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Prose– AS Paper 2, Section A The Language of Literary Texts
A Level Paper 3, Section A Reading as a writer, writing as a reader
At both AS and A Level, this examined unit asks students to examine how narratives work, with reference to their chosen text.
TOPIC: Ian McEwan, Atonement
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary techniques
- Identify how meanings and effects are created and conveyed in texts
- Analyse the ways a narrative text draws on its generic and literary contexts.
At AS Level, this is examined via analysis of narrative techniques in an extract from the text, printed on the paper.
At A Level, students choose from two questions, each focussing on an aspect of narrative. Their study of narrative techniques in Section A is applied to their own creative writing in Section B.
Approaches to teaching the content
This examined unit requires students to read a substantial prose fiction text: Atonement, by Ian McEwan.
In this combined Language and Literature course, the key focus is on how narratives work, drawing on integrated linguistic and literary approaches.
Students will study aspects of narratives such as the use of voice, point of view, time and chronology, dialogue, characterisation, genre, symbols and motifs, structure and settings.
They will need to apply relevant techniques in their response to their chosen text via either an extract (AS) or a question (A Level), in relation to Atonement.
They should use these in textual analysis to explain how meanings and effects are created.
It is important for both AS and A Level that students have an awareness of broader contextual factors. These would include understanding of how the text draws on genre conventions, as well as the social and historical context of the text.
Common misconceptions or difficulties students may have
In the transition from GCSE study, students may worry that this approach differs from a familiar schema of plot, themes, characters, setting. In fact, the difference is just a shift in emphasis from WHAT to HOW, from ‘characters’ to ‘characterisation’. They will still be studying the familiar aspects, but the focus will be on critical analysis, exploring how, for example, a particular perspective shapes the creation of character. Or the role of different settings in the novel in the development of plot and the themes conveyed.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set students up for topics later in the course
For A Level students, there is an immediate link to Section B of the exam, where they move from ‘Reading as Writers’ to ‘Writing as Readers’ and show their understanding of narrative techniques as they produce their own texts. It may well be productive for AS students to engage in this sort of creative text production as part of their study of narratives.
Learning to apply relevant linguistic and literary techniques in close analysis is a fundamental part of all AS and A level units, whether the focus for study is spoken or written language, the literary genres of poetry, prose or drama, or non-fiction genres such as journalism, travelogue or memoir.
For all units, students will benefit from a perceptive understanding of the ways contextual factors (including genre, purpose and audience) influence the writer’s choices and the reader’s interpretation.
For a perceptive understanding of narratives, it is vital to study them in context, not, for example, to analyse a line of dialogue in isolation. The term ‘context’ refers to a range of aspects in this unit. Firstly, any part of the text needs to be considered in light of the novel as a whole; then with awareness of broader genre conventions; and also with some knowledge of the social, historical contexts - particularly where these differ significantly from those of the reader.
It may be useful to think of the derivation of the word: con+text = WITH the TEXT. The following activities focus on a range of aspects of the text in context, such as:
- Narrative perspective / point of view
- Voice - representation of speech and thought
- Settings and style
- Motifs and symbols
- Genre conventions
- Social historical context.
Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is clearly divided into three parts, with a final short section titled London, 1999. This structure is significant for an overall understanding of the novel, as the coda forces the reader to reconsider the preceding ‘story’.
This activity can be done after each part has been read, or as a summary once the novel has been finished. Students are asked to use the 4 boxes to show how the setting and focus on characters, change as the novel progresses.
Students should be familiar with these concepts:
- 1st v 3rd person narration;
- Omniscient v partial perspective
As McEwan uses perspective in such subtle ways in Atonement, it will be useful for students to use the related concept of ‘focalizer’.
The focalizer is the primary consciousness of a story. The events, situations, interpretations of other characters' dialogue, etc. are all filtered through this focalizer. This character holds the main point of view. The focalizer sometimes changes throughout a narrative, resulting in multiple focalizers for one story. Thus, the focalizer is not always the narrator or the main character. External focalization is like a camera-eye view. Omniscient narration is zero focalization.
Part 1 is particularly complex in the ways McEwan shifts the point of view. For this reason, students should start with the simpler perspectives through which Parts 2, 3 and the coda are narrated. An example has been done for you for Part 2.
These activities can be done individually or in small groups, as students finish reading Parts 2, 3 and the coda. The use of perspective in Part 1 is explored in more detail in Activity four.
Briony is the main character of the novel Atonement and much of Part 1 is from her point of view. (She is the focalizer.) However, McEwan rarely presents her thoughts and feelings in a style that sounds like the voice of a young child - even that of a precocious, well-read child. Briony aspires to be a writer, and her own writing is clearly influenced by the melodramatic fiction she reads. So in the 3rd person narration of Briony’s point of view, McEwan combines an authorial voice, ironic clichés of fiction and echoes of the child’s voice.
Students should read the extract printed in the learner resource and annotate it to show where:
a) It is clearly Briony’s point of view
b) Whether the voice is that of the child, or more adult.
Working in small groups, comment on what this extract contributes to McEwan’s characterisation of Briony. Finally report back to the class group.
This activity returns to McEwan’s use of perspective in Part 1. Students should be familiar with the term ‘focalizer’ from Activity two. Part 1 is narrated in 3rd person throughout, but McEwan’s shifts the point of view from chapter to chapter, and often within a single chapter. Although the main character is the young Briony, and many of the events are filtered through her consciousness, McEwan subtly combines this with an omniscient commentary. The point of view / focalization also shifts to other principal characters from the Tallis family: mother Emily, sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner.
As the students study Part 1, they should fill in the table, noting the principal focalizers – there may be more than one. (It will be useful to add to the examples given of omniscient narration / zero focalizer).
Students should be familiar with this term: readers are given hints or warnings of what is to come in the narrative. McEwan is not always reliable in his hints, rather like the writer of a thriller, he provides some misleading hints.
Working in small groups, take one of the cards with a quotation from Part 1. What does McEwan suggest to the reader by this extract? Is the hint / warning borne out by the events that happen later in the novel?
As a retrospective activity once the novel has been finished, students should look back for clues to what is revealed in the final part. Was it completely unexpected? Were you, as a reader, willing to go along with Briony’s story in the first three parts of the novel?
McEwan shifts the setting as the novel progresses from Part 1 to 2 to 3, with the coda returning to the country house. The focalization / point of view also changes. In this activity, students will look at McEwan’s style in more detail, analysing and comparing extracts from the four parts of the novel.
Working in four groups, discuss these questions about your extract:
- Is it 1st or 3rd person narration?
- Which character’s point of view is presented?
- Is there a sense of that character’s voice?
Rate a) the formality of lexis b) complexity of sentence structure on a scale 1-10. As a class group, discuss how far you agree with one commentator that the four Parts of the novel share features of four different genres:
- Austen-esque Romanticism;
- historical war story;
- Victorian memoir;
Students should be familiar with these terms. The symbolism of the vase is emphasised by McEwan’s focus on the scene from 3 or more different viewpoints. The vase itself is then recalled at later stages in the novel, suggesting its significance as a motif.
This is discussed in an interesting essay, which students can read after their own discussion. See Penn State University website for students to share work.
Students can work individually, or in small groups, on a motif from Atonement, for example:
- ‘Come back’.
For the AS exam, students are given an extract from the novel and asked to write about the way the author tells the story. This is a chance for them to draw together all that they have studied about narrative techniques, genre and context.
For the A Level exam, students are asked to respond to a particular question about the novel, for example analysing ways in which the author creates suspense, or uses settings. In their answer, they will refer to some close analysis of extracts in support of their points.
In this activity, students can prepare their answers for homework, or use it as timed exam practice.
They can find more Sample Assessment materials on the OCR website.
Write about the ways Ian McEwan tells the story in this extract. In your answer you should:
- Explore the narrative techniques used in the extract
- Consider the extract in the context of the novel as a whole and its genre.
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