Writing an introduction to an English Literature essay
Writing an introduction to a literature essay can be a daunting task. You don't want to duplicate the comments you will be making elsewhere in your essay and you don't want to merely copy down the question in a slightly different format. So what should a good introduction do, and what does this look like?
An introduction to an essay should:
- address the question - what have you understood the question to be asking you, and how will you tackle this topic? This may require you to define your terms;
- introduce your argument - most exam questions give you a really broad topic; the best essays - and therefore introductions - will focus on a narrowed down aspect of this topic;
- be explanatory - no analysis is needed here;
- include any contextual links - if you intend to talk about context in your essay, you should know what elements you will discuss before you start writing, and therefore should be able to include them in your introduction.
Below are four example introductions that respond to a range of past papers from EDUQAS and AQA (sources at bottom of page).
1 - EDUQAS - Romeo and Juliet - ‘Write about Tybalt and how he is presented at different points in the play.’
Thought process: Tybalt is a fiery character. He dies in act 3, scene 1. He is generally the catalyst for the violence in the play. Even Capulet seems to think Tybalt is too keen for violence. The tragic outcome of the entire plot is arguably as a result of Tybalt's actions. Juliet thinks she sees his ghost in the family tomb - it is as if he is inviting her to death. He is the most destructive character.
Introduction: Throughout Romeo and Juliet, the character of Tybalt serves one core function: he is the catalyst for the violence in the play and ultimately for the tragic ending. Even in death, Tybalt's character operates as a mechanism for moving the plot - and tragedy - forward, as it is Paris' recognition of Romeo as Tybalt's murderer that leads to his confrontation, and the Capulets believe that Juliet died as a result of mourning Tybalt's loss, so the anger, tension and violence therefore continue through to the end. Anecdotally, Tybalt serves as a reminder to modern audiences of the commonplace nature of street fighting in the Elizabethan era. More importantly, through Tybalt, Shakespeare explores the importance and impacts of family loyalty.
2 - EDUQAS - Macbeth - ‘Read the extract on the opposite page. Then answer the following question: Look at how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speak and behave here. How do you think an audience might respond to this part of the play? Refer closely to details from the extract to support your answer.’
Thought process: Lady Macbeth has vastly longer turns than Macbeth suggesting she has the power in this exchange. Macbeth goes from using exclamations to questions to statements, suggesting his thoughts are unstable but that by listening to his wife he has calmed down and found the resolve to kill King Duncan again - also implies he was in control to begin with, but the power dynamic has shifted in her favour. This extract perhaps shows Lady Macbeth at her most persuasive. She guilt trips and emasculates Macbeth. References to children very subtly suggest a tenderness in their relationship and perhaps hints at a deceased child or inability to have children - this is an unexpectedly emotive contrast to the aggressive imagery of death.
Introduction: This extract is pivotal in the plot of Macbeth as it not only secures Lady Macbeth as a powerful and dominant character, but it shows the moment at which Macbeth resolves to murder King Duncan. Whilst a Jacobean audience may have been surprised by Lady Macbeth's more masculine behaviours in this extract, a modern audience would be more likely to admire her strength. Regardless of context, audiences are likely to see this exchange as a pivotal moment in the play, in which Macbeth transitions from merely ambitious to truly evil.
3 - AQA - An Inspector Calls - ‘How far does Priestley present Mrs Birling as an unlikeable character?’
Thought process: Mrs Birling is perhaps the least likeable character. Mr Birling is unpleasant because he is judgmental, selfish and pompous; Mrs Birling is somehow worse as she behaves in a superior manner to Mr Birling. Because she is upper class, she acts as if she is above everything, including every other character in the play. She is condescending, lacks compassion, and refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the impact of her actions. When she condemns the 'young man' that made Eva Smith pregnant, the dramatic irony is painfully pleasurable for the audience as we know she is talking about her son, but she doesn't.
Introduction: Throughout An Inspector Calls, Mrs Birling is presented as one of the least likeable characters as she is condescending, lacks compassion and refuses to take responsibility for her actions. Priestly may well have characterised her in such a way as her character is inextricably linked to the wealth and attitudes of the upper class of the time, and therefore by presenting her in this way, Priestly is openly making a criticism of the behaviour of this group of people.
4 - AQA - Blood Brothers - ‘What kind of mother does Russell show Mrs Johnstone to be in Blood Brothers?’
Thought process: Mrs Johnstone is ruined by the politics and class system of 1980s Britain. She cares about her children and does the best she can for them. She is helpless in some ways which is why she succumbs to Mrs Lyon's suggestion that she takes one of the twins. The relationship between these two women epitomises the ways in which the working classes were exploited by wealthier classes during this time - payday loans are just one example of how this is still happening now. Mrs Johnstone is almost like the working class 'every woman' - she is easy to sympathise with because she tries her best but things still go wrong. She is trapped in a system that will always put her at a loss.
Introduction: Russell consistently presents Mrs Johnstone as a woman trapped in an oppressive class system in which she is destined to fail. From the beginning of the play we see how she is exploited by wealthier characters and unfair political systems, and by the end we understand how devastating these impacts can be. By using the moment of the twins' death and Mrs Johnston's reaction to this at the opening and ending of the play, Russell uses Mrs Johnston as an emblem for the working classes; no matter the choices you make, how much you care, how hard you try, as a working class woman in 1980s Britain, you will fail. The cyclical nature of Mrs Johnston's story exemplifies that the political state of things at the time Russell was writing was repeatedly damaging a large section of society. The character of Mrs Johnson is one who demands an audience's sympathy and in turn, sympathy for the working classes is demanded of the audience too.
Eduqas GCSE English Literature:
- ‘Write about Tybalt and how he is presented at different points in the play.’
- ‘Read the extract on the opposite page. Then answer the following question: Look at how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speak and behave here. How do you think an audience might respond to this part of the play? Refer closely to details from the extract to support your answer.’
AQA GCSE English Literature:
- ‘How far does Priestley present Mrs Birling as an unlikeable character?’
- ‘What kind of mother does Russell show Mrs Johnstone to be in Blood Brothers?’