Introduction to Critical Studies
Tegan explains about Critical Studies.
Introduction to Critical Studies
Critical Study is the most difficult unit in the Advanced HSC syllabus. Rather than just studying a theme a book relates to, or the time period a book might relate to, you are studying the book itself, and all its possible connections.
All the texts listed on the Critical Studies text-list are considered classics. You will need to do wide reading around the text to understand why: it will be your job to find and read as many essays and critic’s reviews about your text as possible.
You will also have to thoroughly read and re-read the text itself and consider what about the text makes it work: characters, plot, themes, text structure, language choices, genre, intertextual references, and any special or ‘signature’ techniques employed by the composer.
This unit assumes you have a broad knowledge of literature – you are not speaking as an HSC student, but as a literary critic. You are expected to know the life story and context of the writer, as well as the revisions the text underwent, any director’s cuts or final editions, how the text was received and what critics said about it.
Board of Studies Rubric
Module B: Critical Study of Texts
This module requires students to engage with and develop an informed personal understanding of their prescribed text. Through critical analysis and evaluation of its language, content and construction, students will develop an appreciation of the textual integrity of their prescribed text.
They refine their own understanding and interpretations of the prescribed text and critically consider these in the light of the perspectives of others. Students explore how context influences their own and others’ responses to the text and how the text has been received and valued.
Module B: Critical Study of Texts
- Shakespeare, William, Hamlet
- Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
- Jones, Gail, Sixty Lights
- Ondaatje, Michael, In the Skin of a Lion
- Winton, Tim, Cloudstreet
Drama (d) or film (f)
- Chekhov, Anton, The Seagull (d) (translated by Stephen Mulrine)
- Welles, Orson, Citizen Kane (f)or
- Eliot, TS ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Preludes’, ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Journey of the Magi’
- Rossetti, Christina ‘Goblin Market’, ‘After Death’, ‘Maude Clare’, ‘Light Love’, ‘L.E.L.’, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’
- Yeats, William Butler ‘When You Are Old’, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘Among School Children’
- Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own AND Three Guineas
- Speeches: Anwar Sadat – Speech to the Israeli Knesset, 1977 Paul Keating – Redfern Speech, 1992 Margaret Atwood – ‘Spotty-Handed Villainesses’, 1994 Noel Pearson – ‘An Australian history for us all’, 1996 William Deane – ‘It is still winter at home’, 1999 Doris Lessing – ‘On not winning the Nobel Prize’, Nobel Lecture, 2007 Geraldine Brooks – ‘A Home in Fiction’, Boyer Lecture 4, 2011
What is a Classic?
A text is considered a classic when, over time, many people recognise it as an important work that contributes something to our ongoing sense of the language and culture it represents. Sometimes we collectively refer to these important works as ‘literary canon’ and there are several reasons a text might end up there:
- A text may be an important historical snapshot of life in another time or place.
- A text may have had political significance and effected change in its time.
- A text may universal themes that varied audiences still relate to.
- A text may have relatable, stock characters that have influenced writing ever since.
- A text may be the first example of a genre or text-type.
- A text may be the best example of its genre or text-type.
- A text may cause a genre to grow or change by breaking or subverting conventions.
- A text may have invented new language styles, or text-type techniques.
- A text may be so well crafted that it stands the test of time.
There is no definitive list of which texts are classics or what precisely a classic is, but key ideas for you to discuss in your Critical Study include textual integrity, or, how ‘well-built’ a text is, universality, or how relatable characters or themes might be, and the text’s influence on other writing, or political or social ideas that followed.
This is the most important idea in Critical Study. It implies that it is not enough for a text to have great characters, but a lame plot, or a great plot but no deeper thematic meaning – everything must be well-built, and working together in the text to produce a classic that will stand the test of time.
We should consider language craft, characterisation, plot structure, themes and motifs before we claim a text has a high degree of textual integrity. In this case, a high degree of textual integrity indicates a classic, and a low degree of textual integrity indicates trash.
Another way you might hear the term used (confusingly) is in discussion of texts that are an appropriation of an original text. If the new version has very little of the original script or dialogue in it, the new production may be said to have a low degree of textual integrity.
This does not mean the new text is bad quality – just that it has not stayed faithful to the original story.
A text might have universality because its themes or characters are relatable for everyone in the universe, across different cultures, societies and time periods. A text with universality would have a better chance of standing the text of time, because each new time period would still be able to find something meaningful in it.
One could argue that everyone experiences birth, death, love, friendship, family issues, a search for identity, jealousy, hatred and prejudice at some point in their lives – that these experiences are generally part of ‘human experience’.
This idea is a tricky one, though, because opinions differ as to whether there’s any such thing as one universal human experience. Culture and language have a lot to do with how humans experience the world – and even the ‘biological norms’ of being a human might not apply to disabled, autistic, or transgender individuals, for example.
Whether or not you believe in universality is something for you to personally consider before you begin wondering whether or not your text is relatable.
A convention is something that a text from a particular category normally does. For example: a novel typically has text-type conventions such as: protagonists, plot shape, dialogue, chapters, prologues and epilogues.
The Crime fiction genre has genre conventions such as a mystery plot, a detective protagonist, red herrings (dead ends in the investigation) and a dénouement (the unravelling of whodunit at the end).
It is important that you know all the usual conventions for the text-type and genre that applies to your text. You will have to discuss and compare them.
Literature vs. Classic vs. Best Sellers
All classics are literature, but not all literature becomes a classic. A work of literature must survive the test of time and be relevant to new generations before we consider it a classic – at least 50 years, although there’s no exact measurement.
This means that works of literature that get a lot of positive critical attention now and even win Booker prizes may not go on to become classics – in 50 years they may be forgotten.
It’s also important to note that just because a text is a Best Seller, or extremely popular, that does not mean it is in the running to become a classic – if it lacks textual integrity it will probably be forgotten in a few generations.
Productions vs. Appropriations
This term only applies if your set text is a play or a film, or if your text has been made into a play or a film. You will have to study any productions or appropriations made of your text because they are a kind of interpretation– and you have to know all the varied opinions that people have offered of your prescribed text over time.
A production is when you re-do a pre-existing text to view it in a new way. You might edit some scenes to emphasise a theme or aspect of the protagonist, or make stylistic changes to set or costuming, but you’re keeping most of the original script.
An appropriation is when you base the text you are making loosely on a pre-existing text. You will keep the same basic story structure but will probably rewrite most of the dialogue. These two obviously exist on each side of a sliding scale so it will be up to you to determine when productions have become appropriations.
One approach you will take in Critical Study is to do lots of research around the texts – investigating its context, interpretations and relationships. The other approach is a hermeneutic approach, where you spend a lot of time poring over the original text and thinking about the ways each line could be interpreted.
You might notice that Hamlet spends a lot of time talking about swords – he swears on a sword, his final scene is a fencing match – and you might develop a theory about what swords represent to Hamlet. To see if swords really are important to Hamlet, you’d have to examine all the dialogue about swords in the play and see if there were any hidden double meanings.
You might do a ‘close passage reading’ in critical study as part of your hermeneutic approach by analysing a single page or paragraph from your novel, and seeing how the themes or ideas contained within it relate to your novel as a whole.
This is actually a common form of HSC question. Picking a ‘close passage’ at random to analyse is also a good way to test a theory you might have about what your text means – if you think your text is mainly about the main character’s jealousy of his best friend, but after examining ten close passages you can’t find a mention of jealousy anywhere in them, you may have to conclude that the theme is not as important to the text as you originally thought.
There are several ways you might see the term ‘reading’ in Critical Studies. If you are asked to do a ‘close reading’ or ‘close passage reading’ you are being asked to hermeneutically analyse the text for meanings and double meanings.
If you are asked for ‘a reading’ or ‘your reading’ you are being asked for an interpretation of the text. You will need to be aware of the most common readings of your text, and be able to write essays about them, but you will also need your own personal opinion or interpretation of what the text means.
Sometimes a reading may also refer to ‘reading frames’ which are discussed below:
For a long time, we only thought to view texts in a traditional way. That view tended to be dominated by upper class, capitalist, white-European , heterosexual male ideas and perspectives. When we started to acknowledge minority points of view in the 50s and 60s, we went back and looked at history and literature through different viewpoints that had been ignored.
Frames helpus see what is missing from a text rather than just what is in it: Which characters are the centre of attention? Who has the most power? Which characters never get to speak? What assumptions does the book make about what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviour?
Some socio-political frames include: the feminist frame, the gender frame, the Freudian frame, the Marxist frame, the postcolonial frame, the eco-criticism frame, and the animal rights frame.
There are also other literary frameworks you might consider using to ‘read’ your text through – how would your text change if it were an Aristotelian Tragedy? Or absurdist? Or existential?
What kind of essay do you have to write?
There are actually 7 distinct types of essay argument you may have to write for Critical Studies. Each essay-type needs its own unique structure and approach, and there are lots of varied question possibilities for each one. The typical arguments you might have to make include:
- Proving your text has a high degree of textual integrity by discussing genre, plot structure, characterisation, language devices, themes and motifs.
- Discussing the exploration of one or two universal or highly-relatable themes and how these grow or evolve throughout different chapters of your text.
- Examining one character or relationship from the text and how important they are to the text’s success as a whole.
- Examining one chapter or scene from the text in depth and showing how it encapsulates the central concerns of the text as a whole.
- Comparing a variety of readings of a particular character or scene to show that the text has various interpretations.
- Arguing for your own, specific reading, in the light of other critics’ opinions or reference frames of a particular event or character.
- Considering how different contexts have responded to your text over time – especially the era when it was made and the present day, and how this might affect its value.
How do I start studying?
- Do close passage readings of your text: Annotate your text, use post it notes, and write down quotes and techniques from every scene or chapter. You need to have a very good knowledge of the plot details.
- Start writing study notes about textual integrity: You could easily end up with over 100 study paragraphs written on your Critical Studies prescribed text, so make sure you are writing at least 5 new paragraphs every week – even if you’ve only read five pages of the text so far.
- Find and read academic essays and critical reviews of your text: Online newspapers might have literary or film reviews – The Guardian, the Times, the Australian, and the ABC are some places to start. You should also look for university-style academic writing on your texts – your Module B work is expected to be very sophisticated so you will need to quote some academics.