CA4 Review: Her World

Lost in Translation

As with CA3, I didn’t mark quite enough scripts to provide a detailed evaluation of what went right and what went wrong. Expect this post to be a little more free form in its outlay of thoughts on the mind and self, Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind and the methods contained therein. For memory’s sake, we will be responding to the CA4 question listed below:

Explore the play’s treatment of the ways in which the environment has an impact on an individual’s mind and self.

For efficiency, we will not repeat the question analysis and approaches that Ms Yeo shared with you during the lecture in T2 W10 — not in the conventional sense anyway. What we will be doing is to rustle up a few relevant ideas and methods that may prove useful at the upcoming Mid-Year Examination. Whatever the case, be warned: the questions will never be the same, so your (one?) job is to be extremely selective, adapt points and evidence skilfully and, duh of duhs, answer the question. Padding done, so let’s open up the windows to Susan’s mental universe.

> ‘.’ <

Thinking about the Question

I understand the methodical approach to splitting “the environment” in the text into social, situational, cultural, physical environments in the style of (mediocre) GP (essays). Much as it builds a scope for the clueless student, I’m not the biggest fan of this approach for the way it skirts, really, the interpretation of the text the question encourages us to create. The essays that adopted this approach were acceptable, but “acceptable” is a problem… to me.

For me, “the environment” naturally invokes the relationship between the individual, space and society (i.e. people). Which influences which? What has the greatest impact on the individual’s identity — what one feels, how one thinks, why one acts the way one acts? This relationship is not restricted to a singular direction either, as put in words no sharper than Frank Costello’s in The Departed (2006):

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

‘Wait, hang on. Hold your horses (and superfluous Scorsese references) for a second there, Mr Lim’, I hear you say. ‘That doesn’t answer the question. Can we just agree?’ ‘Won’t we go off point, Sir? I think there is something interest behind that though.’ ‘Now that’s rubbish! The whole point of the play is that Susan is unable to affect her real environment in any meaningful way. That’s why she goes mad.’ ‘But she does shape her real world with the “products” of her wild, desperate imagination.’ ‘You have a point there.’ ‘…she does still fail to grasp her environment.’ ‘So the environment collapses around her.’

> ‘.’ <

Response to ‘The Mind and Self’ 

Voila. The question assumes that Susan’s mind and self is the victim of, or at least susceptible to the influence of the environment. In the world of Woman in Mind, this environment is undoubtedly her home. It is the physical setting that she is shown in, and circumscribed by. To some extent, she traps herself within the domestic realm and its duties (as mother and wife); her only means of transcendence is merely to add some glamour and a few hectares all around in her fantasy world. At no point does Susan want to leave this physical environment; it takes the ambulance, hinted by the flashing lights at  the end of Act Two, to tear her apart from home.

“The environment” is also the site of her family, whose insipidity and insensitivity torture Susan on a daily basis — her husband Gerald, sister-in-law Muriel and son Rick who collectively have a debilitating effect on Susan’s mind and self. In their various ways, they deprive Susan the sense that she is a “Woman” of her own home and compel her to seek the comfort of delusion. This perspective is again reliant on the assumption that Susan is passive – Gerald, Muriel and Rick consciously or unconsciously conspire against her, and she is helpless to the point her “compensatory” family members similarly work against her.

If we have to rummage for scraps of “cultural environment” where none are really laid out in the play, then we really have to go back to the almighty question of… what is the question really about? Single-text questions on Woman in Mind have lately grown very stale for me, precisely because they revolve around the same concerns and episodes in the text. It is really about using the question to shape a “personal, informed critical” and hopefully original response to the text. Amongst the arguments one could make might include:

  • The environment presented within the play. diverging from its protagonist’s expectations, is a source of deep dissatisfaction and sadness.
  • Ayckbourn portrays an environment that is grievously indifferent and sometimes cruel to the individual’s intentions. It exerts pressures on the mind that an individual may not be able to cope with.
  • While never outwardly hostile (in full reality), this environment has a debilitating effect on the individual’s mind (sanity, control) and sense of self (roles, purpose).
  • It follows that the individual is painted as a passive subject, sinking occasionally to the level of a helpless victim, in her environment. Susan appears to the audience as a hostage in her home, needing the maternal, spousal and domestic fulfilment but at the same time has these roles wrenched from her.
  • But is this not of her own doing? If the environment causes the collapse of the mind and self in the play, it is fair to say that Susan contributes to this environment and plays a part in her own downfall.

Does the play highlight the need to take control of one’s environment? Does it warn us against the mounting pressures and toxic tendencies (pardon the pun) the environment has on an individual’s state of mind, and by implication, his or her identity? Or does the play interrogate the significance of Susan’s home on her mind and self – leading us to maybe see the individual herself as responsible for her own state?

Whichever your stance, it is important to me at least that you try to say something about the purpose of the text in your view. The two options at the MYE will certainly allow you to fashion a personal response, leading you maybe to weigh the impact of something on the individual’s mind, self, or both, or more finely consider the individual’s role, agency and autonomy (hint: everything above checks these two broad areas).

> ‘.’ <

Analysis of Methods and Effects

It is natural that we pair evidence, or more precisely episodes from the text, with ideas first. Even if we place evidence first, it is imperative that we extract and indeed, organise each paragraph around methods and one central effect.

The above list of ideas, if you could scroll up again, contain italicised key words that can be positioned as effects – ’emotions’ and ‘qualities’ that are evoked through the text itself. So even if you are analysing for instance Rick’s sentence types, choice of words and his actions (three different methods), the analysis should always arrive at his somewhat abrasive treatment of his mother (one central effect).

The “episodic” approach (i.e. selecting one key scene per paragraph) isn’t the be-all end-all  because methods like dramatic structure, setting and stage action cannot and should not be cast aside. For a question on “the environment”, this is especially so. Note how the “dialogue” (i.e. dramatic language) points effectively mirror the episodic approach most have taken, albeit with a clearer tone or effect.

  • Domestic setting – the family home and its trimmings
    – The garden setting (3), champagne (4-5), tea and coffee (7, 10, 13-14), frozen quiche / omelettes (20) vs Andy’s ‘mountains and mountains’ of food (19)
    – The furniture in Rick’s room, now beyond Susan’s control (25)
  • Dialogue – Susan’s resignation towards her loveless family life
    – “We don’t kiss… we hardly…”, “… everything else rather loses its purpose” (13)
  • Dialogue – Gerald’s cold, cutting, condescending manner
    – On Susan’s role of Rick (16-17)
  • Dialogue – Rick’s taciturn, evasive, surly tone 
    –  On his marriage to Tess and Susan’s treatment of his love life (31-32)
  • Dramatic structure  – Parallels and progression
    – Both acts begin with a ‘mental trauma’ of some kind: a physical blow to the head in Act I, exacerbated by the emotional blow of Rick’s return in Act II.
    – The defiance of Susan’s imaginary family and the thunderstorm scene show the audience the impact of the environment on her mental stability.
  • Dramatic structure and setting – the closing scene
    – The collision of reality and fantasy marks Susan’s mental instability.
    – The ‘scene’ takes place at the race-tracks, moving away from the real “environment” of Susan’s home — is this an unwilling escape or a necessary one?

> ‘.’ <

Looking Out, Looking Forward

The questions for the MYE and Paper 3 Section C (Single text essay questions) in general may or may not allow you to rehash the content we have provided thus far. The CA3 question on the environment, as a form of practice, does allow us some insight into what you can and should expect.

  • The questions may feature “the mind”, “the self” or both
    – Based on the specimen A-level paper (this being the first year of ‘The Mind and Self in Literature), we can expect most questions to feature either “mind” or “self” in the prompt. E.g. “Consider the ways in which Ayckbourn uses dramatic effects to show a mind losing touch with reality.”, “Consider Wordsworth’s presentation of his young self…”
    – In most cases, only the “mind” is featured. Regardless, you should address the relationship between the mind (desperate, broken, chaotic) and the self.
  • Causality is everything. Pay enough attention to the cause, and most attention on the consequences.
    – In our CA3 question, “the environment” is earmarked as the “cause” of Susan’s loss of mental stability and selfhood, which means you have to examine what this environment entails to build a convincing case of its impact on the mind and self.
    – Many questions in the specimen paper provide such a “cause” (e.g. death, war, moral dilemmas) and require the candidate to focus on the effects, implications and consequences in relation to the mind or self.
  • Susan is at the centre of the play. Deviate with care.
    – Only Susan is granted any real character development, and so these consequences on the mind and self really only apply to her.
    – We are not saying “don’t go beyond Susan in your scope.” Just be doubly conscious if and when you decide to examine other characters without really mentioning Susan. In most cases, you’d be analysing Gerald-Susan as a married couple, Susan-Rick as mother and son, and Andy et al as a product of Susan’s imagination anyway.
  • Organise your essay by whatever means, but end it well.
    – Too often exam answers amount to one good (sometimes overly long) paragraph, and a series of cobbled points at the end that make for a bad impression. Good essays generally move from simple to complex ideas, where the final body paragraph delivers the most convincing idea in relation to your conclusion.
    – To do this, the structure of your essay can simply follow the structure of the play (hint: at least one of the MYE options encourages this). This means examining the brighter, more comedic facets of Susan’s life, and ending the essay on the nightmarish, bleaker denouement of the play.
    – Other questions may demand other ways of organising your essay. Obviously, each paragraph must revolve around one central idea, and this idea may in return be linked to a character (e.g. Tony?), character relationship (e.g. Gerald-Susan?) and most likely, an effect (e.g. desperation, laughter, disorder).
    – Conclude your essay with a personal response to the question!

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