P1 Roundtable AOI Q5 Outline

‘Much of the novel is about people pursuing what they cannot have.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence? (2014 JC1 Promotional Exam)

In portraying the pursuit of what one cannot have, the novel urges the reader to accept a ‘partial happiness’, to compromise upon one’s dreams and visions for the ‘pleasures’ of real life and playing one’s role in society. Wharton’s purpose here is both philosophical (in the personal sense) and social: an individual’s happiness is ultimately reliant on the collective interest. To believe that one is truly free (to pursue what one wants) is but a wanton fantasy, a childhood dream stuck in an age of innocence.

Paragraph 2
(What) The structure of the novel moves along with the respective ‘pursuits’ of what Wharton’s characters can or cannot have, each eventually (however belated) coming to recognise the merits of what they do have.

  • (How) Archer’s romantic adventures can be charted in a series of romanticised and theatrical encounters in various settings, from Ellen’s ‘Bohemian quarter’ in Ch 9 and 12, to The Shaughraun in Ch 13, the shore in Ch 21, the carriage in Ch 29 and finally, the melancholy museum exhibition of Ch 31. Intriguingly, the protagonist comes close to realising his ‘personal vision’ in Ch 34. Ushered to Ellen’s doorstep, Archer chooses instead to walk away, back to the ‘old-fashioned’ ways that he can have.
  • (How) Even if the reader is granted only limited access to Ellen’s thoughts and feelings, the encounters between Archer and Ellen chart her initial pursuit and subsequent acceptance. Her dialogue impresses with a naivete about Old New York in Book One but makes a more mellow turn in Book Two, speaking with appreciation and understanding of why she cannot have what she desires.

Paragraph 3
(What) Archer’s flight towards fantasy (and shift from reality) presents to the reader the familiar trope of a bildungsroman — a young man goes in search of what he cannot have and so come to understand the ways of his world.

  • (How) The profuse allusions to literature and the arts are used to portray Archer’s indulgence in his visions. The ‘magical’ quality with which they are presented refers the reader towards their unattainability. Ellen’s home is decorated with a ‘trick’, a ‘sleight of hand’. The books he reads open up to ‘enchanted pages’ with the face of Ellen Olenska.
  • (How) Archer’s dilemma between visions and realities, desire and duty is most pronounced in Chapters 20 to 21. The narrator describes his ‘undoubted gratifi(cation)’ of being with May and how ‘he could not say he had been mistaken in his choice’, in contrast to the ‘discarded experiment’, ‘momentary madness’ of Ellen whom he desperately tries to repress. At the more poignant pier scene, the narrator brings light to Archer’s muddled thoughts, where he contemplates his reality as a ‘son-in-law’ vis-a-vis the ‘dream’ of being with Ellen.
  • (How) The representation of his pursuit of Ellen as a ‘dream’, an ‘experiment’ concocted out of ‘madness’ outlines the utter impossibility of him achieving his desires. With his mind an ‘empty and echoing place’, Archer can only mourn his fate, as the reader might come to sympathise with his youthful impulses.

Paragraph 4
(What) The failure of Archer’s romantic visions coincides with the triumph of the collective interest; it will also lead him to a deeper acceptance of his reality.

  • (How) The portrayal of Old New York as an ‘armed camp’ that keeps Archer ‘prisoner’ reflects their defeat of Archer’s romantic aspirations. Society’s ‘inexorable persons’ mandate what he can have — to play by the rules of the ‘family vault’ — even if his ‘passionate determination to be free’ is not subdued.
  • (How) The narrator deliberately renders Archer’s sense of realisation through a series of phrases: ‘it became clear to Archer that.’, ‘He caught the glitter of victory’, ‘The discovery roused…’, ‘He understood that in a moment she would be gone’.
  • (How) Archer’s final words to Dallas in the novel, ‘It’s more real to me here than if I went up’ and the act of ‘walking back alone to his hotel’ are symbolic of his acknowledgement of what he cannot have and eventual submission to what belongs to him — the old ways of his society and the ‘dignity’ of a ‘dull duty’.

Paragraph 5
(What) Ostracised by her own tribe at the start of the novel, the reader learns that Ellen craves acceptance and security from New York. By the end, she will reach a point of recognition on what she can and cannot have.

  • (How) Old New York is presented from Ellen’s perspective as a ‘dear old place’ close to her heart, a ‘heaven’ (15) that is also a sanctuary from the ‘bad where [she] came from’. Later in Ch 12, she regards her ‘bring here, in my own country and my own town’ as a ‘blessedness’ (60).
  • (How) In her conversation with Archer in Ch 18, she reflects how ‘stupid and unobservant’ she was to scrutiny and criticism of ‘oppressively hospitable’ New York. Intriguingly, Ellen echoes Archer’s earlier sermon on the importance of individual sacrifice to preserve the honour of one’s family.
  • (How) The ‘expulsion’ of a ‘kinswoman’ is often interpreted as a sign of Ellen’s victimhood. In the light of her dialogue above, we might also see that she voluntarily sacrifices what she wants for the good of the Mingott clan and to preserve Archer’s own social standing.

Response to ‘Love is Not All’ by Edna St Vincent Millay

In the poem ‘Love is Not All’, the poet writes about love in a fairly nonchalant tone at first, which progresses into a contemplative tone followed by a resolute tone at the end. The entire poem revolves around the poet’s thoughts about love as a whole, about how it has no value for survival and yet people are willing to die for it. Through expressing her thoughts, the poet enters three phases of contemplation before reaching a sturdy conclusion, and could either be reminding herself about the fact that love is literally not all, perhaps reaffirming her decision to abandon the importance of love by penning it down in a poem.

In the poem, Millay makes use of the survival motif in the words ‘meat’, ‘drink’, ‘slumber’, ‘roof’ and ‘floating spar’ which are all words that signify a certain sense of importance to survival, and are all basic needs of humans in order to live and subsist. Through foregrounding the phrase ‘Love is not all’, followed by a caesura (as seen in the colon after the opening declarative), the persona emphasizes the way love cannot encompass all things. By reiterating this with the allusions to means of survival, the poem alludes to the idea that love has no value for our daily lives and is in fact, redundant and of no real value, practically speaking. The repetition of the words ‘rise’ and ‘sink’ in line 4 creates an image of drowning that in turn gives an effect of helplessness, as the persona keeps emphasizing the idea of sinking ‘again’ and ‘again’. This may serve as a means of depicting how love is unable to provide actual help for the helpless, despite it being able to provide hope represented by ‘rising’. This further underscores the idea that love has no practical use nor survival value, as the line ends ultimately with ‘sink’ (rather than ‘rise’). (Editor’s note: Consider the purpose of these images, in terms of what the reader is being persuaded to ‘do’)

The persona then moves on and writes about how love is unable to heal men of their ailments and illnesses, through the cumulative use of ‘lung’, ‘breath’, ‘blood’, ‘bane’, all of which are significant body parts that carry out important functions. Through the use of the absolute word in the first line, ‘not’ in ‘Love is not all’ followed by a repetition of ‘nor’ as well as ‘cannot’ in ‘Love cannot fill’, the persona’s tone becomes disdainful and even condemning, as she reduces love to something that is strictly non-functional. By combining the absolutism of her tone and the metaphor of bodily functions, the poet further breaks down love into something impractical and perhaps even useless, as it has no ability to sustain one’s survival or heal one of the ‘bane’ of illnesses. This hence portrays the poet’s idea of love as something that certainly does not encompass everything, but is also something unnecessary as well. (Editor’s note: take into consideration the usual view / glorification of love as a vital part of what makes us human, and how the poem seeks to undermine / denigrate this perspective)

As the poem progresses, however, the persona’s tone shifts from one that is absolute and disdainful to one that is contemplative, as seen in the tentative words ‘may’ and ‘might’ from lines 7-13. Through the contrast between this tentativeness and the absoluteness in the first six lines, the persona shows a hint of wavering, as she considers the ways in which one may be driven to succumb to love. From the word ‘Yet’ which suggests a note of contradiction, the tone and idea of the poem shifts even further. The poet has also introduced the personal pronoun ‘I’, which reflects her perspective. The poem now becomes more emotive and perceptive, unlike the first six lines where the persona merely states the way love is redundant as if these were all simply facts, making the first half of the poem seem nonchalant in comparison to line s7-13. Through introducing the first-person perspective, the persona refers to her own feelings in the poem, and this creates a slight contemplative mood as the poet constantly refers to herself and her uncertainty (Marker’s comments: Significance of this? Consider how the persona’s view of love starts to resemble that of ‘many a man’ – is love really ‘not all’ to her here?)

In lines 7-13, the poet also uses strong verbs such as ‘pinned’, ‘moaning’, ‘nagged’ and ‘driven’ which suggests a certain forcefulness, personifying love as something that is not only alive but is aggressive, able to take down someone completely and even causes them to choose death over the absence of love. By suddenly giving love a personality, the persona no longer refers to love as a passive, useless emotion but a strong, overpowering energy able to overwhelm someone. This sudden change in the portrayal of love also serves to signify the persona’s recognition of the power that love has, further emphasizing her contemplation as she now considers the power of love.

However, despite her wavering and contemplative mood, the persona chooses to accept that the possibility of her own succumbing to love does exist, as she ‘might’ give up love for something more important of survival value, such as ‘peace’ and ‘love’, in order to reaffirm her resolve to put rationality before the irrationality of love. This is delivered most poignantly in the last line, ‘I do not think I would’, whereby the absolute words ‘do not’ further emphasizes her stand. The poem thus progresses from being resolutely against the concept of love to contemplative to now even more resolute… about how she too needs love at the end.

Rachel Lee (1T01 2015)
JC1 Semestral Assessment

2015 Prelim P1 Reminders and Strategies

MatriarchPhoto: Chiew Jia Hui


H1 (8811/01) and H2 Paper 1 (9748/01) Format

  • H1 Section A: Unseen Poetry
    – Two options, answer one only
  • H2 Section A: Poetry Comparison
    – Two options, answer one only
  • Section B: The Age of Innocence
    – Two options, answer one only
    – (a) Essay question (usually concern or character-trigger)
    – (b) Passage-based question (usually concern or character-trigger)
  • Section C: All My Sons
    – Two options, answer one only
    – (a) Essay question (usually concern or character-trigger)
    – (b) Passage-based question (usually concern or character-trigger)
  • For Sections B and C, there are no restrictions on question choice. That is to say, you can opt to do both PBQs… or attempt both essay questions.
  • If you marginally suspect your text might be confiscated or simply forget to bring, visit the library to borrow a copy way way way before 2pm. Based on our experience today in P3, please do a thorough check of your texts so that you don’t leave post-it notes in them (or your teachers’ heads will explode).


All My SinsPhoto: Chiew Jia Hui



  • Section A: Poetry / Poetry Comparison
    – We suggest you start with this section; it is an afternoon paper and you will need to make use of all your creative and critical juice to make sense of the poem(s) you have chosen.
    – Broadly speaking, your options will vary between universal life experiences (e.g. unrequited love, grieving, death, motherhood, growing old) and abstract but fundamentally human concepts (e.g. the resilience of a snail, negotiation of personal identity, the power of language, the mystery of life). This of course allows you to shape a personal response or comparative response: the poem(s) might allow you to see something a different way or exhort you to do something. You know how this works by now!
  • Section B: The Age of Innocence
    – Read the essay question carefully. The prompt quotation will ask you to see things in a particular way and leave you to agree or disagree. The prompt quotation will provide you a series of ideas, which you can develop separately. A sophisticated script will be able to blend all two or three ideas into one cogent argument / paragraph of course… but I’d always suggest to keep some things simple. This same prompt quotation does ‘help’ you structure your essay from simple to complex ideas.
    – As you know, the essay question will have either a character-trigger or a concern-trigger. Stay on track please and address the relevant character and concern all the time. If the question is on the strict moral code, you don’t want to write about social form and dressing (trust us, many a script has fallen by the wayside in this manner).
    – Your essay thesis should provide us a stand, reasons and ideally… a personal response on the ‘message‘ of the novel. For the latter, you can connect it to the bildungsroman or social critique angles (seriously, the Penguin Introduction is unbelievably good and worth highlighting).
    – For the passage-based question, be very aware of the ‘placement’ of the passage within the whole text — does it mark the start, middle or end? At which point of the bildungsroman are we at? Or what is the reader’s understanding of Old New York at this point? Your PBQ thesis has to address the purpose of the passage (e.g. the passage foreshadows… the passage is a culmination of… it builds up to…) in the novel.
    – Don’t repeat your JC1 mistakes. Links to elsewhere should be contained, condensed, concise. We don’t want you to narrate elsewhere; we want the link (see above).
    – In our revision lectures and tutorials, we have urged you to start with narrative perspective when you analyse the passage. Is it the ironic narrator commenting on society, or undermining Archer’s childish fantasies? Is the narrator taking us into Archer’s thoughts, as he contemplates Ellen, May, the world around him or as he sinks deeper and deeper into his romantic imagination? Or are we simply to extract and ‘compile’ various voices (in the form of dialogue / direct discourse) and analyse them accordingly?
    (i) This is important because it will help you split the passage into parts, organise your methods / evidence and generate ideas. You might for instance be able to devote two paragraphs to Archer’s thoughts or write one paragraph entirely on setting / visions, as you did for the Ch 21 PBQ.
    (ii) When it comes to close analysis, knowing the perspective will immediately help you identify a pattern and analyse it. For those of you who did the Ch 21 PBQ, or revised the Ch 2 and Ch 33 passages in class, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t forget to analyse the description of New York or its characters after you’ve picked out the perspective, though!
    (iii) Be careful not to ‘impose’ a perspective. The ironic narrator doesn’t appear that often; some of my students kind of force-fit the narrator into the Ch21 pier sequence when it was really a mawkish, sentimental description of the setting, nothing else!
  • Section C: All My Sons
    – Ah, we’re a bit rusty with Miller now, eh? Not to worry, we’ll repeat some of the key concepts here. The skills however remain much the same. Know the difference between an essay thesis and PBQ thesis. Learn to closely analyse your evidence for sentence functions (e.g. imperative, declarative, interrogative), tone, sentence length, diction and lexis (e.g. language of money, absolute terms, aggressive terms).
    – Many of you have remarked that it is hard to generate broad methods for AMS or even hard to analyse the text in AMS. What I would suggest particular for the essay question is to simply identify relevant parts of the text and try to pick out patterns from there.
    – Dramatic structure is and will be absolutely integral to both the essay and passage-based questions. Like the Paper 3 question on Stanley’s miscomprehension of Blanche, we will asking you to consider causes and consequences in both questions: you want to be hyper-aware of how the tragedy unfolds. Revisit one of our first lectures this year on the tragic hero. You can pre-emptively figure out some arguments to do with foreshadowing, shifting, overturning, culminations et al for a passage in Acts Two and Three (we told you this I think!). The “links to elsewhere” lecture titled The Last of Us should help.
    – Needless to say, you should refer to the ending of the play in your essay response, or link to the ending of the play in your PBQ response. I’d urge you to think about this carefully: should you only write about the ending at the end of your essay, or does every paragraph need to show some notion of tragedy?
    – The play’s concerns generally exist in binaries: social responsibility vs familial loyalty, moral idealism vs pragmatism, human solidarity / collective interest vs self-interest, redemption vs guilt, denial vs truth. Word of caution: the American Dream, with its associations with wealth, familial bliss and individualism / self-interest, doesn’t quite fit neatly into this framework. Its components can be seen to act in opposition to Chris’s ideals of man-for-man sacrifice and altruism…. but we also know that nearly all of Miller’s characters are morally flawed, and subject to the pursuit of one or more of these subsets of the grand American Dream.


Study tips and strategies

  • For All My Sons, you don’t have that much to study. The tragedy / tragic hero lecture, the introduction lecture, family, denial, the American Dream, responsibility vs familial loyalty are fundamental to the play itself and hard to detach from one another. You roughly know what we are going to test for the PBQ, so do gloss over Acts Two and Three religiously. I don’t foresee any problems linking to Act One anyway.
  • For The Age of Innocence, we regret to inform you that your JC1 material is important. We have definitely revised key concepts in JC2 Term 3: Archer’s dilemma and his attempts to put aside his dreams and visions for the contentment of marriage / duty, Old New York and its tribal network of eyes, codes and rigid structures, the disdain Archer and the narrator feels about Old New York’s deathly, unimaginative ‘patterns’ of life…. Nonetheless, you do want to glance through your tutorial packages from JC1 for key passages (even if we are not going to repeat them).

Response 2 to ‘The Secretary Chant’

‘The Secretary Chant’ is a decrying of the stereotyping of women in the modern workplace, where its gender lines ensnare women based on (startlingly) primitive expectations and obligations in the roles they are expected to assume. This ‘Secretary Chant’ is expressed from the first person perspective of a female persona, who laments about the bitter circumstances she has ostensibly been tied down to, in a society where her voice is shunned, silenced but she is still made to fulfil societal expectations, and she is perceived merely as a being who exists to function and serve society-at-large. However, her outcry is also nicely complemented by an immense sense of pride, where we see the persona embracing her feminine identity towards the end of the poem, giving one the idea of the ‘Secretary Chant’ as a tribute to the suffering of her female comrades in society.

The title, ‘The Secretary Chant’ gives us the impression of a piece which might unravel sounding extremely sombre, mellow and rehearsed, from the term ‘chant’. However, ‘chant’ also conveys the concept of a mantra of some sort, a unifying element which brings individuals bound to the same fate and circumstances together, as they exercise this unifying voice, a vehement message and an outcry. It is evident when the opening of the first stanza is marked by ‘My’, the personal pronoun which seems to empower the persona’s voice. It alludes to the idea that the persona is extremely passionate about the role she will later decry; when ‘My’ is subsequently enumerated anaphorically as the chant unravels, we notice that ‘My’ is paired with elements such as ‘My hips’, ‘My ears’, ‘My breasts’, ‘My fingers’, all of which are body parts, which give the persona the power to feel, through senses, where ‘ears’ are associated with hearing and ‘mouth’ with a voice, complemented by aspects which women are often identified, recognised and even valued for. Their physical attributes of ‘breasts’ and ‘hips’ serve to accentuate the persona’s female identity, a form of empowerment. All these aspects are integral parts of a female, which would seem to naturally imbue the stanzas with a grounded, boldly passionate tone, with the persona embracing her feminine identity, an innate nature which gives her strength as an individual. (Editor’s note: a greater sense of tentativeness would help as we move to the ‘shift’; this statement of identity on the surface very quickly, certainly on a first reading, splinters into a self-devaluation of sorts?)

However, there is an immediate shift in tone from pride and empowerment to vulnerability and bitterness when we realise that these aspects of power are transformed into derogatory metaphors, where the persona’s ‘hips are a desk’, her ‘head’ is a ‘badly organised file’ or her ‘navel’ a ‘reject button’. Here, these integral elements of feminine beauty and power are perceived as mere objects, through the harsh objectification and debasement of them into everyday, functional items. That ‘rubber bands form my hair’ is especially apt here, where the poet draws references to ‘rubber bands’ to speak crudely of fashion accessories which women often wear to enhance their looks, reducing their hair to mere daily household items or those found in workplaces, ordinary, plain and often taken for granted. This speaks metaphorically for the way in which women are perceived — ordinary, boring, common, functional with nothing of special value. Additionally, the motif of workplace items, tied with women’s precious features with ‘hips as desks’, ‘paper clips as chains’ drive the poignant message that the role of women is perceived by society to be bound to menial work, functioning merely to slog away, robbed of things they treasure and yearn for, in the interest of economic value. This is to the point where the line between an individual’s rudimental identity and societal expectations are blurred.

The idea of the persona’s ‘navel as a reject button’ drives the idea that women are shunned for these elements they don, these that are perceived as unorthodox or uncanny, driving society to discriminate and stigmatise them. All this culminates in an extremely sardonic, mocking tone where the jarring condemnation intensifies with each metaphorical debasement of body parts, alluding to the idea that women are not just shunned, but really, they are humiliated as well, driving the persona’s fervent bitterness and reframing the poem as an outcry against her own oppression. This is complemented by the rather violent verbs ‘hang’, ‘bear’, ‘press’ and ‘File me’, alluding to the degree of brutality in the light of their ensnarement by society; women, the poem posits, have no say because of their objectification and ensnarement within the workplace.

The sounds within the poem help to amplify the lamentations, coupled with the persona’s vehement tone. The plosive ‘t’ sounds at the back of ‘credit’ and ‘debit’, and the short, sharp sounds, ‘Zing’, ‘Buzz’ and ‘Click’, in their short, end-stopped lines stand in for the emotional pain which women are made to bear, a result of oppression in their society. These short lines all appear to be cut short, unintentionally or intentionally mirroring the ways in which women are often silenced; from ‘mouth issue cancelled reams’, the poem speaks about women often having much to voice out in ‘reams’, established in the long-drawn out assonant sounds, whilst the paradox ‘cancelled reams’ effectively conveys that much of these women’s thoughts and voices are often silenced so quickly by society. This adds an element of bitterness and contempt, amplifying the persona’s lamentation for oppression.

Finally, we notice that in the last few lines of the poem, the persona declares in declarative speech, ‘File me under W because I wonce / was / a woman’. The short, punctuated line driven by the personal pronoun ‘I’ imbues the persona’s declaration with a sense of pride, where she declares her identity boldly, fearlessly and explicitly. This alludes to the notion of this poem as a tribute to women, driven by passion and vehemence, where women ultimately take pride in their identity, as a sense of finality and closure. It brings us back to the idea of the deeper meaning behind the declaration, while it might have seemed a bitter and sombre lamentation and outcry of injustice, it stands grounded as a tribute. Nevertheless, there is the undeniably jarring sounds, evident from the liquid sounds of ‘w’ in ‘wonce’, ‘was’ and the vowel sounds in ‘woman’, delivered to a drawn-out, poignant effect. Although the persona exudes pride in her past identity as a female, there is still an underlying remorse and sadness from oppression, where pride and poignancy co-exist in this secretary’s identity.

Adeline Thong (1T21 2015)
JC1 Semestral Assessment

2015 Prelim P3 Reminders and Strategies

'Cos everything also animal imagery

Paper 3 (9748/03) Format, for the Lost and Weary

  • Section A: Unseen
    – Two options on two different genres (poetry, prose extract, drama extract)
    – Attempt one question only
  • Section B: Set Text Comparison
    – Two options, attempt one only
    – The two texts you select here cannot be used in Section C
  • Section C: Single-text Essay Question
    – Six options, attempt one only; we have numbered the questions based on the actual ‘A’ Level paper. Yes, there will be Q4-Q8 on other texts you have obviously not studied.
    The Scarlet Letter: Q3a and Q3b
    A Streetcar Named Desire: Q9a and Q9b
    – Othello: Q10a and Q10b
  • Remember to pack your texts in your bag one full-day before! I’d suggest just bringing everything you have if you are prone to ‘messing up’. Every internal exam since eternity (ok fine, since 2009), at least three students tell us they ‘brought their study copy’. We are tired of this.
  • If you somehow bring the wrong text or entirely forget to bring your text(s), go to the library and borrow them from Mdm Jalikha. There are five copies per text. For the actual ‘A’ Levels, the chief invigilator will be ready to ‘lend’ you one of these copies (so there isn’t a need to ‘borrow’)…. but you don’t want that, trust us. Use your own (triumphantly well-annotated) text.


DreamsPhoto: Chiew Jia Hui



  • Question selection for Section A
    – You may be more confident with one genre (e.g. prose) but you should never let that solely determine which question you choose. The subject matter (e.g. dreams of becoming a writer), the socio-historical context (e.g. rural farm in Australia) and the concerns (e.g. social mobility / opportunities, self-reliance) matter more.
    – I’m going to contradict myself a little by outlining what each genre tends towards:
    (i) Poetry related to I&S can often be introspective, showing the speaker weighing his own identity or that of another person. Poems tend towards individuality and personal experience (incl. anguish, suffering, hatred, self-loathing, conviction); society tends to be represented as a large mass (e.g. ‘they’) and in opposition to / in alignment with the persona or character. This is certainly true of 2014 ‘A’ Level Q1a (Song of Myself).
    (ii) Drama is, as many of us have said, based on relationships and therefore, prioritises tension/conflict or sometimes, sympathy. The conflict may be ideological, maybe psychological, sometimes physical (of the Stanley, Othello variety) and almost always emotional in some way (creating hurt, eliciting pathos).
    (iii) Prose extracts may be slightly reliant on plot (e.g. a character wants to go somewhere or do something), yet always succeed in painting a ‘unique’ individual in interesting social circumstances. Think Mr. Fahy’s example from Metroland, or the question on Catcher in the Rye set by Mr. Na, or the 2014 Prelim excerpt from TransAtlantic. This is quite similar to poetry, except that the individual / narrator / character in question will be more outwardly ‘performing’ his identity through direct speech, or action described by the narrator.
  • Analysis for Section A
    – Remember your ‘key methods’ for each genre:
    (i) For poetry, ‘language, style and form’ transfers easily from P1 to P3. You technically have more liberty to choose. Those of the ‘old school’ will insist you examine strictly ‘poetic’ devices such as enjambment and sound. They’re not wrong. I prefer you look at what you can analyse well (e.g. progression).
    (ii) For prose, the same things I teach you apply. Perspective (first-person or omniscient third-person usually), tone and diction matter most. Direct discourse should be extracted the way we “only look at May’s lines” or we “only analyse Archer’s lines”.
    (iii) For drama, eh I think you get it by now right. Split the passage in some way. Write a paragraph on a single character’s lines in relation to his ‘relationship’ with the other character. Or dedicate a paragraph on an ‘interesting’ 4-6 line exchange between two characters. We all insist you pay attention to stage directions that might explicate gesture / action, setting or costume or music or something.
  • Question selection for Sections B and C
    – I’m sure you will have formulated your own strategy… or decided on your strengths (e.g. comparing Scarlet with Streetcar, mastering Othello as a single text)… but whatever it is, keep an open mind and be prepared to do all three in any combi.
    – Just remember that your tutors would have created both Section B questions to be “do-able” based on your three texts. The actual ‘A’ Level paper may not be so kind; a particular question may ‘eliminate’ one of your texts, and upset your pre-determined course.
  • Question types for Sections B and C
    – You know by now the three types of ‘triggers’ (character, concern, method) that questions in Literature are built with.
    – All three apply to Section C. Your seniors were faced with two character relationship questions on Stanley and Stella’s marriage and Hester’s relationship with Pearl, a concern question on hypocrisy in Scarlet or the private / public lives in Othello.
    – Section B questions obviously cannot be based on specific characters. Most of the time, both options are based on concerns (e.g. social interactions, social occasions). In the 2014 paper, your seniors had one method-trigger (use of symbolism to depict the relationship between individual and society) and a concern-trigger (individuals as observers of society). You could say I’m preparing you mentally.
    – Note how the concern-trigger question allows you to start with one character (e.g. Iago as an observer, Dimmesdale and social occasions) and discuss his or her relationship with another character or society as a whole.
    – The method-trigger question seems rather ‘closed’. Yet, the 2014 question allows you to examine a great deal in all three texts to write about multiple relationships.


Study Strategies

  • One to two day preparation for all three sections
    – Practise an unseen question by reading the given excerpt, annotating it and writing a brief outline. This should take no more than 20 min (30 min on a bad day.)
    – Select and analyse a few key scenes / passages (i.e. your own PBQs) and identify a range of broad methods (e.g. motifs, setting) in all three texts. As Mr. Poon has done with his classes, ‘test’ this list of textual evidence / methods on various questions to refine your list. This should take no more than 1.5 hours (2 hours on a bad day).
    – If you think these methods and selected passages work, make sure you annotate them (simply) in your exam copies.
    – If you really really want to ‘read the text’, then I’d suggest simply reading the parts Mr. Fahy, Mr. Poon, Ms. Chew, Ms. Lin and Mr. O highlighted for analysis in their lectures. This narrows the range significantly; you should also annotate the text. (I think this is kinda obvious, but might escape panicky students)
  • Long-term preparation for Sections B and C
    – GoogleDoc revision ‘tables’ are a useful expansion pack from the ‘key passages and methods’ study strategy.
    – Practice makes something-like-perfect! We will be pushing out a ’roundtable’ package soon where you can form groups and split the work. If you prefer to work alone, that’s cool too; you can complete at least 2 questions on each section by the time you hit the ‘A’ Levels.

Response to ‘The Secretary Chant’

Editor: It’s been some time (2 YEARS!) since we’ve featured a poetry essay on these pages. My colleagues seem inspired enough by this; my JC2s probably would benefit from a familiar voice; I should, casting my nitpicking aside, appreciate the product of part-system, part-individual genius here. Read the original poem here.

The poem, ‘The Secretary Chant’ represents the parallel between human and machine in the modern condition, or more specifically the objectification of the female body in a purely functional mode – to serve the purpose as a mere machine meant to follow orders mechanically, unquestioningly as a secretary.The poem prompts the reader to further inspect the role of the secretary as well as the role of a woman in particular, depicted here as almost sub-human in its automated purpose to serve the needs of the office, which could be reflected as the wider perception of women in society or the working world.

In reference to the language of the poem, it is written in only the first-person perspective, with the use of ‘My’ and ‘I’, illustrating an almost robotic effect with ‘My hips’, ‘My breasts’, ‘My hair’, ‘My head’. The employment of such first-person pronouns creates a rather personalised tone that, as seen in the word ‘Chant’ in the title, matches the idea of a mantra enforced upon the persona’s speech. There is a lack of variation in the perspective of the poem and its sentence structures, as if the persona were entranced due to the fact that she persistently tells herself what she ought to be, as though society had forced upon her this strict criteria and narrow perspective — that she must adopt to fit society’s standards. Moreover, in terms of rhythm, there are many run-on lines, giving the effect of a processing machine that does not need to pause for breath (unlike a human) and the lines are generally short in length, emphasising the context of a clinical office job and a secretary who deals with the mundane, systematic aspects in the office. This is evident from ‘From my ears hang / chains of paper clips’ (lines 2-3) and ‘PRess my fingers / and in my eyes appear / credit and debit’. These examples of enjambment accentuate the notion of a consistent, tireless attitude of the persona where the only pauses (indicated by punctuation such as full-stops and commas) only occur when she has finished the task in that mechanical fashion.

Furthermore, there is abundant imagery based on body parts that seem to be metaphorical references to common objects in an office. The secretary’s body is described in an organised and eerily specific way, for which it is perceived that each body part has been successfully replaced as mere objects instead of parts of an actual human being. Evidence comes from ‘hips are a desk‘, ‘Rubber bands form my hair‘ and ‘head is a badly organised file‘ — these instances of ‘hips’, ‘hair’ and ‘head’ being morphed into inanimate objects such as ‘desk’, ‘rubber bands’ and ‘file’ respectively is reflective of the objectification the vivid imagery conceptualises it in its most nonchalant, matter-of-fact tone. The concern with gender roles is also prevalent in the description where ‘breasts are quills of mimeograph ink’, where even the female body part representing maternity has been debased into an ink-producer, its life-giving nature thus reduced into a secretarial, mundane task. This suggests that femininity or maternity cannot co-exist with the identity (and job scope) of a ‘secretary’, where women are seen in accordance to their functional value, rather than being treated and respected as humans. There is purposeful emphasis on pregnancy with ‘I am about to be delivered / of a baby / Xerox machine’ — this abrupt realisation on the reader that pregnancy has become a metaphor for mechanical production instead of birth is extremely disturbing and the fact that the image of a ‘Xerox machine’ is only given in the next line proves the systematic nature of objectifying women. The sounds in the poem, such as ‘Buzz’, ‘Click’, ‘Zing’ and ‘Tinkle’ heighten the mechanical feeling of the poem, where such sounds normally associated with machines are now morphed into so-called human sounds, capturing the dehumanisation… and ultimate subjugation of the secretary into a cold, clinical world of work.

Lastly, throughout the progression of the poem, it is clear that for most of the first part is systematic objectification of female body parts, and the second presents the persistent objectification of the persona’s ‘pregnant’ state. It is only at the very end of the poem when the persona declares, ‘I wonce was a woman’, and focusing on the use of ‘was’ somewhat convey sa lamentation of the past where the persona perhaps acknowledges her human nature rather than a product of society’s expectations as an office woman. However, it is more a tone of resignation, where she has already divorced her emotional self as a human (and a woman) and it is simply another ‘File’, a memory that ceases to exist in the objectification that has been simultaneously enforced upon her, even in a modernising world [Editor’s note: ‘File’ is used in the poem as a verb that reduces the persona to even less than an object – the letter ‘W’ – within the system – the alphabetical order of ‘files’ in a cabinet perhaps. The switch from the second-person to the first person here is less a declaration of identity than it is a passive submission to being ‘filed’]

In conclusion, this poem seems to reflect the acceptance of a woman secretary and her role in the office, though it more urgently depicts society’s patriarchal, sexist ideals even in a supposedly ‘modern’ world.

Samantha Cheung, 1T01 (2015)
JC1 Semestral Assessment