The Importance of Tone

To appreciate the literary quality of a text, one must comprehend how a writer conveys meaning. The ‘how’ is often elusive for students new to the subject, as we usually read for what is being said rather than the methods a writer uses and the effects of the writer’s choices.

In my view, getting at the effects is the more useful ‘first step’. There is little merit in identifying methods such as rhyme scheme or structure (as students grasping for straws typically do) without an understanding of what these methods achieve in the first place.

Focusing on Tone

Newer learners then may find it easier, and more familiar, to examine tonethe way a character, narrator or persona says something, or the attitude or feelings implied by the words and sentences used.

The hell I will! You see, George didn’t have much . . . push . . . he wasn’t particularly aggressive. In fact he was sort of a …[spits the word at GEORGE’s back] …a FLOP! A great …big …fat …FLOP!

In the example from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? above, we note that the protagonist Martha perceives her husband George as a failure, or in her words, a ‘great… big… fat… FLOP!’. Reading this literally, we would take Martha’s words as the truth, and explain how George is indeed a failure.

The literary reading of this is more concerned about Martha’s hostile tone towards George. Her choice of words (i.e. diction), starting with the word ‘hell’ and ending on the repeated ‘FLOP’, conveys a viciousness that is also supported by her actions – she ‘spits the word at George’s back’. Her exclamatory sentences (i.e. syntax) also express anger.

While her words literally describe her perception of George, her tone tells us more about her as a disgruntled housewife.

Tone and Meaning

The importance of tone is obvious in how the opening line of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) has been translated… or mistranslated, as Ryan Bloom writes in New Yorker. The French novel tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who is an ‘outsider’ to society, and is put on trial for murdering another man.

The first sentence matters, Bloom argues, because it colours the reader’s impression of Meursault. Is he guilty? Was there a cause to his actions? Was he a ‘good person’? The 1946 translation of the novel opens with:

Mother died today.

It is a simple sentence, one of ‘detached formality’. The word ‘Mother’ is functional. As said by Meursault, it contains ‘little warmth, little bond or closeness or love’. Bloom goes on to argue that the reader’s view of him is determined through his relationship with his mother. We ‘condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits but on our assessment of him as a person’. Seeing Meursault as a distant, uncaring son, the reader is likely to judge him harshly.

This is the translation Bloom proposes should take its place:

Today, maman died.

The syntax – the order of words – here is truer to the original (‘Aujourd’hui, maman 1st more’). ‘Today’ is now placed at the start because it is ‘the single most important factor’ of Meursault’s life. It is a day of loss.

Applying our own analysis skills, the comma – part of grammatical convention – also forces us to slow down as we read the sentence. It introduces a gravity, a sense of mourning that is missing from the simple, quickly-read ‘Mother died today’.

The French word ‘maman‘, according to Bloom, is close to the word ‘mom’ in English. It lies somewhere in between the coldness of ‘mother’ and the overly childlike ‘mommy’. The word itself is rather neutral, but the pronunciation of its two syllables has ‘a touch of softness and warmth’ that is not present in ‘Mother’ or ‘mom’.

In this translation, his mother’s death hangs over Mersault, and the reader is more likely to sympathise with him.

Tone matters. How you say something, and not just what you say, matters more than you think.

Thoughts on 2019 A-Level Paper 3


“Predictably unpredictable.” In a season of first decades, Galapagos Islands and vaccine industries, there was little by way of curveballs for both Lit papers.

While I was expecting broad concepts and terms in relation to the mind and self, the paper still surprised with the broadness of ‘self-understanding’, ‘preoccupation’ and ‘consciousness of self’ which truth be told, really could apply to almost any interpretation of the mind and self. Here are my thoughts on the questions and possible approaches to the three sections: Continue reading “Thoughts on 2019 A-Level Paper 3”

Lessons from the 2019 A-Levels


We’ve been on quite the hiatus, haven’t we! It’s been two intense years with my first cohort of Lit students and with both papers over, there’s now time to gather our thoughts, sleep a little and think about next steps. Without Google Classroom, I’ll settle for the equivalent of ranting at a white wall. You, future JC2 Lit student or future me might find this and the next Paper 3-focused post useful in the lead-up to the 2020 or even 2021 A-Levels, so here’s hoping this is useful.

Continue reading “Lessons from the 2019 A-Levels”

Cause and Consequence

Slim Potato

This post is as much for the JC2s as it is for the JC1s, which is to say we are reviewing a JC2 Prelim question and preparing the JC1s for the upcoming Promos. The JC1s have spent many a lecture (and tutorial) going through expository cause-and-consequence questions, starting from our review of the MYE question on Martha as a ‘victim of her own expectations’ and concluding with a practice question on ‘a sense of fulfilment or lack of it affecting an individual’s identity.’ For both cohorts, we will elaborate once more on the question requirements and how to approach the question below.

Continue reading “Cause and Consequence”

Highlight Me


This requested post provides a few suggestions on how to annotate your Paper 3 set texts. They are by no means exhaustive; in fact, I have also struggled to map out the key concerns and ideas in a way that allows us to compare them easily next year.

Do not panic if you have already highlighted and annotated your text in your own way. You can just refer to the suggestions below and see if you have missed any key ideas out, however unlikely the case.

Here are a few broad reminders and revision tips before we dive into the specifics:

  • Annotate your set texts either at the start or at the end of your revision process. Doing so at the start will help you revise your knowledge of the text. You can transfer the annotations from your lecture notes, tutorial notes and presentations (where applicable) into your exam copy. Some of you may find this a little risky, in which case…
  • Annotating your exam copy at the end of your revision cycle will help you discern what is relevant, what is crucial and certainly, what are the key words you would want to close-analyse as you write your exam answer.
  • You may highlight the same lines in different colours. Yes, this is allowed! We’ve heard from students that one institution in particular recommends using two exam copies to highlight different concerns and ideas — you can take this interesting idea up if you want… probably from next year onwards. 😉
  • And yes, please do underline key words for close analysis. This is useful for both Paper 1 (especially the PBQ where you can ‘spot’ passages beforehand) and Paper 3. Develop your own code for this if you want (e.g. double underline for superlative / absolute terms, underline punctuation for sentence types).
  • Practise referring to your exam copy while practising question analysis, writing an essay outline or writing an actual essay. The goal is to make retrieving relevant episodes, quotations and key words as easily as possible, so only practising this will put this to the test!

Continue reading “Highlight Me”

Bring on the Promos



3 hours, 3 questions. Each section in the paper carries equal marks. We generally recommend you scan through all three sections once you are permitted to do so and start with the unseen. If you are flummoxed by the unseen, move onto the set texts and you can return to the unseen in a calmer state of mind. 😉

  • Section A – Paper 3 Unseen, choose either (a) drama excerpt or (b) poem.
  • Section B – Paper 3 Woman in Mind, choose one essay question from two.
  • Section C – Paper 1 Measure for Measure, choose either (a) essay or (b) passage-based question.

Continue reading “Bring on the Promos”

Develop This!

Running dry on ideas? Only see “repetition” and the tone in one character’s lines? Really can’t find anything to say?

To develop your analysis of one point, you can think about the progression of a character / persona’s tone or effects — how the tone intensifies or shifts — while close-analysing the “key points” or “turning points” in the progression.

This close analysis means you have to: (i) explore the quotations in finer detail, looking out for nuances / minute differences (e.g. the reference to “Dad”); and (ii) explore the effects in finer detail, looking at how “desperation” is “not-so-desperate” early on, or how a patient appeal can escalate towards a firm demand.

Here are a couple of figures that might help, especially if you’re in the graph-plotting crowd. Evidently, I am too. 😉 Examples below are taken from the Proof (2000) extract in Paper 3 CA4.

Developing Your Analysis



In this follow-up post to Selfisms, we explore the concept of defence mechanisms and the projected self in more detail, via John Yorke’s study of Character Individuation in Into the Woods: a Five Act Journey into Story.

Characters create facades to mask the things they fear inside – we all do. A character’s facade, then, is an outer manifestation of an inner conflict. Faced with extreme stress some characters will laugh, others will cry, some will intellectualise, some may punish others. It’s a cornerstone of characterisation, but it’s a centrepiece of psychological theory too.

Continue reading “Individuation”

What Makes a Paragraph?


Note: this post has been password-protected because it contains examination answers from the 2017 JC1 cohort, which is not mine (and not right) to share with the world.

What makes a good body paragraph in a Literature essay? You may be asking yourself that question after receiving your CA2 and CA3 responses; this post tries to answer that, clarify a few misconceptions (if any), and examine two of your seniors’ paragraphs to light the way forward. From here you can re-enter our notes with a clearer perspective of your writing can reflect and even go deeper than our analysis, and we will only read stellar work from here!

Continue reading “What Makes a Paragraph?”