- 1 Introduction
- 2 Background to Emma
- 3 Deconstructing the rubric
- 4 Prominent themes
- 5 Writing a Critical Study of Literature response
- 6 Conclusion
Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism and biting social commentary has gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. Not only is the exploration of the prominent themes in her novels incredibly poignant and relevant, but most agree this Austen’s mastery over the English language makes her one of the greats. For these reasons, Emma demonstrates a strong sense of textual complexity to audiences and was hence selected as one of the prescribed texts for Module B, or Critical Study of Literature. The role of the student in this module is to analyse in great depth a single text or body of work and evaluate its cultural significance. It is therefore extremely important that the student knows this text well enough that they can take on the role of a critic and be able to contribute an original idea about their personal interpretation.
In this study guide, we will deconstruct the key aspects of the Critical Study of Literature rubric and how they relate to Emma. Then, the key prominent themes of the text will be explored. Lastly, we will look at what to expect when sitting Paper 2, as well as a general guide to writing responses for this module.
No matter which text you are assigned as your prescribed text, it must be analysed in terms of the Critical Study of Literature rubric. Some initial considerations you should deliberate before writing a response in order to consolidate your understanding of the novel and the module include:
- Your personal response to the text – again, the most important aspect of this rubric is your ability to convey to the marker what you think of the text
- What is the novel about?
- What is the novel trying to say?
- IS the novel attempting to influence audiences to react in a certain way?
- How do your personal experiences affect the way in which you interpret the novel?
- Austen’s purpose(s) in creating the novel – was it to provide commentary on social and political issues, spark a certain emotion in responders, challenge cultural beliefs and stereotypes, create art for art’s sake or a culmination of all of the above?
- The literary significance of the novel (awards, accolades, critical and commercial reception) – what do the broader responses mean? Why does society regard the text as being important or notable?
- Responses to the novel and how they have changed over time
- How form, structure, genre and style deeply influence the ways in which messages, themes and ideas are depicted by the composer and interpreted by the responder
- Consider why Austen chose to tell this story through the medium of literature, rather than a play, poem or film
An evaluation of some key terms
In Module B, you may come across various terms that will be central to the unit of study. They may initially seem very vague and confusing. It would therefore be a good idea to familiarise yourself with what each term means and ask how it can apply to Emma.
- ‘Cultural significance’ – the aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value of a text
- What makes your text interesting, unique or important?
- Would the world be the same if this text had never been created? Why/why not?
- ‘Literary canon’ – the body of texts considered to be ‘high culture’ or have achieved the status of being ‘classics’
- What texts do you think belong in the literary canon? Why/why not?
- At what point does a text become a classic?
- What issues of diversity come with the literary canon? Is it good to take an elitist attitude towards texts in this way?
- ‘Textual integrity’ – the ability of a text to unify content, form and purpose into one coherent message
- Why is it important to consider all aspects of the text when analysing it?
- Do you think these three elements complement each other in Emma?
Background to Emma
Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 in Hampshire, England. She lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry, a British social class of landowners who could live entirely from rental income, or at least had a country estate. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years into her thirties. During this period, she experimented with various literary forms. With the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816), she achieved success as a writer in her time, although she published her novels anonymously and therefore did not receive great recognition.
Beyond her personal context, the fact that Austen wrote during Britain’s Regency Era was of great significance to her works. Occurring around between 1800 to 1830, this period was characterised as a gentle, slow-moving world on the cusp of revolutionising in various ways. Politically, due to the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), many began to question the strict class systems and inequalities of British society, leading to trade unionism and various reforms. Simultaneously, this political instability was heightened as more conservative figures aimed to cement their traditional view citizenship, pushing for further reliance on strict social structures and the Church. This was not helped by the fact that the ruling King George IV also lacked competence as the nation’s leader. Instead of focusing on effective governance, he was seen by citizens as a patron of the arts and of lavish, outrageous lifestyles, not dissimilar to the frustrations felt by those of the French Revolution. As such, for the aristocracy, the Regency Era was deemed a time of extreme excess, scandal and splendour, whilst the lower classes struggled with surviving. The rich thought the political uneasiness be best left ignored, continuing with their fanciful – but, as Austen suggests in Emma, also meaningless and superficial – lives.
As a result, understanding the composer’s history and context is relevant to the close study of the novel as you can make more informed linked about what choices the composer made, and why. Hence, you should consider undertaking further research regarding Austen’s personal and historical context to truly understand Emma in an in-depth fashion.
Austen’s works and this novel have had a profound cultural impact on audiences. The fact that Emma has been so critically acclaimed suggests that everyday people use it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition. It is also very relevant to consider how the novel has established itself as being a ‘significant’ literary text through its exploration of complex themes using complex techniques, devices and stylistic choices.
Deconstructing the rubric
As with any text, we must first look to the Critical Study of Literature rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric, so it is imperative that we study the links between Emma and the major points in the Critical Study of Literature rubric. The rubric is as follows:
‘In this module, students develop detailed analytical and critical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of a substantial literary text. Through increasingly informed and personal responses to the text in its entirety, students understand the distinctive qualities of the text, notions of textual integrity and significance.
Students study one prescribed text. Central to this study is the close analysis of the text’s construction, content and language to develop students’ own rich interpretation of the text, basing their judgements on detailed evidence drawn from their research and reading. In doing so, they evaluate notions of context with regard to the text’s composition and reception; investigate and evaluate the perspectives of others; and explore the ideas in the text, further strengthening their informed personal perspective.
Students have opportunities to appreciate and express views about the aesthetic and imaginative aspects of the text by composing creative and critical texts of their own. Through reading, viewing or listening they critically analyse, evaluate and comment on the text’s specific language features and form. They express complex ideas precisely and cohesively using appropriate register, structure and modality. They draft, appraise and refine their own texts, applying the conventions of syntax, spelling and grammar appropriately.
Opportunities for students to engage deeply with the text as a responder and composer further develops personal and intellectual connections with the text, enabling them to express their considered perspective of its value and meaning.’
Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct what the statement actually means and, most importantly, how you can apply it to the novel.
Understanding and appreciating a substantial literary text
- Potential question: ‘Without the ability to appreciate art, we lose the ability to feel truly connected to the universe.’ Explore this statement in relation to Emma.
- Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students develop detailed analytical and critical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of a substantial literary text.’
Essentially, what this rubric statement means is you will be tested on how well you know the novel and are able to engage in meaningful discussions about them. Although it is necessary in every module for you to know your text in great detail, Module B is perhaps the most important when it comes to this.
There are various ways in which you can become informed about your text. Make sure you employ as many as techniques as you can, if not all of them:
- Read/view the novel more than once and write good notes about it
- Engage with critic readings
- Discuss the text with teachers and peers
- Try to understand or listen to others’ opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Then, ask yourself why you disagree – precisely what evidence from the novel makes you believe what you believe?
- Keep notes throughout the term so that you can reflect on how your understanding of the novel has changed
- Research the composer’s personal and historical context, as well as the form of the text
- Ensure that your work is read by as many people as possible, whether that be teachers, peers or tutors
It should also be noted that there is a difference between understanding and appreciating a text. Understanding a text is quite straightforward – what is the text about? What are its main themes, messages and textual features? What techniques did Austen use to get her point across? Attempting to understand the basic details of the novel should be the first thing you do.
However, to elevate your responses to a Band 6 response, you must learn how to also appreciate the text. Here, you must apply that knowledge you have about the novel and evaluate it. Explain to the marker why you think the text is significant to society. Discuss the cultural impact of the text, whether that be its ability to provide a nuanced commentary on the landed gentry or touch on universal themes like gender roles in order to reach a wide audience. Consider the different perspectives of the text that exist, and then form your own.
The distinctive qualities of a text
- Potential question: In your opinion, what aspects of your prescribed text make it unique, distinctive and memorable?
- Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students understand the distinctive qualities of the text, notions of textual integrity and significance.’
Every text is unique and different. This should be obvious to any person. In regards to this rubric statement, try to think about what makes Emma memorable. This may be its iconic use of satire or its clever interpretations of themes such as social class. Your job, as the student, is to identify features like this that separate Emma from others. Then, you must examine why Austen chose to subvert expectations this way and what kind of implications it has on the text’s reception by audiences. It may be helpful for you to go through this checklist:
- How is the novel similar to other texts?
- What was surprising to you about the novel?
- What were the most memorable aspects of the novel to you?
- What purpose does the novel serve by subverting expectations?
- Were there any aspects of the form that were unique?
- Was there something about the novel that hadn’t been done before?
- What relevance does this have to Austen’s context (hint: consider the Regency Era and what that entailed)?
Overall, you may look to both the ideas within the novel as well as its structural features and forms. After all, you must be able to analyse the connection between the ‘construction, content and language’ of the text. This is where the concept of textual integrity becomes extremely important. Refer to the earlier definition in part 1.3 if you need a reminder of what this term means. Ultimately, when you write your response in Module B, you must consider and incorporate all elements of the novel in order to provide a meaningful analysis.
Textual form and language features
- Potential question: Discuss the significance of form and how it can be manipulated by composers to portray important themes. In your response, make close reference to Emma.
- Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Through reading, viewing or listening students critically analyse, evaluate and comment on the text’s specific language features and form.’
As mentioned before, the form of a text – that is, features of the text that relate to its structure, style, genre or techniques – is an extremely important feature that should not be dismissed. After all, a really interesting, clever story idea would not matter if the author does not know how to tell the story in an engaging way. Discussing form in an answer is certainly ideal, but not essential unless the question specifically asks for it. Even still, it should always be considered whilst undertaking a study of the texts and explored whenever possible. Common features that can be found in Emma include, but are not limited to:
- Satire – defined as the genre in which ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule [is used] to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices’
- Emma is not meant to be taken wholly seriously, or as a complete reflection of Austen’s personal views. In fact, the titular character is meant to reflect the deep flaws of Regency society, particularly their superficiality, frivolity and lack of self-awareness of their own privilege. The very first lines of the novel suggest this: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ The use of the verb ‘seemed’ criticises Emma who is intelligent but also spoiled, meddlesome, and self-deluded.
- Bildungsroman – defined as ‘a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age) in which character change is important’
- In this genre, the audience undergoes the same growth and maturation as the protagonist, using them as a vessel of sorts
- Like with all of Austen’s novels, Emma is set in a small town, where the community is tight-knit if not claustrophobic. The majority of the novel takes place in Hartfield, adding to this feeling, alongside emphasising Emma’s wealthy lifestyle. This serves as the perfect setting for Austen to criticise the landed gentry – from the inside
- Omniscient third person narration
- Allows insight into each of the character’s thoughts and feelings
- Conventional length and structural divisions for the time
- Published in three volumes in a serial
- Austen’s personal writing style
- Humour and sharp wit was a distinguishing factor of Austen’s writing style
It is not enough to simply state these aspects of the novel. You must analyse and understand how every sequence of the work is a deliberate choice made by Austen to contribute to these features (or, perhaps, challenge or pioneer them). Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as decisions made in order to most effectively tell the message Austen wanted to tell. These techniques aid composers in exploring universal themes as a medium through which they can communicate with the responder.
Your personal response
- Potential question: Write a series of three or four reflections that detail how your personal response and connection to Emma has evolved over time.
- Rubric statements from which the question is derived from: ‘Central to this study is the close analysis of the text’s construction, content and language to develop students’ own rich interpretation of the text … They evaluate notions of context with regard to the text’s composition and reception; investigate and evaluate the perspectives of others; and explore the ideas in the text, further strengthening their informed personal perspective … Opportunities for students to engage deeply with the text as a responder and composer further develops personal and intellectual connections with the text, enabling them to express their considered perspective of its value and meaning.’
What separates Module B the most from other units of study is the fact it requires you to form your own, personal opinion about whichever text you are studying. With every other module, you are still required to analyse and become familiar with your prescribed text. However, Critical Study of Literature is unique in that you are allowed and encouraged to convey your personal response to the text’s themes, message and impact.
Think of how Emma has challenged you personally, or how it has made you feel. What parts of the text did you enjoy? It may be the fact that the novel offers an entertaining criticism of a world that is now long gone. Perhaps, it is Austen’s ability to write a protagonist that is simultaneously frustratingly privileged and able to be empathised with. Or, most likely, your personal enjoyment of the text stems from a combination of various aspects of the novel.
Draw on your own experiences, memories and values to evaluate how the novel has impacted you as an individual. By doing so, you are showing to the marker that you have established a personal connection to the text in a unique way that could not have been achieved with any other student. Note that the rubric also states the importance of developing an ‘intellectual connection’ with the text, meaning you must be able to express to the marker what the text has taught you. Perhaps, it may have even made you a better writer. Regardless, the notion of forming a personal response to the play is arguably the most important, defining aspect of Module B.
Though the 19th Century was one of spectacular change in many respects, Western society never did seem to entirely overcome the problematic nature of having a social order, with remnants of this ideology of inherited ‘worth’ being present even in today’s culture. The ethics held by British Regency of placing value or limits on an individual’s potential based purely on their connections, reputation and name was a contextual issue that evoked composers of the time to respond to and, ultimately, critique. In Emma, the satirisation of the eponymous character and her immensely small, fragile world belittles and mocks her shameful attitudes and, by extension, British Regency perspectives on being ‘confined to the society of the illiterate and vulgar.’ The hyperbolic language draws attention to Emma’s rather ridiculous reservations about any world that does not coincide with her own. That is, instead of the contemporary belief that all individuals should have the opportunity of earning a good life, Austen’s society looked down on new money. Unlike today, it was a society not so much obsessed with wealth than name, reputation, connections and heritage.
In fact, Austen purposely uses her text as a medium to challenge the selfish apathy of her context. This is evident in the Bildungsroman element of the text. At the beginning, Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever and rich,’ is reluctantly aware of her own inability to progress in any meaningful way, but eventually finds herself evolving into a less superficial, more empathetic and open-minded outlook, especially towards those not as fortunate as her (for example, Miss Bates). Her character development is, perhaps, Austen’s subtle, allegorical commentary on her hope that the society and context in which she lives in will come to value one’s potential for moral prosperity, rather than simply their inheritance and family name.
One of the most pertinent ideas in Emma is that of marriage. After all, the events of the novel are arguably instigated by the marriage between Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, which Emma takes pride in for being their ‘matchmaker’ of sorts.
It is no surprise that marriage is so strongly explored in the novel. In Regency England, it of often seen an indicator of one’s social status, whereas love was often sidelined as a priority. For instance, when Emma proposes potential husbands to Harriet, she does so based purely on wealth and manners (which, by extension, reflects their social standing) rather than what Austen believes marriage should be based on – love, personality and chemistry. In fact, essentially all of the couples that ultimately end up together affirm these notions of class. The marriages of Emma and Mr Knightley, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and Harriet and Mr Martin are all appropriate to the societal ranks of each person involved. This is not to say that they do not show affection and genuine attraction to one another, but their maintenance of Regency values shows audiences the restrictiveness of Austen’s world.
Unsurprisingly, the Regency Era was dictated by a plethora of gender norms and rules. As an intelligent woman, Austen often used her novels as a medium through which she could express this frustration of her society’s treatment of women. This is particularly true of the double standard that is present in Emma, where men are shown to be physically, intellectually and socially dominant, whereas the women of the novel constantly aim to achieve a standard of moral purity. They are deemed to only be suited for domestic lives and are almost never allowed to develop themselves beyond being an ‘Angel of the House.’ This is evident in the fact that Ms Goddard’s boarding school is described to never produce any geniuses. In turn, it can be extrapolated that, in the Regency Era, a woman’s reputation was at much higher constant risk than their male counterparts.
This is also true in considering the intricate gender dynamics of marriages. Men held the social advantage in that they were the ones who initiated courtship and proposed. For instance, the events that unfold between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill imply that the woman is at the man’s mercy when it comes to how the courtship and engagement proceed. In fact, Frank flirts with Emma throughout the entire novel and gives every indication that he wants to marry her. Yet, he turns out to be engaged to Jane this entire time, who is never offered an opportunity to speak up. The audience never even gets a real hint of their relationship until Mr. Knightley concludes that the couple was, indeed, a couple. Of course, the novel also shows how the women manipulate their ways into the view of the men they wanted to marry, using many different tricks and machinations to get there. The titular character is a perfect example of this, playing matchmaker and meddling with others’ perceptions so that she can get her way. Nonetheless, during Austen’s time, men held the upper hand in almost all aspects of civil life.
Superficiality and frivolity
As mentioned in section 2.1, Regency England was a time of extreme excess for the upper classes of society. In turn, this led to a whole caste of people living lives of superficiality and frivolity – spending their time on intricate social dances and machinations instead of focusing on more ‘legitimate’ issues such as the political tensions of their society.
The titular character’s journey is centred around the notion of moving from a life of superficiality and vanity and into maturation, in line with the text’s Bildungsroman genre. At the beginning of the novel, Emma does not seem to care about the feelings of the people involved in her schemes or the consequences of her actions. She is rather blinded by her own image of herself, suggested by the quote, ‘The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.’ She is constantly obsessed with being admired and proving herself worthy in the eyes of others. However, by the end of the novel, it is clear that this superficiality is not what is at the core of Emma’s character. She eventually discovers, after failures such as meddling with Harriet’s love life, that feelings love must always take their natural course. She becomes more sincerely compassionate regarding her friends and family, gradually realising her true character and the superiority of personal virtues.
Writing a Critical Study of Literature response
What to expect from Paper 2
Now that you have familiarised yourself with precisely what NESA is asking of you in this module and in the novel, you should know what to expect from Paper 2. The following is a summary of key points about Paper 2:
- Paper 2 consists of three sections
- Section I – Module A response
- Section II – Module B response
- Section III – Module C response
- It will be 2 hours of writing time, with an additional 5 minutes reading time (you will not be able to mark your page in any way during this time)
- This means you should be devoting approximately 40 minutes to each section. While you don’t have to evenly divide time between the three modules, we recommend that you stick to this guideline as much as possible
- All parts are out of 20 marks each
- You must only write in blue or black pen
Being a guide to Module B, this study guide will focus on Section II. This section is relatively straightforward in that you are given one question only. This will most likely ask for a full essay with an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion, but it is also possible that you may be expected to write a personal reflection or any other type of persuasive texts. Another note to keep in mind is that you may be asked to respond to a particular extract of the novel. Regardless, all questions will draw from any aspect of the Critical Study of Literature rubric (including specifying form!), though it may sometimes include quotes or rewrite statements from the rubric in a different way. You must come prepared having studied Emma in great depth. After all, Module B essentially evaluates how much you know about a single work of literature.
Constructing an essay
In any English essay, the following structure should generally be followed.
- Introduction: 6 sentences maximum, approximately 150 words
- General statement about the module (e.g. ‘Literature has the ability to make its mark on the world in more ways than one.’)
- Clear, direct and explicit thesis statement that defines key terms of the question and makes a judgement on the question asked
- Introduction of the text
- Text and composer (Emma, Jane Austen), date of publication (1815) and form (satirical/bildungsroman novel)
- Brief explanation of 3 – 4 arguments
- What idea you will use to centre your body paragraphs around – this may be a specific theme or structural feature
- Conclude using an evaluative adverb to demonstrate how you will develop a thoughtful response
- 3 – 4 body paragraphs: 200 – 300 words each
- Topic sentence: explicitly reference language from the question, restate your thesis in terms of your theme
- Context/elaborate sentence(s): emphasise more specifically what you mean by the topic sentence, providing any necessary information that the marker must understand about the novel before delving into the analysis. Two sentences maximum
- Analysis: using evidence to support your topic and elaboration sentences – there must be a direct link or progression of logic made between the analysis and the argument. Deconstruct approximately three quotes, but ensure that you are focused on quality over quantity
- Concluding sentence: use an evaluative adverb such as purposefully, cleverly, insightfully (e.g. Significantly, this text projects the necessity of … ) in order to assess the question and your argument as a whole
- Conclusion: approximately 3 sentences
- Re-address main ideas/topic sentences of body paragraphs
- Make an overall judgement about the novel in terms of the question
- Optional: finish with an insightful afterthought about the role of texts in allowing us to better understand the human condition
Of course, this is only a general guide to writing a sound essay. As frustrating as it can be to hear, there is simply no single scaffold you can follow to impress a marker, as each module will have different requirements, every student’s writing style will differ, and markers will have different tastes.
The most important advice to keep in mind when writing an essay is to have a strong thesis. Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is, not simply a restatement of the question. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the play. If you state this thesis at throughout your body paragraphs (not simply the topic and concluding sentences), your essay will have a strong argument and persuade the marker that you are confident in your case. It is similarly important to ensure that your arguments always come back to Critical Study of Literature. That is, you should be able to clearly explain how your quotes or ideas are relevant to the themes in your prescribed text.
Over the course of this study guide, the notion of ‘personal responses’ have been emphasised a lot. In fact, this aspect of the module is so important that it is very possible that you will be asked to write a personal reflection of your text.
Firstly, there is no strict introduction-body-conclusion structure that you should follow. You may choose to simply write your response in normal paragraphs. Your paragraphs can be in chronological order – that is, they detail the progression of your learning over time – or they can be grouped thematically like you would in an essay. You still need quotes, examples and analyses, but you do not have to follow PEEL or any other paragraph structure. Above all, write what feels natural to you.
The tone of the personal reflection should be, obviously, quite personal. You may use first-person pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘my,’ which you should avoid when writing formal essays. The way in which you discuss the text should also be more intimate. Instead of describing what the text is about, you should focus more on how it made you personally think and feel. This style of response can also invite colloquial language! Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.
These two aspects tie into the purpose of personal responses. Unlike formal essays, which attempt to present the ‘facts’ about a text in a cold, hard way, personal responses should only be used to present how you feel about the prescribed text. You are not just persuading the audience of something (although your response should still serve this purpose!), you are putting forward your own thoughts and perspectives. Hence, your response should reflect this purpose.
Despite being written two centuries ago, Emma is a work that continue to permeate the opinions, beliefs and thoughts of individuals today. Austen artfully captures what it means to be human in a time of great change and distress. She looks at issues that are relevant to audiences of her era through her distinctly Regency Era tone while remaining universally relevant. As a student learning about this module and this great artist’s works, it is not only important to understand the text well, but to explore it through the lens of the Critical Study of Literature rubric. Above all, it is extremely important to maintain a focused attitude and show to markers your personal ideas and beliefs about the novel.
- Avoid writing memorised responses. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay or a creative response
- Write lots and lots of practise responses. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing responses out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference
- It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the texts could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between theme and form