I Only Have Eyes For You: Themes of perception in GCSE English literature

As happens from time to time, I’ve recently become fixated with a song. Released in 1959, The Flamingo’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of romantic love.

Set to an alluring, beautifully harmonised doo wop, it tells a much-told tale of attraction and fidelity. Dig beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find something of a slightly different order. Take a look at the opening lyrics:

‘My love must be a kind of blind love, 
I can’t see anyone but you’

What we’re actually dealing with, appropriately enough given its newly-acquired earworm status, is not romantic attraction but blinkered obsession. As the song progresses, we find a speaker so love-struck that they become utterly dislocated, having lost all sense of space and time. It may well be read as simple hyperbole – a way of expressing everyday feelings of longing in exaggerated form – but I prefer the reading of a person so transfixed by another that they are utterly unable to focus anywhere else. It’s almost as if the fondness has become so accentuated that we are dealing with a borderline stalker.

Anyway, why am I boring you with my sub-NME muso meanderings? Well, I’ve thought for some time that the theme of perception is a very helpful (if you’ll forgive the puns) lens through which to view much of the literature texts that we study at GCSE.

Set yourself a quick challenge. Name as many quotations from the texts you study that mention eyes. And then preferably, as I did, set this same challenge for your pupils. See how many they can come up with. We do Romeo & Juliet, Jekyll & Hyde, DNA and AQA’s Power and Conflict poetry anthology and my list – certainly not exhaustive – looked like this:


Then we discussed what the eyes represent. We came up with things such as:

  • Honesty
  • Human emotions (often hidden)
  • Personality
  • Seeing things clearly
  • Being blinded to the truth
  • Affection and adoration
  • Sexual desire
  • Pain and suffering
  • Memory

We then applied some of these symbolic themes to the individual texts. For the poems this allowed us a basis for comparison. I also got the chance to re-use one of my favourite adjectives, lachrymose (tearful or tear-inducing).

In a future lesson, I may play The Flamingo’s while my pupils read ‘My Last Duchess’. I get the impression that Duke Alfonso would like it as much as I do.

Thanks for reading (with you eyes – wooh, spooky),




Evaluative verbs – adding sophistication to analysis

Recently, I wrote an article for TES about how an unexpected number of pupils at my school achieved grade 9s in GCSE English. It was popular and I received lots of feedback. One area that interested many people was the discussion about the evaluative verbs that top students tended to use in their writing. Traditionally, teachers of GCSE English have encouraged pupils to use analytical verbs, often pushing them for a synonym for ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’. I have an example list of my own that I’ve used for some time:

Analytical verbs – some alternatives for ‘suggests’ with brief definition
Adumbrates – puts forward an outline/foreshadow a future event
Advocates – puts forwards a particular opinion/viewpoint/belief
Amplifies – emphasises by adding extra impact
Connotes – creates a deeper metaphorical meaning
Constructs – builds up an idea
Conveys – gets across a message/idea/theory
Defines – gives us the clear meaning of something
Demonstrates – Provides a clear explanation/example
Denotes – what the word actually means/dictionary definition
Emphasises – draws attention to something
Evidences – provides evidence/proof for an argument/theory
Evokes – brings about a strong feeling or idea
Exhibits – Displays a certain attitude/tendency
Foreshadows – hints at subsequent events/themes
Highlights – draws clear attention toward by making it stand out
Identifies – provides the clear meaning of something specific
Illustrates – creates a distinct image
Implies – suggests something beyond the obvious
Indicates – acts as a clear pointer or a signpost
Insinuates – mages a vague suggestion beyond the obvious meaning
Mirrors – A similar or the same visual image
Parallels – runs alongside a similar idea/theme
Portrays – Shows or represents something/someone in a certain way
Presents – Introduces an idea
Projects – takes an idea and makes it more distinct
Proposes – puts forward an idea/theory
Puts forward – Gives a theory/opinion/idea
Reflects – Espouses the same or similar theme/idea
Reiterates – repeats or supports the same point/feeling/idea
Represents – takes an idea and puts it forward in a different light
Reveals – makes a meaning/interpretation clear that was previously unclear
Signifies – uses a word or a sign to make the meaning clear
Symbolises – takes a visual image and uses it for a deeper meaning

With the advent of the evaluation question on GCSE English language specifications, teachers have now placed a greater onus on ensuring their pupils use the language of evaluation to ensure that examiners can tell they are attempting to sum up the quality of a piece of writing or the technique that the writer has deployed. Often this takes the form of the ubiquitous adverb ‘effectively’ and adjective ‘effective’. For example ‘Orwell effectively portrays the unpleasant conditions for miners through his personification of the ‘roaring…machines’…’ Or ‘This is effective because ‘roaring’ implies the lethal nature of these giant machines and gives a sense of the deafening volume…’

What I find, however, is that the most successful pupils evaluate consistently, whether or not the question prompts them. In the literature exams, our highest attainers wrote about how a writer ‘ridicules’, ‘trivialises’, ‘demonises’ or how a character ‘coerces’, ‘sentimentalises’ or ‘derides’ another. I’ve tried to put together a list of the evaluative verbs pupils might typically use in their writing. This is far from definitive. And some of the verbs are only evaluative if used in a particular context. But it’s a good place to start if you wish to really stretch your top pupils:

  • Criticises –  rebukes, admonishes, chastises,  lambasts, castigates, demonises, condemns
  • Questions – queries, disputes, casts doubt upon, refutes, interrogates, examines, challenges, exposes, provokes
  • Ridicules – mocks, trivialises, satirises, lampoons, derides, pillories, parodies, caricatures
  • Celebrates – commemorates, honours, salutes, recognises, acknowledges, memorialises, lionises, fetishises, idealises, eulogises, elevates, glorifies, sentimentalises, romanticises, beautifies, deifies
  • Subverts – undermines, overturns, alters, modifies, corrupts
  • Accepts – welcomes, embraces, affirms, reaffirms
  • internalises, externalises
  • Technical terms – anthropomorphises, zoomorphises

Here are some examples of how evaluative verbs might elevate responses to a sophisticated understanding of the writer’s intention:

  1. Stephenson portrays Jekyll as a duplicitous character. (simple statement)
  2. Stephenson insinuates that Jekyll has repressed his transgressive desires, leading a conflicted dual nature. (analytical statement)
  3. Through his portrayal of  Jekyll’s conflicted dual nature caused by his repressed transgressive desires, Stevenson ridicules hypocritical Victorian attitudes towards sin. (evaluative statement)

Thanks for reading,