Five things I learned from writing a GCSE English Literature essay under timed conditions
I've recently begun working with a student who is preparing for the Edexcel English Literature GCSE and as a part of our work together, we have both completed a question about the 'Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde' under timed conditions. We will be peer assessing. The question asked how the character of Hyde is presented as a frightening outsider, with an extract from Chapter 2 as the starting point. It is an AQA English Literature GCSE practice question, available here.
What I've experienced is unsurprising:
- It's important to stick to timings for each question/part question - reader, I did not, which I'm sure will be easy to recognise for any trained or untrained eye that cares to peruse my response. Proofreading, what proofreading?
- Recalling appropriate quotations when you haven't just finished a deep read of the text is bloody difficult - again, in the second part of my response you'll note how unimaginative I've been in terms of supporting textual detail.
- Balancing all of the assessment outcomes and requirements is really complex, especially when you know the text well. Writing a PEE/PEA/PEER/PEERZ/STAR/all of the acronyms style paragraph is relatively easy if you understand the language and text, but if you are trying to make more critical comments in relation to the question, just how do you include the essential-yet-not-assessed contextual point which feeds your close analysis?
- Being selective is so difficult. And not being selective is what leads to my seemingly half-arsed discussion of biblical imagery.
- Swamping our most able students is easy to do: we ask them to analyse language, structure and form; to consistently explore alternative interpretations; to recognise patterns; to combine discussions of language, structure and form; to use relevant context as a starting point; to be critical; to be aware of their wider reading and theoretical approaches; address both elements of the question (i.e. how is Hyde 'frightening' and how is he an 'outsider')...and all of this when you need to plan and write a coherent essay in 55 minutes. I'm still unsure in what situation life would demand such a thing of you, but being able to think on the spot will certainly stand our students in good stead. For me, it felt like what would have been more natural would have been to explore the extract and question, make notes and loosely plan, before having a break to mull things over and develop a cohesive argument, only then being ready to commit it to paper.
- Evidently, knowing the exam texts really well is at the core of our teaching and it is no wonder that year after year, reports from the exam board tell us just this. Perhaps Ofsted's focus on knowledge rich curricula will help to make the shift from focusing more on skills to content in the classroom.
- Reading, re-reading and re-visiting the texts as much as possible will aid recall and being able to discuss the texts widely will surely allow students to hone and develop their arguments around a whole host of topics long before they need to hook an argument out of a stress-addled brain? And surely, this confidence with the text will lead to more refined arguments and the ability to pick the appropriate threads out of memory for any given topic?
- Maybe there is space for teaching our most able students to write much higher level introductions to their essays which explain in what refined way they will be approaching the essay? Wouldn't this help to have a closely focused, critical exploration of one or two very specific elements of the text? Over the last year, teaching students to craft contextually driven topic sentences has been a staple, yet for those students that we know will write essays worthy of 30/20 or 55/40 - those that could pass their A Levels with flying colours already - maybe we need yet another approach to further help these exceptionally high fliers to be selective and still meet all of the assessment outcomes. (If you've never had to have a conversation with a student about taking a few steps back to ensure that they are hitting AOs, then you are very lucky. I've had a few of them and they are demoralising.)
And finally, if you fancy a read of my attempt, it lies below. I already know exactly what notes I'd be scribbling all over the margins! Feel free to use, credited, as an exemplar and let me know what you/and your students think - within reason!
A) Throughout this extract, Stevenson engages with contemporary fears in order to present Hyde as a frightening outsider; Victorian fears of degeneration, savagery, and ungentlemanly and unrestrained behaviours are rife in this short encounter between Utterson and Hyde, ensuring that the reader’s fears of such things are intrinsically linked with the character of Hyde. Additionally, Stevenson initially creates a contrast between the characters of Utterson and Hyde, before subtly linking them and therefore exploring the core theme of duality and singularity: it is this which is instrumental in depicting Hyde as both frightening and an outsider, and as Freud would go on to explore in his seminal essay ‘The Uncanny’ only a few years after Stevenson’s publication, Hyde is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time - an uncanny, and therefore unsettling, figure.
Firstly, the opening two lines of the extract hint at the idea of duality and singularity. Utterson claims they share ‘common friends’, before Hyde immediately repeats the identical phrase. By mirroring Utterson’s language and ‘echo[ing]’ his words, Stevenson is immediately developing a shady character in Hyde, who both resembles the Victorian gentleman - modelled here by Utterson - and yet is not quite the same, as his words are repeated ‘a little hoarsely’. The slight affectation of his speech indicates both that he is somewhat weaker than Utterson (and as we later discover, that is true as he is half a man, so to speak) and therefore ‘hardly human’, and also hints at Stevenson’s frequent portrayal of Hyde as a ‘savage’ and degenerate man.
Continuing this comparison of the characters, Stevenson begins by clearly contrasting both the descriptions of their behaviour. Most notably this stems from the speech tags used to describe each character’s use of language. Utterson merely ‘said’ what he had to say - calm, collected, controlled - a Victorian ideal, whereas Hyde opposes this with his ‘echoed’, ‘cried’ and ‘snarled aloud’ retorts. Their physical movements are a point of focus as well, as Hyde moves with ‘extraordinary quickness’ before he ‘disappears’, again hinting at his ghost-like, half-formed existence and therefore developing the uncanny feeling we encounter whenever he is mentioned, and again comparing him to common Victorian colonial reports of ‘savage’ behaviour. Contrastingly, Utterson then goes on, ‘slowly to mount the street, pausing’ frequently. The two characters are embodiments of unrefined and refined behaviour and therefore unacceptable and acceptable, outsider and insider, frightening and comforting.
Furthermore, Stevenson uses these comparisons between the characters to explore both duality and singularity. Initially in the extract, Utterson and Hyde are also distinguished by the punctuation which accompanies their speech. Hyde exclaims and questions, implying his irrational and uncontrolled behaviours, whereas Utterson uses longer, more complex speech and simple commas and full stops, reinforcing that he is a measured character. By the end of the extract, Stevenson teases the reader by hinting at the similarities between the ‘pale and dwarfish’ Hyde, and Utterson, the ‘perplexed gentleman’; the encounter between them taps directly into the Victorian fear of degeneration as no sooner has Utterson met with Hyde, than his behaviour begins to change. The final paragraph exemplifies this as Utterson speaks in short phrases and overuses question and exclamation marks. Whilst the character is resented as attempting to retain composure by merely ‘putting his hand to his brow’ and attempting to reason, he falls into a monologue that is reminiscent of those reserved for ‘hysterical’ women of the era.
Despite the fact that Hyde leaves the narrative by line 9 of the extract, he remains an equal focus of the remainder of the extract. Utterson’s obsession with categorising Hyde and his behaviours could well be Stevenson’s way of criticising the obsessive need of Victorian society to try and control and categorise everything, whether it be every type of butterfly, or every continent. As Utterson is ‘debating’ these matters and listing the contrasts of Hyde’s character (a ‘sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness’) culminates in his confession that nothing could explain his ‘unknown disgust, loathing and fear’ and that he is unable to ‘find a name for it’. The somewhat hysterical response of Utterson cements Hyde as a character in the reader’s mind who is unidentifiable, unknowable, and thoroughly uncanny.
Finally, Stevenson presents Hyde as a frightening outsider as the extract develops, as once Utterson is unable to characterise Hyde according to rational thinking, he results in condemning him as an object of hell - ‘a foul soul’ that transfigures, its clay continent’ and bears ‘Satan’s signature’ on his face. If, up until this point in the narrative, there has been any doubt in the reader’s mind that Hyde is dangerous, frightening, and other, this religious imagery is sure to condemn him.
B) Throughout the novella, Stevenson continues to depict Hyde as a frightening outsider in order to ensure that the final revelation of the plot - the Hyde and Jekyll are one - is going to shock the reader. In chapter one, we are introduced to Hyde indirectly through Enfield’s story of the door, and told that he ‘trampled calmly’ over the girl; this oxymoronic description of his first known attack exemplifies Hyde as a frightening character as he not only commits this sin, but he does so ‘calmly’, placing himself as a firm outsider to the morals of society. It is unsettling for a reader at any time to recognised that this character is shown as doing something so evil, and as a psychopath, apparently unaffected by guilt.
By ordering events in this way, Stevenson ensures that by the time we first encounter Hyde in chapter two, when he is met by our main narrator - Utterson - who is well established as a fine Victorian ‘gentleman’, the reader is already afraid of the ‘pale and dwarfish’ outsider. Not only does his violent attack on a young girl - one of, if not the, most vulnerable members of Victorian society - show that his behaviour is uncharacteristic of acceptable standards both now and then, but his countenance and physicality are troubling too. At the time of writing, paleness was aspired to as it was deemed to depict wealth and his social standing, whereas darker skin was more associative of the lower classes and those who had no choice but to work outdoors. Darkness also hints at people of colour in a time of empire, when darker skin colours were widely deemed to indicate a lack of civilisation. Modern audiences would perhaps be more likely to consider Hyde’s paleness as an indication of him being weak and sickly, which in turn, once Hyde and Jekyll’s singularity is revealed to us, makes sense as Hyde is technically only part of a man, and a less developed/nourished one at this stage in the novella. Also, the idea of extreme paleness hinting at weakness could imply that Hyde is the weakness or flaw in Jekyll’s character, and represents the hidden, weaker (and less exposed to sunlight) elements of a character that were commonly repressed in Victorian society. It is exactly the characteristics of Hyde which were expected to be repressed by Victorians, and therefore tended to only be expressed in secrecy and darkness, in the seedier parts of London, such as that in which Hyde lives. So Hyde’s paleness alone is dual in its nature - it suggests he has a higher social standing that we would expect, but also suggests his nature is one that should be repressed and has to stay hidden.
Furthermore, Stevenson’s use of narrative voice assists in depicting Hyde as an outsider. We hear directly from Utterson, Enfield, Jekyll and Lanyon in one form of another, but Hyde is only ever talked about by these seemingly reliable sources. By having the whole tale narrated by Victorian gentlemen of the upper classes, Stevenson makes clear attitudes of the time, and women, the lower classes, the young and the old (through Hyde’s victims) and Hyde himself (the other) are spoken about and mostly voiceless. As with these other outsiders, Hyde is placed firmly outside of acceptable society, and therefore all that he embodies is placed outside of what is deemed acceptable by the powers that be of the time.