something wrong with Kurtz, some flaw in his character that made him go insane in the isolation of the Inner Station.  But the obvious implication of Marlow’s story is that the humanitarian ideals and sentiments justifying imperialism are empty, and are merely rationalizations for exploitation and extortion.

Similarly, in The Secret River, William Thornhill battles with his own conscience when facing challenges to decide on the ‘right’ course of action.  When faced with the poisoning of an entire camp of Aboriginal people at Darkey Creek culminating in the massacre of the Aborigines at Blackwood’s place, William weighs up his own safety and Sal’s happiness against his dislike for Smasher and his methods.

At the end of the novel William still feels regret at his involvement in the massacre so that readers gain the feeling that there is no satisfactory and lasting resolution to the conflict.  In this last section of the novel titled ‘Thornhill’s Place’ it is bitterly ironic as no amount of clearing, building, fencing, planting and killing of Aborigines will ever see Thornhill at peace with his surroundings.  Sitting on the bench at Cobham Hall where he could overlook all his wealth Thornhill felt that “… should have been the reward.  He could not understand why it did not feel like triumph” (p.334).

Both Texts Question “Who owns what?”

Both authors, Grenville and Conrad, highlight the controversy between the imperialistic attitudes of the English towards the natives in terms of possession of land with the same question “Who owns what?”  In Heart of Darkness British colonists saw no reason not to take land and resources in Africa that had not been claimed by either public or private ownership.  In The Secret River the white settlers were quite clear on the concept of “who owned what” in NSW: “There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them.  They had no fences that said this is mine.  No house that said, this is our home.  There were no fields or flocks that said, we have put the labour of our hands into this place” (p.93).  It was only Blackwood, a man of compromise who warned Thornhill against ‘taking up’ the land he obviously coveted.  Living in apparent harmony with the Aborigines, Blackwood advised Thornhill from the outset “When you take a little, bear in mind you got to give a little” (p.169).

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent Year 12 Mainstream English 2017

Strong prose, vivid characters

For students studying Year 12 Mainstream English in 2017, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is from the VCAA’s List 1 of Novels.  It will be studied under Area of Study 1, Unit 3: Reading and Creating Texts.

All page numbers referenced in this analysis of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent are taken from the Picador edition published in 2014 (as shown on the front cover above).

Genre of Burial Rites

Primarily a historical novel, the narrative was inspired by the true story of the last women Agnes Magnusdottir to be executed in 19th century Iceland.  As in the book, Agnes was convicted in 1829 and beheaded in 1830 for the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson.  Hannah Kent called her novel a ‘speculative biography’ in that she has used what is known of Agnes’ life and presented a possible version of the truth.

Agnes’ fate is a foregone conclusion but the key question running through Kent’s text is that of Agnes’ guilt.  In this regard Kent does build up sympathy for Agnes and allows the reader to explore some mitigating circumstances of which the authorities at the time were ignorant or indifferent.

Post-Modernist Structure of Burial Rites

Kent adopts a post-modernist structure and framework of the narrative which follows primarily the last six months of Agnes’ life with the period of time she is held in custody at Kornsa.  The novel commences in March 1828 immediately after the murders but moves to Toti’s appointment as Agnes’ spiritual guide the following June.  It concludes with Agnes’ execution in January 1830.  Within this framework Agnes recalls the events that led up to the murders.  There are thirteen chapters which are book-ended by a short prologue and an epilogue that provides the last official word on Agnes’ execution.

Kent includes official historical texts about the trial and execution that depict the inflexible administration of justice.  Official documents are juxtaposed against diverse texts, excerpts from Icelandic sagas, contemporary poems and the compelling first person narrative of Agnes, which seems to speak for the under-privileged and homeless people of Iceland.

So like many postmodernist texts, there is a perspective from the point of view of the powerless that exposes the cruelty and hypocrisy of the powerful.  The setting of the novel is an immediate source of fascination, as we know so little about Iceland.  Kent economically creates a frozen world, with its harsh beauty and isolation from the rest of Europe.  Through Agnes’s eyes we feel the struggle to survive in 19th century Iceland, where fish skins substituted for glass windows.

Language of Burial Rites

Kent’s prose is designed to complement the historical documents that preface each chapter with language that is appropriate to both the historical and geographical setting of the novel.  Her language is rich and coveys a rural 19th century sensibility, while remaining accessible to modern readers.  Kent frequently uses earthy similes such as: “Even as the light flees this country like a whipped dog.’’ (p.247), which sounds authentic to the modern ear.  She gives a poetic voice to Agnes’s reflections: “We’re all shipwrecked.  All beached in a peat bag of poverty.’’ (p.248)

At times nature is personified and the novel contains striking descriptions of the harsh elements that the people of Iceland had to deal with on a daily basis.  Agnes describes the highland blizzards and seasons as “Winter comes like a punch in the dark” (p.70).  In chapter 13 Agnes is close to the end of her life and knows the harsh wind “will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow” (p.319).

Convincing Characters in Burial Rites

Kent populates her novel with convincing characters but it is the character of Agnes that Kent explores with a deft touch.  She is neither presented as an object of pity nor even of righteous indignation.  Agnes’ inner strength and intelligence is noted by several characters, but it is a strength which is hard won.  Agnes speaks how the authorities do not know her “I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold onto what has been stolen from me” (p.29).  Agnes articulates a determined struggle to hold onto a private sense of self despite cruel social labelling.  “They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.  They will see whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood on the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt … But they will not see me” (p.30).

This novel tries to reach Agnes in a place of terrible loneliness, something that is achieved to a considerable extent through Agnes’ relationship with Margret, the wife of the District Officer who is required to accommodate Agnes.  At first, Margret is initially distraught at the idea of Agnes coming to stay at Kornsa as she does not want the safety of her two daughters compromised by the presence of a notorious criminal.  When Margret sees Agnes she is outraged by the woman’s condition and insists on the removal of Agnes’ handcuffs so that she can be thoroughly washed.  Margret makes it clear to Agnes she must work for her keep as she has no use for “a criminal, only a servant” (p.62).  Agnes wants to shake her head and say out loud “Criminal, that word does not belong to me, I want to say.  It doesn’t fit me or who I am” (p.62).  The slow thawing of the relationship between Margret and Agnes is handled superbly and becomes the mainstay of the novel.

The Significance of the Title

Burial rites in a conventional sense is a ritual or ceremony performed after death but in Agnes’ case the title suggests a rite of passage as a preparation for death.  Agnes goes on a figurative journey that involves reclaiming her worth as an individual at least in the eyes of the Jonsson family with whom she establishes a connection.  Sharing her story with the family at Kornsa and with Toti affords Agnes a kind of catharsis and the bonds forged between them help her to meet her death with some dignity.

The Historical Setting of 19th Century Iceland

Iceland in the 19th century was a colony of Denmark and ruled by the Danish monarchy.  It was deeply divided by class with land titles concentrated in the hands of a relative few.  The bulk of the society was agrarian at which farmers produced enough food for themselves and their families but life was a tenuous existence.  The society was conservative dominated by a religious ethos and traditional gender expectations.  The peasants lived in turf houses that were made up of small crowded rooms with exposed turf walls that were dank and mouldy in the winter infesting the lungs of those who lived there.  In the novel Margret’s fragile health is probably due to TB which is a lung condition common from breathing the dust inside her house.

The Landscape and Weather of Iceland

Arguably, the landscape and the weather it spawns is the most powerful force in the novel, shaping days and deciding destinies for the Icelanders who live with such a restrictive climate.  In fact the weather’s impact is unavoidable.  Literally everything from burials to executions is contingent upon the weather.  Simultaneously harsh and beautiful the landscape in this novel is almost a character in its own right.

Kent describes the Icelandic landscape as one that shaped both the body and soul of those who have to fight against it for a living.  It is not a place of much warmth.  Chapter 6 is where Agnes tells the story of one of the most harrowing sequences in the novel.  Agnes’ foster-mother, Inga, dies giving birth, partly because a blizzard is so bad that it is literally impossible to get out of the house, let alone raise the cry for help.  As a result the body of Inga’s stillborn child is put in the storeroom as the remains of Inga herself are likewise stored until the ground thaws enough to allow a burial.  The weather adds further horror to Agnes’ narrative and we read of the terrifying image of a dead Inga lying kept “like butchered meat, drying in the stale air” (p.157).

The Odds are Stacked Against Poor Women

Burial Rites demonstrates that for poor women there were few choices.  Female servants were subject to their master’s will and society’s gender expectations were narrow.  Women were expected to know their place in social hierarchy and poverty made women even more vulnerable.  In Agnes’ case, Kent’s novel doesn’t take the easy way and blame a cruel God.  Human agencies are at work, such as hypocritical treatment of children and single women, and a very flawed criminal justice system.  Hypocrisy is evident in Blondal’s self-serving rationalisation of his selection of Natan’s brother, Gumundur Ketilsson, as the executioner.  Indeed this historical novel shows the odds are stacked heavily against poor women.

Themes, Issues and Ideas in Burial Rites

  1. Truth and Stories = Burial Rites is a fictional recreation of history that is presented by Kent as Agnes Magnusdottir’s story. Kent can only speculate on the truth and her interpretation allows for the possibility of Agnes’ guilt or as we readers obtain a version of the original story, we can make our own minds up.  The novel questions the idea of truth as an absolute.  We obtain the facts as to what Agnes tells us and she shares with us what she chooses to tell us.
  2. Women’s Roles = Women had few opportunities in 19th century Iceland and their roles were confined to the domestic with some status and respectability through marriage. Poverty made women even more vulnerable and created the double standard where women are seen as promiscuous but men are not.  Agnes mother Ingeldur is judged as a ‘loose’ women and had three children to all different fathers from farms around the valley as she tried to find work and a refuge for her family.  Unfortunately the price she had to pay was often another pregnancy and a new mouth to feed.  Agnes later experiences similar exploitation.
  3. Authority and Control = Maintaining law and order in Iceland was dependant on a punitive approach of the ruling Danish authorities. Bjorn Blondal as the District Commission has to keep control of the ‘corruption and ungodliness’ that the murders at Illugastadir represent.  As a convicted prisoner Agnes is clearly disenfranchised by the law but she is also dehumanised by a brutal system that identifies her as being on the bottom rung of a rigid social structure.  Chained like an animal and denied light and air she has been reduced to the status of a beast.  Presented to the world and branded a ‘criminal’ Agnes is a shamed outcast.
  4. Love = Kent presents love as a damaging emotion that inflicts misery and uncertainty and even destroys lives. The epigram “I was worst to the one I loved best” from the Laxdaela Saga at the beginning of the novel sets the tone for what is to follow.  Unfortunately Agnes loves someone who is a notorious womaniser.  Natan lacks a moral compass in his selfish treatment of Agnes and Sigga.  Regrettably Agnes loves Natan and tolerates his appalling treatment of her because she has nowhere else to go and her loneliness makes her vulnerable.  Once Natan feels suffocated by Agnes he ends the relationship.  Looking back Agnes has to admit that the idea of love can be closely allied to hate.  In chapter 11 when Natan throws Agnes out of the house in the snow it underscores his cruel nature but also the power dynamic between them that would never be an equal one.
  5. Loss = Loss in 19th century Iceland is clearly related to the harsh rural life under constant threat by the inhospitable weather. People are conditioned to accept loss as many infants die and women also die in childbirth.  Agnes realises after her foster-mother Inga dies that life brings little certainty.  When she is condemned to death Agnes is threatened with another kind of loss that compounds her dread.  She fears the loss of her personal identity, a loss of self.  Agnes’ final monologue reveals the extent of this terror.  Denied Christian burial rites she feels that death will bring no permanent resting place.  She will be lost and her memory will vanish into oblivion.
  6. Redemption = As a Lutheran Minister Toti’s duty is to help Agnes atone for her sins and save her soul. Blondal’s interest in Agnes is less about the state of her soul than in containing a sensitive political issue.  The execution is really an exercise in propaganda as it is in the law’s interests to be seen as God’s instrument.  In reality Agnes’ salvation comes not from the unforgiving approach of the law but from being treated with fairness and compassion by the family at Kornsa.  Agnes connection to Toti is also central to this process of redemption.  At the end Agnes’ guilt or innocence becomes of less important than the faith that Toti and the family at Kornsa have in her.  Being drawn into the loving circle of those around her is Agnes true redemption.  As Agnes is taken to be executed Margret pressed her fingers tightly to Agnes and said “We’ll remember you, Agnes” (p.324).