This week, Insight writer and English teacher Kate Macdonell explains what you need to look for when comparing your text pairs.
The comparative task can be a demanding one because you need to hold on to ideas from two texts and play them off each other in order to respond to a topic. And although topics are mostly geared towards ideas (such as secrets, justice or gender inequality), a high-scoring discussion of these ideas will also take into account the contexts, characters and genres specific to the texts being studied.
This post gives you some ideas for how to locate ideas relevant to character, context and genre, so that you can discuss them effectively in your writing.
Contexts and characters
The text pairs selected by the VCAA combine texts set in different geographical environs and at different times in history, with different social and political landscapes. It is important that you understand the different contexts for your texts because these often relate directly to the issues they present and to the ways in which characters or individuals respond to those issues. Remember, too, that in some texts, the historical and political circumstances can be complicated; you need to be mindful of this so that you do not inadvertently simplify your discussion.
For example, the broad historical context of I Am Malala sees varied access to education for girls, and under the Taliban this access is ultimately prohibited for girls over the age of ten. This historical context is largely what spurs Malala into action to fight for the right of girls to be educated.
By contrast, even though Made in Dagenham is set in the 1960s – an earlier historical period than I Am Malala – a girl’s right to an education is so normative that it is not regarded as a topic for debate. However, poor working conditions for female factory workers, domestic servitude and inequitable pay rates become central issues, particularly once the film’s protagonist, Rita O’Grady, is encouraged by Albert Passingham to campaign for equal pay.
Not only are the issues that are fought for contextually determined, so is the manner in which rights (for girls’ education in I Am Malala and for equal pay in Made in Dagenham) are pursued. Grievances can be articulated publicly by the Dagenham women, who stage demonstrations across the country. In contrast, such demonstrations in Pakistan are dangerous for Malala and her friends and teachers, so their fight for justice is necessarily less visible. Thus the contexts of both texts are essential for an understanding of textual issues and, indeed, the actions of individuals.
It is important to ask yourself why individuals act in the way they do. Often their actions will be part and parcel of an innate personality trait, but even then the manifestation of that trait – such as courage or a willingness to try something new – will derive from their particular experiences and the political, social and historical contexts in which they live.
Characters and inner traits
As suggested above, although context definitely shapes the way individuals and characters behave, there are traits and values possessed by some individuals that enable them to respond to their contexts in ways that others do not. So while context is integral to the choices and decisions a character makes, the interplay between context and personality is also important to recognise.
For example, in Year of Wonders, Anna Frith endeavours to dissuade villagers from attacking Mem and then Anys Gowdie, even though she is initially alone in doing so. Like some of these villagers, she has lost family members to the plague and fears its capacity to wreak destruction on human life. However, her fear does not compel her to cast blame without cause.
Clearly, we are positioned to view Anna as possessing a strength of character that many of the villagers lack. And while she herself seeks to know the cause of the plague, her inner strength and fortitude direct her to more rational explanations for it. Similarly, in The Crucible, John Proctor tries to take a stand against the reckless casting of blame on those who are innocent, despite so many around him falling in line with the views of the church authorities.
Although the topics on last year’s paper did not explicitly ask students to discuss genre in their comparative essay, there were a number of ‘Compare how …’ topics that readily invited a discussion of genre. Given that all of the pairs set for the comparative task comprise texts of different genres, it makes sense to explore how genre impacts on meaning.
One of the ways to do this is to make a list of the conventions particular to the genres with which you are working. So, with a film text like Invictus, for instance, you would make a note of the film elements such as soundtrack, mise en scène, setting, voice-over, camera angles, the pace and inflection of the dialogue, and so on. By contrast, for Ransom, you would perhaps note the third-person narrative voice, shifts in tenses and what they connote, and the power of language – particularly by way of metaphor – to expose deeper meanings.
In a play, you could pick up on stage directions, voice and dialogue; in nonfiction, you could focus on the writer’s voice and their representation of both themselves and others, among other elements such as the use of symbolism and setting.
Thus, in response to a topic about change in Ransom and Invictus, you could explore how the use of metaphor in Ransom highlights Achilles’ capacity to suspend the ‘hard, manly qualities’ associated with revenge and become amenable to a ‘melting in him of will, of self’, which sees him listen to and accept Priam’s ransom. By contrast, an analysis of Invictus could explore the scene where the Springboks visit Robben Island. The degree to which Pienaar is affected by the journey is partly signalled by his visualisation of Madiba and other prisoners from the past breaking rocks, and of Madiba, head bowed, alone in his tiny cell. These visualisations are diluted in colour and fade out, but their significance is relayed through Pienaar’s concerned expression and the accompanying voice-over in which Madiba recites the poem ‘Invictus’.
Here, both texts explore moments associated with characters’ experiences of change, but the way that change is made manifest differs according to genre. Indeed, Malouf’s use of metaphor is extended to suggest not only a diffusion of Achilles’ sense of self but also the world he visualises – a world Achilles associates with his mother’s ‘shimmering influence’. This gives an impression of how intense, uncertain and otherworldly Achilles’ vision is of what is before him. The shifting sense of self, while beautifully relayed in Malouf’s writing, would be difficult to portray in the more realistic film world of Invictus. Here, change occurs, but it is change that is associated more with Pienaar’s recognition of Madiba’s experiences and strength of character than with any inner sense of uncertainty.
The comparative study is challenging, but so rewarding. Remember that the task is one that requires comparison on every level; so, compare what it is that makes characters tick, compare the contexts and compare how the different genres generate ideas.
Need help with comparing texts? We have an Insight Comparisons guide for all eight text pairs on List 2 for VCE English. Written by experienced English teachers and professional writers with expertise in literature and film criticism, each Insight Comparisons guide includes a detailed study of each of the two texts, and a close analysis of their shared ideas, issues and themes.
Photo credit: arda savasciogullari/shutterstock