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Literature: Guide to Passage Analysis

By Emily Lamb in VCE
15th of May 2018
passage analysis

In this article, Emily takes us through the intricacies of Literature’s passage analysis. For more Lit resources, check this out.


Arguably one of the most important tasks in the VCE Literature curriculum is ‘passage analysis.’ This task is one you will all soon be facing in your SACs, but additionally, in your final exam. Many students struggle with the style of writing that is expected, and understanding what the actual task is. The following is a guide to some of the most important elements required to achieve highly in this form of assessment.

 

Preparing

There are two central things that you need to work on in preparation for your close analysis SAC – let’s consider them individually.

 

Understanding of the text as a whole.

This part is arguably the most simple, and most of this step will occur in class. You must be able to engage with and understand the key themes and ideas within your text. It is useful to identify 3 or 4 of these key ideas that you believe you would be able to pull out of any passage that you are presented with. It is useful to read your text a few times, because that way you will be very familiar with all of its intricacies and know what themes are universal, and which ones are only relevant to particular sections.

 

Practise under timed conditions.

Many students do not write practice essays beforehand, and their grades suffer. Why is this? Because like anything, passage analysis is a skill that will take practice. Even if you only complete ONE timed practice essay, with 3 random passages from your text to work with, you will get a good idea of your strengths and your weaknesses. Prior to my SACs, I would complete at least 4 timed practice essays. This made the SAC far less intimidating.

passage analysis

Explore the dimensions of one key element

What do you feel is the central theme for the text? What resonated with you? What was the author trying to convey? Try to come up with a premise that applies across the text, which will also help you to tie your essay together. This is important, as you should never treat your passages in isolation. You need to find running themes between them. The passages provided have been given for a reason – find that reason! What you will be ultimately aiming to do is find 3 (or 4) different ways that the element you have selected is being presented in the passages you are given. Consider the following example:

Antony and Cleopatra

Key element: Power.

3 facets: Feminine power, power of love or ‘lust’, and power seeking/its consequences.

 

Have a structure

Unlike English, you do not need to follow a traditional essay structure in Literature. However, this is not to say that you don’t need any structure. Ensure your arguments/paragraphs build on one another, and that you are only dealing with one idea per paragraph. This will enhance the overall quality of your essay.

Using the above examples, you may begin with Shakespeare’s discussion of feminine power, namely in Cleopatra’s use of her femininity to manipulate characters. Building upon this, you can move into the power of ‘lust.’ Finally, you can move into outlining Shakespeare’s castigation of power seeking. Do you see how these ideas are interlinked and how they build upon one another? This is what you should always be aiming for in your structure.

I am constantly asked by my students if they need an introduction and a conclusion. The simple answer to that question is ‘no.’ You do not need either. However, a sentence summing up your central contention at the beginning and end will help to tie your essay together and make it neater and easier to follow. The marks are not coming from these areas, but they may make it easier for the examiner to understand the points you make in the body of your essay, which could ultimately improve your mark!

 

Analysing

This brings us to the body of your essay: analysing! This is where the bulk of your marks are coming from. Firstly, ensure you that are dealing with the passages you have been given. A pre-prepared essay that doesn’t look at the intricacies of the specific passages will never succeed. It is best to take the ‘zoom out/zoom in/zoom out’ approach. Begin your paragraph with a broad statement regarding your argument, then ‘zoom in’ on your evidence, and ‘zoom out’ again as you explain the relevance of your evidence. You may do this a few times in your paragraph. Now, the ‘zoom out’ is what we are all familiar with from our years as students. It is the ‘zoom in’ that many students struggle with, as it involves an in-depth type of analysis that you are not expected to conduct in English.

passage analysis

The best way to ensure that you are analysing on this higher level is to unpack the individual words within every quote you reference. You may treat every language choice as intentional, and the more you play with these ideas and get creative the better! Picking out individual words and considering what their connotations are adds a new dimension to your work that many students miss. Often, advice provided by teachers will be along the lines of “more detail!” and “go deeper!” As frustrating and vague as these seem, it is this type of analysis that they are after. This exercise may help you develop this skill. Consider the follow quote:

 

“Our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man.” – Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.

Firstly, pick out the key words of the quote. What strikes you?

Next, consider what images are roused by those words. Consider what connotations are associated with them, what double meanings they hold. Consider what this could mean in the context of the text. What do you see when you read the word ‘beast’? What about ‘feed’?

Finally, consider how these connotations link to the overall argument that you are making. Putting it all together, you will have a highly detailed examination of a quote.

 

“In passage 2, Antony’s passionate effusion “our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man” illuminates Shakespeare’s castigation of power seeking. ‘Feeds’ seems to convey a sense of greed, and when partnered with ‘beast’ illustrates the animalistic, aggressive conduct of a ‘man’ who is consumed by his desire for conquest. Secondly, ‘dungy’ holds a connotation of decay, which may be likened to the destruction of Antony’s morality through his involvement in corrupt politics.”

 

Once you have picked apart these elements, you may zoom out again to a broad point surrounding the meaning of the quote, which you can use to reinforce your contention. Whenever you choose to include a full quote in your work, ensure you are doing this. Many students tend to skip this step and move into their conclusion about what the quote means instantly, losing valuable opportunities for a much deeper, richer analysis.

 

Getting your feedback (and learning from it!)

If your initial results don’t meet your expectations, it can be very disheartening. However, it is important not to give up, because the style of writing that is expected in VCE Literature can take a lot effort to master. Be in constant communication with your teacher about what they want from your work. If some of the advice they provide in your SAC feedback doesn’t make sense, start a conversation with them about it. Ask for examples. Ask if you can sit down with your teacher at some point to go through your SAC. Take careful note of what they liked about your work, and where the deficiencies were, and most importantly – try again! Write essay after essay using random passages out of your text. Get someone to mark those papers, be it your teacher, a tutor or even a friend – and try again! You will thank yourself later!

 

Emily Lamb, VCE Literature, Legal Studies and Global Politics Tutor.

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