Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tackling the poem


SECTION D of the 1119 English paper tests your knowledge of the literature component and carries 25 marks. By now, you should be familiar with the six poems and five short stories and one of the three prescribed novels.

All in, there are three questions on these texts. You will be tested on one poem in Question 32, one short story in Question 33, and the novel in Question 34.

You should take all the texts seriously and not just focus on a few selected ones as it is difficult to pinpoint which poem or short story will be tested. Sadly, some students take this section lightly, citing a plethora of reasons such as lack of interest and difficulty of texts.

The literature component is not as overwhelming as it seems. Do read the texts and try to understand them. You must engage with them on a personal level. If you are able to respond to the texts by bringing in your own knowledge and experiences, you will be able to have a better understanding of them.

Discuss the texts with your teacher and friends. Do not be upset if your interpretation is different from someone else’s. Remember, no two people will have exactly the same interpretation. What is important is that you should be able to support your interpretations with textual evidence. If possible, try to make links between the texts to improve your understanding. You will find that there is a common thread among some of the texts. For instance, the idea of having to make choices and its consequences is explored not only in the poem The Road Not Taken but also in the short story The Necklace and the novel The Pearl.

Mathilde Loisel could have told her friend, Madame Forrestier, the truth but she chooses not to. As a result, she endures 10 years of hardship. Likewise, Kino chooses to keep the pearl despite his wife’s warning and loses everything in the end.

Below is an analysis of the texts tested since 2004:

Guidelines for tackling poems and short stories

Read and understand all the poems and short stories.

Pay close attention to the language used by the writer to convey his ideas and thoughts.

With short stories, make sure you know the plot well. Also, focus on characterisation, themes, values and messages conveyed by the writer.

With the poems, make sure you understand the literal/denotative meaning as well as the figurative/connotative meaning. The former is the dictionary meaning, while the latter is the inferred, or implied, meaning.

There is no harm in knowing some of the common literary devices (metaphors, similes, personification, onomatopoeia) employed in the short stories and poems.

Remember, the answers to the first three questions on the poem and short story can be found in the extract given. The fourth question is usually a personal response question and the answer is teased out of candidates. This means you need to know the poem or story well to tackle this question. (This is where engaging with the texts is important).

The poem

Let’s look at one poem in detail:

There’s been a death in the opposite house

There’s been a death in the opposite house As lately as today. I know it by the numb look Such houses have always.

The neighbours rustle in and out, The doctor drives away. A window opens like a pod, Abrupt, mechanically;

Somebody flings a mattress out, The children hurry by; They wonder if It died on that, I used to when a boy.

The minister goes stiffly in As if the house were his, And he owned all the mourners now, And little boys besides;

And then the milliner, and the man Of the appalling trade, To take the measure of the house. There’ll be that dark parade

Of tassels and of coaches soon; It’s easy as a sign, The intuition of the news In just a country town. — Emily Dickinson

In stanza 1, the persona tells us that someone has died in the house opposite his. The death occurred recently and he knows this because of the sombre atmosphere of the house. The house is said to have a numb look because the occupants of the house are numb with grief.

In stanza 2, he tells us about the goings-on at the house of the deceased. The neighbours come and go, and they try to be quiet and this is conveyed by the word “rustle”. The doctor drives away probably because there is nothing he can do. Then a window opens suddenly, mechanically. This is also how the family of the deceased behaves because they are overcome with grief.

In stanza 3, we learn that a mattress is thrown out, frightening the children who walk past the house. They wonder if the deceased died on the mattress. We learn that the persona used to do the same when he was a boy. From the last line we can infer that the persona is now a grown man. The deceased is referred to as “It” because he/she is no longer alive.

Stanza 4 describes the minister’s arrival. He appears to be stern and takes charge of the funeral arrangements.

Stanza 5 focuses on two people, the milliner and the undertaker who have come to make arrangements for the funeral. The milliner is there to take measurements to make a hat for the deceased while the undertaker, “the man of the appalling trade”, is there to take measurements for the “house” (coffin).

Stanza 6 tells us that once arrangements have been made, there will be the funeral procession (“the dark parade”) where the coffin will be taken to the cemetery on a horse-drawn carriage with the mourners following it.

Setting: The death takes place in a country town where people know one another. This is why the persona is able to recognise the people who come and go.

Theme: Death is a natural occurrence. Yet, it is a sad event for those who lose a loved one (the people are numb with grief).

Tone: Though the theme of this poem is death, it does not have a sad and mournful tone. The persona tells us of the goings on in a matter-of-fact manner to convey the idea that death is a natural occurrence.

The present tense is used to convey the idea that death is an everyday occurrence.

Let us look at some sample questions.

a. How do the people of the house react to the death? They are numb with grief. (1 mark)

b. Who does the word “his” in line 14 of the poem refer to? The minister. (1 mark)

c. Why does the persona refer to the undertaker as “the man of the appalling trade”? He thinks the undertaker’s work is unpleasant and dreadful. (1 mark)

d. In your own words, explain what the speaker means when he says “then, there’ll be that dark parade”? He is referring to the funeral procession where the mourners will be dressed in black and the mood will be sombre. (2 marks)

The short story

Below is a summary of the short story “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

“The Necklace” tells the story of a nineteenth-century middle-class French couple, Monsieur and Madame Mathilde Loisel. She spends a lot of time imagining herself in wealthy settings, hosting and attending high society gatherings.

Monsieur Loisel is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Instruction. He manages to obtain an invitation to an official dance at the Ministry. Madame Loisel is distraught because she has no suitable dress or jewellery for the dance.

The clerk sacrifices his savings to buy her a dress and suggests that she borrow some jewellery from her old friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier. Accordingly, Madame Loisel borrows a beautiful diamond necklace from her.

She has a wonderful time until the early hours of the morning. When the couple returns home, they discover that the necklace is missing.

Unable to bear the shame of informing Madame Forestier, Monsieur and Madame Loisel decide to buy an identical diamond necklace from the Palais Royal as a replacement. The cost is extravagant - 36,000 francs - a fortune at the time. Monsieur Loisel spends his entire inheritance and life savings, 18,000 francs left to him by his father, and incurs heavy debts by asking usurers for loans to buy the replacement. They do not inform Madame Forestier of the change and spend the next 10 years of their lives paying off the debts. Both Monsieur and Madame Loisel are forced to take on extra jobs and live in abject poverty. In time, the Madame comes to empathise with those she once looked down upon with disdain.

At the end of the 10 years, Madame Loisel, now older, tougher, more worn and less graceful from years of hard manual labour - but immensely proud €” has an opportunity to tell her old friend of the lost necklace. Madame Forestier is shocked and informs Madame Loisel that her original necklace was, in fact, an imitation, “...worth 500 francs at the most!”


Now, see if you can answer the questions based on this excerpt taken from “The Necklace”.

“What do you mean? You brought it back.”

“I brought you back another exactly like it. And it has taken us 10 years to pay for it. You can understand that it was not easy for us, for us who had nothing. At last, it is ended and I am very glad.”

Madame Forrstier had stopped.

“You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?”

“Yes. You never noticed it then! They were very similar.”

a. How long did it take the Loisels to settle their debts? Ten years. (1 mark)

b. How did Mathilde feel after having settled the debts? Glad. (1 mark)

c. Why didn’t Madame Forrestier notice that the necklace given to her was a diamond necklace? It was very similar to the lost one. (1 mark)

d. If you were Mathilde, what would you have done when you discovered that the lost necklace was worth only 500 francs? Give a reason for your answer. I would have screamed in anger because of the unnecessary suffering and debts incurred or I would have just blamed myself for it. If I had told Madame Forrestier the truth in the beginning, I would not have had to borrow 36,000 francs. (2 marks)

Remember the answers to the first three questions can be found in the extract. Only the fourth question requires some interpretation on your part.

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