This week, Insight writer and Literature teacher Anja Drummond provides tips on how to produce a high-level interpretation of a text for the Unit 4 Literary Perspectives task in VCE Literature.
In Unit 4 Literature you are required to produce an interpretation of a text using different literary perspectives to inform your point of view. This complex task requires you to juggle a number of skills at once. Here are two pieces of advice to help you present a confident and nuanced essay.
1. Use language to make your perspective clear
Deliberate language choices are key to making your own perspective clear. Here are some vocabulary tips and examples for three literary perspectives. Whichever perspective you are drawing on, make sure that you understand the meaning of the words associated with that perspective and practise using these words in your writing, as shown in the examples below.
When writing from a Marxist perspective, you need to consider whether the text you are analysing accepts and normalises capitalism as a means of organising the human and material resources of society, or if it challenges capitalism and seeks to highlight its harmful impact on society.
Aim to use some of the following words and phrases in your discussion: alienation, bourgeois, bureaucracy, capital, capitalism, capitalist, class, commodification, labour, power, exploitation, market, means of production, proletariat and utility.
Here is an example of how to start an essay clearly using a Marxist perspective:
The blinding possessive nature of greed and materialistic endeavour is portrayed vividly in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The unrestrained commerce in the Congo, driven by a Western capitalist desire for wealth, reveals the true extent to which the qualitative worth of individuals is ignored by those who control the means of production. Through the narrative perspective of Marlow, Conrad highlights the suffering caused by the exploitation and commodification of the oppressed Congolese, and the destruction of the souls of those who seek to fulfil their own materialistic desires.
Like Marxists, feminists are concerned with the power of one group over another; but, rather than looking at power as a consequence of class, feminists consider power as a consequence of gender. When writing from a feminist perspective, you must therefore consider whether your text (and the literary criticism you have chosen to use) seeks to normalise or challenge the exploitation or mistreatment of women in patriarchal societies, and how gender norms are constructed.
Aim to use some of the following words and phrases in your discussion: agency, androcentric, benevolent sexism, cisgender, heteronormative, misogynistic, patriarchy, privilege, sexism and toxic masculinity.
Here is an example of how a feminist perspective can be used to analyse character:
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy’s misogynistic outlook is characterised by his use of sexist language. For example, he coarsely expresses chauvinistic attitudes towards women, particularly in relation to sex; he declares to Brick that he will find another woman to sleep with and ‘strip her naked and smother her in minks’. Through this language, Big Daddy seeks to reassert his power and position as patriarch.
Psychoanalytic literary criticism refers to literary criticism or literary theory that, in method, concept or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. As a consequence, a psychoanalytic interpretation should refer to aspects of psychological theory such as the unconscious, repression, wish fulfilment and desire, trauma, hysteria, dreams, and the Oedipus and Electra complexes. You might also explore Jungian theory, which contains concepts such as the shadow.
A psychoanalytic interpretation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof could argue that Brick’s decision to reveal the truth to Big Daddy that he is dying is a symbolic attempt to murder his own father in order to assert his independence. Big Daddy’s response to this news, followed by his absence from the remainder of the play, highlights the transfer of patriarchal power from father to son.
2. Discuss different perspectives
When you incorporate discussion of different critical perspectives, it is not enough to simply recount what each critic has to say. You need to show that you have the ability to think critically about what they are saying, and then create your own interpretation in response.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the critic’s opinion?
- How is their opinion formed? What do they consider and what do they ignore?
- What aspects of their opinion do you agree or disagree with? Why?
Here are some examples of how to do this within an essay on Heart of Darkness:
- As his concern resides primarily with the use of Africa as a foil, Achebe overlooks the importance of the Intended to the narrative. Achebe’s belief that Conrad is ‘a thoroughgoing racist’ precludes him from recognising …
- While McIntire and Achebe both express concern about Conrad’s representation of the ‘natives’, McIntire’s feminist perspective leads her to emphasise …
- Seeking to represent the viewpoints of the marginalised ‘other’, both Achebe and McIntire assert …
- Both writers express concern with the depiction of the tribal woman, yet their interpretations of this character differ because …
Try adapting the phrases in bold to your text – they will enhance your analysis while also revealing that you are engaging with and comparing the literary perspectives.
And finally …
This task is asking you to read critically and think deeply. Rather than blindly accepting everything you read, have a pen in your hand when you are reading a piece of literary criticism and annotate it. If you disagree with something you read, note your response. If you agree, note why and add additional evidence to support the point. By doing this, you will be well on your way to forming your own interpretation.
Want to be ready for the Literature Exam? Make sure you purchase our Literature Exam Guide by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Literature Exam Guide is a comprehensive resource for the VCE Literature exam and explains the requirements of each section, unpacks the criteria and includes sample paragraphs and complete responses using popular texts.