Analysis of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Resource is for Year 11 English students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

Did you Love The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin or Hate it?

Science Fiction as a Genre is sometimes defined as being an analytical and foretelling narrative at which a type of prediction is made.  Quite often Science Fiction is so bizarre that you read it and become so confused you put it down and never pick it up again.

For those students who have read The Left Hand of Darkness did you get the story the first time?  Or did it take you repeated readings to understand it?  Once you read the novel a couple of times so many layers become obvious that you can understand why Le Guin won many prestigious literary awards for her writing.

I must admit the first time I started to read The Left Hand of Darkness I had to ‘get my head around’ the structure of the narrative, the names of the characters, the countries, the Hainnish calendar and Ursula K. Le Guin’s terminology for her fictional Hainnish Universe all set in the year 4870.  While The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely part of the Science Fiction Genre, the narrative does also cover other Genres such as Fantasy, Mythology, Legend, Folklore and Feminism.

This Analysis Uses Shortened Versions of the Names of Characters

In this analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness, I have used a shortened version of the names of the two main characters rather than use their much longer versions that Le Guin has in the novel.  So Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is just ‘Estraven’ and Genly Ai is just ‘Genly’.  All my page number references are for the 1992 Orbit Edition of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (as pictured above).

Le Guin’s Purpose of Meaning

Le Guin’s purpose in this novel was not, in her own words, “[to predict] that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or [to announce] that… we damned well ought to be androgynous.”  Rather, she is observing that, in some ways, “we already are.”  Le Guin’s purpose is not to convince us to move in a certain direction towards the future; rather, she is enabling us to examine ourselves from a different perspective and embrace alternate forms of identity and reality.

Two Halves of the Whole – Yin and Yang

Once I began to understand that The Left Hand of Darkness is not simply a science fiction novel; I could see how Le Guin’s described the novel in her own words as ‘a thought-experiment’.  It forces us to examine ourselves and the nature of our existence.  It provides a deep, scholarly, metaphorical analysis on gender, patriotism, and the concept of opposites.

The more I delved into the story I began to appreciate the characters of Genly and Estraven and how Le Guin developed the concept of “self and other”.  Then I discovered the clever contrasts Le Guin explored of the binaries and the juxtapositions that exist on almost every level of the novel.

What fascinated me the most was the Daoist philosophy of yin and yang, opposites and reversals, which is shaped so beautifully by Le Guin.  In true Daoist fashion, The Left Hand of Darkness not only highlights opposites for the sake of contrast, but stresses the necessity of accepting both extremes to realise the whole.  The entire story is one of integration, on the personal, international and cosmic level, from existing divisions towards reconciliation and balance.

Le Guin asks us to question the very nature of binaries [dualism] themselves as Estraven said in the lines of the Handdara to Genly (p.190):

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light
Two are one, life and death
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

The Bond between Genly and Estraven

The central bond between Genly and Estraven is explored by Le Guin with immense subtlety.  Le Guin cleverly describes the changes in a relationship that almost founders on misapprehensions and mistakes.  Estraven is Genly’s surest and most selfless ally, and yet is the person Genly most distrusts.  In his innocence and ignorance it seems that Genly will not survive the power struggles of which he has become the living symbol.

As Genly comes to accept Estraven as he is, he becomes less absorbed, more aware of his actions on his companion and in the end a wiser and more appreciative person.  Genly’s companionship (is it really love?) with Estraven profoundly changes him and how he perceives the alien world that is now his home.  Genly’s growth highlights the notion that one’s own wholeness of being can arise from a relationship in which both parties strive to accept one another.  Estraven admits to Genly that they were “… equals at last, equal, alien, alone” on the Gobrin Ice (p.189).

However, in a heart-breaking reversal of expectation it is Estraven who finally pays the price in chapter 19 ‘The Homecoming’.

The Inhospitable Landscape of Gethen

What I did love was Le Guin’s wonderful creation of the inhospitable landscape of Gethen. The journey that Estraven and Genly make together on foot across the Gobrin Ice is described in all its frozen spendour.  I was awestruck by the bleak beauty of this fictional planet and the prose and imagery of Le Guin as Estraven and Genly trekked through a “deep cold porridge of rain-sodden snow” (p.176), past a volcano with “worms of fire crawl down its black sides” (p.184).  Le Guin took not only Genly and Estraven on a bitter winter journey, but us as readers, as we too saw the raw fury of nature on display in Gethen.

What is the Significance of the Title?

The title comes from the Handdara religion recited in a poem by Estraven on page 190 (shown in detail above).  It refers to dualism and the importance of unity of opposites.

Le Guin’s Style of Writing

Le Guin’s writing style is descriptive with finer details of life on Gethen from architecture to weather patterns, diets to travelling habits.  The novel is a blend of nature writing with anthropology and an understanding of a people’s connection to that place.  Her treatment of Gethen as both a setting and a character infuses her world with vivid descriptions of landscape, character stories, adventures and traditional mythology.

Le Guin’s Narrative and Tone

Some stories are in 1st person narrative when Genly is reporting or from Estraven’s journal but when myths, legends or tales are told the narrative is in 3rd person omniscient.  The myths form a backdrop for the story and explain specific features about Gethenian culture as well as larger philosophical aspects of society.

Le Guin presents the novel as Genly’s field report to the Ekumen so his tone is exact.  As Genly develops understanding of the Gethenians he evolves with more awareness and he becomes descriptive.

Estraven’s chapters take on a journalistic tone since they are journal entries.  The mythological stories have a folk tale tone.

The narrative can also be seen as a Bildungsroman or coming of age story of Genly as his journey of transformation.

The Plot in a Nutshell

The plot consists of 3 major sections and a brief conclusion.  The first section is set in Karhide, the second in Orgoreyn, the third on the Gobrin Ice and the conclusion is set in Karhide.

In a nutshell it is the story of an icy snowbound planet called Gethen (Winter) where a solitary envoy from the Ekumen, Genly Ai is sent to try and persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join a federation of nations for the purpose of expanding trade and an interplanetary alliance.  Gethen is an isolated and harsh world of ice and snow whose inhabitants are unique in their physiology as they are androgynous beings; neither male nor female.  Unfortunately Genly discovers two hostile nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn gearing up for war and his arrival feeds the rivalries between the two states.

In Karhide, King Argaven is reluctant to accept Genly’s diplomatic mission.  In Orgoreyn, Genly is seemingly accepted more easily by the political leaders, yet he is arrested, stripped of his clothes, drugged, and sent to a work camp.

Rescued by Estraven, the deposed Prime Minister of Karhide, Genly realizes that cultural differences, specifically shifgrethor, gender roles and Gethenian sexuality, had kept him from understanding their relationship previously.

During their 80-day journey across the frozen land of the Gobrin Ice to return to Karhide, Genly learns to understand and love Estraven and is able to fulfill his mission to join Karhide and Orgoreyn within the federation of the Ekumen.

 Major Themes/Issues/Ideas

Language / communication / storytelling / gender / politics/ religion / fear of difference & fear of change / the ‘other’ / acceptance / duty / man & the natural world / warfare / love / human relationships / dualism / yin & yang / unity / loyalty / betrayal / honour / ethnic differences /respecting differences / sexuality/ androgyny

 Symbols and Motifs

Shadows / light / darkness / the ansible [communication device] / religious teachings / keystone / yin & yang / shifgrethor [equality or honour]

Characters – Major

Genly Ai = the first Envoy of the Ekumen on Gethen.  He is the protagonist of the novel, a native of Terra (Earth).

Estraven, Therem Harth rem ir = is a Gethenian from the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land in the southern part of the Kardish continent.  He is Prime Minister of Karhide at the beginning of the novel.

Argaven, Harge XV = is the King of Karhide during the events of the novel.

Tibe, Pemmer Harge rem ir = is Argaven’s cousin and later becomes Prime Minister of Karhide when Estraven is exiled.

Obsle, Yegey, Shusgis = are Commensals that rule Orgoreyn.

Faxe, The Weaver = is a Foreteller of Otherhord

Ashe = is Estraven’s former kemmering

Characters – Minor

Goss = helps Genly find his way to the Fastnesses

Mavriva = is a fur trader who helps Estraven

Thessicher = is a old friend of Estraven but later betrays him

Arek = is Estraven’s dead brother

Sorth = is Estraven’s son

Esvans = is Estraven’s father

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Genly and Estraven Characters from ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Resource is for Year 11 English students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

Image result for left hand of darkness imagesLook carefully at the similarities and differences between the two main characters Genly Ai and Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  The list of differences and similarities between the two characters is from my interpretation only and therefore could be added to by students who develop their own interpretation of Genly and Estraven.

For ease of writing I call Genly Ai (Genly) and Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven (Estraven) in the notes below.

Estraven and Genly Ai

Genly Ai

Genly’s Differences from Estraven

  • Genly Ai is from Terra (Earth), almost 30 years old
  • 1st Envoy from the Ekumen to recruit the planet Gethen to the Ekumen to become part of a universal and mystical trade venture of planets
  • Different physical characteristics – tall, black skin, strong, less hair, large hands, not built for cold
  • Stereotypical male – heterosexual, sexually active all the time considered a ‘pervert’ by Gethenians
  • Has been in Karhide for 2 years in an attempt to gain favour with King Argaven and convince him and Karhide to join the Ekumen
  • Inability to trust and uncertainty factors influence his decisions & fear of the unknown
  • Gender fear of difference especially the feminine traits of Gethenians which he sees as negative traits
  • Non believer in androgynous Gethenians, can’t comprehend their reactions or faces that he sees as not human but like animals – cat, seal, an otter
  • Often is impatient, quick to despair and then to rejoice
  • Lacks insight to understand and seen as an alien in Gethen is not to be trusted
  • Has trouble communicating and understanding the intricate subtleties of ‘shifgrethor’
  • Unaware of other people’s motives especially Estraven
  • Does not have the qualities of the Handdara in regards to intuition or ‘nusuth’
  • Struggles with too much yang in order to create harmony at the beginning of the novel
  • Effectively in terms of dualism, Genly is the ‘right hand’ of Estraven (Le Guin stresses that each yang contains it’s yin, each yin contains it’s yang)

Genly’s Similarities with Estraven

  • Believes in the mission to persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join the Ekumen for the purpose of expanding trade and interplanetary alliance
  • Even though Genly has been on Gethen for 2 years he does not give up trying to carry out his mission
  • This is similar to Estraven in his continued mission to join Gethen with the Ekumen as he believes in the benefits of uniting his planet with other worlds even if it means exile
  • Genly is loyal, honourable and idealistic like Estraven
  • They both have sacrificed a lot for their ambitions but see the big picture of helping humanity
  • Both are in exile, Genly from his planet and Estraven from his home of Estre
  • On the Gobrin Ice they both pull together for survival
  • On the Gobrin Ice Genly transforms and understands the significance of the yin and yang in Estraven and the importance of harmony as a whole person
  • Therefore Genly finally accepts Estraven as an androgynous person not as male/female but as one
  • The relationship of Genly with Estraven is described by Le Guin as ‘profound love’ and one that changes Genly

Therem Harth Rem Ir Estraven

Estraven’s Differences from Genly

  • Estraven is from the Domain of Estre in Kerm land, a southern end of Karhide on the planet Gethen (age not sure)
  • Prime Minister of Karhide at the start of the novel
  • Different physical characteristics – stocky, dark, with a layer of fat to protect against the cold, black eyes and sleek hair
  • He is an androgyne, neither male nor female but both, as are all Gethenians
  • Typical androgyne goes into kemmer
  • Had a son Sorve to his brother Arek and swore a ‘vow of faithfulness’ to Arek
  • He had a kemmering with Ashe and they had 2 sons
  • His personal life has been steeped in profound and tumultuous human emotions, involving love and death, which feed his soul
  • He is honest, quick minded, wise, versatile and adaptable, courageous, creative in responding to new situations, a shrewd politician, powerful, aggressive when needed & constantly pushing forward
  • He has a strength of character and diplomacy by preventing Karhide and Orgoreyn from going to war over the Sinnoth Valley dispute
  • Has highly trained skills of the Handdara which makes him respond intuitively doing no more or no less than what is required
  • His spiritualism is an important part of his character
  • He praises ‘darkness’ when it comes and it’s counterpart ‘light’
  • He is not moved by personal desire, interest or advantage and acts spontaneously in accordance with his true nature as the quality of the Handdara teaches
  • He uses his feminine intuition as a good quality and has perfected the balance of yin and yang in his harmonious actions which demonstrates that both male and female characteristics are necessary for survival
  • Effectively Estraven is the ‘left hand’ of Genly and without Estraven, Genly would not have been able to undertake his transformation of character that leads him to a deeper understanding of Gethenians and himself
  • Estraven is willing to sacrifice his life to achieve the success of the mission and the good of the whole world

Estraven’s Similarities with Genly

  • Believes in Genly’s mission to persuade the inhabitants of Gethen to join the Ekumen for the purpose of expanding trade and interplanetary alliance
  • Estraven continues his belief in the mission to join Gethen with the Ekumen as he believes in the benefits of uniting his planet with other worlds even if it means his exile
  • Both are in exile, Genly from his planet and Estraven from his home of Estre
  • Estraven is loyal, honourable and idealistic like Genly
  • They both have sacrificed a lot for their ambitions but see the big picture of helping humanity
  • On the Gobrin Ice they both pull together for survival
  • Accepts Genly as different, but it is the likeness, the wholeness that he understands and the importance of harmony
  • The relationship of Estraven with Genly is described by Le Guin as ‘profound love’ and one that embodies Genly’s physical as well as spiritual journey to greater self knowledge and understanding

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How to Analyse a Cartoon for Language Analysis

This Resource is for Years 10/11/12 Mainstream English students studying Analysing and Exploring Argument in the Victorian Curriculum.

Just as writers and speakers use techniques such as exaggeration, tone and emotive language to manipulate and position readers, so too can cartoonists use many highly persuasive techniques. 

Use the same questioning techniques for analysing cartoons as you do for analysing articles. Ask What / How / Why the author uses his/her language with the intention to persuade the audience to Think (Logos) / Feel (Pathos) / Do something (Ethos).

Snoopy loves very much reading books by BradSnoopy97 on DeviantArt

When analysing a cartoon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the main point of the cartoon?  Does the cartoon align with the author’s point of view on the issue in the article you are also analysing? Be mindful, if the cartoon is a stand-alone, it may have its own point of view that is either the same or different to the article.
  • What is the issue being represented?  What is the context of this issue?
  • Who is the target audience the cartoon creator is aiming for?  What is the intended impact/effect of the cartoon on the reader/audience?
  • Who are the central figures/characters?  What are they doing or saying?  How are they represented?  For example, a cartoonist may represent members of a group as similar to make a point about their powerlessness, their loss of identity, their mindlessness and so on.  Sometimes animals are used to represent humans in order to critique behaviour or an individual’s point of view.
  • What visual strategies are used to persuade the audience to agree with the point of view presented?  Look at:
  • Composition of cartoon – number of items/subjects and their position within the text and in relation to one another
  • Size of cartoon and characters in connection with composition – are the characters exaggerated
  • Layout of fonts used in text – can often use small text but big heads on characters to exaggerate the sarcastic tone
  • Colours and shade – what do the colours symbolise
    • Black = evil/power/death
    • White = purity/simplicity/cleanliness
    • Red = warmth/comfort/anger/embarrassment
    • Yellow = cheeriness/frustration/attention seeking
    • Blue = calmness/tranquillity/sadness/misery
    • Purple = royalty/wealth/wisdom
    • Green = calm/tranquillity/nature/envy
    • Brown = earth/nature/strength/security
    • Red+blue+white = flags symbolise patriotism
  • The focus and emphasis – where is the reader’s attention drawn to first
  • Labelling and stereotypes – often characters are stereotypical ie. blond, blue eyed, suntanned, muscular lifesaver is supposed to be typical Australian male but it is not accurate representation
  • Speech bubbles, dialogue, body text can often state contention or reinforce issue
  • Loaded language – language that has a deeper meaning than is shown on the surface
  • Captions – words outside frame of text can state contention, what do they add and how do they persuade
  • Symbols, motifs, icons – images that represent the ideas or concepts, can appeal to the audience
  • Angles used and white space ie. blank space left – can draw audience away towards some text to make a further impact on the issue or detract from it
  • Obvious tone ie political cartoons are often humorous and sarcastic (use verbal irony)
  • Facial expressions – how do the characters expressions compare to one another, are they expressions we would expect
  • Context to main issue – does the cartoon support or oppose the main issue
  • What is significant about the background and foreground of the cartoon?
  • When writing your analysis discuss how the visual language comments on the issue and how the cartoon creator positions the audience by using the visual techniques.  Keeping in mind what the creator’s purpose is and how the cartoonist wants to position the reader – to think (logos) / feel (pathos) / do something (ethos)

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‘Minefields & Miniskirts’ Play by Terrence O’Connell: The Basics

See the source image

This Resource is for students in Year 11 studying’Minfields & Miniskirts’ & ‘Wilfred Owen War Poems’ in the Victorian VCE Curriculum

Structure of the Play/ Plot / Set / Music / Title Symbols / Motifs

Begins with the sounds in the distance of military drums on an Anzac Day march in 1980’s, where the women meet, and ends to the sound of the military band at an Anzac Day march at the end of the play.  The marches celebration of returned soldiers is a time of mixed emotions of joy and sadness for the characters.  Significantly, the play comes full circle at the end with the return to the march and the return of the women to Australia which has brought them a new level of understanding about their experiences in Vietnam.  The link to the song at the end of the play is Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Circle Game’ as all the women sing together of their lives going ‘round and round’ after their ‘life altering experience’ in Vietnam.

The play is organised into 11 scenes.  While each scene has a particular theme that joins the stories of the 5 women together, each of the women’s stories has a quality that makes it distinct from the other character’s stories.  The plot is carried by the 5 characters, so that plot and character are very closely related.  While there is no direct interaction between the characters on stage or any dialogues between them, we do see them join in singing 1960’s songs together, for example, Scene 2 ‘Off to War’ Sandy, Eve, Kathy & Ruth sing together ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’.

O’Connell has drafted the script in such a way as to imply clear links and shifts in perspective between the characters, so that different points of view are cast on the same events.  He has also set the monologues within a theatrical choreography of the stage space, to add a sense of realism to the scenes, which otherwise consist solely of the 5 spoken monologues.  The play agglomerates the anecdotes of each of the women into a group narrative that typifies the particular scene in which it occurs.  The effect of this grouping is to bring the women’s stories together, even as they have their key points of difference.

The set of the play is a mash up of ancient Vietnamese, colonial French style and modern American capitalism ‘Coca Cola’ street furniture and the physical environment of Vietnam.  The opening set includes a silk stage curtain with a bleached-out handwritten message celebrating the Australian women who went to Vietnam.  The audience also hear music from famous Vietnam War era films allowing them to be drawn into the world of Vietnam.  Even though the women had different backgrounds, as much as their experiences, they have one thing in common, which is explored poignantly in the final sentence: ‘Vietnam transformed their lives and haunted their memories’.

The title of the play is an illusion to 2 deeper thematic concerns that rule life – sex and death.  The ‘miniskirts’ are a symbol of liberated female sexuality and ‘minefields’ are a symbol of maiming, disfigurement and death.  These 2 elements were in evidence during the Vietnam War.  The young soldiers were in their 20’s and sexually virile but many came back with their bodies and minds broken and shattered or in body bags as 521 Australians died.  All women return from Vietnam profoundly changed by their experiences.  Helicopters form a dominant motif that are heard constantly hovering in the background of the play to remind the audience of the women’s memories of the war.


Margaret             The Vet’s wife – the first to speak in the play and she is both the outsider of the group of 5, and the one who comes closest to experiencing the violence of the Vietnam War directly in her own home. Her husband James brings back the Vietnam War with him, in fact he is still fighting the war as he steps through the front door and continues fighting the war until the day he commits suicide by gassing himself to death in the car.  Margaret represents many thousands of wives who had to nurse their veteran husbands who returned from seeing action in Vietnam with profound psychological disturbances.

Sandy                    The entertainer – Sandy’s motivation for going to Vietnam is to exploit the captive audience she will find there, as she entertains the troops as one of the Velveteens.  She is attracted by the glitz and glamour of being a show-girl, strutting up on stage in her pink feathers, and performing in front of hordes of GI’s and so we recognise early on in the play that Sandy enjoys being the centre of attention.  Her life in Vietnam is a step-up from performing on stage ‘in my miniskirt’ in some unheard of ‘suburban club’ and her socio-economic background propels her towards Vietnam as her options and possibilities for success in Australia are severely limited.

Kathy                    The nurse – Kathy comes out of a military family and volunteering for service in Vietnam is a natural thing for her to do, war service is in her DNA.  Her father is a man of some influence and she is able to communicate back to him the kinds of conditions she is experiencing on the front-line hospital and field work, and the appalling lack of equipment.  She is proud to be serving, but she also becomes disillusioned fairly quickly or has a reality check realising the supposed enemy soldiers are no better or no worse than her own side and resolves to treat everyone equally.

Eve                         The volunteer – Eve heralds from a devoutly Christian family and feels it her mission to volunteer herself to those suffering in the war.  She leaves with her parents’ blessing but throughout proves to be a perceptive observer of both other people and herself.  She realises fairly soon that in her experience ‘It was hard to believe in my God in Vietnam’ and understands the moment she comes in to land, upon seeing an old man ploughing his paddy field as an aerial battle was raging around him, that the Vietnam War could never be won.  This perception of the nature of things was lost on the politicians and military men conducting the war.

Ruth                      The journalist – Ruth comes to Vietnam as a dare by a fellow journalist but the urge behind her decision is motivated also by her desire for excitement and adventure beyond editing the women’s pages of the local tabloid.  We realise that Ruth is in some ways equally exploitative of the new situation, as she tries to get ‘an in’ with the locals and uses her overt physical features to get herself invited to parties.  While in Vietnam the injuries and deaths that surround her do not move her beyond wearing the Star of David that her Green Beret soldier husband-to-be wore before his death.  While she admits the Vietnam War made her feel ‘alive’ she does not gain any deeper perception about herself as a result.


Social content of the Vietnam War                          

Freedom to kill at random / no conscience

Counter culture of 1960’s drugs                                

Freedom to exploit or harm others

Psychological effects of war                                       

PTSD / psychotic effect of war

Women exploited / rape / no moral power          

Language & power / feelings

Noble ideal vs corrupted ideal of war                     

South East Asia reality of Communist domino effect

Plot Outline

Scene 1: Prologue                           The opening scene is set at an Anzac Day march and the 5 women give us a snippet of the stories that are about to be told in the main body (scenes 3-10) of the play.

Scene 2: Off to War                        The women give the background to their decision to leave Australia for Vietnam and their personal motivations – Sandy for glamour, Kathy to carry on a family tradition of helping out in times of war, Ruth to embark on a new step in her career as a journalist, and Eve through a general sense of dissatisfaction with expectancies of her getting married and settling down.  For Margaret, it is her husband who goes ‘off to war’.

Scene 3: Hello Vietnam                The 4 women describe the unreal world that greets them upon their arrival in Vietnam – human body parts being eaten by dogs, grenade-lobbing acid-tripping GIs and jealous prostitutes in Saigon.

Scene 4: A Workaday War           The bizarreness of everyday life during the Vietnam War is expressed in each of the women’s stories.  Margaret describes the return of her husband as ‘a ghost’.

Scene 5: Children                            This scene contains stories that involve children and tell us a universal truth, that if truth is the first victim of war, then ordinary people including children run a close second.  The stories emphasise Eve’s perception as she arrives in Vietnam in the Prologue – that the war could never be won.

Scene 6: Human Beings                 The title of the scene refers to the story Ruth tells of being unable to report on the Vietnamese as human beings, and the scene shows the enormous human cost of the war, as ordinary civilians are executed on mere suspicion of being involved with the Viet Cong.  A story of hope ends the scene as Kathy tells of a baby’s birth in a field, a new life amongst so much senseless death.

Scene 7: RandR – Romance & Rape         While many of the women did find genuine romance in Vietnam, these dalliances were often tinged with danger.  Meanwhile, back in Australia, Margaret’s husband is even more dangerous and psychologically deranged, and rapes her.  At the end of the scene the women are introduced and sing as “The Velveteens”.

Scene 8: War Does Become Normal        The weirdness and strangeness of the Vietnam War begins to become normalised.  Many of the women tell bizarre stories with surreal and sometimes disturbing juxtapositions.  A dying GI hallucinates his wife onto Eve, Ruth witnesses a rudimentary electro-interrogation, and Sandy gets a thrill out of firing an M16 off the back of a jeep.  The scene ends with the music of Bing Crosby, singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”.

Scene 9: Goodnight Saigon                          The women describe their hasty evacuation following the fall of Saigon, and the end of their experiences.  Margaret’s husband commits suicide, Sandy’s entertainment dreams end in the story of 6 GI’s raping her girlfriend in a hut.

Scene 10: Aftermath                      Returning to Australia makes the women realise the extent to which their experiences in Vietnam have affected them.  Their reactions are either of frustration and boredom, or a continuation of their responses in Vietnam.  Ruth harangues a film theatre audience for laughing in MASH, Sandy dives into the gutter when she hears some Hare Krishnas, Kathy will only date Vietnam Vets, while Eve’s health has been affected by the chemicals.

Scene 11: Epilogue                          The play returns to the Anzac Day march, and the women reiterate the profound effect that their Vietnam experience has had on them.  They end all singing together with the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game”, symbolising the return of the plot to its starting point and the experiences of the women in Vietnam that are life altering and will never be forgotten.

All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum

Wilfred Owen War Poems: The Basics

Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen

This Resource is for students in Year 11 studying ‘Wilfred Owen War Poems’ in AOS1: Unit 1, Reading & Creating Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

It can also be studied in AOS1:Unit 2, Reading & Comparing Texts along with ‘Minefields & Miniskirts’ play by Terrence O’Connell.

Poetry in Context of World War I 1914-1918

The literary responses evoked by the Great War were in many ways unique, particularly the writings that came from its immediate participants.  The British war poets such as Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Graves and Rosenberg are familiar to many, but it needs to be remembered that their work was but a small sample of the literature produced by soldiers at the front.  Australian soldiers fighting on the Western Front from 1914 to1918 also generated poetry and stories that have been published.

World War I in Context of Why Men Enlisted

Many of the thousands of British men (and Australian men) enlisted for quite different reasons: they were spurred by the public propaganda campaigns, the rousing speeches of politicians, clergymen and headmasters, the call of adventure, family and civic pressure and, for those without steady employment, the lure of regular pay. Some would have enlisted as they feared being labelled as cowards; it was an era where social pressure could be intense. To receive a white feather was seen as shameful. It is also crucial to remember that formal religion underpinned life in WWI Britain more than it does now. Much of the propaganda encouraging young men to enlist in WWI included notions of personal responsibility to God as well as patriotism to King and Country.

Why did Owen Enlist?

Despite a view that Owen’s motives in enlisting may have been more self-focused than patriotic, there is no doubt that he did take his role as an officer and soldier very seriously in France. Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles on October 21, 1915, and spent nearly fourteen months training in various places around the English countryside before heading to France in winter, 1916.  It is worth noting that Owen did not actually spend a great deal of time at the Front compared to many soldiers. The battle experience on which his most famous poems are based was contained to about four months of which Owen spent no more than five weeks at the Front Line.

Battle in France 1916

Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen arrived in France in late December 1916, right in the middle of the coldest winter of the war. He was sent to Beaumont Hamel on the Somme as one of 527 reinforcements sent out following heavy losses in the Ancre Offensive. His letters to his mother from this period reflect his shock at the conditions both in the trenches and behind the lines. He also speaks movingly of his pity for his fellow soldiers and their suffering, especially in the extreme cold of that particular winter, when men were known to freeze to death. His language, even in these simple letters, is evocative, making the reader truly understand the deprivation and hardship brought on by the war. ‘Futility’ and ‘Exposure’ are fine examples of poems based on these experiences.

In March 1917, Owen fell into a cellar suffering a concussion, which hospitalised him for two weeks. On his return to his battalion at the beginning of April, he found himself involved in heavy fighting near St Quentin. He was blown off his feet and spent several days in a shell-hole surrounded by the remains of a fellow officer. Owen was not physically hurt, but when his Battalion was relieved, it was noticed that his behaviour had become somewhat strange—his speech was confused and he seemed shaky. He was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was sent to a Casualty Clearing Station. Eventually he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he would remain for four months.

Owen Meets Poet Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart

Whilst a patient at Craiglockhart, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient, and the two became friends. Sassoon’s reputation as a poet and decorated war hero had preceded him.  Sassoon perceived a natural talent hidden in some of Owen’s poems. Sassoon encouraged Owen, even offering advice on the manuscript of one of Owen’s most famous poems, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.  His friendship with Sassoon gave Owen the impetus he needed and it was at this time that Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, responding to the propagandist poems of Jessie Pope and others like her, who persuaded young men into joining up when they had little or no grasp of what was involved at the front.

Return to France in 1917

Owen left Craiglockhart in October 1917 to undertake more training and also used his leave opportunities to visit literary friends in London. By the end of August 1918, he was back in France, having been passed fit to return to the Front. Before leaving England, he had told his brother, Harold, of his desire to return to the front, despite sensing that he, like so many English soldiers, would be killed. He had also, encouraged by friends, started planning a volume of poetry for publication, for which the draft Preface is included in Stallworthy’s collection.

In October 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross. On the morning of 4th November, while attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal, Owen was shot and killed (only 7 days before War was officially ended on 11th November, 1918. Owen is buried in the tiny Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Ors.

Owen and ‘The Pity of War’

The Preface written by Wilfred Owen in 1918 for the collection of poems he intended to have published after the war indicates his vision and aim as a poet. ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry/My subject is War, and the pity of War/The Poetry is in the pity’.  He goes on to say that even though his poems will offer no consolation to those who suffered WWI, they may be of use to the next generation, particularly as a warning about the consequences of war: the real experience of it and what it does to people.  Owen’s poems convey his genuine feelings for soldiers as they are caught up in the pity of war.  Here are soldiers experiencing extreme destructiveness: destruction of civilization, destruction of the landscape, and very importantly, the destructive effect war can have on a soldier’s physical, spiritual and psychological life.

Most Famous of Owen’s Anti-War Poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

Owen wrote it as he was recovering in hospital after being shell-shocked and gassed.  The title refers to a famous Latin patriotic saying ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ meaning that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.  However, Owen disagrees with this as he has been at war and seen the reality.  In order to prove that there is no heroism in war, Owen recreates the reality very vividly with soldiers “bent double, like old beggars under sacks” and later “all went lame: all blind.”  The imagery is one of physical despair, illness and ageing before one’s time showing us that this is what one reaps from war.  The vivid contrast with the reality of “gas! gas! quick, boys!” confronts us with the reality of attack and the nightmare vision is surreal “as under a green sea I saw him drowning”.  Onomatopoeia is used throughout the poem creating very clear and disturbing imagery “guttering, choking, drowning, smothering, gargling.”  Owen builds up the reality of the men suffering and we cannot turn away from it. It is anything but noble and heroic, furthermore the dead are simply “flung”.  In particular the reality of dead men thrown one on top the other on a carriage disgust us, yet we cannot turn away from the horror, “if you could hear at every jolt, the blood, come gargling from the froth, corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer…” which leads to the conclusion that only silly children would believe the Old Lie: ‘How sweet it is to die for one’s country’.

Major Themes in Owen’s Poetry & Only Some Poems Related
The pity of war‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ * crosses over into many themes
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘Futility’  
The horrors of war‘Mental Cases’ / ‘Disabled’ / ‘Insensibility’  
Protest against war‘1914’ / ‘The Letter’ /
‘Soldier’s Dream’  
Injuries in war‘The Sentry’ / ‘The Dead Beat’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’  
Weapons of war‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘The Last Laugh’ / ‘Soldier’s Dream’  
Death and burial‘Futility’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ /
‘Wild with All Regrets ’
Survivors‘The Send Off’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Disabled ’
Nature‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Exposure’ / ‘1914’  
Love‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Strange Meeting’ / ‘Exposure’  
Hatred‘The Dead Beat’ / ‘S.I.W.’ /
‘Strange Meeting’  
Anger‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘Insensibility’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’  
Frustration‘Disabled’ / ‘Wild with All Regrets’  
Grief‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Sentry’ /
‘The Last Laugh’  
Officers & Men‘Inspection’ / ‘The Sentry’ /
‘The Dead Beat’  
Brothers in Arms & Camaraderie‘The Send Off’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Exposure’  
Parents & Children‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ / ‘S.I.W.’ /
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’  
The Role of Women‘The Letter’ / ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘The Dead Beat’  
God, The Church, Religion‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ / ‘Soldier’s Dream’ /
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’  
Making Sense of the Senseless‘1914’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ / ‘Strange Meeting’  
Dreams‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ / ‘Strange Meeting’ / ‘Miners’  

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Escapism in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams

This Resource is for Year 10-11 students studying the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams in the Victorian Mainstream English Curriculum

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Background to the Play

First performed in 1949, A Streetcar Named Desire sprang from Tennessee Williams’ personal beliefs, reflecting his society as he saw it.  In the 1920’s, the American dream of democracy, material prosperity and equality for all had fast disappeared with the Great Depression.  This economic crisis began with the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and brought unemployment and great poverty to many.  The depression passed, but the idea of such a state of perfection was proved to be unrealistic and unattainable.  The characters in the play represent the jaded American dream, and the kind of lives, standards and tensions within which the immigrant population found themselves living.

The ‘Forward’ to A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams in March 1959

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The ‘Forward’ to the Penguin Books Edition 2000 of the play is written by Tennessee Williams himself and was first published in the New York Times on 8th March 1959.  Williams’ own feelings of insecurity and escapism are literally true.  At the age of 14 he discovered “…writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable.  It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge”.

Fantasy’s Inability to Overcome Reality 

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Although Williams’ protagonist in A Streetcar Named Desire is the romantic Blanche DuBois, the play is a work of social realism.  Blanche explains to Mitch that she fibs because she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her.  Lying to herself and to others allows her to make life appear as it should be rather than as it is.  Stanley, a practical man firmly grounded in the physical world, disdains Blanche’s fabrications and does everything he can to unravel them.  In relation to the Context ‘Whose Reality?’, Williams’ text enables the reader to explore this antagonistic relationship between Blanche and Stanley as a struggle between appearances and reality.  It propels the play’s plot and creates an overarching tension.

Through character construction we can see how people like Blanche Dubois are doomed in the world.  The play highlights the tragedy of one whose world and whose reality have no relationship with what is real.  As the play unfolds the audience witness the destruction of one who craves the abstract notion of love.  Blanche represents our desires and our capacity to imagine where we would like to be or how we would like to live.  As a direct contrast, Stanley Kowalski epitomises the modern world – pragmatic, cruel, heartless and lacking in sensitivity.

Escapism in A Streetcar Named Desire

Escapism is something we all embrace as a way to unwind and remove ourselves from the hassles of daily life.  However, we know we have to face reality and all its complexities.  Blanche Dubois’ character suffers one difficulty after another and she is unable to face the harsh realities of her world.  Escapism in A Streetcar Named Desire is represented by Blanche Dubois’ character who is unable to face the harsh realities of her world but in the end craves security, love and peace.

When she is raped by Stanley, her ability to distinguish truth from lies and illusion from reality is shattered.  Stanley’s declaration before he rapes Blanche, that “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” (Scene 10, p. 215) is a statement of his fundamental need to crush Blanche’s weakness, his “right” to exert his power over her sensitivity.  He is the manifestation of a modern and insensitive society that fails to acknowledge those needing support and craving emotional designs rather than materialistic ones. Her rape symbolises society’s inability to tolerate those who fail to fit in to the real world.

Reality Triumphs over Escapism and Fantasy

Though reality triumphs over escapism and fantasy in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams suggests that fantasy is an important and useful tool.  At the end of the play, Blanche’s retreat into her own private fantasies enables her to partially shield herself from reality’s harsh blows.  Blanche’s insanity emerges as she retreats fully into herself, leaving the objective world behind in order to avoid accepting reality.  In order to escape fully, however, Blanche must come to perceive the exterior world as that which she imagines in her head.  Thus, objective reality is not an antidote to Blanche’s fantasy world; rather, Blanche adopts the exterior world to fit her delusions.  In both the physical and psychological realms, the boundary between fantasy and reality is permeable.  Blanche’s final, deluded happiness suggests that, to some extent, fantasy is a vital force at play in every individual’s experience, despite reality’s inevitable triumph.

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Synopsis of ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller

This Resource is for students studying the play ‘Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

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Analysing Issues = Using MAPS

Ask yourself these questions using the following 4 prompts to help you analyse the issues in Death of a Salesman:

  1. Message = What is the author’s message?
  2. Audience = Who is the audience?  How are they positioned?
  3. Purpose = What is the purpose and author’s point of view?
  4. Storytelling and Style Features = How are the characters portrayed?  How does the setting influence the story?  How does the plot shape characters?  What is the form and genre?  How does the form and genre influence point of view?  What language is used?

How does Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller fit the theme of “Whose Reality?”

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Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman has been trading in deception all his adult life; in effect his livelihood has depended on it.  He is depicted by Miller as a flawed character.  Always a dreamer, Willy has swallowed the myth that material success represents the pinnacle of human achievement in the greatest country of the world, the USA, where anything is possible.  For a salesman, ‘reality’ is whatever sells.  Willy’s job has involved literally selling himself, inflating the truth, persuasion and making promises.  His world implodes when the reality of his personal and professional bankruptcy becomes impossible to hide.  Other members of the Loman family also thrive on self-deception and fantasy until their respective versions of reality bring them into conflict with each other and ultimately destroy the family unit.

The play’s atmospheric dimension is there to enhance the work’s narrative authority and appeal.  It is a compelling representation of the dark underside of the so-called American Dream.  Miller cleverly sets the scene for this stage play with his description of the Salesman’s house at the beginning of Act One as the curtain rises.  The stage directions emphasise the Loman family’s vulnerability with their home small and fragile compared to the advancing urban expansion.  The air of the dream, Miller says, “… clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality” (p.3 Act One).

In terms of “Whose Reality?” ultimately all the Lomans are trapped in the prison of their own subjectivity.  Willy confuses the past and present, truth and lies, fiction and fact.  He becomes increasingly alienated and disempowered.  By the end of the play he is lost in his delusions choosing dreams over reality which descend into a nightmare.

It is worth investigating the fact that self-knowledge is a threat to the protective veneer the Lomans have constructed for themselves.

The Question of Willy’s Death in the Play

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One huge issue raised by the play is the question of Willy’s death.  Is Willy a tragic hero or a delusional coward?  His death makes the reader question if Willy is wholly responsible for his reversal of fortune or if the world and post-war American society has failed a decent, hardworking man.  The two positions are not mutually exclusive and Miller’s text supports arguments for each.  It is your job to unpack these arguments in the text and decide for yourself what Willy’s downfall is due to.

Even Willy’s family have contradictory perceptions on his suicide.  In Willy’s mind the decision to take his own life is a deliberate sacrifice, an attempt to salvage something from his unsatisfactory existence and put his family ahead of the game.  Willy’s bleak funeral is a far cry from the grand affair he has envisaged and a telling contrast to that of his icon Dave Singleman.  However, when Linda asks “Why didn’t anybody come?” to Willy’s funeral (p.119 The Requiem), Miller clearly underscores the divide between Willy’s illusions and the brutal reality of his professional world.  In the final analysis ‘attention’ (p.45 Act One) is not paid to such a small man, nobody cares except his family and one old friend.

Biff intones at his father’s graveside that “He had all the wrong dreams”…. “Charley, the man didn’t know who he was” (p.120 The Requiem).  While Biff is talking about Willy in this instance, all the members of the Loman family fabricate their own romanticised versions of reality that enable them to live with their failures.  However, it is Happy who uncritically articulates the creed that underpinned his father’s working life, to be ‘the number one man’ (p.120 The Requiem).  Happy is willing to absorb his father’s message without questioning its integrity.  It is left to his faithful friend Charley to speak in his friend’s defence to Biff when he says “Nobody dast blame this man.  A salesman is got to dream boy… It comes with the territory” (p.120 The Requiem).

Willy Loman is a Victim

One thing is certain; Willy in Death of a Salesman is a victim.  While Willy’s story is intensely personal, Miller has made him an archetypal character whose predicament exemplifies the fallout suffered by those who cannot meet the bottom line.  You have to ask yourself why Miller used the indefinite article “a” in the title of the play Death of a Salesman, suggesting that Willy is merely one of many such victims.


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Message of Author in ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

This Resource is for Year 10-11 Students studying ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent in the Mainstream English Curriculum in Victoria

Image result for pictures of burial rites by hannah kent

How do you elevate your essay to become more sophisticated, analysing with insight and thus achieve a higher mark in your SAC or exam?  Include in your Body Paragraphs the Message of the Author that links directly to the essay prompt.

Why include Message of Author?

In your essay you are going beyond the literal [factual] meaning of the words in the text to find significant and unstated meanings of authors.  Essentially you are examining 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.

As you construct your essay, based on the prompt, you need to determine what the author thinks about the issue and how they discuss their viewpoint in the text.

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Look at this essay structure where the prompt is answered clearly:

Prompt:  “Burial Rites depicts a society in which power and strength are valued more than compassion and love”.

Body Paragraph 1 = Cause of power & strength of Icelandic society

Body Paragraph 2 = Response of individuals

Body Paragraph 3 = Consequence of why love and compassion is important to society

Message of Author is colour coded 

Introduction / Message of Author

On face value 19th century Icelandic society represented in Hannah Kent’s historical novel Burial Rites does endorse power and strength over compassion and love.  The text depicts a harsh patriarchal society that is reflected in the severe, intolerant nature of the law and social structure it serves.  In such a society, it is not uncommon for the poor and weak to be strongly disadvantaged and women to have little power relative to men.  While power and strength may dominate in the wider community, the text also emphasizes the profound effect that storytelling has on individuals, eliciting empathy and understanding thus making a difference to those around them.  Kent illustrates that the power of stories can surpass the prejudice ingrained in people, bringing comfort and love to even a brutal world, displaying how love and compassion are almost necessary in any society.

 BP1 Cause = Main Contention / The harsh patriarchal society of Iceland depicted in the novel not only favours an intolerant and brutal judicial system but it also uses violence against the poor and disadvantaged as an instrument of power by its administrators.

BP1 Message of Author / Consequently Kent highlights in 19th century Icelandic society the poor and women are strongly disadvantaged with little power relative to men.

 BP2 Response = Main Contention / While power and strength may dominate in the wider community; the text also emphasises the profound effect that storytelling has on individuals whose Christian values of love are embedded in their culture.

BP2 Message of Author / Kent illustrates that the power of stories can surpass the prejudice ingrained in people, bringing comfort and love to even a brutal world

 BP3 Consequence = Main Contention / The text promulgates that displaying love and compassion are necessary to any society

BP3 Message of Author / The text illustrates that compassion and love shown at the end of the novel are more powerful than power and strength as Toti, Margret and the family learn to see Agnes as a person ensuring her memory is not lost.

Conclusion / Message of Author

In the main, Burial Rites depicts a harsh society where the strong exercise power over the weak and there is little room for kindness or sympathy.  However, Kent highlights that there are individuals in the text whose compassion and love for their fellow Icelanders offset the brutality of the context in which they live.  This is particularly evident in the way that through the power of story-telling Agnes allows Toti, Margret and the family at Kornsa into her life’s narrative and the result is their love and compassion make a real difference to Agnes before she dies.

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent a Brief Synopsis

This Resource is for Year 10-11 Students studying ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent in the Mainstream English Victorian Curriculum

Strong prose, vivid characters

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

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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

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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

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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

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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).


All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum

Suspense Writing Explained

This Resource is for students from Years 7-10 studying English and need to develop some creative skills in writing stories.  Suspense writing is one option you should consider to help you get A+ for English.

Writing 101: How to Create Suspense in 5 Exciting Steps

What makes a story a page-turner, exciting from the first page?

A truly suspenseful book, short story, novella or other literary work is much like a theatrical performance.  Just as a well-written and superbly acted drama keeps the audience on the edge of their seats until the curtain call, a suspense filled thriller should captivate the reader until the final word.

When you think about the last story you read that seemed to grab you by the throat and not let go, what exactly made it gripping?

Horror film - Wikipedia

Did you feel the excitement from the first page?  Were the characters captivating?  Was it the heart pounding events that took place?  More than likely it was all of these things combined that made the story exciting.

I always judge a book by how late I stay up to find out what happens next.  If I’m still wide awake at two in the morning, that’s a fantastic book.  So, how do you keep your readers up to the wee hours of the morning?  You have to get them hooked.

What Makes Us Keep Reading a Good Book?

  1. definitely the characters count for me, if I don’t like them then I don’t care what happens to them in the book
  2. the book proposes questions that need to be answered with a hook that doesn’t let go
  3. basically a mystery that drives me to find out the ending
  4.  emotional intensity between being scared out of my wits to heart-broken

To make a suspenseful piece of work you need to use many techniques from playwriting

If you think of the most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, he understood the necessity to build up to a suspenseful climax by feeding his audience tidbits of information during the first and second acts of his plays.  He would then finish his dramatic theatric piece by using the most emotionally-intense scene with the climax in the third act.

Making Your Characters Real

In any great play, there are characters with whom the audience can relate.  Whether they are lovable or loathsome, viewers find some speck of familiarity or general humanity within them.  This keeps the audience actively engaged. When you are writing your short story or novel, if your readers don’t like the people who populate the book, then they will not care less what happens to them.

So there is one really important point, you must give the readers a character that is fleshed-out and real so the readers can care about them

By making the readers care, you give them a reason to go on with the story and to find out what happens to this person you have created.  The wanting to know keeps them reading.

The Setting Must Make Sense

Just as your characters must be realistic in your story’s world, so must your setting seem to make sense.  Your readers must be able to see the universe through the narrator’s eyes, smell the odours, and hear the sounds.  Without solid descriptions, your readers cannot become entangled enough in your work to truly enjoy the roller coaster of suspense.  Take nothing for granted, tell your readers the setting and don’t assume that the reader understands your fictional world as well as you do.

The Plot Must Be Logical Not Impossible to Follow

It is difficult to build suspense if your plot is impossible to follow.  Like a stage play, your plot must have some kind of logic to it.  If it doesn’t, your readers might be too distracted by the complicated plotline to become involved in the suspense.  It is more critical to tell the most important steps your characters have taken rather than describing every movement.  Nothing spoils suspense for a reader like having to flip the pages of the book wondering, “Did I miss something?”

Build up to a Suspenseful Climax within your Fiction

Don’t spring a suspenseful moment on the reader without some kind of foreshadowing.  It is a good idea not to start your work with an emtionally-intense scene.  As in a drama, work your way up to a suspenseful peak.  If you just keep hitting your readers with suspenseful moments without any context, you will only leave your audience perplexed, rather than engaged in the suspense.

Can you think of the last book you read that deeply affected you?

Emotionally charged books by Monica McInerney affect me.  Many times I have shed a few tears along with the characters and laughed with them too.  What was it that caused this effect?  I know for me, it was the characters, their believability.  However, it is really a combination of many things – characters, timing, plot and believability.  A good idea is to re-read a book or story that had a strong effect on you.  See if you can figure out how the author accomplished this.  Pay attention to the different techniques the author used.

The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody

The Gathering (Carmody novel) - Wikipedia

So many different techniques go into a suspenseful book.  One of the most suspenseful and horribly graphic books I have read that affected me was The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody.  I had to teach an excerpt from this book to a Year 10 Class.  The section we were reading was very descriptive, horrific in its nature, intense and suspense filled.  It affected me so much that I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a while to gather my thoughts before I could write up my lesson plan for class.  If you have read The Gathering, then you will know the part I am referring to: chapter 26, pages 212-215  where Nathanial’s dog is burnt alive.

Carmody’s language techniques captivated and terrorised all at the same time

What I realised is that Isobelle Carmody crafted such a brilliant novel with clever use of language forms, features and structure that I was spellbound, captivated and terrorised all at the same time.  The suspense is created by development of the mood from normal to foreboding and fear.  The build up of terror is emphasised by Nathanial’s frantic attempts to get free from the boys holding him.  Buddha is so evil he has poured petrol on Nathanial’s dog Tod.  When the match is lit we know something horrible is about to happen.  Is there some hope that Tod will survive?  The end result is emotionally and physically shocking.  Carmody achieved what she set out to do.

All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Years 11 and 12 VCE Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum