Billy is currently authoring a series on “The Study of English Literature”. Part 1 of the series, called “Finding a meaning”, can be found here.
Part 2 of the series, titled “Positives and Negatives”, can be accessed on this page.
If you were marking passage commentaries, which of the following would you think was the best point?
- The excerpt is about solitude (head-on attack)
- The excerpt portrays solitude in a negative way (positive/negative analysis)
- The excerpt portrays solitude, which is shown as negative, in conflict with love, which is shown as positive (positive/negative conflict analysis)
- Over the course of this excerpt, solitude, shown as negative, gradually overcomes love, which is shown as positive (analysis of progression)
Those are far too awkwardly worded, but I think my point has been made. It is indeed possible to find passages or poems that do not show a progression. A description of a dark alley may show fear throughout; a description of the poet’s wife may be entirely positive. But these passages usually aren’t the key passages that you write your commentary on.
In my experience, IB seems to like a passage with a negative progression. That is, we start by hearing about how good things were, and then as we read the passage we learn about how bad things are now. We used to be a happy family, but now we never talk to each other any more. My father used to tell me stories, but now he’s dead.
Once you’ve observed this, it usually isn’t too hard to track the progression using several literary devices. At the beginning of the excerpt, the happiness of the speaker’s childhood is reflected through the use of heat-related descriptions. Example. Example. Example. However, later in the passage, the sorrow brought by the destruction of the speaker’s home planet is reflected by the use of cold-related descriptions. Example. Example. Example. Repeat for two other important literary features.
This sort of progression can be gradual (there are fewer and fewer personal pronouns throughout the passage, or the passage spends more and more time talking about scary sea animals) but often there is a clear divide. The past was good. The present is bad. Within the world of the story it may still be implied that things went downhill gradually with the speaker’s relationships, stocks, and home value, but unless this process is the focus of the passage it will often be left in the background.
The progression isn’t always straightforward. The progression may occur chronologically within the world of the story but be all mixed up in the text. For example, the entire text may describe the present in a negative tone but include scattered references to a happier past throughout. The text is not organized in a progression, so one instead of describing the progression of the text, one describes the contrast between the deteriorated present and the happy remembered past.
If the text really does start happy and end unhappy, then that is a valid literary feature which should be noted; the arrangement of details in the text reflects the chronology of the story. If things are mixed up, then meaning can still probably be found in the arrangement. It could reflect the speaker’s thoughts; perhaps this passage represents his gradual (or sudden) realization that his life is a hundred times worse now then it was when he was five (or fifteen, or twenty five). A passage might seem all happy until the last paragraph, and then suddenly reverse everything so that the reader will experience the same letdown as the character.
As with any other approach to analyzing a passage, don’t be afraid to improvise. Don’t try to impose a strict progression of a poem that isn’t following one, but don’t be afraid to find subtler progressions in a piece. The passage starts out calm and gradually becomes more and more chaotic. The poem starts by talking positively about the poor and then becomes more and more negative as its focus switches to the (evil) rich. Hardly any good writing will sit still even for the one or two pages you’ve been given to analyze.