Gcse English Literature: Revising Novels
GCSE English Literature: Revising Novels – Context, Genre, and Characters
If you study GCSE English Literature, you are likely to read at least one of these novels:
Lord of the Flies
To Kill a Mockingbird
Pride and Prejudice
Starting out, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the length and reading level of these texts. You will be asked to read the novel outside of class and have classroom time dedicated to reading important chapters and scenes, and to analysing important elements of the text, such as its characters and themes.
A good starting point with any text is to understand its context or background. As or before you begin to read, you will likely have a lesson that highlights the text’s background – e.g. important points about the author, the historical/social background of the story etc.
Given that these points are mostly factual, they are easy to learn and work into essays you write.
Begin work on a book’s context simply by noting its title, author, and date of publication. These may seem basic, even silly, points but from these you can infer a lot about any text.
For example, Wuthering Heights was written by Charlotte Bronte in 1847; i.e. the book was written by a woman in the mid-1800s, and the title implies that there is a dramatic element to the book. Of course, you will soon have a more extensive knowledge from your classes but it is always good to begin with the basics.
Moreover, even if your first impression of a book proves incorrect, this is still a useful pre-reading exercise. You should consider why your inferences were off, and whether the author intended their readers to be surprised by the book’s reality.
Knowledge and understanding of a novel’s context will strengthen your answer; it shows the examiner that you are aware of much more than just the plot. Refer to a novel’s context when asked to specifically, or to support your inferences when you explain your points – e.g. when analysing the language used by a character in their speech.
Genre is an easy thing to remember and, like context, should embellish any ideas you already have about the novel. For example, Lord of the Flies is adventure fiction. From this we can deduce that there will be elements of adventure and that these will drive the narrative forward.
Genres can determine what we see in a text. The next time you read a novel, or revise your study notes, keep the genre in mind. Note any example of the genre in practice while you read; these notes will aid your revision because they make your reading active, specific, and focused – thus you are much more likely to remember these points when writing an essay during an exam.
It’s essential you’re aware of the main characters in any novel you study. Again, the best way to find out how much you know is to write it down. A simple exercise is to make a list of traits of a specific character. Take our example of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scout: smart, brave, impulsive, and disobedient.
Identifying just a few ideas about a character encourages you to think about different parts of the story that demonstrate these traits.
You could also make different types of visual aids to help you remember more complex themes associated with important characters. For example, you could draw a spider diagram to illustrate the relationships between characters.
An important point to remember is that every character in a novel is important in some way. Authors spend a long time writing, editing and re-writing their work, therefore all characters typically have a purpose – even those with minimal parts.
Generally you get to choose which characters to discuss in your answers. Close reading of the novel, with detailed notes and analysis of the main characters will ensure you are able to discuss the main characters effectively. A good understanding of the characters and their overall function in the novel will really flesh out your answer.
GCSE English Literature: Revising Novels – Exploring Themes and Using PEE
Themes are fundamental, often universal ideas explored within a text. Each novel will have a few strong themes running through it; you will cover these in class, yes, but you also need to be confident in discussing and writing about them as theme-based questions are popular in English Literature exams and assessments.
The theme of any text is arguably its most important component. If you consider the main theme(s) as the foundation of a text, it usually becomes easier to see and explain why the author made certain choices. For example, Pride and Prejudice’s main themes are social class, love and reputation.
These themes clarify why the author chose to depict a wealthy family at the centre of her novel (or her decision to depict a wealthy family – possibly her own, at least in part – made these themes impossible to escape). A number of single women feature at the beginning of the novel, so the author’s introduction of bachelors to the story helps to introduce the idea of romantic love.
You may discuss or need to discuss themes at length. Giving examples of them will be necessary in your answers. To do this, link specific events with the theme(s) you are discussing – quotations if possible. Look to discuss the themes and how the author portrays them in the explanation section of your PEE paragraphs.
We’ve mentioned the need to give examples of your ideas about the novel. Examiners love ideas to be supported with specific, relevant examples because doing this demonstrates that you have read and understood the text. If you haven’t heard this acronym already, be sure to write it down:
PEE Point, Evidence, Explanation
PEE is easy to remember and using it effectively will help you to maximise your marks. In every paragraph (or section if you write short paragraphs), make your point, give your evidence and explain your opinion in depth. For example:
P: Atticus Finch is a man of integrity who would only use violence if it were absolutely necessary.
E: In the novel, a ‘mad dog’ comes down the street and approaches the Finchs’ home. Atticus shoots the dog dead to protect his family.
E: We consider Atticus Finch to be a good man because he teaches his children morals and defends a man he believes to be innocent, even in the face of persecution. When we see him shoot the dog we know it is only because the dog could not be saved and would have hurt his family and neighbours if it had reached them.
EBI (even better if) you use a quotation here to demonstrate Atticus’s good intentions in killing the dog; this explanation is not top mark-worthy because it’s a little vague. We can’t assume that the person examining our answer knows ‘we know’ that Atticus refrains from violence throughout the novel.
PS: If even after all this expert advice, you’re still struggling to tackle your English Literature novel, check out our study guides, which do all the hard work for you!
In order to provide a more personal user experience, we and our partners use technologies such as cookies, and process personal information. These cookies are used to collect non-sensitive data about how you interact with our website and browsing data for that purposes of serving personalised ads and content. We use this information to operate our site, enhance your experience and to develop and improve our offering. To find out more about the cookies we use see our Terms & Conditions. You agree to consent to the use of these technologies by clicking Accept, or by continuing to browse this website.
In order to provide a more personal user experience, we and our partners use technologies such as cookies, and process personal information. These cookies are used to collect non-sensitive data about how you interact with our website and browsing ...