GCSE English Literature - Revising Novels P1

May 22, 2016

GCSE English Literature: Revising Novels – Context, Genre, and Characters

Get to grips with English novels in GCSE English Literature

If you study GCSE English Literature, you are likely to read at least one of these novels:

Animal Farm
Great Expectations
Lord of the Flies
To Kill a Mockingbird
Wuthering Heights
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.

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