Developing a critical response

Remember that when you write an essay on the novel that you will be assessed on your ability to evaluate and analyse ideas to show a critical response and use evidence from the text to support a clear, controlled, logical and accurate discussion.

To write a very good essay you will have to:

  • know how to read and deconstruct a question and produce answers that demonstrate a deep and full understanding of the text
  • select material to develop a critical argument explaining how all elements of the text(s) (plot, setting, character, and style) work together to support the writer’s purpose in an integrated way
  • consistently evaluate the effectiveness of how language techniques have been used to communicate a message
  • choose a main theme or character that can be fully discussed and linked to other themes in the text to further your argument
  • show accurate, frequent, and confident use of terminology when explaining your ideas connected to the writer’s purpose
  • use insightful analysis to make mature and valid observations and respond personally by evaluating the implications of the text in the wider world
  • make conclusions and judgments throughout the essay about the author’s purpose and use of language to give a balanced and insightful response
  • write over 500 words in a succinct discussion or argument using accurate and sophisticated language.

I have added an essay below – how do you think the student did?

Most novels are written to reflect real events in real worlds. Discuss the features that make a novel you have studied seem realistic (or unrealistic), and explain why realism is appropriate (or innappropriate) to the novel’s main themes.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is made to be more realistic to the reader. It was written to get readers to realise that the events in the novel could happen in society if people don’t make changes. Features such as characters, clothing, setting and historical parallels aid in making events in the novel easy for the reader to empathise with. This realism is appropriate for the theme in the novel as it involves what happens when people get complacent about their rights and it shows that getting accustomed to brutality and repression is all too easy. The idea for Atwood was to create a novel that was hard-hitting (it got the message across to readers), but one with ideas that were understandable for readers.

The novel is set in a future that could be within the next twenty or thirty years. This was a conscious choice by the author to make us connect further with the dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel. By keeping the actual setting date vague, the story stays applicable to readers as time goes on. The main character, Offred, reflects on the past in an industrial society that can be our own, today. We know it is set in the United States because Offred makes reference to when Gilead used to be part of America, and how the state has changed to Gilead:

“We had flannelette sheets like children, and army issue blankets, old ones that still said US.”

Setting the story in the not too distant future is used to create the possibility that this could happen. It was not written with the intention to be fiction; it is ‘speculative fiction’. The readers realise this because they see extreme television personalities, extreme political leaders, or even their own neighbour reflected in some of the characters that govern Gilead. The reader recognises that religious fundamentalism is inherent in many people. They also understand the blasé nature that women regard their own freedoms in the book, because it has been taken from real life. This is echoed by Atwood’s statement that:

“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions.”

The handmaids, the official breeding machines of the brutal regime, are forced to dress in concealing and shapeless uniforms. This is seen in some modern Middle Eastern societies that force their women to wear a burkha in order to preserve their ‘modesty’. All tiers of Gileadean society wear some form of uniform. Uniforms deny individuality. Individuality in Gilead is limited to the role the person has to play in the society. The handmaids wear what can be thought of as the novel’s prison uniforms. All forms of uniform are aimed at making people in these societies (Gilead in the novel, and Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in today’s society) conform to the desired norm.

By showing such a repressing regime in a context that is familiar to most readers, the starkness of the female’s situation in the novel is obvious. Readers, more specifically female readers, can empathise with the situations of these women in the novel, and in real life. It aims to make the reader consider if they are that much different from Offred. How much they, like she did take their equality and freedoms for granted. There is a fable in the novel, a kind of warning sign for readers to see and apply to their own lives before it’s too late. Offred herself failed to notice warning signs that started coming up in the papers, dismissing them as events happening to others:

“How awful, we would say, and they (the newspaper events) were, but they were awful without being believable.”

Atwood wants females to see that if they don’t fight to keep their rights, then they will lose them. Women in the novel were lax about remembering the magnitude of the sacrifice made by the early feminists. They had forgotten how much they had to fight to gain the rights Offred took for granted, and how easily they could be taken away. Offred like many women thought they’d always be there. This is clear by Offred’s mother, a feminist, complaining about her daughter and her daughter’s husband’s attitudes towards life and women’s rights.

“You young people don’t appreciate things. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are.”

Women of the society before Gilead (i.e. ours) took their rights for granted. Offred herself admits it. She thought her mother slightly unnecessary in her own day. Offred had her rights and thought she didn’t need to worry about the war that was breaking out over the country. For that reason it is apparent that when the United States slowly took more of these rights away, many people didn’t really think it would get that bad. They looked the other way, pretended it wasn’t happening:

We lived as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance; you have to work at it.”

The character of Offred herself is a realistic feature, because she doesn’t actively fight the system. She doesn’t outwardly rebel in a way that the traditional heroes do. She inwardly rebels, but as she begins a relationship with Nick, slowly her desire to actively try and do something fades even further. Most people want, as Offred does, to survive, and are usually not willing to chance themselves for the risky gains resistance movement entail. The vast majority of people are happy ‘not rocking the boat’ if it means they will have some small chance of retaining certain comforts. Offred remembers her mother saying:

Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”

The realism of character, setting and costume in Atwood’s novel are essential to the theme that if people become complacent about their rights, they will be taken away from them. The brutality of the Gilead regime came about because the citizens of the United States, especially the women, got lax about protecting their freedoms. Atwood wishes to use these elements to make the novel more realistic so readers realise that the same could happen to them if they are not careful and so is allegorical. Speculative fiction means just that, it is what could be. Atwood’s presentation is just starker than others, it has shock factor because of its realism.


2 thoughts on “Developing a critical response

  1. yo miss cowie its luke w here, i didnt know where or how to contact you so i thought this would be the easiest way. can you please give me a link to the research assignment instuction sheet? cuz i lost mine. lolcat lolcat lolcat

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