Category Archives: Comparative

Advice and notes for tackling the Comparative section.

Personal Response – A Brief History


Personal response encapsulates the absolutely sensible and sound notion that you should not just analyse intellectually but also respond emotionally to texts. Sadly, however, this then morphed into the somewhat happy-clappy notion that you should be ready, willing and able to explicitly relive these emotions when writing about them months (or sometimes years!) later. This is a bit silly really, imho, because when the initial emotional response to any event, good or bad, is over, what we’re left with is the opportunity to analyse it logically and try to figure out what it all meant.

Who was it that said “the unexamined life is not worth living” ? I think it was Plato. Well, to my mind, the unexamined text – be it a poem, a play, a novel or a film – remains a wonderful, oftentimes deeply emotional experience, but without the intellectual rigour of analysis, it remains an opportunity lost for deeper understanding of who we are and how we live our lives as human beings.

By the by, I think ‘personal response’ was an attempt to convince teachers and students alike that how you feel as well as what you think when you encounter a story matters (and it does!). I think it was an attempt to encourage independent thought, originality and debate in classrooms instead of the ‘sage on the stage, top-down, sit in your seats & bow before my superior wisdom’ approach which (we are told) dominated (still dominates?) so many classrooms. I’m not convinced demanding personal response necessarily achieves this but it’s a worthy aim nonetheless. Finally, I think ‘personal response’ was a way of giving two fingers to the grinds schools and the revision books industry who were pumping out generic passive voice academic content for students to learn off so they could ‘fake’ understanding of their texts.

But whatever the intention, the plan soon backfired and the problem soon emerged, particularly in the studied poetry section, that students were basically learning off ONE pre-written personal response essay on each poet. These were essays which they may or may not have written themselves – oh the joys of having an older brother or cousin or sister who could pass their essays down through the generations, like family heirlooms to be treasured and polished and re-used ad-infinitum!  If they didn’t have the good fortune to get said essays from family members they could get them at revision courses or in books or, best of all, they could learn off their TEACHER’s personal response and pass that off as their own (sure weren’t you only doing justice to the ecstasies of enraptured joy and pain and suffering your poor old teacher went through every time he read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?  Sure you could never respond with such passion and despair and, God help him, that level of personal response deserves an audience and sure he can’t sit the exam again, he’s surely pushing fifty at this stage and a fifty year old man sitting the Leaving Cert English exam – for the fifth time – just for the craic – is just downright sad).

Personal response became shorthand for knowing exactly what would come up on the exam and therefore not having to do any critical thinking on the day, but rather a rote learn and regurgitate exercise that everyone was pretty happy with thank you very much. Until some genius in the State Exams Commission realised that the whole thing had somehow turned into a dumbed down touchy feely personal response nightmare that was encouraging students to fake personal engagement but which was – in most cases – letting them off the hook of having to actually think for themselves in the exam.

So then it all changed again, around 2010, and the airy-fairy personal response questions started to disappear off the exam papers and more demanding, much more focused and academically rigorous questions reappeared.

And that’s where we’re at now.

If the question demands a personal response, get in there, get stuck in, show that you have opinions and you’re not afraid to express them and they belong to you – I I I all the way captain! But remember that close analysis of the text, using a sophisticated vocabulary, is always required for Honours Leaving Cert English. And above all else, at all times, ensure that everything you say is responding directly to the question you were asked.

Passive vs Active voice

Today was a weird day. On a few levels it was, quite frankly, odd. However, rather than bore you with the mundane minutiae of my daily grind, instead let me share with you an insight I had which concerns the perplexing issue of ‘personal response’.


So I’m in my room, correcting; and I’m eating gluten-free chocolate fingers to distract from the fact that I’m correcting because I hate corrections; and I stumble upon a tour-de-force essay on cultural context in Casablanca. A ‘tour de force’ essay is an essay that’s so insightful, so eloquent and so sophisticated, you wish you’d written it yourself.


I get to the end

and I give it an A.

And then I stop.

Something is bugging me.

I re-read the essay title – “A reader/viewer can feel uncomfortable with the values and attitudes which exist in a society.” To what extent did the values and attitudes portrayed in Casablanca make you feel uncomfortable?

Now I go back to the essay. It’s written in the classic passive voice of academia, where opinions are stated as fact and the writer deliberately makes him or herself invisible. I don’t personally have a problem with the passive voice – it’s how I was trained to write in school and at university. But since the new course came in (way back in 2001) there’s been a renewed emphasis, nay obsession, with personal engagement with the texts.

I’m reading phrases like “it is impossible to feel comfortable” and “it’s difficult to watch this struggle” and “it is an unimaginable horror” and “there is little about this society to praise”. Her engagement with and understanding of the text is everywhere evident. Her analysis of the values and attitudes which dominate in this society is sublime. But she never once used the word “I” – she never said “I felt uncomfortable” or “I found it deeply disturbing” or “I found myself turning away from the screen in disgust”. So I start to wonder if she would be penalised in the exam because her discomfort with this society is implicit rather than explicit.

Let me take a little tangent with you for a second, in case you don’t know the difference between implicit and explicit. If something is implicit it is “implied rather than expressly stated”.  So if I say “her choice of outfit for the wedding was… interesting!” I am implying that I didn’t like it but my criticism is veiled: I’m hinting that I disapprove rather than saying it outright.  If I wanted to be explicit I’d come right out with it – I’d say “For the love of God, where did she think she was going in that rotten flamenco pink travesty of a dress?”.

pink 2

Implicit arguments, when subtly and intelligently constructed, can be far more elegant and sophisticated than explicit ones. If I go into school tomorrow and ask my student to alter her essay and insert explicit sentences like those mentioned above (“I feel uncomfortable” “I find it disturbing”) I fear she’ll end up interrupting the flow and beauty of her writing – dumbing it down, in effect, to conform with the demands of an examination system which is dominated by highly specific marking schemes which may not be flexible enough to tolerate the subtlety of her prose. This is where the quality (and attention to detail) of the examiner really becomes vitally important – read closely, her unease with the society is everywhere referenced and evident in her writing; read quickly, or carelessly, you might be tempted to mark her down for “clarity of purpose” – not because she isn’t clear about the task she has been set, but because she chooses to engage indirectly with her discomfort, using the passive, rather than an active and personal, voice.

A related issue then emerged for me, which is the question of whether a student should speak an an individual (“I feel” “I believe” “I was shocked”) or whether a student can reasonably speak on behalf of the entire audience (“we feel” “we believe” “we are shocked”) in which case the student is using what my English teacher used to refer to as ‘the Royal “we”, where he or she writes phrases like “we ask ourselves” “this makes us uneasy” “the reader is shocked that”.

This ‘speaking on behalf of everyone royal ‘we’ (known as the royal ‘we’ because the royal family, like the Queen for example, often say things like “we must see to it that our country maintains the best of its traditions” – she speaks for everyone, not just herself)  is good on one level because it shows you are absolutely confident that your ideas represent the consensus. By speaking for everyone you are creating the impression that you have accessed the ‘truth’ of the matter and people may – possibly – respect your certainty and question you no further.

However, this idea of speaking for everyone is also highly problematic. The person reading your work ends up tempted to shout at you panto style “stop pretending you’re not there!”. Personal response is why blogs have become so popular and why newspapers have had to expand their comment and opinion sections. What sentences which include the word “I” recognise is the truth that there is no ‘truth’ about how ‘the reader’ responds because we’re all different. We don’t all think and feel and respond in the same way. There is no one collective consciousness, there are only masses of unique individuals who all respond to the world and everything in it in a way which is uniquely them. Failing to acknowledge this can mean that you come across as stupid or worse still, as arrogant. If you are a brilliant writer with original intelligent insights we may just about accept your arrogance, because it is well earned. If you are not, we’ll just find you irritating.

So what’s my advice?

Well, it was bothering me a lot so I rang a friend of mine who corrects Honours Leaving Cert English (I don’t correct the state exams because I’d end up eating too many gluten-free chocolate fingers and getting really really fat!!!) and he reckons as long as the student engages directly and consistently with the question, they’ll probably get away with using the passive voice.

However, for any student who’s not an A standard, for a student who’s not going to produce a tour-de-force work of academic brilliance, using the active, personal voice is a better option. Explicitly referencing the question asked, repeatedly and consistently throughout your essay (but vary the phrasing, please?), using the word “I” frequently, if the question demands it (‘what did you like?’ ‘what made you uncomfortable?’) is more likely to keep you on track in responding to the question and to be honest, it’s more likely to get you a higher grade in the exam.

Tackling Themes

I’ve been getting quite a few questions recently about how to tackle theme questions. There seems to be this overwhelming need to know if you’re doing it RIGHT, to which I say, patronisingly perhaps, there is no single RIGHT way to approach a question.You’ve got to make decisions both before you write and as you are writing, all the while remembering to focus on the question that has been asked.


However, that being said, a few sensible suggestions spring to mind. For me, it’s all about asking simple questions but offering complex replies. Let’s say for example you’re examining the theme of love. It doesn’t really matter what texts you’re studying, you can still ask simple questions which will provide you with an outline structure to follow. Here are some of the questions I’d ask:

  1. How is the theme introduced? Is our first impression as viewers/readers positive or negative and why? Do the central characters embrace love or reject it? Why?

  2. How is this theme developed? Do the characters need love? Do they fight for it? Do they have any control over who they fall in love with? Does love bring happiness or despair or a bit of both?

  3. What obstacles do the characters encounter? Do they achieve lasting love – do they fail or succeed? Why? Is this theme in any way symbolic? (for example, do people withhold love to punish each other? Does finding love correspond to finding happiness or is love associated with destructive emotions in this text? Is a certain type of love (familial, romantic, parent/child) presented as more important than another? Do different types of love (familial / romantic) clash and is a character forced to choose one over the other?).

  4. How does the text end and what final impression of this theme are we left with? Does love conquer everything? Do other forces conspire to destroy love?

There are plenty of other ways of tackling the theme of love, or any theme for that matter. You could structure your essay like this instead:

  1. Romantic love / love triangles

  2. Symbolism & love

  3. Familial love

  4. Final impression

I would argue, however, that you MUST finish your essay by discussing how each text ends. It’s just logical from a sequencing point of view that you end with the end, if that makes sense!

Once you’ve decided what questions you want to ask and more or less what structure your essay will follow, BEWARE! You cannot just do a checklist of questions and tick off each one as you write each sentence. Remember, I said simple questions but complex replies. You also need to have good flow in your answer and ticking off a list of questions you feel you must answer would interrupt this flow. It’s better to keep a general sense of what you want to discuss in mind but allow the ideas to glide onto the page.

WARNING: the examples below are for the 30/40 mark split questions ONLY. In these questions you can discuss a theme in ONE text, then separately discuss the same theme in two others. So I’m assuming you’re discussing ONE on it’s own for 30 marks. If you were doing the 70 mark question you’d need to be moving back and forth between the texts not discussing each text in isolation.

Have a look at this paragraph, which offers simple replies but no depth, no flow, no sophistication!

The theme of love is first introduced in Casablanca when Rick rejects Yvonne. She wants to know if she’ll see him that night but he brushes her off and sends her home. He’s not really interested in her but he must have slept with her recently because she’s behaving as if they are in a relationship. It’s clear that she’s interested in him but he’s not interested in her. Rick seems like a lone wolf, he’s always going on about how he ‘sticks his neck out for nobody’ so we’re not expecting love to play a major part in this film but we change our mind once Ilsa walks in. Then when Sam plays the song we realise that Rick has had his heart broken by her and we start to realise that being unlucky in love is what has made Rick so cold and stand-offish. So I think love is introduced in a very clever way in this film. The idea that love can hurt you made me want to watch the rest of the film to see if Rick would ever find love again”

So what’s wrong with this paragraph? Let me count the ways:

  1. Bland factual opening sentence – I’m bored already.

  2. Lack of quotes (quotes add depth because they are specific. Vague = bad, specific = good)

  3. Overusing words instead of varying my vocabulary – eg. ‘interested’ 3 times in 2 sentences!

  4. Slang – “he’s always going on about” makes me cringe. Use formal language.

  5. Lack of flow – the writer doesn’t use any connectives. This means that as readers we have the sensation of jumping from sentence to sentence without the ideas being in any way connected. The overall impact is a lack of coherence and an unpleasant jerkiness for the reader, kind of like being in a car with someone who’s learning to drive.

  6. Stating the obvious – “it’s clear she’s interested in him but he’s not interested in her

  7. Vagueness / lack of key moments – “Ilsa walks in” “Rick [is] cold and stand-offish”. These statements aren’t wrong, but they don’t create a vivid picture in our minds either! Describe Ilsa’s entrance. Don’t write “when Sam plays the song” – WHAT song? Name it!

Now have a look at the example below. A good answer contains sophisticated vocabulary, a flow of ideas, relevant quotes and key moments to support the points being made, and perhaps most importantly of all, depth.

The opening scenes of “Casablanca” are dominated by fear, corruption and violence, rather than love. Rick, the central protagonist, sits alone playing chess and appears indifferent to those around him. The first hint of a love interest appears in the form of Yvonne, a beautiful French woman in a slinky satin dress but when she asks Rick “will I see you tonight?” he replies “I never plan that far ahead”. His cold hard exterior, exemplified by his oft repeated motto “I stick my neck out for nobody” creates the impression of a man incapable of love and his isolation seems very much self-inflicted. However, this assumption is quickly challenged in the key moment when Ilsa Lunde appears. The film highlights her significance through soft lighting, a dramatic musical score and lingering close-ups. The song “As Time Goes By” reveals much about Ilsa and Rick’s past, both in the lyrics (“the world will always welcome lovers”) and in Sam’s reluctance to play it. Rick’s anger (“I thought I told you never to play…”) trails off into shock when he sees Ilsa and he then breaks every rule he has made for himself of not sitting with customers and never paying a tab. As he recounts in minute detail the last time they met (“I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue”) we realise that here is a man whose heart has been so badly broken that he is no longer willing to risk the joy of falling in love for fear of the pain which may follow. As a viewer, I was seduced by their chemistry and overwhelmed with curiosity to see whether they could rekindle their love or at the very least forgive each other for the pain and bitterness their failed love affair has caused.

How do you achieve this depth in your answer? Think of the theme as a very real human experience, whether it’s love or friendship or isolation or violence or fate. Think of the character as a real person. Art imitates life. We study themes so that we can understand life on a deeper level; we don’t study them because we have to sit an exam (ok, some people do, but I think they’re kind of missing the point, which is that literature offers us wisdom by holding up a mirror to life and asking us to examine it in order to understand our experiences on a deeper level). As you are writing ask yourself all the time what you are learning as you read/watch/respond. That’s the key really – you must respond! Emotionally and intellectually you must engage with these characters as if they were real people. As a teacher I see this response all the time in my classroom, when students laugh or cry or cringe or are shocked but many students struggle to remember and relive the emotions they felt at the time when they’re writing about it later, sometimes months later. Try to climb back into the experience of reading / watching your text. This is why re-reading, re-watching is so so very important. As an aside, I did Wuthering Heights as my leaving cert novel (this was in the era before the comparative) and I read it three times over the two years of my senior cycle. Yes, I know that makes me a hopeless nerd but it also helped get me my A1. And honestly, I re-read the book because I loved it so much, not because I had to write about it in an exam.

Finally, please remember that blocks of writing on ONE text are only acceptable for the 30 / 40 mark split where you are asked to discuss one text on its own. Otherwise, have a look here and here for how to structure the 70 mark question. 

Hope this helps!


Why introductions matter…

Scenario 1.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve figured out in advance how we’re going to get to our destination so I can sit back and enjoy the journey because it’s clear that you know where you’re going and that inspires confidence in me and helps me relax.


Scenario 2.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination but you’ve driven some of these roads before and you’re happy to make it up as we go along and see what happens. Because you are gifted at improvisation and have a particular talent for marking every signpost along the way we do get there in the end and I’m pretty impressed even though I was nervous to begin with because I wasn’t entirely sure you knew what you were doing.

Scenario 3.


We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination. You have to just make it up as we go along because you really didn’t prepare for this journey in advance and now you’re sweating. We both know we’ve got a deadline and we’re both nervous that we’re not going to get there on time. We end up getting lost a bunch of times, you spend far too long on the first leg of our journey, you double back a few times and when the deadline arrives you don’t know what to do. Keep going in the hope that you’ll get there eventually or start your next journey, which also involves a time limit? The experience is frustrating and demoralising for both of us and in the end we give up without ever reaching our destination, which is disappointing.

Scenario 4.


We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. Stunned by this news, you start driving anyway because you feel there’s no time to improvise a new set of directions and you end up on autopilot, just driving the roads you already know, following the directions you had planned in advance. We reach a destination just as our time is up but it’s not where I asked you to go. I’m annoyed because I clearly stated what our new destination was and you’re annoyed with yourself because even though we’ve arrived in time, we’ve arrived in the wrong place. You know it, I know it but it’s too late to do anything about it. We’re both frustrated and disappointed.


Scenario 5.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. You hide your disappointment from me, confident that the new destination isn’t a million miles away from our original plan, and you quickly sketch out a new route. You rely on your prior knowledge but also improvise a certain amount and we get there on time. I’m delighted with you, you’re delighted with you, we have a real sense of achievement and you can move on to your next journey with the adrenaline pumping, ready for the next challenge.

What does it all mean?

Scenario 1 is unlikely to happen. If an essay title (destination) comes up exactly as you’ve prepared it, fair play, happy days, off you go. Pay really close attention to the address however. Ballymoe and Ballymote sound similar but they are not the same place…

Scenario 2 is really where gifted students come into their own. Despite seeing the essay title (destination) for the first time when they sit into the exam (car), they are completely unfazed. These people write beautifully all of the time; they have a good knowledge base to start off with and they are utterly fearless when it comes to improvising on the spot even under time constraints. To be in their presence is to be in awe of their brilliance. Not too many people fall into this category – lucky you if you’re one of them!

Scenario 3 is the student who either doesn’t really know their stuff or who panics and draws a complete blank. I feel sorry for the blankers. I do not feel particularly sorry for the bluffers who don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly after I’ve gone on a torturous journey with them through their essay and still ended up no-where. The whole thing will have been a frustrating waste of my time and theirs. But I repeat, I do feel sorry for those who blank under exam conditions.

Scenario 4 is perhaps the most frustrating of all. It’s also the most common. It’s clear that they have a good knowledge and if they’d just focus and apply that knowledge we might actually get to where we want to go. Yes we might have to take a few shortcuts along the way in order to get there on time, but isn’t it better to take shortcuts and get to where we want to go rather than include everything we’d planned in advance and end up in the wrong place?

Scenario 5 is where it’s at. Use what you know but be willing to improvise a certain amount. Think quickly on your feet but don’t panic. Remind yourself that the same basic knowledge can be applied no matter what the essay title (destination).

Remember, the examiner (and your teacher) would like to go on a journey with you which is calm and focused on getting where you need to go. If you have to leave out a few stops along the way that’s fine. It’s not as if you’re expected to cover every single road in the province on this one journey – you will not visit at least 80% of the roads/knowledge available to you. The important thing is that you get where you’re going on time without too many false starts, detours or speeding fines near the end!

p.s. this only applies 100% to critical essays – single text, poetry, comparative. Short stories and personal essays allow you to take detours – sometimes this is what makes them great! Newspaper articles ask you to jump to the end, then go back on yourself and fill in the journey in reverse.

Cultural Context Questions

Cultural Context

  • Cultural context looks at the society the characters live in and at how their culture can affect their behaviour and their opportunities.

  • Think about where and when each text is set.

  • Think about the values and attitudes that matter to these characters and about how they formed these beliefs – did their culture influence them?

  • The most powerful forces in a society include religion, gender roles, attitudes towards sex and marriage, social status/class, job opportunities/emigration, (wealth/poverty), politics, authority figures, stereotypes/ethnic identity.

Sample questions – 70 marks


“In any cultural context, deeply embedded values and attitudes can be difficult to change”


“A reader can feel uncomfortable with the values and attitudes presented in texts”


The main characters in texts are often in conflict with the world or culture they inhabit”


The cultural context can have a significant influence on the behaviour of the central character/characters in a text”


Understanding the cultural context of a text adds to our enjoyment of a good narrative”


Write an essay in which you compare the texts you have studied in your comparative course in the light of your understanding of the term the cultural context.


A narrative text creates its own unique world in which the reader can share”


 In simple English you need to be able to talk about

  • how their culture affects their behaviour (or do they rebel) AND

  • what you liked/learned from exploring these different cultures.

Sample questions – 30 + 40 marks


“The issue of social class is important in shaping our understanding of the cultural context of a text”

(a) Discuss the importance of social class in shaping your understanding of the cultural context of one text you have studied

(b) Compare the importance of social class in shaping your understanding of the cultural context of two other texts you have studied.


“The roles and status allocated to males or females can be central to understanding the cultural context of a text”

(a) Show how this statement might apply to one text on your comparative course. In your answer you may refer to the roles and status allocated to either males or females or both. (30)

(b) Compare how the roles and status allocated to males or females, or both, aided your understanding of the cultural context in two other texts on your comparative course. (40)


Understanding the cultural context of a text allows you to see how values and attitudes are shaped”

(a) Discuss in relation to one text you have studied (30 marks)

(b)Compare the way the values and attitudes are shaped in two other texts you have studied. (40 marks)


Imagine that you are a journalist sent to investigate the cultural context of the worlds of the three texts from your comparative course.

(a) Write an article on the cultural context you found most interesting. (30)

(b) In a second article compare the cultural contexts of the other two

worlds with each other. (40)


The cultural context of a narrative usually determines how the story will unfold”

(a) Compare the way in which the cultural context influenced the storyline in two of the texts you have studied (40 marks)

(b) Show how the cultural context influenced the storyline in a third text you have studied (30 marks)


(a) With reference to one of the texts you have studied in your comparative course, write a note on the ways in which the cultural context is established by the author.

(b) Compare the ways in which the cultural context is established by the authors of two other texts on your comparative course.