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.



Perfect Places

In our introductory JC1 Paper 3 lecture, we leaped into Lorde’s ‘Perfect Places‘, replete with the dilemmas and discontents of youth, and opened the doors to analysing patterns and words in literary texts.

This post takes the lecture on a journey to the familiar ‘Home’, drawing connections on the mind and self between the two songs. If you feel rather lost about ‘analysis‘, this post provides some guidance by examining a few words for meaning and effect. For our readers in JC2, you may find that the first section wanders (unintentionally) into unseen poetry comparison territory.

Continue reading “Truly”

Why Compare?

In the now-iconic ‘2 mothers in a hdb playground’, Arthur Yap gives us these quintessentially Singaporean lines from two mothers comparing their children, ah beng and kim cheong (italics mine):

ah beng is so smart,
already he can watch tv and know the whole story
your kim cheong is also quite smart,
what boy is he in the exam? […]

kim cheong eats so little.
give him some complan. my ah beng was like that,
now he’s different, if you give him anything
he’s sure to finish it all up.

We compare people, places, things all the time in real life. We might even argue, Bloom’s Taxonomy be d**ned, that comparison is a cognitive skill on its own: our understanding of the world around us, particularly unfamiliar terrain, is shaped by what we already know, or what we are well acquainted with. When we travel to foreign lands, our observations are often filtered through a Singaporean lens, where “Oh, it’s so messy here” or “They are really laidback here” is always already a reflection of our own experience back home. Like in Yap’s “2 mothers”, comparison can be used to confirm our own understanding of our context (i.e. Singapore) and affirm ourselves (i.e. my son is better than your son). The same would surely apply to the Sony/Microsoft, DC/Marvel, Samsung/Apple fanboy wars.

Continue reading “Why Compare?”

I Smell a Bat

Now that the curtains have been unveiled, we are free to welcome Mr. Ian Tan into the team! Check out his excellent “How to Read a Poem” series on YouTube, which should prove very useful to your grasp of the unseen for H2 Paper 3 and poetry comparison in H2 Paper 1. Read on for a few more selections from Mr. Tan’s series

Richard Wilbur

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest of intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

Continue reading “I Smell a Bat”

Questions on the Unseen

Post-Mid Year Section A Review

You were invited to ask me questions about either poem, analysis / response skills or how to go about dealing with specific evidence on Mentimeter. As Prince Charming observes, better to be a toad than a t*rd! Find my responses below. Also remember to head over to the Essays section to read a selection of ‘good’ responses from the Mid Year Exam – the same password applies.

Continue reading “Questions on the Unseen”

Unpinning the Dress


In this extension tutorial, 17-E1 examines the use of voice and rhythm to Christine Chia‘s pithy and potent ‘New Year Dress’.  Remember to apply the skills of picking out (for voice) perspective, tone, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, (for rhythm) pauses, end-stopped lines and enjambment from our retread of Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’. 🙂

New Year Dress

A dress is not just a dress
when your mother gives it to you
with the instruction that you
must wear it on the first day
of Chinese New Year.                                      5
You’ll never buy anything like that
but you put it on,
so that she’ll be happy,
radiant in front of the relatives
because she birthed you,                                10
clothed you, owned you,
like the dress she gave you.

> ‘.’ <

Write a critical paragraph on the above poem, relating it to the portrayal of the relationship between parent and child. You may respond to the guiding questions below, or roam free. Upon completion, let Mr. Lim know and await a few less-than-motherly words of affection. If given the green light, your newly clothed paragraph can see the light of day – post it as a comment here. Remember to leave your name somewhere!

> ‘.’ <


  • Who is the persona, and what are her feelings about the ‘New Year Dress’?


  • Why does the poem employ the second-person point of view (‘you’)? What is the tone, or attitude towards the dress?
  • Which words in lines 1-9 express the persona’s tone? Identify patterns of words (e.g. conjunctions, modal verbs, adjectives) and closely analyse how they evoke the tone.
  • Comment on the progression (change in effects) in lines 10-12, considering 1-2 features listed below:
    – Enumeration, or the listing of verbs (birthed, clothed, owned)
    – The repetition of ‘you’ at the end (i.e. epistrophe) and the pauses after ‘you’
    – The shift from enjambment (lines 1-5) to end-stopped lines (lines 10-12)


  • What does the persona’s attitude towards the dress suggest about her relationship with her mother?
  • What can we say about the relationship between a parent and a child in general?

‘Strange Fruit’ Paragraph Review

Hi people, Ms Yeo and I originally intended to use our first tutorial this week to review the paragraph you wrote on the poem ‘Strange Fruit’, and it is with a strange mix of joy and self-annoyance that we did not. I would go as far as to say that all the work I received was very encouraging indeed, in that everyone sought to analyse the poem for methods, evidence and effects… and no one attempted to ‘explain’ what was going on in the poem. With that in mind, I personally did not want to dedicate a tutorial to covering skills most of you have mastered, and so ask that you use your next two tasks to work on your strengths and areas for improvement!

Led by the guiding questions, many paragraphs ably analysed the external effects on the reader, with some detailing your experience of the work: being lulled into calmness by one line, surprised by the next, drawn back into the illusion of safety, and shocked out of your slumber. Being aware of ‘how the reader feels’ is important because it tells us you are aware that the text is, well, an ‘experience’ constructed with methods, in order to evoke effects and make a particular statement (purpose). Keep this up, especially as we move into analysing our two dramatic texts, Measure for Measure and Woman in Mind, as the effects on stage (e.g. fantastical, comic, tense) will often differ from the effects on their respective audiences.

Some, though not all, were able to support this with a pattern of evidence and close analysis of specific evidence. On the bright side, everybody was able to identify methods and analyse at least some evidence. What I’d like to see everyone also do is identify 2-3 bite-size quotations that fall under the method you are listing. If you are selecting ‘crows to pluck’, I would expect you to also consider ‘sun to rot’ and ‘wind to suck’ as they all present a sense of destruction or from the perspective of the fruit, a complete vulnerability to the violence of nature. Continue reading “‘Strange Fruit’ Paragraph Review”