We have always lived in the castle’s weird and enigmatic Merricat analysis

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying the novel ‘We have always lived in the castle’ by Shirley Jackson in Units 3 & 4 AOS 1.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) Narrator

The opening chapter establishes Merricat as the 1st person narrator of the novel who narrates using a mordant [harsh], sarcastic and biting tone but also grim humour from her own perspective. In her narrating she is unreliable as she can deceive readers when it suits her. She tells us from the start her relationship with her sister Constance and her opinion of the world which is clearly affected by her eccentric state of mind. “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf” (p.1). She tells us about what she likes and dislikes “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet (King of England in 1483 assassinated his 2 young nephews who stood in his way to the throne), and Amanita phalloides (poisonous death-cup mushroom). Everyone else in my family is dead.” (p.1)

Why is everyone dead?

Six years ago, the Blackwood family – John Blackwood (father to Merricat & Constance), Ellen Blackwood (mother), Aunty Dorothy (married to Julian, John’s brother) and Thomas (young brother of the girls) mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning at a family dinner. Julian survived but was disabled and mentally affected by the arsenic. Constance was tried for the murder of her family and acquitted, although everyone in the town believes she is guilty. What we learn late in the novel, though, is that it was Merricat, twelve years old at the time, who poisoned her family. She put arsenic in the sugar because she knew that her beloved sister Constance did not use sugar. Why Merricat poisoned her family is the strange terrain that Jackson’s novel explores. The answer is never entirely clear, although what is clear is that Jackson never gives us anything like a motive that would, from a normative [standard] perspective, to either explain Merricat’s actions or justify her family’s slaughter.

Why did Merricat poison her family?

Jackson’s Merricat shows herself to be angry, unruly, wilful, and resistant to change. She is also violent, describing her hatred for the villagers she encounters in her twice-weekly trips to the village; she imagines them suffering and dead on the ground. She also seems obsessed with punishment. What does become clear is that her family punished her for her wild behaviour, for roaming the grounds, burying objects, wielding her magic spells of protection around the sister she loves. Early on, Constance tells the one person who still visits the girls, a friend of her mother’s, Helen Clarke, that Merricat “was always in disgrace” and that she was a “wicked, disobedient child” (p.34). Later, in a scene that is crucial in illuminating her character, Merricat hides outdoors and fantasizes her parents talking about how she must never be punished, must never be sent to her bed without dinner; they tell Merricat’s brother to give her his dinner and insist that Merricat must always be “guarded and cherished” (p.96). One can only presume this is pretty much the opposite of how Merricat’s parents actually treated her.

Merricat’s parents punished her & sent her to bed without dinner

Jackson walks a fine line here. On the one hand, Merricat seems to have a primal intolerance for what seem to be quite acceptable forms of parental discipline. All we know for sure of Merricat’s past is that her parents punished her by sending her to bed without dinner. Merricat responds to these banal punishments with rage, and to the extent that she has a motive for killing her family, it seems to be precisely this intolerance for punishment. Merricat wanted revenge being sent to bed without dinner made her angry and she also did not have the loving family she wanted.

Merricat was singled out because she diverged from gender norms

There are also hints that Merricat was unfairly singled out by her parents because of her divergence from gender norms. There is no sense that her brother Thomas, who spent at least some time, for instance, climbing trees, was subject to the same discipline as Merricat. He got to eat his dinner. Merricat is clearly not a beautiful, charming young woman like Constance, and she is not a boy like Thomas. Herein, perhaps, lies some of Merricat’s rage and some of her justification.

Merricat is strange, weird, enigmatic, and possibly a psychopath or paranoid schizophrenic

Merricat is an isolated, estranged hypersensitive young female protagonist, socially maladroit [awkward], highly self-conscious and disdainful of others. At times she appears more childlike than her 18 years and behaves as if mildly retarded, but only outwardly, inwardly, she is razor sharp in her observations and hyperalert to threats to her wellbeing. Like any mentally damaged person she most fears change in unvarying rituals of her household. Merricat’s strangeness, her demonic energy, her predilection for magic and casting curses appears to be self-invented witchcraft but she does not align herself to the male power of Satan. For 100 pages she taunts readers with her sharp, teasing and at times funny voice, but tells us only what she wants us to know, and not why she has a complete absence of guilt for poisoning her family. It seems what Merricat wants is to be alone with her cat Jonas and with Constance. Is Merricat a typical product of small-town America? Much of Merricat’s time is spent outdoors. She appears like a tomboy who wanders in the woods, unwashed and her hair uncombed, distrustful of adults and of authority.

Could there be an unambiguous notion John Blackwood abused his two daughters?

One assumption for the reason Merricat poisoned her family was because their father was abusing Constance and herself. We do not know for sure that it was specifically sexual abuse, but it is only hinted at. But the absolute strangeness of Jackson’s novel, and Merricat Blackwood, is rendered glaringly familiar. At the root of it all is an abusive father: Merricat killed the abuser and the rest of the family who allowed the abuse to continue and then she saved her sister and herself. Charles’s similarities to Merricat’s father are made explicit several times in the book. He wears Mr. Blackwood’s clothes, he sleeps in his bed, he is greedy, much like Mr. Blackwood, (who kept a book full of names of people who owed him favours and cash.) Charles arrives around the same that Mr. Blackwood’s book falls of the tree, breaking Merricat’s “protective spell.” (p.53) All of this, along with a few of Merricat’s strange aspects leads us to believe that Merricat was sexually abused by her father. The rest of the family either did not know, or refused to do anything about it.

Hypothetical reasons why Merricat poisoned the family

It is never stated what Merricat did get sent to bed without supper, but if all of the previous evidence is considered, this is what might have taken place:

  • Merricat is abused at least once by her father, probably fantasizing about her moon dreamhouse during the act. The mother witnesses, or is at the very least aware of the abuse, but does little to stop it.
  • Merricat tells on her father to the rest of the family, who does not believe her, and she is sent upstairs without dinner. The only one who believes her is Constance, who was also possibly abused. She comforts Merricat.
  • Merricat poisons the family for revenge. She chooses the sugar, knowing that Constance would not eat it.
  • Constance washes the bowl immediately afterwards to hide any evidence that Merricat was the killer.
  • Merricat does not just hate Charles because he reminds her of her father, she also hates him, at least subconsciously, because she fears he will abuse her the same way.

Merricat’s fantasies are alarmingly sadistic

Definitely Merricat’s fantasies are not only childish but alarmingly sadistic hating the villagers enough to see herself “…walking on their bodies” (p.10) and “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die” (p.10). She has unmitigated hatred hoping the Elberts and their children were “lying there crying with pain and dying” (p.9). Certainly, the villagers taunt Merricat treating her like an outsider with the village children chanting a hectoring rhyme to intimidate her and embeds the notion that Constance poisoned her family “Merricat said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me” (p.16).

Moreover, Merricat’s hatred for cousin Charles, who has literally changed their lives when he invades the Blackwood household without having been invited, is shown clearly in Merricat’s description of him as a “ghost” (p.61) who has positioned himself at the head of the dining room table and looks like their late father. Merricat sees Charles for what he really is a scoundrel after their money and dehumanises him using her witchcraft ideas she “could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web” or she “could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been” (p.89). Merricat laughed when she found a round stone similar to the size of his head and she would bury it in the hole saying “Goodbye Charles” (p.89)

Merricat’s Confesion p. 130

Throughout the novel there is the prevailing threat of the murderous Merricat whose fantasy life is obsessed with rituals of power, dominance, and revenge “bow your heads to our beloved Mary Katherine … or you will be dead” (p.111). Certainly, it is the hideous arsenic deaths that constitute the secret heart of the novel and how could such a passive character like Constance be accused of murder when she acknowledges Merricat did poison the family on page 130. Merricat “I put it in the sugar”. Constance “I know, I knew then”. Merricat “You never used sugar”. Constance “No”. Merricat “So I put it in the sugar”. Constance sighed “Merricat we’ll never talk about it again. Never” (p.130). So, the sisters are linked forever by the deaths of their family, as in a quasi-spiritual-incestuous bond by which each holds the other in thrall.

The sisters are finally happy in their ‘castle’

It is also true that by isolating themselves after the fire from a world that hates them, treating them as others, the sisters are happy at last. Possibly Merricat who is psychologically damaged would not survive in a world of normal people and Constance helps to protect her sister from the cruel people and live in their house that had turned into a magical place transformed “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p.120). Against all expectations the Blackwood sisters are happy in their private paradise “on the moon” (p.133).

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Audio Content to Analyse for Analysing Argument Year 12 Unit 4, AOS 2

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying the audio SAC assessment for Analysing Argument Unit 4, AOS 2.

Audio texts such as radio talkback shows, speeches and podcasts can be powerful forms of communication and persuasion. Listen for elements that have language choices and arguments presented along with impact of other sound elements that help to position the listener to agree.

Radio Programs / Talk Back Radio

Radio programs, especially talk back radio programs which are live to air, feature unprepared and unscripted conversations between radio presenters and listeners who call in to express their views. The radio presenters openly express their own opinions on the issues being discussed.

Audio content to listen for in relation to Issue/Arguments

  • Whose viewpoint is being presented? – radio presenter – expert on issue – listeners who call in
  • What is the issue?
  • Does the presenter convey or openly express a point of view on the issue or story? – if so, how? – what effect does this have on the listener?
  • Is the presenter open to hearing alternative points of views? – from callers on talkback – or does the presenter oppose callers and challenge their arguments?
  • What persuasive techniques are presented in the discussion? – analogies / anecdotes / humour / repetition / rhetorical questions / emotive language / attacks on people or groups

Audio content to listen for in relation to speaker’s voice

SAC Assessment Criteria for Audio Content requires these audio elements to be included in your written analysis:

  • Intonation – variation in pitch (note of voice) – speakers may vary their pitch depending on the response they seek to elicit from the audience – a higher pitch can be used to add additional emphasis to a rhetorical question – a lower pitch can be used to underscore that a particular argument is serious and should be carefully considered by the audience
  • Pace – the speed at which a person speaks – speakers vary their pace throughout a discussion to emphasise certain points – a speaker might slow their pace to highlight a key word or concept – increase their pace to create a sense of urgency or alarm
  • Pauses – breaks in the flow of the speech or conversation – intentional breaks are often used after a speaker states an important point, giving the listener time to consider what has been said – or to recall particular arguments after the conclusion of a speech
  • Rhythm – a strong, regular repeated pattern of sounds – created through a pattern of stresses – steady rhythm speech can convey confidence and certainty encouraging listeners to view the speaker’s argument as strong and well founded
  • Stress or emphasis – how forcefully or loudly certain words, or parts of words are said – stress can be used to emphasise words and give extra weight to repeated words – encourages listeners to give more attention to these terms and reflect on why they are important
  • Tone – the mood or feeling created by word choices, delivery, and other persuasive techniques – tone helps to convey the speakers attitude towards the topic and evoke specific emotional responses from the listeners – urgent tone might position listeners to take action
  • Volume – how loudly a person speaks – speakers often increase the volume of their voice to emphasise an important point or speak more quietly to encourage the audience to listen more closely in a calm reassuring tone

Sounds effects other than words

  • Music – how does the music type set the atmosphere? – does the music complement or contrast with the spoken content? – how does the music convey or enhance an emotional aspect? – build suspense, express sadness, triumph, or joy
  • Sound effects – do the sound effects blend or stand out? – like a jingle noise to change topics in a podcast

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Analysing Argument Year 12 Quick Revision for Written Texts

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying Unit 4, AOS 2 Analysing Argument Written Text.

ANALYSING ARGUMENT = 3 elements

(1)    What is the argument the author is making?

(2)    How are the techniques used by the author & the language around arguments?

(3)    Why does this technique & language affect the audience? The author’s intention to make audience do something:

  • Think something – logos – appeals to logic, research, graphs, reputable people as evidence
  • Feel something – pathos – emotional response, idioms, cliches, attacks or praises, emotive language rhetorical questions
  • Do something – ethos – act ethically & responsibly – call to action for the readers to actively get involved in the issue

Written Text Article Analysis = How to start annotating

  • Begin at the top of the article and analyse it in a chronological order
  • Look at the big picture [context] and how it may have wider considerations for the author’s arguments
  • Look at the language around the arguments and how the author transitions tone and language to examine the arguments
  • Do not forget all the visuals [including banners on top of websites or podcasts] and how they are relevant to the written text
  • Essay start of the document is called the ‘opening strategy’ / middle is called ‘the body strategy’ and the end is called ‘the closing strategy’
  • Include a brief conclusion how the author used language to persuade the audience

SAMPLE INTRODUCTION FORMAT

There is an ongoing debate about xxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Context) In response to the issue is an [text form = opinion piece/letter to the Editor/Editorial/Podcast] by xxxxxxxxxx titled “xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx” published on [date] xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx by the [source] xxxxxxxxxxxx (Author/Title/Source) [The author’s name] contends in a xxxxxxxx tone, that xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Tone/Contention). Her/His [text form] targets xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx positioning her/his audience with [type of language], transitioning from [example pathos to logos] (Audience). She/He bases her/his appeals to xxxxxx with “quote phrase” to stress the importance of xxxxxxxxxxxxx (Intention). The accompanying [visual form = photograph/cartoon] of xxxxxxxxxxxxx by [name of cartoonist or title of photograph] signals xxxxxxxxxxxx and endorses [author’s name] contention that xxxxxxxxx with the intention to xxxxxxxxxxxx (Visual/Intention)

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Creating Texts Framework Writing About Personal Journeys AOS2 Unit 3 Year 12 VCE

Unit 3 AOS 2 Creating Texts Assessment = 2 Essays on the texts in consideration of audience, purpose, and form 20 marks each & Commentary on reflecting on writing process

Framework Writing about personal journeys – the texts consist of personal development as individuals have insights into their own experiences, milestones, struggles and their differences.

Within each framework there are 4 mentor texts for study:

  1. ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’ (Ted Talk) by Chimamanda Ngozu Adichie
  2. ‘Bidngen’ by Maya Hodge
  3. ‘The Red Plastic Chair is a Vietnamese Cultural Institution and My Anchor’ by Amy Duong
  4. ‘Walter’s speech’ (part 1, The Inheritance) by Matthew Lopez

Framework’s Task about Personal Journeys

The mentor texts consist of explorations of life leading into discussions about story telling. They provide a springboard for students to consider personal milestones and epiphanies or the effects of key events on your life. The texts give students the ability to draw on specific perspectives the authors develop and then use your own thoughts about personal journeys. You may want to consider the impacts of change / identity / future goals and how you have negotiated these changes that have led to life leading consequences.

Your task is to draw on the mentor texts as well as complementary texts to explore ideas and record your thoughts in a journal. You will experiment with texts, modes, writing styles and narrative perspectives. The mode of delivery of your piece will impact on your purpose and the way you convey your ideas. You must workshop and refine your pieces, taking into account contextual factors such as your audience and purpose. You will explore 4 types of writing – to express / explain / reflect or argue. You will then reflect upon your authorial choices and language features in a reflective commentary.

The 4 Mentor Texts

The mentor texts vary in tone and style. Lopez’s monologue is a heartwarming discussion about responses to the AIDs crisis during the 1980’s. Adichie’s TED Talk revolves around the nature of stereotypes and their impact upon relationships and one’s ability to control the dominant narrative. Hodge and Duong use a reflective tone and real-life anecdotes to explore their place in the family and in their physical and social environment. The texts all have an auto-biographical slant and suggest that the younger generation can learn about the journeys of trailblazers or of ancestors.

The Mentor Texts – A Brief Summary

‘The Dangers of a Single Story’ = Chimamanda Ngozu Adichie includes personal recounts about her migration experience with the perspective of a Nigerian student at an American University as the springboard for her views about stories and stereotypes. Adichie draws attention to the harmful nature of stereotypes that reduce people and their experiences to a ‘single’ flat-lined story. Adichie realises that her American ‘roommate’ is perpetuating the ‘single’ story about Africans which limits and defines their relationship as one of difference. Likewise, one of her professors does not recognise her story of middle-class professional privilege as an ‘authentic’ African story. She suggests that younger generations can learn about journeys of trailblazers or of ancestors. She refers to key African authors like Chinua Achebe who challenged European narratives of power and superiority and explored the arrogance and hypocrisy of colonial stories. Adichie broadens her narratives to criticise a political and patriarchal system that exploits and suppresses women. She considers women are devalued, reduced to sexual chattels, and conditioned to behave in submissive ways. In her multi-layered experience Adichie explores in her stories which broaden the African experience and focus on culture, courage, resilience, despair, change and dysfunction.

‘Bidngen’ = Maya Hodge includes personal recounts about her life experience with the perspective of being a Lardil person growing up on the outskirts of Mildura and her battles with racism. The story ‘bidngen’ means women and consists of 8 vignettes of Lardil women with generational racism that festers and leaves deep scars. Like Adichie, Hodge also draws attention to the harmful nature of stereotypes that reduce people and their experiences to a ‘single’ flat-lined story. She contends that to deny the diversity and enrichment of multiple stories is to limit the depth of one’s experiences and to hem people in. It is often to the power-broker’s advantage and occurs at the expense, and to the detriment of, the other. Her story focus is on the ‘Lardil girl’ and her journey as a marginalised Aborigine, whose struggle with adversity is ‘white-washed’ and her struggles for social acceptance reinforce the pain of difference. Hodge’s message is to reaffirm and recount stories of fortitude and resilience among her mother’s song lines. Her grandmother’s stories of love and commitment, continuity and belonging reinforce the uniqueness of a culture that has deep roots in their ancestral being. It is the love of her nanna who encourages her to write and share her stories, which helps her write herself into the landscape, to cherish legends that link people to place and the need to challenge stereotypes that perpetuate injustice.

‘The Red Plastic Chair is a Vietnamese Cultural Institution and My Anchor’ = Amy Duong includes personal recounts about her life experience with the perspective of being a daughter of Vietnamese migrants. Duong uses the ‘red plastic chair’ to structure her reflections. It functions as an extended metaphor from which she explores her multi-layered experience of migration. Her piece provides an example of ‘how items of cultural, historical, or nostalgic value can be used to explore personal journeys’ and broaden the significance of one’s insights. Milestones and turning points provide a springboard from which to reflect upon lifestyles and goals. They provide a chance to reset the meter and change course or to renew and refine one’s views and values. The death of her Aunty provides a chance for Amy Duong to reflect upon her cultural roots and examine the gulf between the younger generation and their elders. While she explores her sense of shame and feelings of unworthiness, the Aunt’s funeral and the mourners, each with their ‘red plastic chair’, provides a chance to reconnect with her roots. While she is emotionally challenged by her Vietnamese linguistic incompetence, there is still a sense that the language of love unites. In the end Duong comes to appreciate the sacrifices made by her relatives and the thought she should have been more grateful to them and not create a chasm within her family.

‘Walter’s speech’ (part 1, The Inheritance) = Matthew Lopez has a heightened consciousness of belonging to a generation of gay men who have lived through a sea change with his cohort seeing greyness as secretive and shameful. Lopez shows that for gay men, embracing one’s sexuality also involves loss and grief which the play reveals a silent and ongoing sense of trauma caused by the AIDs pandemic. ‘The Inheritance’ is a 2-part epic which gives a glimpse into gay life in New York, two decades after the height of the AIDs epidemic. Walter’s speech ruminates on homophobic attitudes to LGBTQI+ couples and the debilitating consequences of the AIDs virus. Lopez uses the pear tree as an extended metaphor that takes on special significance in Walter’s monologue as does the secluded setting which adds to the emotional significance of his defiance. Like the other authors who suggest that younger generations can learn about the journeys of trailblazers, Walter defends and extols the virtues and resilience of couples during the AIDs epidemic in the 1980’s. By the end of the play Lopez suggests that, despite the current political darkness, a future exists in which gay men will still be free to be themselves. His characters consider how one moves forward and puts the world back together after a calamity and the hope that the younger generation sees the future in a much more positive frame of mind that their predecessors.

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Creating Texts Frameworks Writing about Protest AOS2 Unit 3 Year 12 VCE

This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying Frameworks Writing about Protest in AOS2: Unit 3 Creating Texts, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum

Introduction to Protest

To ‘protest’ means ‘to express disapproval of’ or ‘to commit an action of dissent’. To literally stand up and be counted is to say ‘no’ or defy an order or a demand that seems unfair, unjust, or unreasonable. While protesting may begin as a personal struggle against an unjust law it invariably leads to a collective struggle as the individual is caught up in a cause beyond themselves.

According to Amnesty International, ‘everyone has the right to protest, the power to fight for justice and make a difference’.

There are 4 Protest Mentor Texts:

  1. ‘On the Sydney Mardi Gras March of 1978 by Mark Gillespie
  2. ‘Freedom or Death’ speech by Emmeline Pankhurst
  3. ‘Harrison Bergeron’ short novel by Kurt Vonnegut
  4. ‘Monologue from City of Gold’ by Meyne Wyatt

At the heart of these narratives is not just the right to protest against unfair laws and conditions as individuals push for inclusion and diversity. These authors reveal the difficulties encountered in a two-way struggle between those in positions of power who would seek to deny people their freedoms and individuals who demand their rights to seek to voice their human rights.

Assessment

2 written essay text pieces of writing considering audience, purpose and form = 20 marks each plus a commentary reflecting on the writing process

Themes in the Protest Mentor Texts
Demand for human rightsCivil rightsAgainst unjust laws
Abuse of powerFor social changeAgainst war
Rights for womenRights for LGBTQI+Against racism
Black lives matterBlack deaths in custodyRacial profiling

Record your Writing Process in a Journal

Students must use the mentor texts as a basis from which to explore and experiment with different text types, modes, and scenarios. Students must keep a journal in which to record their writing process and evaluate their thoughts and feelings documenting deliberate choices they have made in constructing their writing pieces.

Reflective Commentary

The reflective commentary will discuss the writing process and choices made during the process including purpose and audience of the response / form and genre / language features / impact of mentor texts on your writing / drafting and editing process and the role of feedback in shaping your decisions.

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Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare a Brief Analysis

This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ play by William Shakespeare in AOS1: Unit 3, Reading & Responding to Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum

Human Emotion and Psychology

Usually classified as a romantic comedy, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is both a love story and a ‘much darker and stranger play’ (Dobson 2011/The Guardian).  The play is a study in human behaviour, of psychological power and abuse; it is a critique of social structures; it hides some of the ugliness of human behaviour behind a veil of light comedy, ambiguity and fast-paced wit.

In the process of all of this, the plot of Much Ado About Nothing also just happens to include two budding romances built on the tenuous grounds of perception and deception.  In exploring human emotion and psychology, Shakespeare draws ambiguous connections between love and loathing, desire and distrust, union and destruction, honesty and deception, trust and doubt, malice and forgiveness.  Shakespeare’s pairing of antithetical themes in Much Ado About Nothing highlights how people can be inconsistent in their approach to relationships and romantic unions, deceiving themselves as well as others.  

The Fatal Flaw

Much Ado About Nothing also explores desire, and people’s need for reciprocal love; how we respond when we believe we have attained love, and how we rail at our (sometimes perceived) rejection.  Shakespeare’s contrast of the relationship between Hero and Claudio with that of Beatrice and Benedick suggests that genuine affection only comes from seeing your partner as a whole person: flawed, the product of their environment or context, and with strengths and charms.  Many of Shakespeare’s characters have this ‘fatal flaw’, a defect in their personality, that taken to extreme, can lead to their downfall.  Each character has their own ‘fatal flaw’ that shines light on some of the darker characteristics of humanity.

Marriage According to Beatrice & Benedick

Beatrice and Benedick do not simply revile marriage for the sake of being contrarians; such a justification would be disappointing in otherwise complex and interesting characters.  They are older and they lack the social status of other characters such as Hero and Claudio; they see the absence of meaning in life and therefore in marriage, yet they enjoy the cut and thrust of their intelligent witticisms.  They understand that marriage does not augment their enjoyment of life or contribute to some greater existential meaning. 

That Shakespeare’s characters, at times unknowingly, make much ado about nothing perhaps reflects the playwright’s view that life is ultimately pointless.  Benedick’s conclusive justification for requiting Beatrice’s alleged love is that ‘the world must be peopled’ (II.iii.p.61), and the song of Balthasar ‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more’ exhorts the ladies merely to: … be you blithe and bonny, Converting all your sounds of woe, Into hey nonny nonny (II.iii.p.53).  The song addresses the main manipulators of trickery and deceit, the men.

Perspective of the Text – Romantic or Cynic?

Beatrice & Benedick

There are two broad ways of experiencing Much Ado About Nothing: as the romantic and as the cynic [sceptic].  One need not wholly subscribe to only one or the other.  Looking at the 2 relationships, it is easy to view Hero and Claudio in a cynical manner and for Beatrice and Benedick, a more romantic view.  Beatrice and Benedick’s love is so pure because it comes without the baggage of inheritance and class, and the false notions of romance which conceal obligation.  Their cutting remarks have stripped each other and they have nothing left to hide.  Beatrice gives as good as she gets when it comes to the sort of male banter Benedick engages in.  Here is a couple who will argue, they will not grind their lives away under the deceptively heavy shade of pleasantries and a false concern for the other’s feelings which in truth is used simply to avoid conflict; Benedick and Beatrice need not fear conflict, they thrive off it.

Claudio & Hero

Interpretations of the values and attitudes surrounding the relationship between Claudio and Hero are much more ambiguous.  Given that ‘Shakespeare takes shape through our interpretations’, how do we interpret the easy susceptibility of the Count, the Prince and the Governor to the malignant trickery of the Prince’s ‘bastard brother’ Don John?  One interpretation is that Claudio’s behaviour is unforgivably unacceptable.  (For a contemporary #MeToo audience, so he gets off far too lightly).  Another is that it is patriarchal social values that are at fault, and another that the fault lies with codes of masculinity in which male bonding is cemented with misogynist jokes and banter.

Or perhaps the shocking metaphorical ‘death’ of Hero is generated by the ‘comedy’ of mistaken perception, and we forgive the gentlemen their bad behaviour because the near-tragedy is a plot device, a structural necessity of the romantic comedy genre.  However, no reading of the play can excuse the brutality of [Claudio’s] treatment of Hero, but the conventional comic action does demand that he be forgiven.

Title of the Play

The title of the play is open to various interpretations.  The most straightforward explanation; that much ado is made over allegations that hold nothing of the truth, suggests the play is a comment on people’s rash judgment and disproportionate responses, particularly to gossip.  This relates to the interpretation which replaces ‘Nothing’ in the title with ‘Noting’, a near homophone and colloquialism for ‘noticing’ or ‘gossip’, which connects the title to both pairs of lovers: Beatrice and Benedick base their conscious acceptance of their feelings on overheard misinformation, and Claudio is twice deceived by the snake-like whisperings of Don John, comments that the play is ‘most appositely titled’ because of its reference to the ‘nothingness’ of life.

Style of the Play – Comedy or Tragedy?

While all stories, even comedic ones, need some kind of complication and climax, Shakespeare certainly puts the drama in dramatic structure.  He heightens the climax of Much Ado About Nothing to the point where it could have toppled into tragedy.  This sets the play apart in the world of comedy, as the stakes are so high and dire circumstance so nearly realised; though it begins and ends with merry wit, there are dark issues explored as the life-threatening action of the play takes place.

Analytical Text Prompts

  1. What role do deceptions play in Much Ado About Nothing?
  2. How does Shakespeare present love and marriage in the play?
  3. In Act 2, Scene 1 (p.43) “Come, you shake the head”.  How does Shakespeare present Don Pedro in this extract and elsewhere in the play?
  4. How does a modern context affect our interpretation of the Hero-Claudio relationship?
  5. “I will assume thy part in some disguise/ And tell fair Hero I am Claudio” (i.i.p.17 Don Pedro).  We accept the deceptions in the play because mostly the characters’ intentions are benign.  To what extent do you agree?
  6. How does Shakespeare use comedy in Much Ado About Nothing to explore serious themes and values?
  7. “… yet sinned I not/ But in mistaking.”  Forgiveness is too freely given in Much Ado About Nothing.  Discuss.
  8. Much Ado About Nothing is a joyful play which celebrates human relationships.  Do you agree?
  9. The women in Much Ado About Nothing are the true holders of power.  Discuss.
  10. Shakespeare’s characters hide their insecurities behind innuendo and metaphor.  Discuss with reference to at least three characters in Much Ado About Nothing.
  11. Don John is the only example of authenticity in Much Ado About Nothing; all the other characters wear masks of some sort, at some time in the play.  Do you agree?
  12. “I speak not like a dotard, nor a fool/ As under privilege of age to brag” (v.i.p.133 Leonato).  It is their privilege that makes the behaviour of characters in Much Ado About Nothing all the more reprehensible.  Discuss.
  13. Much Ado About Nothing is supposedly a comedy but the play contains many darker, more tragic elements than a typical comedy.  In what ways is this play tragic?
  14. A central theme in the play is trickery or deceit, whether for good or evil purposes.  How does deceit function in the world of the play, and how does it help the play comment on theatre in general?
  15. Language in Much Ado About Nothing often takes the form of brutality and violence. “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs,” complains Benedick of Beatrice (II.i.p.37).  What does the proliferation of all this violent language signify in the play and the world outside it?
  16. In some ways, Don Pedro is the most elusive character in the play.  Why would Shakespeare create a character like Don Pedro for his comedy about romantic misunderstandings?
  17. In this play, accusations of unchaste and untrustworthy behaviour can be just as damaging to a woman’s honour as such behaviour itself.  What could Shakespeare be saying about the difference between male and female honour?’

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

‘False Claims of Colonial Thieves’ Poetry: The Basics

This Resource is for Year 12 students studying ‘False Claims of Colonial Thieves’ poetry collection by poets John Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk Green in AOS1 Unit 3 Reading & Responding to Texts in the Victorian VCE Curriculum for 2024.

The Title ‘False Claims of Colonial Thieves’

Refers to the legacy and residue of past wrongs carried out by colonialism that the poets consider were literally ‘colonial thieves’ robbing the Indigenous people of their land under the guise of Terra Nullius [land legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited].  The ‘false claims’ of the title are revealed as colonial misinformation which white-washes the crimes of the past.

The Poets

John Kinsella                  Born in 1963 in WA is non-Indigenous man who has Anglo-Celtic origins and has written over 30 books based on the WA landscape, colonisation, mining, family and conservation.  He supports Indigenous rights, land rights and says he is a ‘vegan anarchist pacifist’.  His dedication is to Kim Scott a prize-winning WA Indigenous author of ‘That Deadman Dance’.

Charmaine Papertalk Green        Born in 1962 in WA is an Indigenous Yamaji woman who speaks Badimaya and Wajarri.  ‘Papertalk’ is her mother’s maiden name.  Her message is to restore her ancestors’ histories and stories as ‘paper talks everywhere now’.  She exposes the concept of colonisation through her lived experiences and family stories.  Her dedication is to her brothers who died to cast relief on Aboriginal mortality rates that are 11.5 years lower than white males.

Both Poets want to know “Who are the real rulers of Australia?”

The collection of poetry identifies itself as political and a serious postcolonial discussion of two poets collaborating to warn of environmental impacts of mining and to track the relationship of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in regards to ‘country’.  They both actively interrogate injustices, cultural cruelty, cultural genocide and the pain left behind by colonisation.  They seek to challenge the myth of Terra Nullius and rewrite the colonial history of Australia by identifying the colonists not as heroic adventurers into an uninhabited new land, but as plunderers.  Through their poems they question the dominant narrative and its instruments of power that fog and irradiate [expose] a land of ‘invisible victims’.

The Ambition of the Collection

The ambition of the collection is the ‘beautiful conversation’ (‘Simply Yarning’ p.97) which is proudly postcolonial; from its title to its references, it invites readers to move beyond the constricting myths of the colonial past and into a more equitable future.

The Structure of the Text

The structure of both the collection and the individual poems is an important part of ‘False Claims’. The collection begins and ends with poems written by the two authors together, ‘Prologue’ by Kinsella and ‘Prologue Response’ by Green which appear on the same page and ‘Epilogue’ which is attributed to the poets jointly.  There is thus established a sense of the combined purpose and project of the collection which frames the text, so that even in those sections when there are several poems by one poet, before Kinsella’s voice is again heard, the collaborative nature of the text cannot be forgotten.

‘Prologue’ and ‘Prologue Response’

The repeated language in ‘Prologue’ and ‘Prologue Response’ reinforces the shared project of the poets.  This is most clearly apparent in the repeated bitter accusations of negligent ‘environmental scientists’, but it is also evident in the echoed notion of unthinking and unsustainable consumption, appearing in the metaphoric [symbolic] ‘on a platter’ in the first poem, and the more literal ‘plastic bottle’ of the second.

The first poem by Kinsella is longer, the lines are extended, and the text is broken into two verses.  The second poem by Green focuses on the obliviousness of the general population raised by Kinsella with the line ‘Stygofauna speak up through the land; some listen, more don’t’ (p.xi).  Green repeats the idea of ‘blindness’ through her shorter, more abrupt and accusatory poem, condemning those who refuse to see beyond their ‘privilege’.  The structure of these poems, both as they complement each other and as they differ, is a useful reference point for ‘False Claims’.  Kinsella and Green share some views, and each poet operates within the context of contemporary poetry, but they are not the same.  Green’s poetry is more direct, and her tone is more often angry.  Kinsella is more regretful and more likely to consider institutional causes of social and environmental malaise [sickness], rather than referring to personal responsibility.

Language and Style

  • Call and response—the whole collection exists as a dialogue between the poets as they negotiate the ‘third space’ of shared understanding.  Some of the poems speak directly to each other, and some poems are written in parts, which the poets write in sequence.
  • Colloquial (Australian) language (including expletives)—both poets sometimes use recognisably Australian language features in their poems, which creates authenticity in dialogue, and functions to locate the poetry in its Australian regional context.
  • Dedications—the collection and some of the poems are committed to the honour of particular people or peoples.  Like titles, these dedications can provide insight into the focus and ‘agenda’ of poems and poets.
  • Ekphrastic [work of art]—both JK and CPG respond to artworks in poems, a clear knowledge of the artworks (where possible) will assist in understanding these poems.
  • Enjambement—when sentences in poems run over lines, a sense of inevitability can be created, either positively or negatively.  Both poets use this style feature in some of their poems, and significance of run-on lines should be considered.
  • Intertextuality—both poets refer to other texts in some poems, notably in ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ (pp.135-137 / ‘A White Colonial Boy’ pair (pp.138-140).  As well as placing their works into the wider community of poetry and literature, these references indicate the power of texts to shape attitudes.
  • Line breaks, stanzas and stanza breaks—indicated with a ‘/’ in quotation, are strategically used by both the poets to create either continuity and flow in poems, or disjointedness and discontinuity.
  • Non-Standard English—CPG particularly uses some non-Standard English phrases of spoken Indigenous English, recognising the validity of this patois.
  • Pun—the poets, particularly JK, play with words, linking distinct ideas together, challenging assumptions, and creating irony.
  • Punctuation / lack of punctuation—JK is strategic in the way he deploys punctuation in some of his poems; reading aloud and following punctuation cues will help recognise the strategic ways in which the poet shapes his longer sentences. CPG often writes without punctuation, depending on rhythm and line breaks to shape the reading experience; this can often create a sense of uncontrolled urgency in her poetry.
  • Repetition—both poets use repetition throughout their poetry to create emphasis and sometimes to enhance rhythm; significantly both poets sometimes repeat a line or series of lines from the other poet, indicating their co-operation in the construction of the collection, but also suggesting alternative perspectives to an idea.
  • Rhyme—although the poets write largely in free verse, both internal (within a line) and external rhyme (rhyming words at the end of lines) appear in the collection, enhancing or breaking rhythm, associating ideas, creating inevitability.
  • Rhythm—poetry is an oral form, so reading poems aloud in class can help students understand the poems, especially when meaning might appear obscure, upon a first (silent) reading. The rhythm of a poem can often become more apparent when poems are read aloud.  As with rhyme, rhythm can hold disparate ideas together in a poem, showing the connectedness of different notions.  A rhythm can also create urgency, or a mournful tone or a feeling of inevitability, or inescapability, if the rhythm is compelling or almost compulsive.
  • Simile, metaphor, personification, symbol, synaesthetic description [figurative language that includes a mixing of senses], alliteration [occurrence of same letter or sound at the beginning of words], sibilance [hissing sound with repetition of ‘s’ sounds]—the poets use various figurative devices which enhance the reach of their poetry, making it more vivid, linking apparently disparate ideas, and evoking landscape.
  • Titles—titles of poems, express the way in which a poet directs a reader, from the start of a text.  The title of this collection is important as it places all the poems in a postcolonial, revisionist context.
  • Use of language—both JK and CPG move into Indigenous languages (Noongar and Wajarri respectively) throughout the collection.  This subverts the hegemony [domination] of English and indicates the limitations of English in terms of understanding the subjects the poets write about.

Issues and Themes

The issues and themes are interconnected not only to land, its peoples, cultures, history, stories and art, but the voices of the poets reinforce the connectedness of peoples, stories and histories and the free flowing discussion of the two poets in all the poems in the collection. A commonality between the two poets is the injustice of people and the environment, particularly the destruction of mining, which is not separated in the poems, rather the suffering of both is explored as one country suffering together.

Central Ideas/Issues & Themes Covered in the Collection are:

  • Colonisation and Reconciliation
  • History and Crimes of the Past
  • Redressing Historical Injustices by Reconstructing our Notion of the Past
  • The Myth of Terra Nullius (the Colonial Thieves)
  • Secrets and Silences of Australian Culture
  • History and Memories and their Importance to Individuals
  • The Environment and Social Effects of Mining on Country and Individuals
  • Exploitation of Mining on Country and Individuals
  • Country, Destruction of Country and Landscape
  • Family, Friendship, Nature of Loss in Family and Country
  • Recognising Important Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Family Members
  • Language and Culture of Indigenous People
  • Dangers of Cultural Appropriation and Erasure
  • The Stolen Generation
  • Black Deaths in Custody
  • Close the Gap Campaign
  • Aboriginal Mortality
  • Poetry, Art and the Power of Both
  • Racism , Social Justice and Race Relations Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous People
  • Our Responsibility to each other as Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples in Australia
  • Social Issues Pertaining to Contemporary Indigenous People
  • Stories and Storytelling (Yarning)

Analytical Text Response Topics

  1. ‘False Claims of Colonial Thieves is more positive about the future than it is negative about the past.’ Discuss.
  2. ‘Memory is shown to be the most important aspect of culture in this collection.’ To what extent do you agree?
  3. How do the authors of False Claims of Colonial Thieves show that the natural environment is vulnerable and needs protection in this collection?
  4. “I won’t pretend it’s easy / Living in an intercultural space” (‘I won’t pretend’, CPG, p.62) ‘Despite the idealism of the collection, False Claims of Colonial Thieves suggests that cultural harmony is impossible.’ Discuss.
  5. “And the dead are loud in their graves.” (‘Edges of Aridity’, JK, pp.82-4) “Arrived as colonial thieves / Remain as colonial thieves” (‘Always thieves’, CPG, pp.127-8) ‘There is no recovery from colonisation.’ Discuss with reference to the poetry in False Claims of Colonial Thieves.
  6. How do the poets of False Claims of Colonial Thieves create hope in their collection?
  7. “How can I but take up the call, / Charmaine, and yarn right back at you – / it’s what we do when we connect” (‘Yarn Response Poem’, JK, p.98) ‘The poems in the False Claims of Colonial Thieves reveal that we are shaped by our relationships with others.’ Discuss.
  8. ‘The strength of this collection rests in its political agenda.’ To what extent do you agree?
  9. How do John Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk Green convince their readers of the healing power of poetry in False Claims of Colonial Thieves?

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

William Wordsworth’s Poetry: The Basics

This Resource is for Year 12 students studying William Wordsworth’s Poetry from ‘Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney’ in AOS1, Unit 3: Reading & Responding to Texts in the Mainstream English Curriculum for 2024.

Seamus Heaney’s selection consists largely of the poetry considered to be Wordsworth’s best, written in the decade 1797 to 1807.

Introduction & Themes

Many of Wordsworth’s ideas and values, in the poems in Seamus Heaney’s selection, are concerned with Themes such as:

  • our relationship with Nature / life’s circularity / Nature nurtures & wellbeing
  • religion / loss and death
  • the significance of childhood experiences / wisdom & splendour of childhood / nurturing parents
  • family & community / connectivity / wanderers & wandering / humanity & empathy for people less well off in society
  • the connection between clear thinking & nourishment of one’s soul in solitude & silence / transcendence
  • memory & personal growth / the self & individuality / the power of the human mind
  • irrational fear and death / vision / sight / light
  • the effects of materialism & industrial change / destructiveness of industrialisation / urbanism
  • the pros & cons of political protest / revolutionary activism / rebellion / need for reform
  • the problem of social inequality / need for change

Most radically, he viewed natural landscapes as emblematic of the mind of God, and as central to the wellbeing of humans.  Wordsworth believed that God was in every aspect of the natural world and so much of his poetry explores nature in a sacred and religious sense presenting goodness and naturalness as synonymous, so nature is a living, divine entity, that if ignored, was at humankind’s peril.

Born in 1770 at Cockermouth on the River Derwent, which is in the Lake District of England, the natural elements of this landscape would come to be immortalised in his poetry.  He was a prominent member of the group of poets called ‘Romantics’ that broke the traditional way poetry should be written, believing the poet’s role was to guide others through the transforming power of the poetic imagination.

The Romantic Movement 1798-1832

The Romanticism movement was founded during the Industrial Revolution in 1750 where poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake were concerned that people had grown away from nature towards industrial cities and modern mechanisation of mass manufacturing. The Romantic poets had specific ideas that were radical at the time, moving away from traditional poetry, towards breathing imaginative life into all human experiences.  Romanticism was an emotional and passionate reaction against the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, urbanisation and its corrosive effects on the individual, community and the landscape.

The Romantics saw landscape and peasant people, ‘folk’ songs and traditions, as representing a simpler time.  They regarded the legends, myths and folk traditions of a people as the wellspring of poetry and art, the spiritual source of cultural vitality, creativity and identity.  The Romantics agreed with French philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that feelings are the human essence, that ‘our sensibility is … prior to our reason’.  Abstract reason and scientific knowledge, they said, are insufficient guides to knowledge.  Reason and science provide only general principles about nature and people, failing to penetrate to ‘what really matters’, the uniqueness of each person, tree, cloud or lake.

Wordsworth said “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.  He viewed poetry as being “the image of man and nature”.

Reading Wordsworth poems reveals a poet with a social conscience

One who believes that Nature provides the inspiration for the interior life.  He repeatedly returns to the idea of the cycle of life, and expresses both fear and acceptance of death.  He looks to Nature for a sense of immortality, although he doesn’t move far from the idea, as in all three ‘religions of the book’, that the earth is infused with, or created by, something beyond the material.  Wordsworth was on the side of the ordinary person, and against the authoritarian regimes in power.  The theological and social ideas in the poems imply values such as concern for the poor and support for equality and social justice sit alongside the centrality of the individual self.  Another interesting element of Wordsworth’s poetry is his presentation of children and how he saw the child as possessing a kind of essential wisdom, allowing them access to truths that were barred to adults.  As well as being free from sin, the child was privileged with great insight into the human condition, a gift that was lost in adulthood.  Wordsworth suggests that the innocence of children shows us a fresh truth, a new way of seeing.

Nature is central to Wordsworth’s romantic view on life

Writing in an era dominated by the corruptive elements of industrialisation, Wordsworth sought to reinstate Nature as a central focus of human concerns that was increasingly vulnerable.  The poet in Seamus Heaney’s collection is Wordsworth himself delighting in the aesthetics found through the environmental grandeur of Nature, presenting it as a source of joy and wonderment.  He embraces the language of the ‘common man’ that provokes readers to lament the impact of modernity has had on humanity’s capacity to appreciate natural sensations.  For Wordsworth the antidote to the threat posed by the industrial societies that surrounded him lay in the natural world he exalted in both his youth and adulthood.  By positioning Nature and by extension, human nature centrally in his poetry, Wordsworth directs individuals to discover deeper truths about themselves and thus humanity as a whole with a focus on the ‘self as subject’.  Overall, by concentrating on the sublime [inspirational] elements of the natural landscape, the poet’s collection of childhood epiphanies and philosophical reasonings reveal that immersion in rustic settings is able to guide humanity into a purer state of mind and spirit.

Example Introduction for a Prompt about Grief and Loss

Prompt          “How soon my Lucy’s race was run”. While much of Wordsworth’s poetry celebrates the joys of nature and human life, he also focuses on human grief and loss.  Discuss.

Use quote in essay “How soon my Lucy’s race was run” = One of the ‘Lucy’ poems “Three years she grew in sun and shower”

Through images and descriptions of the natural world, poet William Wordsworth celebrates the joys of human life, but he is always mindful of the personal elements of grief and loss.  By using nature, and men and women within nature, as the inspiration for his imagination, Wordsworth is able to portray a range of human emotions.  The complexity of Wordsworth’s poetic vision is apparent when he uses recollections of experiences in the natural world to explore feelings of happiness in living things.  In the poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ the speaker’s joy of his experience seeing daffodils is transposed into an almost spiritual transcendence of his understanding of the joy that nature brings to human life.  However, in a natural extension of his poetic sensibility, Wordsworth is able to contrast this joy of life in the natural world with a sense of grief and loss in his series of ‘Lucy’ poems that are seen as a sober meditation on death, grief and loss.  Moreover, imagination and memory, Wordsworth suggests, are powerful tools that present the possibility of transcending loss and allow us to gain a more complete understanding and acceptance of human life through nature.

Analytical Text Response Prompts

  1. How does the poetry in this collection explore the interdependence between humans and the natural environment?
  2. “The child is father to the Man” How does Wordsworth explore the idea that childhood experiences are significant in shaping the adult life?
  3. ‘Although the poems show concern for others, they seem more concerned with the self.’ Discuss.
  4. To what extent does Wordsworth’s poetry suggest that natural rural landscapes must be preserved despite the needs of commerce?
  5. “… and I grew up/ Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.” ‘Wordsworth’s poetry is animated more by fear than by awe.’ Do you agree?
  6. “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn” How does Wordsworth’s poetry explore this idea?
  7. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” What ideas and values about youth are revealed in this collection of Wordsworth’s poems?
  8. ‘The poems reveal an ambivalent attitude towards the social changes of the time.’ Discuss.
  9. “… with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.” How does Wordsworth’s poetry ‘see into the life of things’?
  10. “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” ‘The poems in this collection condemn materialism, suggesting that it destroys the life of mind and spirit.’ Discuss.
  11. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” ‘Despite the sense of loss in the poems, the poet more often expresses hope and joy.’ To what extent do you agree?
  12. ‘Wordsworth shows us that the contemplation of nature can be a way of lightening feelings of melancholy and despondence’.  Discuss.
  13. Wordsworth refers to “a higher power than Fancy”.  How does he demonstrate the dynamic power of the imagination in his poems?
  14. “Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie/Open unto the fields”.  ‘Wordsworth successfully marries the contrasting ideas of unfettered nature and the edifices we have constructed’.  Discuss.
  15. “Behold her, single in the field/Yon solitary highland lass”.  ‘Wordsworth uses varied images of simple rustics to highlight the heroic and ordinary human life’.  Discuss.

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

Sunset Boulevard Film Directed by Billy Wilder: The Basics

This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Film Directed by Billy Wilder in AOS1: Unit 3, Reading & Responding to Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum

Director Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder fled Germany in 1933 after witnessing first-hand the Nazi seizure of power and the central importance of the Fuhrer cult in lending the nascent [emerging] movement a coherent and compelling identity for its followers.  Wilder brought with him from German Expressionist cinema technical expertise in the creation of a dark, ominous, atmospheric mise-en-scène, he also retained a clear understanding that the cinema had a unique power to capture the wider ‘dream life’ of a society, even as it helped to shape the dreams themselves.  ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1949) and the two films that directly followed, ‘Ace in the Hole’ (1951) and ‘Stalag 17’ (1953), all examine the moment of American supremacy but discover flaws and contradictions that reveal a society far less confident and assured than its surface appearance might suggest. Wilder’s films seek to expose the illusions that can come to be accepted as truth.

Genre

It can be classified as a 1950’s film noir, a melodrama and a dark comedy with a cynical criticism of the destructive impacts of the American film industry in Hollywood.  The film title is named after a major Street, Sunset Boulevard, that runs through Hollywood and the centre of the American film industry.  The musical score was by Franz Waxman with a series of snippets of jazz and popular song, along with more haunting themes that signify Norma’s insanity in the film.

Cinematic Elements of Film Noir

Film noir literally translates to ‘black cinema’ used to describe Hollywood films that were saturated with darkness and pessimisim not seen before. There are specific film noir cinematic elements students should look for when viewing the film:

  • Anti-hero protagonist – Joe Gillis – talented but disillusioned scriptwriter – becomes Norma’s gigolo (toy boy lover) bought and sold by the aging actress
  • Femme fatale – Norma Desmond – a grandiose aging dame who emasculates her male victims – juxtaposed with Salome the Biblical figure who has John the Baptist beheaded
  • Tight concise dialogue – use of flashbacks and voice over narrative of a dead man (Joe) – his dialogue is unsympathetic, cynical and pessimistic
  • High contrasting lighting – in particular the style of lighting called ‘chiaroscuro’ that uses special placement of spotlight – juxtaposition between light and dark – the film drenches dramatic moments in atmosphere – Wilder also uses a filtered light from candles and lamps as well as reflected light from mirrors – during some mise-en-scenes a flat light accentures Norma’s appearance, in others a chiaroscuro-style lighting reinforces her anxieties and dilemmas
  • Post war disillusionment – a sense of bleakness – sombre narrative exposing the sinsister under belly of Hollywood that Wilder was critiquing

Voice-Over Narrator

The voiceover narrator informs the audience that the dead man is a young writer and this will be his story, ‘The whole truth’, told in flashback.  Joe’s narration is unsentimental, pitiless and cynical.

Story of the Film in a Nutshell

Narrated by the voice over of Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a struggling screenwriter, he gives the audience a retelling of the events leading up to his death 6 months earlier.  As the Police and press gather around Joe’s dead body in the swimming pool of former silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), Joe’s voice over tells us how he came to be in Norma’s old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

His story follows how the ageing Norma draws Joe into her demented fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen.  Joe agrees to help edit Norma’s terrible script she has written about Salome and her delusional intention of sending the script to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Studio.  Norma is completely unaware of her faded stardom and controls Joe’s life buying him expensive clothes and gifts to keep him living the life of a gigolo. 

Joe tries to extricate himself from the toxic situation living under Norma’s roof and tries to leave but she threatens to shoot herself.  In a moment of passion, she instead shoots Joe, leaving him floating dead in the pool.  Even as the Police and press arrive to arrest her, Norma believes the news cameras are actually a film crew waiting for her to be back in movies.  As Norma sweeps down the staircase, she makes a short speech about how happy she is to be back and delivers the film’s most famous line “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

Sunset Boulevard is a Cautionary Warning about the Artifice [pretence] of Hollywood

Sunset Boulevard is a cautionary warning about the artifice of Hollywood.  Norma’s massive stardom was entirely constructed around her youthful beauty and once that freshness faded as she aged, the movie industry had no use for her.  The celebrity image is ephemeral [short lived], a vicious cycle of championing youthful sex appeal and marginalising older women.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ Explores the American National Psyche

‘Sunset Boulevard’ is the first of Wilder’s remarkable sequence of films that explore the national psyche. It begins as an ostensible crime drama, albeit with an unusual narrative perspective, but quickly moves into an investigation of the wider crimes of the film industry. Wilder moves from the individual crime of Joe’s murder to consider all of Hollywood as a crime scene, the betrayal of its early promise, its abandonment of the creative talents that founded its studios, and the criminal neglect of the potential of the medium itself – these are all under investigation in Wilder’s vision of the film industry at mid-century.

The American psyche is concept of America itself – out of this small, relatively homogenous community, a vast nation gradually emerged.  So, deeply embedded in the American psyche is the sense of having leapt into the dark, of having rebelled and started something new, something whose end is unknown.  The USA is, in a sense, an experiment, a work in progress.

Stylistically, Sunset Boulevard Develops a Portrait of the Toxic Culture of the Film Industry

The film is an extended allusion to the great German Expressionist films of the silent era, as it develops a psychological portrait of the film industry, the ‘toxic’ culture of stardom and celebrity used to attract audiences, and the willingness to exploit creativity and then to abandon these talents in the relentless search for innovation and profit. Throughout the film, Wilder alludes to the darker impulses behind the worship of stars: a fascination with gossip and scandal, the transformation of actors into God-like figures, and the readiness to dispose of these ‘gods’ – all symptoms of a society that has become mesmerised by the manufactured fantasies that Hollywood has perfected across its short history.

Joe Gillis Investigates the Events that led to his Own Murder

Failed screenwriter Joe Gillis investigates the events that led to his own murder and uncovers a far larger ‘plot’. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Hollywood is exposed as an industry that pitilessly manufactures and then abandons its ‘stars’, that ruthlessly exploits youth and beauty, that values profit over artistic worth and that has become locked into a system of competing studios that act as business rivals, mirroring the larger economic system of capitalist competition, a true ‘culture industry’. In the contemporary Hollywood of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Wilder makes it indisputably clear that a star of Norma’s impossible grandeur and other-worldly gestures and mannerisms has no place amidst the now reduced, quotidian world of Hollywood’s post-war austerity. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a film that explores madness, derangement, delusion and loss, but these are symptoms of a much wider cultural disturbance than merely the case of one former star.

Main Characters
Joe GillisPlayed by William Holden a struggling young screen writer transforms into Norma’s gigolo making him dependent on her and impossible to escape the ‘femme fatal’ figure
Norma DesmondPlayed by Gloria Swanson a faded, narcissistic, eccentric, former silent screen star demoralised by Hollywood but obsessed with her own needs to the detriment of Gillis as she manipulates him dragging Joe into her deluded world
Max Von MayerlingPlayed by Erich von Stroheim Norma’s first husband and butler feeds Norma’s obsessions and shields her from the brutal fact her career is over and exacerbates her illusions
Betty SchaeferPlayed by Nancy Olson a budding writer and Joe’s love interest is the antithesis of Norma
Themes
superficial celebrity imagecontrollove
deceitDeath & murderself-delusion & insanity
discontentHollywood’s post war roleThe role of art and the artist as an individual creator
The price of fame & the dream factory of HollywoodLegacy of the film industry’s pastcruel star system in Hollywood
Symbols
Norma’s mansionJoe’s carthe dead chimpanzee
swimming poolimportance of faces 

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian VCE Curriculum 2024

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: The Basics

This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ in AOS1: Unit 3, Reading & Responding to Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum

See the source image

Introduction

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is Shirley Jackson’s last completed novel and, much like the majority of her other works, it features gothic type female characters suffering from mental disorders and the house which represents a place of both security and imprisonment.  The genre is mystery, thriller and gothic set in 1962 in a small town in New England 6 years after the Blackwood family were murdered.  The tone and mood are sinister, frightening and at times darkly humorous.

It is a story about two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, who continue to live away from the society after the murder of the rest of their family – a crime which is later revealed to have been committed by 12-year-old Merricat herself.  Jackson also describes the two sisters as two halves of the same person, two completely opposite sides of one personality.  Another important thing about this novel is that the home of Blackwood sisters is one of the central themes.  As well as in other Jackson’s works, “the house is a deeply ambiguous symbol—a place of warmth and security and also one of imprisonment and catastrophe” (Zoë Heller, “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson”).  It is the place where the sisters find a sanctuary from the abusive villagers, as well as the place where they are being punished and, in the end, confined.

Through this novel, Jackson challenges the idea of happiness, as well as the morality of both society and individual. These two in particular are in conflict, as is the case in many other Jackson’s stories. Merricat, the narrator of the story, is desperately trying to escape the society and its norms, while those same people are trying to punish her for it. The novel parodies the role of the housewife, but also twists it by making the submissive Constance into a participant in the murder.  The idea of persecution of people who exhibit ‘otherness’ or become treated as outsiders by small town villagers is at the forefront of Jackson’s novel.

Who was the Author Shirley Jackson?

Shirley Jackson was an American writer known primarily for her works of horror and gothic mystery.  She wrote 6 novels, two memoirs and 200 short stories. 

Born in 1916 Jackson herself led a haunted and peculiar life.  In order to escape from her abusive mother “who was disappointed by her daughter and who made it clear that she would have preferred a prettier, more pliable one” (Heller), Jackson married Stanley Edgar Hyman who ended up cheating on her and being jealous of her success. Trapped in another almost hostile household, she appears to have found her way of rebelling through her writing.  As Zoë Heller points out “[t]he motif of a lonely woman setting out to escape a miserable family or a grimly claustrophobic community and ending up “lost” recurs throughout Jackson’s stories”.  Her main characters are mostly female, often women with psychological problems who are being punished by society.  Her novel ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is no different.  After writing this final novel, “Jackson suffered a nervous breakdown and a prolonged bout of acute agoraphobia that prevented her going outside for half a year” (Heller) not unlike Constance, one of the protagonists.  Jackson died at age 49 in 1965.

1st Person Narrator – Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood

Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood is the main protagonist and the first-person narrator of Shirley Jackson’s novel. She is an interesting character through whose eyes the reader follows the events in what has remained of the Blackwood family. That being said, Mary Katherine is also the most disturbed individual in the novel and is increasingly losing touch with reality, which makes her point of view not only highly biased, but utterly unreliable.  She could be described as a hypersensitive paranoid schizophrenic, sometimes behaving mildly retarded, but only outwardly, inwardly she is razor-sharp in her observations and hyperalert to threats to her wellbeing.

In addition, her characteristics contribute to the creation of the uneasy, strange and gothic elements in the atmosphere of the novel. The book opens with Mary Katherine introducing herself, but her first sentences are disturbing and ominous, also the first clue to the reader that she is not exactly an ordinary character: “I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf” (p.1). In addition, she says: “I like my sister Constance . . . and Amanita phalloides, the death mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p.1).

Merricat, like other mentally damaged people, fears change in the unvarying rituals of her household and is ‘domesticated’ by only one person, her older sister Constance.  The way for her to deflect change or threat to the ordinary is to use witchcraft involving a simple magic of ‘safeguards’ that were supposed to ward off bad omens. 

Constance Blackwood – Protagonist and Sister to Merricat

Mary Katherine and her older sister Constance are pure opposites of one another.  While Merricat is lively and energetic, loves to spend time outside, and can be quite aggressive, Constance seems to be more timid, submissive, and reluctant to leave her kitchen.  Constance is perhaps the one who comes closest to the idea of an innocent heroine. Throughout the whole novel, she is trying to justify Merricat’s behaviour and it is possible to ascribe this kind of reaction to extreme fear or love, but both of these emotions are then stretched to the point of being unhealthy. 

Of course, Constance is not mentally healthy to begin with – the most obvious proof being her fear of outer space (agoraphobia). It is certain that the readers will never really know how Constance came to be how she is now; whether she has always been that way or the death of her family and the events that followed are what made her that way. But if it is taken into consideration that it is extreme love what Constance feels for her mentally ill sister, one has to wonder how far that love is ready to go, and what kinds of terror it is ready to justify. But through the characters of Merricat and Constance, Jackson also shows just how cruel and disturbed women can be.

What Prompted the Girl’s Mental Problems?

At this point, the reader also has to wonder what prompted the girls’ mental problems and the murder of their parents, as the murder may be seen as a sort of liberation from potential abuse. Jackson never reveals the family’s history, which leaves enough room for speculation, and indeed, even escalation of the hidden horrors in the family.

The Importance of the Setting of ‘The Castle’

The setting in gothic fiction often plays the key role in the story, so it is no surprise that the setting of this novel is mentioned already in its title. “The castle” is in fact the Blackwood mansion, now almost completely deserted, save for Mary Katherine, her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. The interesting thing about it is that it acts both as the place of security for the sisters, as well as the place of their confinement.

Conclusion about the Novel

At the end of the novel after the fire, the Blackwood sisters willingly barricade themselves in their home in order to escape the abusive society which hates them for breaking their rules. However, by doing so on their own will, Constance and Merricat reverse the trap, making their prosecutors into the submissive ones, the ones who continue to serve and fear the sisters, turning their isolation into a somewhat ‘happy ending’.  The gothic fairy tale is of the more wicked variety, with the ending ironic and literal, the consequence of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice of others.

Main Characters
Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood – narrator & protagonistConstance Blackwood – older sister of Merricat & progatonistUncle Julian Blackwood – brother of John Blackwood & uncle to the 2 girls
Charles Blackwood – cousin to the girls & main antagonistJonas – Merricat’s catHelen Clarke – old friend of the Blackwood family
Stella – runs a café in the villageJim Donell – one of the villagers who hates the BlackwoodsJim Clarke – husband of Helen
Themes
Female power & female powerlessnessHome as a sanctuary or confinementPatriarchal society & male power
Sexual repressionVengeance & dislike of changeSadistic fantasies & hate
Family & gender & human natureInnocence & guilt & punishmentIsolation & sacrifice
Relativity of truthWitchcraftMental & personality disorders
Murder & evil & horrorAbusive society & othernessFear & being haunted
Symbols
Food & ritual mealsThe poisoned sugarThe moon
The Blackwood’s house & its propertyThe cellar in the houseJonas Merricat’s cat
Amanita phalloides – death cap mushroom – poisonousMerricat’s rituals & magicConstance & Merricat’s household rituals
The safe & money  
Irony
Merricat is the actual murderer (situational irony)The villager’s views of justice (dramatic irony)Julian’s view of Merricat (dramatic irony)
Constance as undutiful daughter (verbal irony)  
Imagery
The Blackwood houseThe Blackwood’s landJonas’s restlessness
The moonConstance & Merricat’s appearanceThe village setting

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