IB English Paper 2 is all about showing your understanding of literature within a context. In this blog, Sobia sets out the 6 key things you should focus on as you prepare for the exam and pave the way to top marks.
Most novels fit into a broad category e.g. Gothic novel (spooky, haunted house, Byronic hero e.g. Jane Eyre), Magic Realism (realistic narrative with surreal/dreamlike elements e.g. One Hundred Years of Solitude), Bildungsroman (traces a character’s development over his/her formative years e.g. Great Expectations) and Dystopian (deals with a world often set in the future where things are bleak e.g. Hunger Games). Other popular genres include Modernism, Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Crime and Thriller.
What was going on at the time, politically and socially? E.g. is it a wartime novel like For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemmingway), or are there currents of religious right and feminism with references to the Cold War as in The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)? What about other important socio-historical movements and moments that often feature at this level? They include America’s Civil Rights movement (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou), Stalinism and labour camps (In The First Circle, Alexander Solzhenitsyn), South Africa’s Apartheid (Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee) and India’s Emergency (A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry), Fin-de Siecle, the turn of the 19th century, a time of gilded decadence (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Is it first person (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger), Third Person (most novels e.g. Harry Potter – I know, it’s not literary, but hey…), or maybe even…wait for it… second person! (Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid). In case you didn’t know, second person narrative is quite experimental and very rare!
Also, is it written in past tense or present tense? Most novels are past tense but many contemporary novels are present tense – maybe it has something to do with our short attention spans and reality TV! Is it “Stream-of-Consciousness”? (e.g. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf). Just make sure your exam answer is NOT a stream-of-consciousness!
10-15 minutes is enough, and while it may seem a waste of time to some, it will actually save you time in the end. Once your main ideas are there, in writing, your essay will flow in a way it won’t if you are stopping periodically to decide how to go on. For your outline, think: introduction (what interesting question are you addressing, what factual info will you need for this and what is your main idea that will tackle that question? Next up, main body will be around 4-5 paragraphs so roughly what point will each address, and what will be your evidence and explanation for this point?) Finally, what will you roughly include in your conclusion? It will contain your summary and you putting things into context, also linking back finally to the main question so that we go full circle like a ouroboros.* How beautiful!
Make sure you address the question – it is amazing how many otherwise excellent essays fail to do this, so keep this in mind as you write. You are being assessed very much on your response to the question. Remember, PEAL! Point, Evidence, Analysis, Link. Make your point, provide your evidence, give a fuller analysis, and then make the link back to the question.
If you look through a load of these, you will be able to draw up a list of the type of questions that repeatedly come up – and they do! At this stage you could even group them into themes, e.g. how gender features in two of your three chosen texts (a fairly predictable example!). Other recurring examples include: the representation of justice in your chosen works, the impact of setting and the effect of a particular narrative voice.
You will often be comparing two works, so again, from the outset you should think about your different texts side by side, looking for points of contrast and similarity. Are they both set in times of political crisis? It could be Stalinism and World War 2, but these themes can be aligned, and they can look broadly at things like power, corruption, violence, mans’ will to survive and the human spirit. Or what if you had two novels like Mistry’s A Fine Balance set in 1970s India and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Regency England (as a recent student of mine had) – you could look at the status of women in a repressive society, and their limited opportunities in life. Thus, novels that are disparate on the surface may have more in common than you initially think!
* An ouroboros is a serpent eating its own tail, and is one of the oldest mystical symbols