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:

Section A (Unseen)

1(a) Poetry – ‘In the theatre’ by Danne Abse (Link)

  • I was caught off-guard by the medical context of the poem, which literally presents the brain/mind and an expression of selfhood as the subject matter. It would be hard not to identify these main subjects, but I imagine my students wondering what larger insight there is to be gleaned – other than the notion that the self resides within the mind!
  • Most colleges have set poems that bear strong echoes of the previous syllabus, The Individual and Society in Literature, focusing primarily on the self in relation to society and concerns of gender, social roles and age. We perhaps saw more of this in the prose extract, but this option reminds us of the precedent in the 2018 options – this topic paper is unabashedly about the mind
  • Thankfully, the epigraph helps the reader make sense of the voices and portrayal of the brain/mind in the rest of the poem. While by no means mandatory, an analysis of the last line and how the operation was one ‘I shall never forget…’ can be incorporated into an informed personal response.
  • The wide-ranging points of view – the religious sisters there to guide the patient, the dresser, the description of the surgeon’s actions, the patient, and the ‘voice’ of the patient’s brain – invite our analysis of their various reactions.
  • The mind and self of the patient should be at the centre of most responses. His initially calm reply, ‘Thank you, I feel fine’ pales to ‘blink again and again’ and finally crumbles into a ‘mashed’ brain.
  • The use of direct discourse is especially interesting, conveying a harrowing voice from the patient – ‘You sod, / leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone’ – that will be repeated in the closing stanza. The words recall the 2018 A-Level passage from Pink Mists, in which a solder’s ‘mind, his soul’, ‘that bit of’ his identity is lost to the war. The mysterious ‘ventriloquist voice’ suggests that the brain (or mind) holds the ‘soul’, the essence and consciousness of the self. Simultaneously, the patient’s trauma is vocalised in the desperate cries to ‘Leave my soul alone’, made a little humorous by the derogatory slang ‘sod’.
  • The closing stanza provides a detailed account of the patient’s mental ‘demise’ – the coldness of the voice, the metaphor of a ‘wound down’ gramophone, the ellipses that stretch out the patient’s supposed ‘voice’, and culminating in the final cold silence (compared to ‘the silence under snow’).
  • Of lesser importance are the dresser‘s panicked direct speech (‘Christ! Two more on the list…’) alongside a ‘desperate’ and ‘shocked’ Lambert Rogers and the ‘petrified’ ‘nurses, students, sister’, a collective terror at the stark erosion of a mind and self in words and an eventual silence.


1(b) Prose – A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  • The passage allows the reader to consider two characters – the narrator and her great grandmother. The ‘I’ should take precedence in most readings. The narrator’s mental state is prefaced at the start of the extract (‘Are you very angry?’), becomes the main tension between the two characters (‘You must be very angry’, ‘I’m angry, so what?’) and reaches a quasi-resolution when the narrator takes in Old Jiko, her great grandmother’s prayer for her.
  • Old Jiko plays the foil, a direct contrast to the narrator’s teenage whirlwind of emotion in the extract. The epithet ‘old’ in this context has the effect of peacefulness (‘zazen’, her slowness of action, her nodding and her silences) and wisdom, confirmed by her thoughtfulness to ask ‘for you’.
  • The reader is compelled by Old Jiko to see the narrator’s anger as the crux of the extract: her bottling of emotion in the first extract, the outburst in lines 52-60, and its whiffs of indulgent (adolescent?! OK maybe not) self-pity.

Section B (Set Text Comparison)

2(a) Compare some of the ways in which two texts you have studied present self­-understanding or its absence.

  • There’s a pang of regret somewhere in me for not having used the term ‘self-understanding‘ as actively as I should have… in perfect hindsight. The 2018 SAJC JC2 MYE question on ‘discovering a sense of self’ and the question on ‘moments of insight and awareness’ are thankfully similar enough. Regardless, the characters/personae’s awareness/consciousness, discovery/insight, fulfilment/completion, confrontation/acceptance of their identities would all be relevant under the broad scope of ‘understanding’.
  • The second option ‘its absence‘ invites us to consider delusion, denial and ignorance as well. It is not necessary to consider ‘both sides’ of the question here; prioritise whatever is most relevant to the texts you have studied as well as the argument / personal response you wish to make.
  • As foregrounded in Q3a, students using Ariel would find it easy to analyse ‘Tulips’ or its companion poem ‘Paralytic’ to examine the personae’s sense of self. More on that later!
  • For students using Woolf and Woman, Martha and George’s ‘confrontation of their true selves’ (borrowing from the specimen paper question) at the end of the play can be aptly compared to Susan’s persistent denial of reality and lack of self-knowledge. The honest, simple language of the closing scene in Woolf is contrasted by the gibberish leading to the dramatic ‘blackout’ at the end of Ayckbourn’s play.
  • Martha’s monologue, where she presents an awareness of her own vulnerability (focusing on p98) and her self-destructive behaviour (focusing on p102), can be compared to Susan’s monologue upon Gerald’s exit (p95), which conversely shows a lack of self-understanding in her pleas for her imaginary family to return.
  • Ironically, the first act of Woman presents a moment of lucidity as Susan comes to grips with her loss of purpose and sense of self while Martha constantly sets up illusions of herself as a loved daughter and a wife who deserves better than the failure of a husband. The respective endings, as highlighted earlier, bring about a reversal of Martha and Susan’s ‘self-understanding’.


2(b) With reference to two texts you have studied, compare how the authors use preoccupation with thoughts or memories to explore the mind and self.

  • This was by far the more popular option for most students, and understandably so. This broad method-based question (see the word ‘use’) allows a selection of episodes or evidence that presents preoccupation, obsessiveness or indulgence in any form. In the same way that we examined the idea of ‘extremes’, you really can select anything that shows an ‘extreme’ preoccupation. If anything, the question begs for persistent close analysis of ‘the same thing’ over and over to show characters’ preoccupation.
  • Martha’s recitation of the son-myth and the ways in which it reinforces her idealised self or repairs for her sense of discontentment/ failure is the choice I would expect most students to make. This can be aptly compared to Susan’s indulgence in Andy’s saccharine words/intimacy or Lucy’s superlative praise. Alternatively, one can compare Martha’s delusions to the chaotic absurdity of Susan’s final dream/nightmare.
  • Martha or George’s memories can also be easily analysed. The Bergin Boy story presents us the latter’s attempt to assuage/transfer guilt (allegedly!) and therein re-establish his sense of who he is (i.e. someone who didn’t murder his parents). Martha too re-creates herself as a daughter who enjoys a ‘real rapport’ with her father. We can also see her preoccupation with George’s incompetence, and her subsequent destructiveness, as another point. So… the question may be unfamiliar but it opens up to a discussion of the ‘same old episodes’ (in a good way)!
  • Finding “memories” in Woman would prove challenging, aside from Gerald’s debate with Susan about Rick in his younger days, and Rick’s dispute with Susan about how she treated his girlfriends. It would be more fruitful to compare the memories in Woolf with evidence of an “obsessed” Susan – trying to garner Rick’s attention and information about his past, her attacks on Gerald in alliance with Lucy and Tony, or her desperate threats to have Gerald stay with her.
  • The use of repetition and cumulation is generally evocative of preoccupation, and we certainly see that applied in Ariel. ‘Daddy’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Getting There’ and ‘Poppies in July’ all show different types of preoccupation with self-destructive thoughts, while ‘Daddy’ and ‘Medusa’ most clearly deal with memories of the past.

Section C (Single Text Essay)

Sylvia Plath: Ariel

3(a) ‘…I have no face. I have wanted to efface myself.’ (‘Tulips’) In the light of this quotation, consider Plath’s presentation of consciousness of self in at least two poems in Ariel.

  • Of course, we covered the erosion of the self in ‘Tulips’ and ‘Paralytic’ in one lecture. The quotation from ‘Tulips’, paired with the topic, should push most responses towards a very close, comprehensive analysis of ‘Tulips’ – it by far provides the greatest range of ideas, starting from the desire to efface oneself to a possible ‘recovery’ and awareness of life.
  • The topic is not as scary as it would seem. Most would paraphrase ‘consciousness’ as ‘awareness’ or ‘understanding’ (see Q2a). But it would not be wrong to simplify to phrases we are well-acquainted with – a sense of self and the perceived / perception of self.
  • In even simpler terms, the question could be about the attitudes towards the self, and allow students to examine the drive towards self-destruction (as suggested in the quotation!). The preoccupation with death is a topic covered and assessed, so it’s really the same topic but broader and more inclusive.
  • While several poems end with rebirth or self-renewal (assessed in 2018), the renewed consciousness of life appears most pertinently in ‘Tulips’. ‘Death & Co.’, ‘A Birthday Present’ and ‘Paralytic’ on the other hand o


3(b) ‘Her poetry is fuelled with passion and anger.’ In the light of this comment, consider the presentation of mind and self in at least two poems in Ariel.

  • This was the overwhelming favourite, since anger / rage was covered to death (bad but intended pun) in lectures and tutorials through poems such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Medusa’. The first two poems are the obvious choices, so we can assure ourselves if we kept our scope focused on these two.
  • The word ‘passion’ confused some, but we can read it in broad terms – any intense emotion, including anger, can be considered ‘passion’. So the personae’s strong urge for death (as in Q3a) is relevant here as well, even if it pales in comparison to the feelings of rage in ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’.

Alan Ayckbourn: Woman in Mind

9(a) In relation to ideas about mind and self, explore how the play is both a comedy and
a tragedy.

  • This was a revision question, repurposed from the 2019 JC1 Promotional Examination. Comedy itself was studied (and dramatised at Lit Fest!) in our early and later lectures on the play, and the mix of both comedy and tragedy in the denouement was a frequent feature.
  • Not a popular question, but one that was perfectly anticipated.

9(b) In relation to ideas about mind and self, discuss the dramatic presentation of relationships between parents and children in the play.

  • Our MYE question was on ‘family relationships’, which is a stark cry-out-loud theme in the play. The slightly narrower focus here encourages a comparison of the Susan-Rick and Susan-Lucy relationships.
  • If I were to write a third point, I would perhaps mount an observation on how both relationships essentially collapse in the denouement of the play. Susan’s thank you speech disintegrates into nonsense when she begins to speak of how ‘heaply cowed siam’ of her two children, parallel to the disintegration of her sense of self as a mother (or woman for that matter).


Edward Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

10(a) Consider Albee’s dramatic presentation of characters’ illusions about themselves in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  • The son-myth and the death of the son-myth are the obvious ‘illusions’ referenced in the observation that ‘truth and illusion’ do not matter.
  • The topic is indeed ‘illusions about themselves‘, which opens the scope to include Martha and George’s narratives (assessed in 2018!) about the self.


10(b) Consider some of the ways in which attacks on the mind and self are dramatically presented in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  • This was a surprise to me if only because the 2018 question was on how facing the truth was an ‘assault’ on the mind and self.
  • The use of aggression and violence in the play is stark and common across many internal JC examination papers including our own (2019 JC2 Prelim). Martha and George’s verbal, physical and psychological assaults on each other, as well as their guests, are ample and one should have no difficulty picking episodes for close analysis.
  • Leaning on the 2018 question, we could argue that the most intense and cruel attack (George’s killing of the son) is also the most redemptive/regenerative.


Confessional Poetry and ‘Lady Lazarus’

The debate suggests why confessional poetry’s blurring of distinctions between public and private worlds was freighted with social meaning that extended beyond matters of aesthetic value. Postwar social transformations – like the growth of corporations and the expansion of suburbs – seemed to corrupt Americans’ desire for autonomy and freedom. Often linked, these trends created two of the most familiar targets of 1950s social censure: the ‘organisation man’, who relinquished his individuality to the corporation, and the suburban homeowner, who sought perfect conformity with the neighbours. Continue reading “Confessional Poetry and ‘Lady Lazarus’”

A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Daddy’

Before its publication she read ‘Daddy’ for a BBC radio broadcast in October 1962, and later, in notes for the BBC on her new poems, described the poem as ‘spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God.’ The girl’s ‘case’, Plath proceeds to explain, is difficult because the father was a Nazi, and the mother may have been ‘part Jewish’. These two inheritances meet in the daughter and ‘paralyse each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it’ (CP, p293, n183). Plath directs her reader to interpret the poem through the lens of a popular psychoanalytic narrative: a daughter with an Electra complex is one who desires her father sexually, her body incestuously devoted in this instance to a dead man’s, as Electra’s was to her father Agamemnon’s. In a state of unfulfilled and impossible desire, the daughter’s story might be one of static sexual frustration and father-worship; but Plath also insists on a paralysis of sexual roles historically derived from the Holocaust. Because the father is not just a dead God, but also a Nazi, and the mother ‘very possibly part Jewish’, Daddy is also a sadistic villain, and the daughter’s feminine sexuality is marked by the mother’s role as a victim, possibly in a masochistic relation to the father. As the speaker of ‘Daddy’ generalises, ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’ Continue reading “A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Daddy’”

Plath, in Order of Writing

Dan Chiasson on Sylvia Plath’s Joy, The New Yorker, February 12, 2013, with commentary on ‘Ariel’, ‘Melt’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Words’.

There is nothing else like this in English; it is, I think, a perfect poem, perfect in its excesses and stray blasphemies (that “nigger-eye”), which make Plath Plath—that is to say, dangerous, heedless, a menace, and irresistible. The greatest thing in it, though, is a detail whose uncanniness will strike any new parent: “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.”


James Parker on Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture, The Atlantic, June 2013.

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.


Meghan O’Rourke writes in Ariel Redux on the publication of The Restored Edition: Ariel and Hughes’ ordering of poems in ArielSlate, December 4, 2004.

Plath was still, as Hughes himself later said, a little afraid of her own poems, still learning how to wean herself from exposition in favor of dramatic immersion. (For evidence, read the drafts of the “Ariel” poem itself, included in the restored edition.) Hughes then moved up “Poppies in October” and “Berck-Plage” and used them as a springboard into “Ariel,” the book’s title poem, a luminous vision of self-transformation. The resulting sequence is more psychologically charged (and dramatic) than Plath’s ordering had been. Hughes also added a few older poems, including “Hanging Man,” inspired by Plath’s electroshock therapy, to help clarify what he took to be her story line—the story of a woman triumphing over great peril only to later succumb to a version of her own “self-conquering self.”


Ashley Fetters interviews Peter K. Steinberg, author of the biography Sylvia Plath in There are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia PlathThe Atlantic, February 11, 2013.

I think it very well could have been, but there’s a reason for that. The Ariel that Ted Hughes published wasn’t the Ariel that Plath envisioned: It was very different in tone, especially the last dozen poems. Those are very dark and bleak, whereas the collection she had intended ended with her Bee Poems, which are all about new life and spring. It would have ended on a more vibrant note.