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’  

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

Medea the Play by Euripides: The Basics

This Resource is for students in Year 11 studying ‘Medea’ the play by Euripides in AOS1: Unit 1, Reading & Creating Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE Curriculum

Medea and Other Plays : Penguin Classics - Euripides

Context of the Play in Ancient Greece

The Greek civilisation which produced tragedies such as Euripides’ Medea flourished in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.  Politically, Greece consisted of city-states such as Athens (Attica), Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Megara and Argos.  By 500 BC Athens was the artistic centre of Greece but Sparta was the major power and head of the alliance of city-states until Athens destroyed the attack fleet of the Persians in 480–479 BC.  At the time when Euripides wrote Medea, Athens still represented the epitome of civilised, balanced culture and democracy.  For that reason, it is pertinent that Medea is taken to Athens at the end of the play, in the Sun god’s own chariot.

Although the ancient Greeks are famous for establishing democracy, they restricted the role of women in society and enslaved other peoples.  In the fifth century BC, the historian Thucydides wrote: ‘The greatest glory [for women] is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame’.  The play’s questioning of women’s subordinate position was a highly unconventional attitude and a reflection of Euripides’s own views that he used to raise an interest for his audience about women’s rights, duties and relationships.

Additionally, the family was extremely important in Greek culture, as was adherence to religious rites such as proper burial.  While women in Athens were positioned as home-makers, mothers, with no voting powers or citizen rights, the men could take multiple sexual partners even though they were married.  These are important points used by Euripides in the working-out of his plot. Not only is Medea isolated in Corinth, away from her family, she has exiled herself from both family and homeland through what she has done for love of Jason.  She represents not only a wronged woman but the position of women in general in Greek society.  Her ‘otherness’ is stressed from the start, as is her status as a stranger in Corinth. 

Greek Theatre as a Public Educator

Greek dramatic spectacles were more than entertainment they were acts of religion, involving the population as an ongoing public duty.  Tragic theatre both confirmed and questioned Athenian democracy because it was political theatre, staged for and by the ‘polis’ [city state] of Athens.  One of the aims of Greek tragedy was to educate citizens in the practice of good citizenship.  Plays like Medea articulated difficulties experienced by human beings trying to understand fundamental questions of duty and justice in situations of conflict, where the gods could be appealed to, but rarely gave direct guidance.  All performances of the plays were male actors only, never females.

Who was Euripides?

Image result for Euripides. Size: 100 x 106. Source: classicalwisdom.com

Euripides was born in 480 BC and died in 406 BC, he is one of the greatest dramatists who wrote tragic plays that were the most controversial against other great writers Aeschylus and Sophocles.  All three competed in the Great Dionysia festival in fifth century BC that was performed in Athens each year at which the whole community participated. 

Euripides was not popular with his contemporaries because he questioned traditional values. His ideas were considered dangerous and his dramatic technique was thought inferior. His plays were considered radical and departed from many of the established ideas of tragedy while treating the accepted mythological stories with less respect.  His play Medea  was produced in 431 BC challenged the audience by giving a voice to a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.  He considered Medea’s concerns in a ‘battle of the soul’ between good and evil that tears a person apart psychologically.

His characters often questioned the gods’ sense of justice because they seemed sources of misery more than happiness. At times in his plays, Euripides suggested that chance ruled the world. His audiences found his plays confusing because he used gods to resolve conflicts and foretell the future and because characters’ speeches sometimes sounded like lists of evidence. However, Euripides’ interest in the psychology of his characters, his exploration of human motivation, and the topical and universal nature of his themes make Medea an interesting and relevant play to study in the twenty-first century. Most of Euripides’ plays insist that we must be aware of our own nature, and of our place in the universe, which entails an acceptance of the limits of human autonomy [independence].

Background Story to Medea the Play

Jason and Golden Fleece Story

Jason and the Argonauts, sailors of the Argo, sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. To pass into the Black Sea, Jason had to have the ship rowed quickly through the Clashing Rocks (Symplegades). In Colchis, Aeetes the king made Jason plough a field with a pair of fire-snorting bulls. Then he had to overcome the serpent that guarded the fleece within its coils. Medea, a sorceress [witch type person who used magic herbs and potions], helped him—he would have been unable to do it without her. She had fallen in love with Jason and her father pursued the pair. Medea killed her brother and scattered his limbs at sea to delay the king, who by custom had to bury his son before continuing his pursuit. They returned to Iolcus, where Jason’s uncle, Pelias, had usurped the throne. After restoring Jason’s father Aeson to youth by boiling him in a cauldron of herbs, Medea convinced Pelias’s daughters to cut their father into pieces and boil him, then refused to restore his youth. Pelias’s son drove Jason and Medea into exile: they fled with their two sons to Corinth. Jason deserted Medea to marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The play begins here.

Brief Summary of the Plot

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In a nutshell, the play is about a wronged woman who dupes [fools] her husband and a king, kills her children and escapes with the help of her grandfather, the god Helios.

When the play opens, the Nurse reports that Medea has been deserted by her husband Jason.  This comes as a double blow, because Medea has betrayed her own family in Colchis in order to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece, and had come with him to Corinth.  Now that Jason has left her, Medea has no family to turn to in her plight.  Jason plans to marry the Princess of Corinth to improve his position.  Medea, in her passionate anger, plans to revenge herself on Jason, the Princes Glauce and her father, King Creon.  Creon comes to tell Medea she is banished from Corinth because he fears her.  She becomes the suppliant, assuring him of her innocence and begging to be allowed to stay a little longer.  In reality, she needs time to carry out her revenge.  She sends her two sons with poisoned wedding attire for Glauce, who is then burnt by the poison along with her father Creon when he comes to her aid.

Medea’s plan for revenge has since changed, she now intends to kill her two sons to that Jason’s suffering will be complete.  She then plans to escape to Athens, where King Aegeus has offered her shelter.  After much debate with herself, Medea kills her children.  Jason discovers their bodies and curses his wife.  Medea is unmoved, and leaves in a chariot drawn by winged dragons which her ancestor, the sun god Helios, has supplied for her escape.

Main Characters

  • Medea = Is the tragic protagonist of the play.  She is passionate and arrives on stage with the history of having murdered to help her husband Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.  She is a sorceress with magical powers, grand-daughter of Helios the Sun god.  Medea loves Jason but appreciates her love has brought her exile and infamy [dishonour].  Jason is the father of her two sons, whom she does love, so killing them affects her own psyche.  Speaking as a woman, Medea articulates her feelings on jealousy, frustration, childbirth, domestic isolation, submission to a controlling man, security, broken promises given by Jason, all subjects that would confront the Athenians at the time.  Euripides seems to be on Medea’s side in this tragic play and lets her fly away safely at the end with the help of a chariot pulled by dragons.
  • Jason = Born a prince of Iolcus, the hero of the Golden Fleece legend, leader of the Argonauts expedition, Medea’s husband, father of two sons, Jason is presented as arrogant, selfish and narrow-focussed on material success through a marriage to princess Glauce, the King’s daughter.  He dismisses Medea’s arguments against him and betrays her by breaking the sacred binding oath that had bound them together in a type of marriage contract (not legitimate).  He has no conscience failing to comprehend that marrying Glauce will hurt Medea and is dismissive of the role of women in society, describing them as evil necessities only useful for reproduction.  His arrogance allows him to be fooled by Medea’s greater intelligence and is reduced, emotionally destroyed and doomed to die as Medea predicts when his great ship, the Argo, collapses on him.
  • The Nurse = An old woman, loyal to Medea but conservative and cautious, expresses the views that the Athenian audience would recognise as correct and sensible that women ought to be obedient in marriage.  She is supposed to stir the audience’s initial feelings of sympathy and pity for Medea and activate fears for the vulnerable children announcing that Medea actually ‘hates her children’ and is definitely ‘no ordinary woman’.
  • The Tutor = The old man expresses homely practical advice about making the best of life.  He accompanies the children with Jason to Creon’s palace and acts as a preliminary messenger, innocently bringing what he thinks is good news to Medea about Glauce’s reception of gifts.
  • Creon = King of Corinth he is wise and family minded, but suspicious of Medea’s powers, especially over his daughter Glauce after her marriage to Jason.  For this reason, he exiles Medea and her children immediately.  However, Medea tricks him by appealing to the welfare of her children, he relents and lets her stay one more night to help them prepare to leave.  This is his downfall, as Medea kills him shortly afterwards, along with Glauce.
  • The Chorus = Corinthian women represent the voice of the city, the moral heart of society and strongly condemn Jason’s oath-breaking.  They make value judgements about action just passed, wonders to come and provide poetic asides that often foreshadow tragedy.  They appear to be supporting Medea against Jason but do caution her not to go too far as they fear for the children.  At the end they comment that the gods are responsible for all and are unpredictable.

Other characters = Glauce princess of Corinth / The Messenger announces eyewitness accounts of events happening offstage / the children Medea and Jason’s sons are heard only behind the skene door offstage but they do not speak onstage / Aegeus is the wealthy diplomat from Athens who offers Medea shelter and protection

The Gods

The Greeks believed in gods and goddesses, who they thought, had control over every part of people’s lives. They had to pray to the gods for help and protection, and if the gods were unhappy with someone, then they would punish them. The gods were included in many Greek tragic plays which were concerned with spiritual issues and how they interfered in human lives.  There was a debate about how far mortals were free to pursue or avoid disasters of their own making within a cosmos [universe] that also had room for concepts of fate, right, revenge, justice, punishment in Greek society.  Euripides was criticised for bringing the gods onto the stage then causing them to behave in outrageous ways.  Athenians at the time thought Euripides was mocking the gods as if he either despised or disbelieved in them. 

Is Medea a Heroine or a Tyrant?

An important task is to work out if Medea is a heroine or tyrant.

Some Ideas to consider:

  1. Medea is a Victim & a Heroine – Euripides suggests that Medea also has a legitimate grievance presenting her arguments on behalf of “we women” and so is not solely responsible for the tragedy – So she is a passionate heroine fighting for the rights of women – She is also a victim having made significant sacrifices in helping Jason secure the Golden Fleece.
  2. Euripides also suggests that she has been wilfully treated by Jason.
  3. Euripides presents Jason as a cold-hearted husband who prides himself on being able to negotiate the tempestuous whims of others. Euripides suggests that one of his biggest errors of judgement is to misunderstand or downplay the depth of Medea’s passion and grievances.
  4. Medea is Subjected to Extreme Passion Without Reason – Medea is motivated by her excessive passion for her husband, Jason that turns to excessive hatred upon his betrayal.  Euripides shows the damage that can occur owing to extremes of emotion – both love and hatred. In particular, the playwright suggests that hatred festers and leads to shameful excuses on behalf of Medea who condones the suffering she inflicts on others.
  5. Euripides also suggests that Jason’s phlegmatic and insensitive streak fails to anticipate the danger that lurks within. Only a very extreme action, it seems, can penetrate his barriers.
  6. Medea can be just as Ruthless and Manipulative as Jason – She deceives both Creon and Jason.
  7. Medea is Aware of her Actions – She is not insane like the Greek myth of Ino but a cold-blooded murderess – She admits that understands the “full horror” of what she is about to do , but “anger masters my resolve”.
  8. Medea is a Tyrant & Child Killer – The Chorus suggests that Medea crosses the line by killing her children and turns herself into a despicable “child-killer”. By killing the children, Medea’s righteous cause tips into cold-blooded revenge; Euripides criticises her motives as she becomes obsessed with sparing herself the scorn of her enemies.


conflictbetrayalexile & the individual
reason vs passionnotion of justicerevenge
parents & childrengender politicswomen in society
order vs chaosheroism & honourfamily obligation & nurture
filicide [parents killing their children]good vs evilpsychology of human motivation

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‘Montana 1948’ by Larry Watson a Brief Synopsis

This Resource is for Year 11 students studying Mainstream English in the Victorian Curriculum the text ‘Montana 1948’ by Larry Watson as a single text or as a comparative text with the play ‘Twelve Angry Men’ by Reginald Rose

AOS1, Unit 2 – Reading and Comparing Texts

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

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

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

  • crisis points
  • climax
  • turning points
  • resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Theme, Issue and Idea Mean?

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

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

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

Comparing Texts

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

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

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

Comparing the Central Theme of Achieving Justice in ‘Montana 1948’ and ‘Twelve Angry Men’

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

‘Montana 1948’ is Set in a Small Town in Montana after WWII

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

The Structure & Narrator in ‘Montana 1948’

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

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

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

Truth and Justice in ‘Montana 1948’

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

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

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

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

Complex Themes and Ideas in ‘Montana 1948’

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

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

Is Justice Served?

Image result for  justice images

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

What Does this Novel Say About Society?

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

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

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‘Twelve Angry Men’ the Play by Reginald Rose: A Brief Synopsis for Year 11 English

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Area of Study 1, Reading & Creating Texts Analytical Response OR Reading and Comparing Texts as a Comparative Text

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 11 Students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum the text Twelve Angry Men a play by Reginald Rose.   NOTE TO STUDENTS: This Resource is based on the play and not the film version of Twelve Angry Men.

In Unit 1, Reading and Creating Texts students will be asked to produce an analytical response to a single text demonstrating a close knowledge with analysis and interpretation that includes the world of the text, its settings, characters, themes and ideas.

OR For Students studying ‘Twelve Angry Men’ with another Text/Film

In Unit 2, Reading & Comparing texts students will be asked to investigate how the reader’s understanding of one text is broadened and deepened when considered in relation to another text. Students also explore how features of texts, including structures, conventions and language convey themes, issues and ideas that reflect and explore the world and human experiences, including historical and social contexts.

The Basics of the Case of Twelve Angry Men:

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

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

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

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

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

The Characters in the Play:

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

Juror #8:

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

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

Juror #9:

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

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

Juror #5:

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

Juror #11:

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

Juror #2:

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

Juror #6:

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

Juror #7:

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

Juror #12:

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

Juror #1:

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

Juror #10:

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

Juror #4:

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

Juror #3:

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

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

The Triumph and Fragility of Justice in Twelve Angry Men

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

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

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

 Major Themes to Consider in Twelve Angry Men:

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

There are 2 sides to an Issue:

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

Values in society to consider:

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

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

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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

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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).


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‘On the Waterfront’ Directed by Elia Kazan Film Techniques

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For Year 11 students studying AOS1 Unit 2 Reading and Comparing Texts, the film On the Waterfront Directed by Elia Kazan with either play The Crucible OR Twelve Angry Men.

It is important to note the film techniques in On the Waterfront when you write your comparative analytical essays.

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Significant Film Techniques from the film On the Waterfront

Film style = black & white, realistic documentary style (film noir)

Mise en scene = setting – not a set but the actual docks of Hoboken New Jersey

Landscape = cinematography – fog, smoke, mist, clouds, smoky grey sky, nature uncivilised & uncontrollable

Lighting = use of dark to represent evil & light goodness like Edie

Sounds & music = diegetic ie. music, soundtrack, non-diegetic ie. sounds like machinery, ships horn, whistles

Costumes = poor clothes for longshoremen, pseudo-business attire of Johnny Friendly & his gang to draw attention to a certain air of respectability that defies and conceals the extent of their entrenched corruption

Camera angles = deep focus, point of view close up shots, low angle to high suggests power, two-shot 2 people at mid-range, low angled single shot of Terry after his beating in last scene Related imageSettings & Visual Style in Detail

On the Waterfront is a black and white film that represented a 1950’s gritty documentary style with a morally ambiguous (film noir) crime film of the period.  Kazan’s use of setting is intended to register the oppression and destruction rife on Hoboken Docks.

Boris Kaufman’s camera distils a skyscape which is menacing, insular, if not claustrophobic.  Dark settings emphasise not only the dream and danger the residents face, but also the labyrinth network of corruption.  The workers exhibit ill at ease, slouched postures in conjunction with the deep and dark urban underbelly.  The shrouded light of day is diffused by cloudy skies and thick fog.  It highlights the uncertainty in relation to obtaining work and also fear.  Kazan’s endeavour was to create disquiet in viewers emphasising the danger and fear that the longshoremen live under and therefore creating tension amongst the viewers.

The dark and seedy interiors, such as the bar, reinforce Johnny Friendly’s power and aggression, while the dingy, shabby and cramped apartments highlight the workers’ desperation. Pa Doyle is one of the most desperate of the workers, caught because of his desire to support Edie’s education. He like many others are psychologically imprisoned by the “deaf and dumb code”. Anyone who breaks the code or is suspected of dubious loyalty is unlikely to receive a work token.

The competitive fight for the tokens on the Hoboken wharf literally shows the “dog eat dog” environment that belittles and dehumanises the men. Kazan uses circus-like music to reinforce their animal-like behaviour as they become play-things of the bosses.

The rooftop symbolises Joey’s attraction to the birds; he becomes one of many pigeons outplayed by the hawks. The pigeon cages reflect the longshoremen’s inability to break out of their prison-like oppressive conditions on the wharf and their basic preoccupation with survival and existence. The hawks symbolically represent Johnny Friendly and his gang. The hawks ‘go down on pigeons’, which reflects the bosses’ philosophy of looking after their own interests.

Landscape / Fog & Smoke in Detail

The location of the docks and the landscape were used by cinematographer Boris Kaufman to make the most of the fog and smoke that were part of the freezing January landscape but also used deep focus to position the characters within the landscape and to emphasise the ever-present connection between the individual and the group.  Depicting the waterfront society connected to the society of the time is a reminder that individuals in this world are locked into a complicated set of relationships with their fellow workers and the powerful people they work for.

Day time scenes the smoke and mist express the mood of uncertainty that prevails in the film.  The constant mist and smoke characterise the mise en scene of the film as a visual clue of the moral choices that people make.  The freezing January is a symbolic power in the scenes on the roof where the character’s desire is to rise above the murky waterfront world below is cast into doubt by the rising mist and the billowing smoke from the chimneys and smoke stacks.

In the majority of the scenes that take place at night, the smoky pale grey daytime look gives way to a highly stylised use of light and dark.  The use of dramatic lighting stresses the claustrophobic nature of the character’s world.  In the scene where Terry and Edie are chased down by a truck driven by Friendly’s henchmen, the lighting creates the impression that Edie and Terry are caught in a narrow tunnel with no way of escape.

Sounds and Music in Detail

One of the memorable aspects of the film is the ambient or background noise.  Sound is used to great effect in the scene where Father Barry persuades Terry to tell Edie about his involvement with Joey’s murder.  The jarring mechanical rhythm of the machinery in the background contributes to our growing awareness that Terry is just one small element of a much larger world over which he has little control.  In a very dramatic moment, the horn of a ship drowns out the conversation between Terry and Edie.

The musical score was written by Bernstein with the soundtrack foreboding, even military sounding.  The opening scene features threatening sounding drums and brass with the fight shots of Friendly met with the sound of a dry saxophone, which foretell not just the murder about to happen, but set the scene for the landscape as one of conflict.  Audiences recognise that the men who are exiting the clubhouse are no law-abiding citizens.  This is accompanied by rhythmic crashes of timpani which register the enormity of the situations.

The other music themes are the gentler strings that typically accompany scenes between Terry and Edie and indicate hope.  In the scene where the mob invade Father Barry’s church, mixed percussion and shrill strings are used to create an atmosphere of confusion and desperation.  The final scene is the most powerful in creating suspense and tension with a tone of unresolved chord in the strings, inferring the struggle is not over, maneuvering audiences to question the fate of the workers.

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Construction of Meaning and Author’s Agenda in ‘Ransom’ by David Malouf

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This Resource is for students studying ‘Ransom’ as a single text in the Victorian VCE Curriculum OR for Year 12 students studying the comparative texts of ‘Ransom’ with ‘The Queen’.  The resource will be useful for both studies.

Construction of Meaning and Structure of Texts

When reading texts to construct meaning, readers increase their understanding by recognising the craftsmanship of the writing and the choices the author made to portray the topic in a certain way.

Genre of ‘Ransom’

Narrative fiction.  A novel that uses the final section, Book 24 of Homer’s The Iliad an epic poem, to tell the tale of Hector’s slaughter and Priam’s subsequent visit to Achilles to plead for his son’s body.

Malouf takes some of the generic features from the classical epic and re-makes them in a less formal novel.  The character of Somax is Malouf’s own creation.

Historical Context

The story of Achilles, Hector and Priam and Troy date back to 70 BC.  The novel Ransom is set during the Trojan War but begins after Agamemnon called on Achilles to surrender Briseis to him and Achilles refused, withdrawing his Myrmidon forces from the latest battle against Troy and creating an open intended insult.

Malouf begins his narrative of Ransom with the brooding Achilles pondering his options after revoking his support for the Greek cause and insulting Agamemnon.

What Malouf does is he re-works Homer’s epic of the Trojan War with its heroes and brings to life another side of both Achilles and Priam that requires them to face emotions and overcome dilemmas by acting in more honourable ways.  The narrative allows the characters to liberate themselves from a crisis of personal values and a loss of self-esteem, something quite different from the view of human action in The Iliad.

Structure & Narrative Perspective

The 5 chapters of Ransom focus on different perspectives of key characters set in separate settings associated with each character.

The Introduction of the conflict told through Achilles’ thoughts in part 1 leads to the complication in part II of Priam deciding to ransom Hector’s body.  Priam’s journey with Somax to Achilles’ camp further the action of Priam’s quest and adds a contrasting pastoral interlude in part III.

The meeting of Achilles and Priam in part IV is a dramatic climax.  A short conclusion in part V describes Priam’s journey back to Troy as the truce begins.  The closing focus on Somax as an aged storyteller offers a miniature epilogue to the action and is a lighter more comic ending.

The narrative is told in the present tense through a third-person voice, which does change to first-person or third-person limited perspective to reveal the thoughts and feelings of a particular character.  The shifts in narrative voice allow the text to convey each character’s thoughts and reflections on events, characters and settings round them.

Language Style & Shifts in Narrative

Malouf’s language style, sentence construction and vocabulary choices often reflect the action or atmosphere of the narrative paying close attention to the character’s thoughts, actions and the features of the world in which they find themselves.  For example the description of Hector’s dead body trailing behind Achilles’ chariot spans most of page 26.

Descriptions are at other times precise, realistic, economical and evoking character’s moods.  For example Somax’s pikelets explain a simple world that Priam is discovering a fresh way of appreciating the small experiences he can enjoy that were absent from his formalised life of a king on page 118.

At some times he chooses more evocative complex words that carry connotations that enrich the narrative as when Achilles feels the notes of the lyre and this emits a dreamlike quality.

Malouf often uses word patterns of imagery like he does in his poetry, such as the way water, earth, air and fire are connected with different characters in Ransom.  He connects bodies and minds in these terms.  His words share feelings in the reader so that the reader can experience a specific theme in the novel.  Water is an element that moves in waves but is also described as ‘shifting’ and ‘insubstantial’ on page 4.

Shifts in the narrative point of view give characters an individual presence in the reader’s mind.  By changing the narrative focus Malouf gives value to diverse views.

Tragedy & Comedy

While the novel is predominantly tragic, Malouf invites the reader to consider comic moments in part III when Priam and Somax travel together and meeting Hermes on their journey to the mildly ridiculous description of Somax’s affection for his mule.  These occasions of humour present the reader with brief but vital moments of reprieve amid the violence and brutality inherent in the narrative.

Tragedy is evident in the human loss and failure in a world where characters face harsh consequences for their actions.  Nothing about Achilles ritual rage and the speed of his chariot carrying its macabre cargo are positive.  The reader gains a sense of tragedy and horror as Achilles turns into almost a mad man mistreating Hector’s body over and over again for 12 days.

Imagery & Senses

Malouf uses sensory imagery to encourage readers to envisage and imagine the events and changing moods within the narrative.  For example he utilises appeals to the senses of sight, taste, smell, touch and hearing to engage the reader in Priam’s childhood experiences as Padarces.

Voices are combined with images of the sea combining vision and sound at the beginning of Ransom “The sea has many voices” (p.3).

The elements of water, air, earth and fire show the vital connection between humans and the natural world helping to define how characters think and feel.

Animal imagery is used to present Achilles as wild, barbaric and merciless.  As a warrior he is imbued with ‘an animal quality he shares with the wolves …” (p.35).

Concept of the Journey

The concept of the journey in the text allows the characters to experience a range of settings, including places they “never till now even considered” (p.192).

Malouf describes the journey into the landscape brutalised by war that Priam has never seen.  Across the Scamander River Priam and Somax see a landscape which is “one of utter devastation” (p.155).

Unfamiliar settings are also described when Achilles goes to the laundry tent in the Achaean camp to see Hector’s dead body being washed by women.  These are elements that are strangely alien yet familiar to him as he thinks of his mother (p.192).


Taking a chance, choosing action = Priam acts in an unexpected way to achieve a positive goal when he decides to follow chance rather than passive customs.  The novel invites us to ask questions about our own beliefs if we should believe in fate or chance.

Pity and compassion = Priam pleads with Achilles to release Hector’s body.  He appeals to humanity and in doing so raises the question of what is means to be human.  The novel questions the values of basic respect for each other and showing compassion.

Gender roles and power = The novel is set in a world where political power belonged to men and the role of warriors fighting each other was a key aspect of men’s identity.  The role of women is limited and the influence is second to men.  Yet Malouf does explore the feminine side of his characters when he talks about the ritual actions of local women in the story and Somax’s daughter in law and granddaughter.  Achilles softer side is more to do with his mother the sea goddess Thetis that allows him to embody a duel self.

Storytelling = The nature of stories is an important theme in the novel.  Malouf blends the relationship between stories, history and myths which is how he was able to give fresh life to ‘crevices’ found in Homer’s ancient tale.

Family / father & son / friendships = Affection for family and friends is a central value in the novel.  Love for family is at the centre of both Priam and Achilles actions and values.  When Priam asks Achilles for Hector’s body he appeals to Achilles to remember his love for his son Neoptolemus and Peleus’ love for him.  Close male friendships like Achilles and Patroclus and father-son loyalties are important in Ransom.

The Author’s Purpose and Agenda

The reasons why authors write are called the Author’s Purpose or Agenda.  Depending on the purpose, authors may choose all different sorts of writing formats, genres and vernacular [language].  There are 3 main categories of author’s purpose:

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

Malouf is interested in the “untold tale”

In reinterpreting Homer’s Greek classic, the Illiad, Malouf alerts readers to the fact that he is more interested in the “untold tale” found in the margins.  Malouf says of Ransom in his afterword that “its primary interest is in storytelling itself” and the reason that stories are told and often changed.  In this case, the change becomes of paramount importance in Ransom as King Priam dares to re-imagine his role by stepping outside convention and inventing a different path.  In this retelling, or retold story, Malouf foregrounds the central act of ransom and refashions a novel for our times.

This focus on storytelling is evident from the opening line of the novel, when he has his narrator observe that “The sea has many voices” (p.3).  Just as Achilles needs to listen carefully to discern the voice of his mother amongst the many voices of the sea, so the reader needs to attend carefully to the different voices in Ransom.  Malouf gives voice to Achilles and Priam, well known from Homer’s Iliad, but he also gives voice to Somax, the simple carter, his own invention, as he appropriates a section of Homer’s tale for his own purposes.

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