Like many English teachers, I’ve come across the phrase ‘This makes the reader feel…’ many times. This fairly clunky, and often misattributed statement makes a sweeping judgement about readers, and often leads to a very thin point, which misses out analysis completely.
When I posted this in April, it led to some debate about whether we can ever claim to know an author’s intention. Michael Rosen and Phillip Pullman even got involved, through a series of sub tweets. I felt simultaneously proud and ignored. And, whilst it’s very true that we do not know what a writer ‘intended’ to do, we can confidently, with evidence to support, say what they have done (whether it was the intention or not). Of course, this will vary from one reader to the next, but far better to teach students to make confident and assertive statements about what the writer has done (with the implication of it being for them as the reader), than encourage students to make sweeping generalisations about a reader’s feelings.
With the aim to edge students towards a deeper analysis I set about creating my own list of ‘whys’. Every time students offered close word analysis, I kept pushing them to go further and explain ‘why’. Below is my list of 10 ‘whys’ for Jekyll and Hyde:
Stevenson exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian society
Stevenson argues against repression of mankind
Stevenson reveals conditions of working class London
Stevenson uses fog to create a gothic atmosphere and to symbolise all that is concealed
Stevenson depicts the Victorian sense of urban terror
Stevenson employs light and dark to convey struggle between good and evil
Stevenson reveals the struggle that emerged between religion and science
Stevenson reflects on the role of privilege, indulgence and ego in self destruction
Stevenson highlights public anxieties about science and the ethics of discovery
Stevenson uses motifs of concealment to symbolise repression
At sentence level these ‘whys’ aim to model confident language of analysis, ambitious vocabulary and contextual information.
Simply giving these to students would have missed out what they already knew from the text. So, I gave pairs a series of questions to tease out as much information as they could. These were:
- What could the two personalities of Jekyll represent?
- Why does the novel end tragically ?
- Why does Stevenson include descriptions of the area Hyde lives in? What do they show?
- Why is the fog referred to throughout the novel?
- Why is the novel set in a city?
- What do the lamplights, that seem to flicker through the darkness, suggest?
- Why are the references science and religion relevant?
- Why is Jekyll wealthy and comfortable? Why is he not living in poverty?
- Why is Lanyon the person to witness the transformation and why does it seem significant that he dies?
- Why does Stevenson use motifs of windows, locks and doors?
After sharing responses, we looked at the exemplar ‘why’ sentences. Students have been given these and are learning them. This will give them vocabulary and ideas which they can later build on in their writing, and lose the vague, empty, reader response phrases altogether.