Personal Response Essay Plan Only for The Dark Knight the Moral Conflict of Batman

This Resource is for students Studying ‘The Dark Knight’ as a Personal Text Response for Year 11 VCE Curriculum AOS1 Reading & Exploring Texts

Prompt:  “It’s what you do that defines you”. (quote Batman) In the film ‘The Dark Knight’, is Bruce Wayne a moral philosopher?

Define words = moral = ethical/good/honest/decent

philosopher = truth seeker / seeker of justice

Analytical Essay Structure Using TEEL+ Personal Response =

  1. Introduction = Context / Main Contention / Main points / Message of Director / Personal View
  2. Body Paragraph 1 = Topic Sentence / 1st main point / evidence / explanation / personal view & values / link back to topic & message of Director
  3. Body Paragraph 2 = Topic Sentence / 2nd main point / evidence / explanation / personal view & values / link back to topic & message of Director
  4. Body Paragraph 3 = Topic Sentence / 3rd main point / evidence / explanation / personal view & values / link back to topic & message of Director
  5. Conclusion = Briefly restate Main Contention / Personal view & values / Message of Director

Director Christopher Nolan explores a number of moral and ethical questions in his film ‘The Dark Knight’ that highlight the humanity and fallibility of the ‘superhero’ myth ‘Batman’ placing his actions under scrutiny. At critical moments in the film, and as a result of his humanity, Batman must choose between two negative outcomes, that places his moral belief system under pressure. When Batman makes decisions, he must discard some values in favour of others, and in the process, he reveals his personal moral code that ‘it’s not what you do that defines you’. His approach to crime also places the superhero’s morality in the hands of his enemies, leading Batman to make troubling decisions as he attempts to stop the villains. I consider the film shows that Bruce Wayne is a moral philosopher because what differentiates him from the villains of Gotham is through his belief in the city’s potential for good, a belief which all of his enemies have abandoned.

Body Paragraph 1 = Background / Who or what causes problems

Focus on = background to Bruce Wayne & Batman’s life / Batman does not have superhuman powers like Superman / he is really only a man / leading a double life takes commitment / cardinal rule never to kill his enemies / the film asks what is the cost of human life? / When is it acceptable to compromise principles in society in order to survive a clear and present danger? / are people basically good or evil? / is it worth being good? / personal response – the film reflects the moral complexity of our own society

Body Paragraph 2 = Response / how do individuals or groups respond to problems

Focus on = moral and ethical choices / save the life of his love Rachel or crime fighting DA Harvey Dent / Batman has to choose and eventually loses both Rachel and Dent as a result of his limitations / Gotham City is in a moral and physical crisis / Rachel says ‘this city is rotting’ /the Joker attempts to dismantle and destroy societal moral codes / Batman must decide whether to save the Joker as he falls off the building’s edge / Batman could justify the Joker’s death as self-defence / yet he chooses to save the falling villain at the last moment – personal response – Batman faces the Joker’s biggest test – he does not kill him – he chooses not break his one rule never kill his enemy

Body Paragraph 3 = Consequences / Legacy for society and individuals

Focus on = does the end justify the means? / Should Batman lie in order to sacrifice himself for Dent’s reputation? / Batman is the hero Gotham deserves he is not the hero they need / sometimes truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more / Batman must face the consequences of his actions as the result of his humanity / personal response – in this way believes in the potential of Gotham’s citizens, he refuses to abandon them to crime and despair and hopes for a brighter future for Gotham

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

The Dark Knight Directed by Christoper Nolan Basic Notes

This Resource is for students Studying ‘The Dark Knight’ for Year 11 VCE Curriculum AOS1 Reading & Exploring Texts


‘The Dark Knight’ is not a simplistic tale of good and evil. Batman is good, yes, The Joker is evil, yes. However, Batman poses a more complex puzzle than usual: The citizens of Gotham City are in an uproar, calling him a vigilante and blaming him for the deaths of policemen and others. Significantly, the Joker is more than a villain. He is a Mephistopheles [an evil spirit who has sold his soul] whose actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies.

The plot involves the Joker’s attempts to humiliate the forces for good and expose Batman’ secret identity, showing him to be a poser and a fraud. He includes James Gordon and Harvey Dent on his target list. He contrives cruel tricks to play with the fact that Bruce Wayne once loved, and Harvey Dent now loves, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes. His tricks are crueller than he realizes, because the Joker does not know Batman’s identity. The Joker’s ghoulish appearance with a cackling laugh is driven by the belief humanity is inherently evil and any attempts at maintaining order or morality is a ‘bad joke’. Again, he underestimates Batman’s role as a symbol of justice and protector of Gotham City. Both sides are forced to make quick-witted decisions in order to stop the opposing vigilante from doing his desired work.

Good Versus Evil

‘The Dark Knight’focuses on the moral and ethical battles faced by the central characters, and the compromises they make to defeat the Joker under extraordinary circumstances. The Joker forces impossible ethical decisions on each character to test the limits of their morality. The Batman represents order to the Joker’s chaos and is brought to his own limit but avoids completely compromising himself. Harvey Dent represents goodness and hope; he is the city’s ‘white knight’ who is ‘pure’ of intent and can operate within the law. Dent is motivated to do good because he identifies himself as good, not through trauma like the Batman, and has faith in the legal system.

While the Joker corrupted Harvey Dent ‘the white knight’, Batman is willing to take the blame for the murders that Dent committed as ‘Two-Face’ so Gotham City will stay peaceful. Gordon tells his son Jimmy that although Dent was ‘the hero that Gotham needed’, ‘Batman is the hero that Gotham deserves’. In the end, Batman is still ‘a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark night’.

The Dark Knight Literary Elements


Christopher Nolan

Leading Actors

Christian Bale and Heath Ledger

Supporting Actors/Actresses

Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Aaron Eckhart


Superhero, Action, Thriller

Date of Release

July 18th, 2008


Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, and Christopher Nolan

Setting and Context

Gotham City, present day, after the events of Batman Begins

Tone and Mood

Dark, thrilling, brooding, philosophical.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Batman vs. The Joker

Major Conflict

Batman is trying to clean up Gotham while also fighting with the supervillain and agent of chaos, the Joker. He is also conflicted about whether to give up the identity of Batman and pursue a normal life.


Batman catching the Joker and then Batman killing Two-Face.


Joker foreshadows many of the evil things he will do with odd asides. Harvey Dent’s corruption is foreshadowed by his observation that heroes either die young or live to see themselves turn into villains.


At the start of the film, the power and influence of the Joker is constantly understated.


Allusions to philosophy and to the comic books on which the film is based.


The Joker is insane and chaotic, but also always two steps ahead, and thus, extremely methodical

Summary of the Plot

The criminals of Gotham City are running scared, because Batman is keeping the good citizens of Gotham safe. The film opens with a gang of men wearing clown masks breaking into the bank where the mob keeps much of their money. The mastermind of the heist is someone named the Joker. At the end of the heist, Joker arrives and puts a grenade in the mouth of the bank manager.

Unaware of the Joker’s presence in their city, Batman and the new DA, Harvey Dent, are working alongside Lieutenant Gordon to put the last of the mob’s money-laundering enterprises out of business once and for all. They believe they have definitively stopped the laundering and crime in the city—until the Joker shows up to sow chaos. Joker assassinates a judge, plants a bomb in a hospital and blows it up, and starts knocking off innocent people in Gotham one by one until Batman reveals his identity.

Batman is determined to fight back against the Joker. For a while, it seems as though he is maintaining the upper hand, until his best friend Rachel, who also happens to be Harvey Dent’s girlfriend, is killed in the crossfire. When half of Harvey Dent’s face gets burned in an explosion, the Joker brings him over to the dark side, encouraging him to seek vengeance for Rachel’s death. Harvey adopts a new name, Two-Face, and Batman finds himself with two madmen to contend with as the destruction of Gotham looms large.

The Joker has clearly been planning his takeover of Gotham for quite some time, and seems to be at least two steps ahead of Batman at every turn. After releasing a threat to the entire city of Gotham, he commandeers two ferries and fills one with citizens and one with convicted criminals. He also fills both ferries with explosives. He gives each boat a master detonator that will explode the other ferry. If nobody detonates the other boat by midnight, he says, he will blow up both boats. Batman is eventually able to subdue the evil clown and none of the passengers on the ferries are harmed.

Harvey is still on the Joker’s side, something that Batman did not realize in his haste to take down the Joker himself. While Batman has been confronting Joker, Gordon learns that his family has been taken hostage by Two-Face. When Gordon goes to save them, Two-Face knocks Gordon to the ground, then grabs his little boy, Jimmy, planning on flipping a coin to decide the boy’s fate by chance. Suddenly, Batman arrives and orders him to stop, telling him that he is blaming the wrong people for Rachel’s death. Two-Face then flips the coin for Batman. It lands dirty side up, so he shoots him. He flips it for himself. It lands clean side up. Then he resumes with his original plan and flips it for little Jimmy. In the definitive moment, Batman gets up and tackles Two-Face, knocking him over a ledge.

Batman bemoans the fact that the Joker still won because he corrupted Harvey Dent, split up their alliance for good, and destroyed one of the best people in Gotham. If the people of Gotham ever discovered the wrongs that Two-Face has done, Gotham’s future will be compromised. Thus, Batman decides to take the blame for the murders that Dent committed as Two-Face, so that the Joker can’t win and the city will stay peaceful.

Gordon is seen destroying the Bat symbol above the MCU building and then begins to chase Batman, who runs. Gordon tells his son that although Dent was the hero that Gotham needed, Batman is the hero that Gotham deserves. A manhunt is issued for Batman and he speeds away in his Batpod. Gordon declares, “He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

Justice versus corruptionBearing the burden as sacrificial heroLoss of love
Chaos & destructionHuman nature is essentially goodChance
Terrorism & escalationMorality & ethicsGood versus evil
Symbols & Motifs
Social experimentsMakeupTwo-Face
Joker cardBatmanHarvey as ‘the white knight’ symbol of good
Bruce is BatmanHarvey says he is BatmanRachel’s death
Joker’s scars  
Burning moneyJoker himselfTwo-Face
The Dark Knight  

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

The Dark Night Personal Text Response

This Resource is for students Studying ‘The Dark Knight’ as a Personal Text Response for Year 11 VCE Curriculum AOS1 Reading & Exploring Texts

Questions to ask about how the text resonates with student’s own memories and life experiences:

  • What aspects of your own experiences reflect the experiences of the characters in the text?
  • Have you experienced any major life events that reflect key moments in the plot?
  • What are your values and ideas about the world, and how do they compare with those presented in the text?
  • Can you draw parallels with your own observations of the world as represented in the text?
  • Can you compare the cultural, social, and historical values embedded in the text and compare these with your own values?

Connections to The Dark Knight

  • The Dark Knight creates a chaotic tale of struggling with human limits against terror – taps into fear of global terror – terrorists rely on fear to maintain their power
  • When Batman stands in the burning rubble – there are horrific parallels to images of ‘ground zero’ after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York & the War on Terror
  • The Joker is a fantasy version of a terrorist, he has no clear political ideology but he wants to impart chaos, destruction, and fear on Gotham City
  • Batman is part of a fantasy story – a costumed crime fighter –he can be considered on a deeper level as an authority figure who needs to maintain control over various evil groups such as real-world terrorists and terrorism groups
  • Harvey Dent was a hero ‘white knight’ but turns into a revenge bent criminal ‘Two-Face’ – the film shows how seemingly normal good people can turn into terrorists if given the right motive
  • Batman is in a morally uncertain middle ground when he ponders his failure against the Joker – he questions how far must he go in order to defeat such overwhelming forces of evil
  • The Joker killing Rachel Dawes and scarring Harvey Dent leads Batman down a morally questionable path – how does Batman reconcile his own humanity with his impulse for violent retribution against the Joker?
  • Is phone surveillance of Gotham City by techno expert Lucius Fox a real-life security concern? – it gives Batman power to listen in on every conversation in Gotham
  • The film questions the morals of people like Batman who has chosen to cross all ethical lines – is Batman morally compromised, a vigilante rather than good guy fighting evil?
  • If extraordinary circumstances are needed to control terrorists – what part of ourselves do we lose when we choose to take immoral steps to stop the villains?
  • Christopher Nolan’s film provides critical questions about fear of terrorism and also what governments do regarding threats – is war the answer against terrorists?

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

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque: The Basics

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

The Author Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque was born in Osnabruck, Germany in 1898. He joined the German Army in 1916 to fight in World War 1, and was wounded. After the War ended in 1918, Remarque published his novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – ten years later in 1928.

The novel is very realistic about the harsh realities of being an ordinary soldier in war, including none of the usual glory propaganda. It was a firmly anti-war novel and became an instant international success. In 1930 a film based on the novel was released. As the German Nazi party rose to power and prominence, the novel was being attacked as being anti-German or unpatriotic in 1931, and the film was banned. In 1932 Remarque and his wife fled to Switzerland for protection and by 1933 the Nazi Party banned Remarque’s books and burned them on bonfires.

The fact that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is based on the German soldiers’ experiences during War highlights the universal suffering and futility that War brings.

The Novel in Context of World War I – 1914 – 1918 (Estimated 9.7 million military soldiers died)

The First World War was one of the biggest wars that had ever been fought and saw the introduction of weapons of mass destruction such as gas, as well as other new war technology. There are many reasons for the outbreak of World War I, however the trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian student. Other factors included diplomatic fall-outs, irrational nationalism, and a build-up of military might.

Europe was split into two opposing camps. France, Russia and Great Britain were in the Triple Entente and Germany, Italy and Austria/Hungary were part of the Triple Alliance. On July 28, 1914 Austria/Hungary declared war on Serbia, so Russia began to get ready for war, and then Germany declared war on Russia and (later) France. However, when Germany invaded Belgium – a neutral country, Britain joined the war for fear of follow-up attacks. Later the United States joined the Allies.

After Germany moved into France, the trench warfare began. This was a new method of warfare that had never been tried before and had been a military officer’s brainchild. It meant that both sides had dug trenches underground, and the middle became known as “no-man’s land”. The conditions in the trenches were horrific, especially as they were always wet and muddy and filled with rats, lice and disease. There was shelling and firing by guns all day and night, and no protection from the heat or winter cold. Many soldiers not only died from being hit by guns and grenades, but also from the diseases that were rampant in those conditions or deadly poison gas. The War also caused much mental anguish and suffering for the soldiers.

Propaganda in WWI Why Men Enlisted to Fight – Both British & German

If we look back to the time of the break out of World War 1 – 1914 and before this, the world was a much different and slower place. Mass communication, electronic media and global travel were barely available and this may explain the success of war campaigns to lure young men, some still in school, to sign up and fight for their country.

The values of the time were that:

  • It was an honour to fight for one’s country in a war
  • Those who did not fight were cowards and should be punished
  • People who went to war were heroes
  • There was much glory and pride in being a soldier

At the time, there were people who were ‘conscientious objectors’, who did not believe in war, but standing out for this cause was seen as a betrayal. Thus, we see that in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, all of Paul’s class signed up to fight in the war, even though they were so young. The older men in the community were at first seen as too old to fight, so the first soldiers chosen were teenagers and those in their early twenties. The love of country and patriotism was valued highly, even though no one really knew about the horrors of war, back at home. Whilst there were official war photographers, artists, and reporters, most of what they were allowed to report back and produce would have been censored by their governments. All countries used propaganda to create fear amidst their citizens about the enemies, and to reinforce the need for men to sign up as soldiers.

The Truth about the Horrors of War

The truth about the horrors of World War I began to unfold as the soldiers realized they were just fodder for a huge killing machine that was war. Trench warfare was a new ‘idea’ that was being tested, and it allowed for massive amounts of death and disease. Paul and his friends realise when it is too late that there is no glory in this killing machine; they are just here to die. The fact that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is written by a German soldier reflects the universality of the horrors of war.

Poetry about War – Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

The same sentiments and experiences are also found in Allied writing, art-works and poetry written by those who were there – for example poems by Wilfred Owen such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ about the horrors and pity of war. Owen’s poetry presents the utter brutality of trench warfare truthfully. The experience for the soldiers was a shocking one especially as many of the soldiers were just young teenagers who had been fed propaganda about how noble it would be to fight for one’s country in the War. In fact, the common saying was “How sweet and noble it is to die for one’s country”, but the soldiers quickly realised they had just been sent to killing fields.

Plot Summary of the Novel

Paul Baumer, 19 joins the German Army to fight in World War 1. Several of his friends from his class were inspired to join the War by their patriotic school master, Kantorek. They feel they have been tricked after a few weeks at war, as the soldiers are subject to cruelty, brutality, and suffering, often leading to death. In fact, after just two weeks, Paul’s company of soldiers’ experiences losses of over 50% of the men. One of Paul’s friends Kemmerich, also a classmate is in hospital with gangrene and dying. Another friend Muller becomes pragmatic and hopes for Kemmerich’s boots when he dies.

Life is made very unbearable by the cruel and sadistic Corporal Himmelstross. Life in the trenches is disgusting and many men are struck down by disease or death. Soon there are only 32 of Paul’s company remaining alive. Not only is war hell but Paul realises that when he has leave, he feels nothing and is just numb. When he has time to go home on leave for a few weeks, Paul finds he cannot relate to others. However, he goes to visit Kemmerich’s mother and tells her that her son’s death was painless. This lie makes her happy.

Back at war, Paul is forced to stab a French soldier to death and he is filled with remorse and guilt. He realises that the enemy is just another victim of war like all soldiers. Looking through his identification, he learns the man’s name was Gerard and he has a wife and two children, which upsets him even more. By 1918 just before the War ends, Paul is the only original member of his company left. Paul is killed in October 1918. The novel ends with a statement from the Army report for this day as ‘All quiet on the Western Front’.

The Narrator of the Novel

Who is telling this story? The novel is written mostly in the First person from the perspective of Paul Baumer until the end of the book, where it changes briefly to Third person – as a report excerpt. As such the reader follows the rise and fall of Paul’s sense of life and enthusiasm. We feel his betrayal and despair, his inability to feel pain as it may overwhelm him.

Structure of the Novel

It is divided into twelve chapters, where there is some overlap, reflecting the confusion and loss of time. The reader goes on Paul’s incredible journey from innocent adolescent to jaded and despairing ‘hollow man’ who has lost everything. The last few chapters especially reflect the desperate chaos that ensued once America joined the war and Germany was clearly losing the war. Due to the lack of resources and younger men, the dying soldiers were now being replaced by older men, and the pace became even more frantic and destructive. When Paul dies, and his death is objectively reported in the third person of a military report – “All quiet on the Western Front.”

Themes of the Novel

The Horror of War – The novel presents the horror and brutality of war, which was a sharp contrast to War literature before this novel. Traditionally war books, poems, songs etc. glorified war as a patriotic honour and duty. The novel presents war from the point of view of the ordinary soldier so it cannot hide the truth and the horror of the immense suffering. World War I was a complete shock and introduced a ‘new’ method of French warfare – long, drawn out battles, new technology/weapons, which increased the death toll. The novel ends with all the major characters dead – including the protagonist and narrator, Paul.

Nationalism – The novel depicts the lies behind nationalism, exposing it as a powerful tool. Paul discovers that war has nothing to do with ideals, but rather it becomes a fight to stay alive. Moreover, there is no real sense of fighting an enemy. The enemy becomes the government and authority figures that sent them to the War.

The Effects of War on Soldiers – Clearly millions of soldiers died or were seriously injured by the War. Those that did not die and managed to return home would never be the same again. Months or years of constant exposure to physical danger constant attacks and living with fear had severe consequences on their nerves and emotional well-being. To add to this burden, the trenches were filthy, rat-infested and damp/water logged habitats. The soldiers were also dealing with lice infestations and diseased/decaying corpses all around them. Sleep was disrupted; food was lacking or of poor quality and medical care was very limited and poor. This is a toxic burden that made life for the soldiers unbearable. To survive, many of the soldiers had to disconnect from their feelings. As Paul discovers, although this leads to a general numbness that becomes all pervading, it protected the soldiers from mental anguish to some extent. The men became somewhat desensitized to the suffering and deaths all around them.

Friendship Bonds – The bonds between friends and sticking together seemed to be the only thing that kept the men alive and sane, and sometimes even this was not enough. It is especially touching to see how the more experienced soldiers looked after the new recruits who had never seen so much death and suffering. In Chapter 4, a shell-shocked young recruit seeks comfort from Paul and begins to cry as he is supported and told he will soon get used to it. Throughout the novel, Paul and Kat are very close and have a rare moment of intimacy and celebration of friendship as they eat the goose. (Chapter 5) Paul is constantly watching others die, but at this moment with Kat he acknowledges the humanizing power of friendship and relationships.

Betrayal and the Loss of Innocence – These two themes belong together because when the young men, filled with life and hopes for the future entered the war, they had been encouraged to do so by the very people who had guided them their whole lives – parents, teachers, and other authority figures. As soon as they arrived at the war, they were shocked into the reality of what the war was and the first thing they lost was their innocence, and it would have been impossible to feel betrayed by those they had trusted. In fact, Paul and the others see right through the lies and become quickly aware of the reality, and that they are just part of a giant killing machine, and need to be sacrificed to make the governments ‘plans’ a reality. The horror of war is never-ending and the recruits just keep on coming and being sacrificed for some lofty ideals.

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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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‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood: A Brief Synopsis Only

This Resource is ‘A Brief Synopsis’ only for Mainstream English Year 11 Students studying ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood: AOS1 Reading & Exploring Texts and AOS2 Crafting Texts Year 11 in the 2023 VCE Curriculum

The Penelopiad : The Myth of Penelope & Odysseus: Text Myth Series - Margaret Atwood

Historical Context

While ‘The Penelopiad’ is a postmodern, feminist short novel (novella) it is a work of narrative fiction with a story and plot, characters and settings and offers insight into human relationships as well as exploring moral, social and political issues.  The most significant element in Atwood’s narrative is that she retells Homer’s myth of the Odyssey enabling various interpretations and questions to what led to the hanging of the Maids and what was Penelope really up to?  By leaving Homer’s myth of Greece in 700 BCE open to reinterpretation, Atwood suggests that there is not one single undisputed truth in the interpretation.  Atwood addresses social and cultural issues of Ancient Greece within the framework of Homer’s myth but she assigns new emphasis to female protagonists like Penelope who have to fight for self and survival in a society ruled by men. 


‘The Penelopiad’ is told by Penelope adopting 1st person narrative, from the Underworld, called Hades in Ancient Greek mythology, where she has been for several thousand years.  Shown through Penelope’s eyes, Atwood creates a form of conversational dramatic monologue during which Penelope tells her side of the story as she waits the 20 years for Odysseus to return from the Trojan Wars.  She presents a kind of tell-all tale of her recount of events that she will “spin a thread of my own” (p.4) addressing 21st century readers in a more modern narrative style that is often colloquial.  Penelope uses blunt and straightforward language reclaiming her humanity and rejecting Homer’s account of her.  The tone is often ironic and humorous and is at odds with the patriarchal epic poems of Ancient Greek mythology.  She urges women “Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears” (p.2).  At times Penelope uses quite extreme slang when describing Helen of Troy calling her a “septic bitch” (p.131) in order to reinforce the view of Helen as the main cause of all Penelope’s problems.  Through the use of everyday vernacular, Atwood mocks the lofty language of the Odyssey and claims the right for alternative voices to be heard.

Feminist Literature

‘The Penelopiad’ can be considered feminist literature of the 21st century as Atwood takes women from the Odyssey and puts them into a new framework where the narrator Penelope and other female voices, once suppressed by Homer, become the voices heard.  Penelope is a capable modern woman, simultaneously trying to cover all roles while Odysseus is away.  She clearly does more than weeping and weaving.  She raises Telemachus as a single mother, manages Odysseus’ estates and negotiates the politics of the household and the onslaught from the Suitors.  Atwood shows Penelope resisting patriarchal dominance and oppression starting from when her father tries to drown her, until we meet her looking back on her life from the Underworld.  We see the focus on the way Penelope creates and extends her role of patient wife and mother to the other roles she defines.  The text addresses the feminist ideology which asks that “women be free to define themselves, instead of having their identity defined for them”.

Message of Author – Why did Margaret Atwood write The Penelopiad?

As Atwood admits, Penelope has been “in general somewhat neglected for the very simple reason that in the Odyssey she does weaving, waiting, sleeping and crying to show how much she cares that Odysseus isn’t there, how beleaguered she feels, and how lost and alone and unhappy she is.”  Certainly, Atwood could have written about murderous Clytemnestra or scandalous Helen, but she decided to take Penelope, a mythical, dutiful doormat and make her fly.  But Atwood conceded that there was much more to Penelope and she wanted to question Homer’s version of her.  For Atwood, such ancient myths can still tell us living truths. 

Atwood said that Penelope “Had a whole lifetime of keeping her mouth shut.  Now that she’s dead, she doesn’t have to do that anymore, because nothing is at stake.  It’s like those tell-all’s that people do at the end of their lives.”  Atwood also makes her put-upon heroine a shrewd estate manager and stand-in ruler, running the dirt-poor “goat-strewn rock” of Ithaca while the big boys play away from home.  “If you come to think of it, she must have been doing a lot more than she’s shown as doing in the Odyssey, because there’s nobody else in charge of the outfit.  She must have been a much more active, practical person than she’s shown as being.”  Nobody’s fool, Atwood’s Penelope sees through the returning Odysseus’s disguises and shares a flair for fibs and ruses with her errant husband. “There are two ways of fending things off if you don’t want them to happen,” Atwood explains. “One is by force – which is not available to her. The other is by guile.  So, she has to use guile.  And that is also Odysseus’s big stock-in-trade. When in doubt, lie – but lie well.”

Interview of Margaret Atwood by Boyd Tonkin “Margaret Atwood: A personal odyssey and how she rewrote Homer”.

The 12 Maids Perspective & Importance

Atwood intersperses Penelope’s narrative with performances from the 12 hanged maids, in 11 of the 24 chapters, who together form ‘The Chorus Line’ to comment on the action and give background from their perspective.  The maids perform in a variety of genres such as songs, recitations, dance, an idyll, a sea shanty, ballad, love story, mock heroic drama, an envoi, an anthropological lecture and a farce of a trial of Odysseus.  The narratives of the maids are also accompanied by stage directions to increase the sense of dramatic performance.  The maids lament the double standards throughout their chorus breaks, constantly reminding the reader or audience of the tragedy that happened.

The importance of the maid’s narrative is to address the treatment of marginalised women in a patriarchal society and Atwood’s need to give powerless women a voice not heard in the history of society or Greek mythology.  The maids continue to demand answers ‘Why did you murder us?’ (p. 193) and Atwood gives them the final word in the novella with a short poem, ‘Envoi’, where they again state ‘it was not fair’ (p. 195).  Atwood emphasises the injustice of silencing and marginalising women and suggests that women will keep on calling out about it.

Themes & Key Concepts Consider these Ideas for Connections with your Personal Response or Crafting Texts Response

  • Truth and Lies

Penelope’s story uncovers lies and innuendos as she takes the unchallenged position of narrator to tell the “plain truth” (p.139) so that deception is attributed by her only from Odysseus.  She says she knew Odysseus was “tricky” (p.2) but it seems that both Penelope and Odysseus use lies and deception to cleverly achieve their aims.  Penelope’s revelation of herself as an equal liar to Odysseus casts into doubt her insistence that she has nothing to do with the hanging of the Maids and does not know about it until it is too late.  It brings into question other matters like her true relationship with the Suitors and her activities when Odysseus is away.  Also, as the Maids call out insults to Odysseus concerning their treatment and their pledge to follow him wherever he goes, they taunt him about their murder, clearly referring to him as a careful, clever liar.  They make reference to Odysseus being a “grandson of thieves and liars” (p.191) because of the story involving the boar hunting with his grandfather, Autolycus.  The questions posed by this probable deceit are suggested by Penelope in the chapter of “The Scar” (p.47).  It appears that the clever lies told by both Penelope and Odysseus are used to manipulate others, to get what they want or just simply to survive.

  • Personal Challenge

Penelope starts her tale by retelling a story from her childhood.  She is thrown into the sea by her father, but is saved by a flock of purple-striped ducks.  Clearly this episode and its retelling has a profound impact on Penelope and leaves her with the personal challenge of dealing with her reserved personality and learning to manage her innate mistrust of others.  So, unlike her cousin Helen of Troy, who is confident and superficial, Penelope’s personality is more inward-focused.  This could also account for why she has to much trouble fitting in to palace life in Ithaca and resorts to her own abilities to “learn from scratch” (p.87).  Even though Penelope is only 15 when she is married to Odysseus, she is willing to start a new life with Odysseus so she can put her past life as princess of Sparta and her dysfunctional family life behind her.  Yet her personal challenges are broad and wide-reaching in Ithaca when Odysseus is away for so many years, she must rely on her own determination to succeed against the odds.  Despite much weeping and weaving she finds the strength to handle court politics and running the estates belonging to Odysseus.  In her personal challenges she applies her mother’s advice “If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it” (p.43).

  • Power

Penelope struggles with a lack of power, firstly as a child in Sparta, then when she is won in a marriage contest by Odysseus and later in Ithaca with Eurycleia and Anticlea.  There are fatal consequences when the powerful exert their power and we see two sides to Penelope, the powerful and the powerless.  The Maid’s lack of power is evident in the novella and they express this in “Kiddie Mourn, A Lament by the Maids” (pp.13-15).  Later they seek justice for the injustices they have faced, including their early and unnatural death by putting their case before a modern court.  However, even in that setting they lack the power for a resolution that will see Odysseus face his crimes. 

In ‘The Penelopiad’, physical power is embodied in Odysseus who is the self-proclaimed superhuman who had defeated the Trojans and established his political power in battle.  More importantly is that power is explicitly in the hands of men in Greece who consolidate and legitimise power physically, politically and economically over women.  Odysseus is free to kill Penelope for infidelity and to slaughter the Suitors and the Maids.  Likewise, Icarius is at liberty to drown his infant daughter or act in a drunken and insulting manner at Penelope’s wedding because “He was king” (p.41). 

‘The Penelopiad’ explores ways in which male power affects different groups of women as a result of class discrimination.  For instance, although Penelope is traded “like a package of meat” (p.39) between her father and her husband, as a noblewoman she still has far more power than her Maids.  The Maids are Odysseus’ property to the point that he is considered to have acted “within his rights” in hanging them.  In fact, their rape is judged as a crime against them as they had sex without his permission (p.151). 

Penelope’s “tale-telling” (p.4) is an attempt to seize some power by contradicting the traditional myth that depicts her as the stereotypical faithful wife.  Similarly, the Maids demand the right to tell their own version of events and thus achieve a measure of the power that was denied to their sex and class.

  • Responsibility

A key theme is responsibility; especially how Odysseus sees his responsibility in the tale, as Penelope does not give him the right of reply to accusations made against him.  Although Atwood indirectly refers to the puzzle concerning what leads to the hanging of the Maids in The Odyssey, in her retelling of the tale she states clearly that the story “doesn’t hold water” (p.xv).  She suggests that whoever is directly responsible might be important in her story with its new emphases.  Atwood indicates that Penelope is “haunted” (p.xv) by the death of the hanged Maids and we are told of her great affection for them.  On the surface it appears that the responsibility lies with Odysseus however, it is clearly much more complicated.  Atwood leaves doubt in the mind of the reader despite the fact that the Maids hold fast in their accusation against Odysseus for their murder.  Perhaps Penelope’s responsibility is to put a stop to being “A stick used to beat other women with” (p.2) as she wanted to set the record straight.  Yet Penelope pleads ignorance about the killing of the Maids.  Nevertheless, responsibility weighs on Penelope in outward statements and inner thoughts, which allows readers to raise questions of who is really responsible for the Maids killings.

  • Identity

‘The Penelopiad’ explores notions of identity and the ways in which it is tied to physical appearance, self-perception and the expectations of others.  Physical appearance with Helen’s beauty sets the standard of physical perfection by which other women (such as Penelope) judge themselves (p.35).  The text suggests that beauty can grant women power; in Helen’s case, agelessness as well, invests her with enormous power over men.  Beauty is also linked with youth and the capacity to bear children (especially sons) to ensure the continuation of patriarchal power. 

A sense of self can also be shaped by other’s perceptions and expectations leading people to question who they are.  This is clear as Penelope fails to meet her mother in law’s expectations of a suitable wife for Odysseus (p.62) and the idea he might be “thinking about Helen” (p.64) increases her insecurity.  Odysseus cheats if the odds are against him in order to substantiate his heroic status (p.31), he exaggerates stories of his heroism, yet his public identity as a hero is consolidated by his plausible stories that inevitably become “true” (p.2).

  • Gender Roles

The text explores ideas about being a woman with socially constructed notions of femininity and gender and also highlights the complexities of womanhood in a 21st century post-feminist context.  The good mother characteristics of a nurturing, gentle and protective quality with feminine sensibility is shown in Penelope when she gives birth to Telemachus as she is “glad” to have produced a son, gratified that Odysseus is “pleased” with her (p.64) and feels fulfilled by her maternal role.  Penelope’s observation that “a mother’s life is sacred” (p.111) reveals the high value society places on nurturing motherhood and the high expectations placed upon mothers. 

Yet toxic mothers in law with their reputed hostility to daughters in law is shown by Anticleia who Penelope described as a “prune-mouthed” woman (p.60) who wrinkles up “like drying mud” (p.85).  Atwood exploits these stereotypes for the comic or dramatic purpose in the text but Penelope challenges her role by showing the importance of spinning a threat of one’s own (p.4). 

Being a wife in Ancient Greece in a patriarchal society meant being a possession like Penelope being handed over like “a package of meat” (p.39) in a bargain struck between powerful men.  Penelope is the essence of submissiveness and obedience and only after her death she warns other women that following her example will subjugate and silence them.

  • Storytelling & the Power of Narrative

‘The Penelopiad’ demonstrates the power of storytelling and the liberating power of taking ownership of one’s own story.  Penelope’s spinning of her own “thread” (p.4) disputes Homer’s idealised version of her in the Odyssey so that she is able to complicate the accepted one-dimensional image of her as a dutiful wife and emphasise to the reader her considerable intelligence and resilience.  Rewriting of the Odyssey is empowering for Penelope as she can finally negate the many stories about her that she would “prefer not to hear” (p.3).  Her authorial control frees her from the burden of being a legend (pp.143-5) and allows her to warn other women not to follow the example she set of keeping her “mouth shut” (p.3).

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The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman A Brief Synopsis

The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman, Paperback, 9780141014081 | Buy ...

What Genre is Maus?

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

What is Maus About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt as a Major Theme in Maus

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

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

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

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

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

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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