Losing the plot: Deus Ex Machina and why you should teach it

Knowledge of complex terminology changes the way pupils think about texts. I’ve written before about why I think introducing pupils to complex terms improves their understanding. Recently, I experienced this phenomenon again: a discussion about a wayward piece of plotting led to a lesson looking at the technical term for the writer’s attempt to rescue the situation, ultimately leading to a much deeper appreciation of the entire play:

deus ex machina (day-us eks mak-in-a) noun.

The implausible introduction of an unexpected person, thing or event that saves a seemingly hopeless  situation, especially in a play or novel. (Modern Latin, from the ancient Greek, ‘god from the machine’)

This term, coined by Aristotle, was used as a way of describing the popular method employed by classic Greek dramatists, notably Euripides, to solve the problem of a plot that appears to have reached a dead end. The ‘machine’ (usually a crane but sometimes a trapdoor) would literally propel an actor – playing the role of a god – onto the stage, to interfere with the hitherto ‘natural’ direction of the narrative. This incredible plot device would magically resolve the conflict and allow the tying up of problematic loose ends.

As you can imagine, for the modern writer, deus ex machina is best avoided. The term has naturally taken on a pejorative edge, given that it highlights a messy bit of plotting that required the remedy of drastic (or divine) intervention. Nonetheless, anyone who’s had a go at writing something with even a slightly complex plot will surely be sympathetic towards writers who’ve had to come up with something special to back themselves out of a corner. After all, as we’ll see, the greatest writer in the English language has had to pull out the odd ace from his sleeve, and modern Nobel literature prize winners have also been forced to resort to this perhaps unfairly maligned literary technique at times:

Five examples of deus ex machina – and how they can help you teach your students to think differently about structure

1. Othello

There are more famous examples of deus ex machina in Shakespeare’s oeuvre (As You Like It being an obvious one) but his use of the device in Othello is, in my opinion, the most fascinating. Unusually, it appears towards the start of the play. For the majority of pupils, Othello is a play about jealousy, betrayal, deception and race. With this in  mind, I gave my Year 12 class a list of provocative statements to try and challenge their immediate ideas:

  • ‘Othello’s downfall is not primarily caused by a jealous nature but instead is explained by his naivety and lack of self-awareness.’
  • ‘Venice was the ideal choice of setting by Shakespeare for Othello; it wouldn’t really have worked anywhere else.’
  • ‘The central theme of Othello is not so much jealousy and betrayal but is rather the depiction of animalistic lust.’
  • ‘Those who see Othello as a play about racism are missing the point; his skin colour is not the principal explanations for his tragic and untimely end.’

One pupil took the managed to tie together these ideas into an impressive take on the eponymous general’s fatal flaw, arguing that Othello’s hamartia is not the colour of his skin, but instead his military background, which renders him ill-prepared for the civilian norms of Venetian  society. I think you’re on to something, I said.  Why don’t you have another look at what happens to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus? Why do you think Shakespeare ends the war before it’s even started?

He noticed, and so did other students, that Shakespeare’s depiction of the end of the battle was somewhat unorthodox. The next lesson I turned it into a ‘big question’:

What’s the structural significance of the following announcement? How does Shakespeare use language to present the sudden end of the conflict?


News, lads, Our wars are done!

The desperate tempest hath so banged the Turks,

That their designment halts. A noble ship of Venice

Hath seen a grievous wreck and sufferance

On most part of their fleet.

Act 2 Sc1 (20-24)

The class came up with the following points:

  • Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy – the ‘tempest’ foreshadowing the storms that will blow Othello’s life off course
  • Is Iago the ‘desperate tempest’ personified?
  • The very surprising defeat of the Turks leaves Othello without a job to do
  • This leaves him out of his natural “comfort zone”
  • If the war had continued, Othello, as a brilliant warrior and leader of men, would have been less distracted by marital issues
  • Shakespeare had a problem – he’d created a war – Othello’s natural environment – but didn’t really want a war because he wanted Othello to be a vulnerable outsider. Therefore he had to end the war quickly to allow the main jealousy plot to get started.

At this part of the lesson, using the mechanical crane for which I’d traded my visualiser, I dropped in a dictionary definition of deus ex machina.

Since then, the quality of analysis of structural features has skyrocketed. For some, Shakespeare’s use of the device will now become a central framework for their exam essays.

2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We’ve been doing this classic text with Year 8; for next year, I’m going to do a lesson on the ending that introduces the concept of deus ex machina. LOTF is a brilliant novel yet it appears to require a bit of disbelief suspension from the outset. A group of schoolboys (awkward question – where are the girls?) post nuclear strike are on an aeroplane, which then crashes onto an isolated island. The adult pilot and the ‘man with the megaphone’ is dead and, , they’re left to fend for themselves. Thus Golding manages to create himself an ideal microcosm but leaves himself a problem: how is he going to end this descent into atavism? He has a few choices:

a) use aporia and leave the fate of the children unclear, which is an uncertain denouement for a book with a clear moral message?

b)  kill them all off! Pretty nihilistic and unlikely to get published?

c) Have them (or most of them) rescued. Yes that will have to do. It’s very dubious but we’ll have to have them picked up by a ‘passing’ ship. Deus ex machina to the rescue!

Through focusing on the writer’s craft and getting students to consider alternative ways of ending the novel, they will hopefully start to consider narrative choices in a more nuanced way. Another novel that offers this opportunity is H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which uses deus ex machina to solve the problem of the invincibility of the aliens:

…the Martians -dead! -slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

Yes, the bacteria gets them in the end.  Pupils benefit from being asked about the message Wells is trying to give through this sudden ending, and also how this ending provides further contextual understanding of the 1953 and 2005 films.

3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

A plot hole pothole filled by eagles swooping from the sky to rescue Sam and Frodo and Tolkien himself. Clearly a incontrovertible deus ex machina? Well, yes and… possibly no. Tolkien, the university professor, obviously knows his archaic texts and the eagles falling from the sky seems a bit too obvious. Many have called this a blatant deus ex machina but, to me, it seems more of a knowing nod to the ancient Greeks (and now the modern film geeks). Why not let your pupils decide?

4. Life of Brian (1979) View Clip

The great English surrealists – with significant input from one particular American – parody deus ex machina to its logical (illogical?) endpoint. For a film set in Judea circa 1 A.D. the arrival of an alien spaceship is certainly unexpected. The unlikely rescue of the eponymous messiah and subsequent interstellar space battle prove an absurd highlight of the film. Lucky bastard.

5. Money by Martin Amis

A even more postmodernist subversion of plot sees Martin Amis introduce a character towards the end of this seminal 1980s novel called… Martin Amis. The character is a novelist, who is… the son of a famous novelist. All  very metafictional. Intriguingly though, Amis becomes his own deus ex machina, helping the hapless narrator, John Self, complete his tale after mockingly advising him that readers feel ‘tiredness at turning the pages. People read so fast – to get to the end, to be shot of you.’

So in conclusion, this hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-spell device helps to instill a more sophisticated understanding of structure and the inspired (or lazy, depending on view) methods writers use to dig themselves out of plotting when they can’t think of a way of – hold on there’s some trick or treaters at the door



Exam essay questions, and how to avoid answering them

He had no chance of getting a C. In his AS exams he managed to scrape an E. His coursework, which he had spent a lot of time improving, did come out as a C grade but there was no evidence at all that he was able to reproduce that kind of standard in an exam situation. He’d barely scraped onto the A level course in the first place, having bagged a brace of Cs at GCSE. He was one of those hard-working kids that you gambled on, mainly because it would have been unfair not to recognise the effort he put in to lessons. He had little confidence in his ability in the subject and tried to keep his head down in class to avoid answering questions.  So how did this pupil manage to walk away with a C grade in A level English Literature, having outscored all but two of his peers (both A* pupils) by getting a top A grade on the A2 exam?

Well, as I said, he was a real grafter: very few missed lessons, assiduous note-taker, prolific hander-in of homework. But he’d been like that for the whole of Year 12, so it wasn’t just down to work ethic. Had things just ‘clicked’ in the second year, as often happens with A level study, when the mysteries of the course suddenly seem to evaporate? Not really. He’d always understood the demands of the course – was well versed with the assessment objectives for example – yet still struggled to achieve decent marks. No something else occurred. Something that had a significant (though less dramatic) impact on his classmates: I started doing something that I’d always done with my GCSE classes, having up until that point naively assumed it was something they wouldn’t need.  I simply started to spend large chunks of our lesson time sharing with the class how I approached revising for and actually answering exam essay questions.

This wasn’t just about skills, of course. Whilst allowing them to have access to the inner workings of my brain, I simultaneously bombarded them with my own knowledge, explaining how I would incorporate it into my essay responses. There’s a word for this pedagogical approach – metacognition – and when I first heard it as a buzz word about ten years ago I couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about. You see I’d always done this with my classes. What’s the point of being an expert in something, namely passing exams in a certain subject, I had reasoned, if you don’t provide insight into the best way to pass these exams? I’d pretty much had to work out for myself how to pass my exams, at school, college and uni, so why not give my pupils a leg up by letting them in on the secret of how it’s done. I’d always done this. So why the hell had I neglected to share these esoteric tidbits with my class back in Year 12?

Assumptions are dangerous in teaching and I’d made a whopping great big one. I was new to the school and my class were the product of school that was not long out of Special Measures. The Head and the stressed, often brilliant, teachers had done a sterling job of getting them out of the hole, getting a Good not long before I arrived. The pupils had been drilled for Year 11, with emergency intervention sessions and last minute revision breakfasts. They got good results but unbeknownst to me lacked specialist technical knowledge and had little clue about how to learn independently. They were mainly hopeless at revising for English and had no idea how to plan their exam strategy. I soon recognised their technical deficiencies and spent most of Year 12 beasting them on word class and sophisticated language features. But belatedly realising that they couldn’t revise or plan an essay and changed my approach everything well… changed.

Here, then, is how I teach pupils to revise and to tackle essay questions in an exam. Some of this will be bloody obvious to you. The key question though is will it be bloody obvious to your pupils?:

  1. You’ve got to know what quotes you’re going to use before you go into the exam. Now that is such an inane comment I feel awkward writing it. Yet I’ve seen pupils waste inordinate amounts of time trying to find quotes in exams, often not because they haven’t bothered to learn any, but because they believe that they need to find new quotes that go with this particular question. Now I know the new closed book exams seem to negate this point at GCSE, but the same point applies for the quotes they’ve memorised. If pupils believe that there are distinct quotes for each theme then they’ve got a hell of a lot more to memorise and sift through in their exams. Which leads me to:
  2. Pupils need to be shown that they are often pants at picking key quotes. I spend lots of time talking to pupils about why they’ve selected certain quotes. With a bit of judicious quizzing it often becomes clear that their understanding of a particular quote is poor, that they have basic vocab to use when analysing this quote and that it offers little opportunity to showcase their technical terminology or make a clear link to context. At this stage you often find that their favourite quote is in fact their mate’s favourite quote and they only picked it for that reason.
  3. If you’re making up your analysis on the day then you’re either a genius or an idiot. Clue: it’s invariably the latter. This again is common sense to me (and hopefully you) but to your students? Take, for example, my following list of key quotes for Mr Hyde:
  • ‘like a damned juggernaut’
  • ‘ape-like fury’
  • ‘pale and dwarfish’
  • ‘trampled calmly’
  • ‘doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck, that man is not truly one but truly two’

These days, pupils obviously need to memorise the quotes. They also however benefit hugely from memorising a) language features/sentence functions/word class b) key word(s) from each quote c) juicy synonyms for each key word and d) large chunks of their best analytical paragraphs for each quote. Now you may want to argue that this is too much for some pupils. That the ones with lower ability or weaker memories will struggle with this. I argue that given enough time spent on this in lessons/as part of homework they will master this and also that these are precisely the kind of pupils who benefit most from this ‘here’s a PEA I made earlier’ approach.

4. You have to model for pupils how they can make their highest quality sections of analysis fit just about any question.  I had an exceptionally bright Year 11 pupils last year who, during an essay on Curley’s wife produced a paragraph on the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ line from Of Mice and Men. It was breathtaking in its brilliance:

I talked to her about the difference between microcosm and metonym, then insisted she memorise this chunk and put it in any essay question that came up. But what if it doesn’t fit though Sir? Ok, I said, let’s see if we can make it fit the following characters/themes:

  • Relationships – yes
  • Violence/cruelty/brutality – yes (see literal interpretation of quote)
  • Outsiders – yes
  • Role of women – obviously
  • Dreams/American dream – yes
  • Curley  – ditto
  • Curley’s wife – and again
  • Slim – yes, as a contrast between how Slim talks to her
  • Candy – yes, he says it
  • George – his reaction to it (ironic given his misogynistic outbursts)
  • Lennie – yes, his killing of her encapsulates the ‘waste product’ point

You get the point. So did she. She got full marks on the GCSE lit exam.

There’s very little that can’t be tinkered with when shoehorning in a belting quote. And even if it was tenuous, it would be a hard-hearted examiner that didn’t temporarily forget the question and give it Band 6 regardless.

5. Questions are there to be taken on. If you don’t like the wording of a question, flip it on its head. This re-framing of a question is an absolutely vital skill to make explicit. Here’s some example of how you might do this with some typical GCSE English Literature questions:

How does _______ present conflict in _____?

  • Physical violence
  • Psychological turmoil
  • Inner conflict
  • Appearance vs reality
  • Past vs present
  • binary opposites
  • prejudice/oppression
  • man vs nature
  • dreams vs reality

Similarly, I’ve shown pupils how certain quotes can be used for every single one of the previous exam questions on a certain text, given that they add to our understanding of every character and theme.

With this in mind, a key skill is to get pupils to plan how they would make their list of bankers, their most impressively analysed quotes, fit into different exam questions, especially the ones that don’t seem to match.

So let’s go back to where we started: my struggling Year 13 student:

6. Have a full essay ready to reproduce on the day. Planning time should not be used for planning what you’re going to write; it should instead be used for planning how you’re going to make your essay fit the question. My Year 13 wrote at least a dozen versions of an essay (adapting and improving each time with my bits of feedback), then spent most of his revision time applying this essay to other possible questions, asking me to challenge him with trickier to adapt essay titles every week. Let me be clear: he’d done all the hard work. This was independent learning of the highest order. I’d say things like why don’t you try and apply Todorov’s narrative stages here?  or your phrasing here is a bit clumsy and lacks confident vocab or are you sure that’s really litotes? and he’d go off and improve it.

Is this teaching to the test? Or lazy short cuts that allow pupils to hoodwink examiners on the day? I think not. Through sharing my insights, what I’m really doing is making them join up their learning and allowing them to see the artificial nature of the exam essay for what it is: a crude launch pad that allows pupils to show off what they’ve learnt over the course. And he had, they all had, learnt it. In a way he hadn’t previously. Each one had their own separate, utterly different pre-prepared essays etched into their consciousness and far more likely to stay there than if I’d given them a list of key quotes and told them which ones they needed to use for individual questions.

Thanks for reading,




Etiquette, sexual repression and body snatching – A Guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde

It takes a fair amount of time before you can teach a new text with genuine confidence. Not the everyday facade of confidence that all good teachers wear routinely. Rather the calm feeling of having lots of angles covered  and few areas where a really smart pupil could catch you out with certain questions. Because no matter how carefully you’ve designed the scheme of learning on paper, there’s always that sense of uncertainty about how it might go, when launched into the real world of the classroom.

With a text as complex as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde you really need at least a year of teaching it before you can start to feel as though you have a good grasp of how best to navigate the dissection of this classic text. What do you do about the ending, for example? Give the game away and enhance understanding from the outset or try and keep the twist a secret for as long as possible (including secret pacts with the keen kids who’ve read ahead/had a study guide bought for them) for the sake of suspense?

Then there’s the context. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on the fact that I’m big on context. Not because of how many marks it’s worth on the exam paper; I want my pupils to have a detailed awareness of as many aspects of the social, cultural and historical background to the creation of the particular literary work.

So here’s my guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde. Call it a bibliography of contextual sources if you like. I tend to start with the easier stuff and work my way towards the more complicated ideas after we’ve finished with the reading of the novella but feel free to dip in and out as you see fit:

  1. A simple guide to Victorian etiquette – links particularly well with Enfield’s description of Hyde ‘trampl[ing] calmly’ on the girl ‘like a damned juggernaut’
  2. An overview of Gothic generic conventions – the usual suspects: the supernatural, the satanic/arcane, religious allusion, pathetic fallacy, horror and terror, confusion over sanity and insanity, perversion and sexual desire, the uncanny, the sublime and so on. I also ensure I’ve introduced the term ‘transgression’ as a key bit of vocab as well
  3. General introduction to religious belief in Victorian times, including an explanation of the catholic notion of Original Sin and the evolution of Satan as a concept
  4. Introduce or clarify Darwin’s theory of natural selection, linking specifically to Chapter 4 (The Carew Murder Case). I find @robward79’s Jekyll & Hyde bible very useful here
  5.   Develop the themes of urban terror and Fin-de-siècle fears (as outlined expertly by @jamestheo in his excellent knowledge organiser) through an ancient BBC documentary on the Whitechapel murders, which nicely introduces the duality of the West and East end of London. There’s also a fascinating part that discusses the diet related lack of height of Eastenders, which gives an alternative viewpoint on the stature of the ‘pale and dwarfish’ Hyde
  6. By now we’ve hopefully finished the book, so I share an interesting opinion piece by entitled ‘What everybody gets wrong about Jekyll & Hyde’, which looks at common misconceptions of the nature of duality
  7. I also throw in the extra curve ball of Jekyll’s ‘undignified…pleasures’, using Robert Mighall’s section on the doctor’s implied homosexuality in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the text.
  8. Finally – I think – I end with the most useful contextual resource of all. Ian Rankin’s indispensable documentary on the novel, which covers among other things:
  • Stevenson’s illness and drug use
  • Stevenson’s shady past
  • The duality of Edinburgh
  • Dr John Hunter and the origins of the Jekyll’s dual purpose house
  • The body snatchers and Burk & Hare
  • Deacon Brodie
  • The influence of the unfortunately named Fanny – Stevenson’s censorious wife – and Cummy – his fire and brimstone inspired story-telling nurse

And that’s probably enough to be getting on with now. Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything important. Preferably it won’t be about Fanny or Cummy as I think my Year 10 boys may well explode; I’ve already had to say “This is a matter I thought we had agreed to drop.”

Thanks for  reading,




A guide to dystopian fiction

You can’t move for dystopia these days. There was a time a decade or so ago when there was only me – and a few other socially dysfunctional types – who you’d find banging on about dystopian fiction, boring friends senseless with obsessive talk of meltdown and apocalypse. Nowadays, every man and his disturbed dog teaches a KS3 unit on dystopian texts. And this is a good thing. I don’t want to sound like one of those losers who starts shunning a band the second everyone else ‘discovers’ them and they become popular. It’s just amusing to witness a niche genre go mainstream. So what caused this? Three words: The. Hunger. Games. As well as 9/11. But I’m getting ahead of myself already. Let’s take a few paces backwards…

It would be wise to start with a definition of dystopia. But before that we need to be formally introduced to the concept of utopia. The term was coined for the title of the 1516 fictional work written by Sir Thomas More. A simplistic synopsis of this deeply enigmatic text is that it imagines an island and depicts its perfect religious, political and social values; a haven of religious tolerance. With profound irony, as fans of Wolf Hall will know, More was executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for… refusing to support Henry’s schism with Rome. Conventional wisdom has it that the word Utopia is derived from the Greek for “good” and “place. This is completely wrong, according to John Carey, whose anthology The Faber Book of Utopias is the indispensable starting place for those wanting to know more about the genre:

Utopia means nowhere or no-place. It has often been taken to mean good place, through confusion of its first syllable with the Greek eu as in euphemism or eulogy.

As a result of this widespread misconception, we get the invented word dystopia (perhaps in 1851 via John Stewart Mill) meaning bad place, more specifically defined by the COD as:

noun (dis-ˈtō-pē-ə) 

  1. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one

  2. The opposite of utopia

Carey argues very persuasively that the correct definition of utopia could render dystopia irrelevant because ‘imaginary good places and imaginary bad places are all utopias, or nowheres’. Sensibly though, he recognises the pedantry involved in this and generally reserves utopia for good and dystopia for bad, despite the muddled etymology. As he eloquently puts it: ‘to count as a utopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of desire. To count as a dystopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of fear’.

So now we’ve cleared that up we can concentrate on the role of utopian and dystopian fiction. To my mind, there is an obvious earlier fictional model of utopia, which would have had a deep influence on Thomas More: Genesis. I’m willing to argue that the Garden of Eden acts a model for all subsequent utopias (and therefore dystopias). As the site of perfection incarnate, we might contend that the Fall of Man in the Old Testament acts as a prelude to the first dystopian fiction, where mankind is constantly falling from grace.

Utopian fiction, however, has also fallen into spectacular decline. An explanation about the absence of utopian societies in modern fiction is straightforward: utopias are unmitigatedly dull. Without conflict, narratives become tedious. Indeed, most purported ‘utopias’ in contemporary fiction (passages of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, for example) instead satirise the concept of a perfect human or societal existence.

And what of the dystopian text? As I’ve previously mentioned, this Mr Hyde of genres has found increasingly popularity in recent years, having long ago vanquished its Dr Jekyll precursor. The conventions of this doom-laden text:

  • Society is collapsing
  • The end of the world is nigh
  • Human misery is widespread
  • Any remaining elites rule in a brutal, totalitarian manner
  • Hope appears futile, but there is a glimpse of a future

And the message? A central tenet of the dystopian genre is the notion that mankind’s hubristic behaviour has invited catastrophe upon the human race.  Given this moral message, it is tempting to see dystopian texts as a prophetic vision of the future, with the simple and stark warning: “carry on in this manner and here’s what you will end up with”.

Tempting but wrong. The belief that dystopia acts primarily as a prophecy is not one I endorse. Instead, I would argue that the futuristic element of the dystopian text is more typically a disguised version of the present day.  Thus Orwell is not really looking forward to an imagined year of 1984, but instead presenting an allegorical representation of the bleakness of 1948 (note the simple numerical anagram that gives the book its title).


In this sense, dystopian texts teach us not about the future but instead allow us to ponder past and present conflict within societies. Their increasing popularity, particularly from the start of the 20th Century onward, reflect our preoccupations with the seismic changes of the age:

  • Scientific and technological advances
  • Increasingly secular societies
  • Catastrophic World Wars
  • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • Rise of totalitarian regimes
  • Prevalence of ecological disasters
  • New forms of terrorism

Which takes us back to Suzanne Collins and The bloody Hunger Games. As the following little graphic shows, there is a direct link between conflict in society and a spike of dystopian fictions:


Virtually everything, then, appears to fit in the dystopian pigeonhole. Not quite. You see, there’s a lot out there that, in my opinion, is incorrectly labelled as a ‘bad place’. So what doesn’t count? There’s often a bit of overlap, and you’ll probably be able to find an exception to my rules but here goes:

  1. Superheroes don’t count – Although Gotham, for example, may have dystopian elements, protagonists in a dystopian texts are reluctant or innocent-eyed archetypal everymen. They are not superpowered beefcakes. They don’t wear capes. There is no arch villain.
  2. The supernatural is not what scares us – one evil character does not a dystopia make. It is everyday life that terrifies us, not some Gothic depiction of the satanic.
  3. Disaster movies are not dystopian – the world may be in danger but the government (although often stupid) doesn’t want the people to suffer. Dystopian worlds aren’t just under threat: they are changed beyond recognition.
  4. We can’t blame aliens – dystopias are often futuristic but without the tyrannical society they are just… science fiction.
  5. Dystopia doesn’t normally happen on a small scale – bad things can happen on an island or in a city; in a dystopia, more often than not, the society or planet is under a repressive system. Unless it’s an obvious microcosm of course.

Dystopian texts can be disturbing, spellbinding and beautifully melancholic and misanthropic. Sadly they can also descend into cliche or the other obvious flaw of becoming a novel of ideas rather than one overly concerned with plot or character (Burgess’s The Wanting Seed being a classic example). This is a rather predictable list butmy five Nightmare Island Texts, in no particular order, would be:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I’d also recommend:

  • The Iron Heel by Jack London
  • A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield

And the following films:

  • Children of Men
  • They Live
  • Rollerball (the original)
  • Idiocracy
  • The Running Man
  • Battle Royale
  • Mad Max 2

Thanks for redaing,




Metonymy and Synecdoche – How to teach it

When introducing these notoriously slippery, and difficult to explain, literary devices, it’s a good idea to revisit metaphor. Everybody understands metaphor. If we’re being honest, it’s not always the easiest term to define, but it doesn’t take long to rattle off a couple of examples of non-literal language and most pupils will pick it up and identify it reasonably well. I usually start off with the cliched ‘gutted’ as a starting point.  The vast majority of pupils soon recognise that this hackneyed adjective – so beloved of football managers and X Factor rejects – acts as a substitute for ‘very disappointed’ rather than signifying any actual disembowelment.

But the funny thing about metaphor (and some of the other examples of figurative language that I’ll come to later), as was proved in my Year 12 Lit class today, is the fact that even the most able pupils – and I’ve currently got some dazzlingly brilliant ones – often miss metaphorical language. I don’t mean the examples of metaphor that are signposted with ‘look at me: I’m a metaphor’, such as Stevenson’s account of how Jekyll was ‘doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck’. Rather, the everyday metaphors that have become so ingrained into our everyday communication, that we don’t even notice them.

This is how I revised metaphor today (we’d been discussing misogynistic discourse, hence the unpleasant first examples):

Metaphor – a comparison of two things by saying one thing, idea or action is the other. This is directly stated, rather than through comparison. For example:

  • She is a bitch (metaphor)
  • She is like a bitch on heat (simile)

Metaphors may appear as verbs (romance may blossom) or as adjectives (the yellow-bellied coward) or in longer idiomatic phrases, such as bite your nose off to spite your face.

Task 1:

Analyse Williams’ use of metaphor in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of A Streetcar Named Desire, commenting on the precise effect it has on the audience’s view of Blanche:

Well, Stella – you’re going to reproach me, I know that you’re bound to reproach me – but before you do – take into consideration – you left! I stayed and struggled! You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together! I’m not meaning this in any reproachful way, but all the burden descended on my shoulders.

All pupils spotted the ‘hold it together’ and ‘the burden’ metaphors and did some quality anaylsis of effect. A few recognised the ‘looked out for yourself’ idiom and developed their view of the manipulative and melodramatic side of Blanche. None spotted the figurative use of ‘bound’ or ‘struggled’, which could have led to an even more nuanced line of argument. But no matter, we had bigger proverbial fish to fry.

Here’s my take on metonymy:

Metonymy –

  1. a figure of speech that replaces the name of one thing with the name of something else associated with it, derived from the Greek Metonymia, “a change of name”.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define a metonym as ‘using one entity to refer to another that is related to it.’ Most metonymies are so common we never notice them.  The substitution involved in a metonym is deliberate and designed to further tease out the word’s meaning, adding more detail and specificity to the text. For example:
  • ‘he’s hit the bottle again’ (alcoholic drink)
  • ‘The Oval Office are hard at work on a new economic plan’ (the people who work in the office i.e. the US government)
  • Hollywood continues to release lazy sequels this year’ (the American film industry)
  • The pen is mightier than the sword’ (the written word is more powerful than warfare)
  1. In the wider sense, modern literary theory defines metonym as a process in which a specific physical object is used as a vague suggestive symbol for a more general idea. For example:
  • George in Of Mice and Men acts as a metonym for the itinerant agricultural worker in 1930s America. His struggles are symbolic of the struggles of the huge groups of dispossessed male manual labourers during the Great Depression. This symbolism is reinforced by the etymology of George’s name, derived from the Greek georgos ‘farmer’. The metonymy is further amplified by George’s surname, Milton, – a favourite author of Steinbeck – whose Paradise Lost depicts Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Because of their fall, humanity – like the metonymical George- is destined to a nomadic life of loneliness and punishment.

I’ll be honest: it took me ages as an undergrad to get my head around metonymy. My (not very good) A level Lit teachers didn’t really get beyond personification and vague talk of “imagery”. So I was really chuffed that they all picked it up so quickly, particularly given that we were looking again at quotes that they’d previous written about as metaphors. I did of course explain that as metonymy and synecdoche are not literal they can always be correctly classified as metaphors. So why bother you might ask? I think that metonymy offers a more sophisticated understanding the associations between words and objects/ideas/actions. The blanket label metaphor helps us understand a replacement but doesn’t allow us to consider words in terms of contiguity. Here’s the task:

Task 2:

Analyse how Shakespeare fuses metonymy, epizeuxis and zoomorphism in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of Othello:


Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

The collectively identified the following metonyms, and produced some excellent writing on the impact of the language:

  • The ‘old black ram’
  • ‘your white ewe’
  • ‘the devil’

Now for the really tricky bit… explaining the difference between the first version of metonymy and synecdoche. The good news is that you can tell them that many theorists feel that the difference between the two figurative devices is so negligible that they feel we shouldn’t even bother categorising synecdoche separately. I see the point but disagree.

Before I explain why, let’s first look at my definition of synecdoche:

Synecdoche –  a figure of speech, which most literary critics see as a specific type of metonymy, in which a specific part of something is used to refer to the whole.  Such as:

  • ‘nice wheels’ (car)
  • ‘All hands on deck!’ (crew members)
  • ‘Can you go serve the suits on table 4’ (businessmen)
  • ‘Yes, I fought in Viet Nam’ (The Viet Nam War)

For me, the emphasis on a specific part of a whole that synecdoche relies on (yes I’m aware that there are other types of synecdoche but let’s not sprint before we can crawl, eh?) subtly differentiates itself from the close association of metonymy, even if it seems virtually identical. A clever lad politely asked me today to point out the difference between two of my examples: ‘the bottle’ for booze and ‘wheels’ for an automobile. While the bottle does indeed seem to be a specific part of (most) alcoholic drinks, I argued that its association as a container – the is frequently drained – makes it separate from the main object. If you said ‘I’m going to buy some fizz’ for prosecco then that would be synecdochic. But, to be clear, there’s not much between it in these examples and I don’t think many examiners would slam you for choosing either term. The task was:

Task 3:

Combine your analysis of Shakespeare’s use of language (AO2) in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of Othello with your knowledge of social and historical context (AO3) and critical theory (AO5):


But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.


What a full fortune does the thicklips owe
If he can carry’t thus!


Call up her father,
Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t,
As it may lose some colour.

‘The thicklips’ was widely spotted as a deeply derogatory synecdochic expression of racial stereotyping, befitting of the fervent anti-African sentiment of late Elizabethan culture. Most interesting though were our discussions on the so celebrated that it’s now idiomatic ‘wear my heart upon my sleeve’. I was dead set on nailing this as a metonym; my rationale being that his ‘heart’ as a figurative substitution for ‘honesty and open emotion’ would be best classified as ‘one entity referring to another that is related to it’. Yet one pupil eloquently argued that the ‘heart’ was being used as a synecdoche because his hyperbolic expression must be taken as an attempt to convince Roderigo of his ‘heart’ being so integral to his body and that his outburst of naked, exposed emotion opens up his whole being. I must admit I was swayed. Both now stand.

We’re going to move on to microcosm next time. The consensus after the lesson, and what I was hoping for, was that these highly technical and potentially very confusing literary devices had allowed the pupils to address the writer’s language on a much deeper level, in a way that the more restrictive metaphor sometimes can’t. Heads, including mine, were hurting but the effort had been worth it.

Thanks for reading,


Selection, shoes and class slurs

It was the shoes that made me angry. I’m used to the stuff about accents and schools and family contacts but the mention of a particular type of footwear really pissed me off.

Here’s a selection of quotes from the broadsheets:

‘It is the sartorial sin as old as the City of London itself, instilled from a young age in every aspiring Etonian, Harrovian and Wykehamist gentleman…’

The Times

‘A new study by the government’s social mobility watchdog found that employers are still using unspoken dress codes to weed out the wrong sort of person in City job interviews. Bright working class candidates are often rejected for jobs as they are unaware of the “opaque” dress codes that richer children grow up with, experts found.’

Evening Standard

“If you’ve been to Eton or Winchester the interview is practically a formality anyway. If one candidate has been to Eton and the other to a comprehensive, the guy from Eton gets the job. If both candidates have been to Eton but one is wearing … the other guy will get it”

The Guardian

Yes, here is the recent news that wearing – wait for it – brown shoes to an interview for a job in the synecdochic City is a big enough faux pas to rule you out of the position from the outset.

This genuinely shocked me. Literally took my breath away. I knew that bright types from working class backgrounds – especially those with something as vulgar as a regional accent – are pretty much screwed anyway; the Guardian quote makes it clear: if you’re enough of a pleb to have been to a grotty little comp you’ve got no chance against a public school alumnus (or is that alumni? – I never studied Latin). This is old news. Everybody knows this. It’s an accepted part of our society. Yes, I know certain politicians have been daft enough to have claimed that class is dead but nobody with half a brain seriously believes them. The last time I went to Burnley or Belfast, Richmond or Redruth, Kensington or Knottingley, I checked and class was very much alive and well. But brown shoes? Jesus.

And this is why I was so furious. I know one’s working class background is held against one. I know I was judged on my coalfield accent every time I opened my mouth in an English lecture at my Russell Group university. I know now why people kept asking me during the first few weeks at said university about who else was there from my school.

Yet, I never for one bloody minute thought that the very smart, reasonably expensive, Italian made brown leather brogues that I’ve proudly sported for years would stand against me.

Then I calmed down.  It was stupid getting worked up about the imbecilic sartorial snobbery of mercantile London. I’d never even dreamed of working in the city, let alone in bloody banking. If brown shoes were a sign of the lumpenproletariat then I’d wear them with pride. Not want to become a member of a club that didn’t want me, to (mis)paraphrase the other Marx.

But then  I got angry again. Because, not long after, the spectre of grammar schools, and the iniquity of selection (a different type of selection than fashion and accent but as the earlier quote showed, educational background – not qualifications or competency – obviously affects your life chances. I certainly don’t want to step (beige) foot into the City but what if a disadvantaged young man (or woman – there’s bound to be a female equivalent over high heel length or something) wanted to make it into the world of international finance? I, and we, should be angry on behalf of them.

Now, some people, usually the ones who have benefited from a grammar school education, will argue that more grammar schools will widen the opportunity for clever poor kids. Will bring these barriers crashing down with a tidal wave of social mobility. Absolute poppycock. The quote from the Guardian continues: ‘Of course it’s unfair, it’s bullshit. But the City will never change.’ Neither will grammar schools, or academies, regardless of bogus claims that the system won’t be anything like the bad old days of the 1950s.

FSM (which isn’t even a very good indicator of disadvantage – plenty fall through the net) pupils rarely get into grammar schools, not to mention the damage done to those who fail and are banished to the secondary modern. For FSM pupils there’s safety in numbers; they statistically perform better in schools were there are more of them. Unless we introduce a guaranteed minimum for FSM in grammars then this cycle will continue to perpetuate. And we all know middle class parents will never allow their children to be sent to the secondary modern en masse.

I’ll end on a statistic: in 2015 more pupils from Westminster school went to Oxbridge than all the FSM pupils in England combined.There were roughly 544,000 pupils in Year 11. Fifteen per cent of these are FSM. Meaning roughly 81,000 FSM vs 150 Westminster School pupils for Oxbridge place. Who wins?

My school, a rural ‘bog standard’ comprehensive, sent an FSM pupil to Oxford this year. One of the 45. It’s an incredible achievement beating those kind of odds. Let’s hope they’re thinking sod the shoes.