Developing context in the pre-1900 question – Rossetti and A Doll’s House

Reading Time: 5 minutes Sometimes my students probably think I’m either a sadistic, a bit loopy, or both. I LOVE this question from the.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Sometimes my students probably think I’m either a sadistic, a bit loopy, or both. I LOVE this question from the OCR comparative pre-1900 paper:

Endings are always, in some sense, artificial.’
In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers conclude their work.

And the reason I love it is because it’s SO GOOD for teaching them how to address the balance of assessment objectives. It’s so easy with this question to ignore the fact that it’s 50% context.

There’s an OCR blog that explores what context actually is in more detail, including some examples and this nifty little graphic

Essay writing’s a tricky thing. A ‘good’ English essay doesn’t exist; it depends what you’re looking for, and that ‘what’ often includes things like the balance of language detail, context, or thinking aloud. Academic papers tend to be shorter on linguistic analysis, bigger on thinking aloud. GCSE papers are more about linguistic usage. The AOs are important for ‘shading’ your answer, which is the language OCR examiner training used when I did it. The idea is that you place the essay in the band, and then ‘shade’ the mark depending on the balance of assessment objectives.

So we tend to advise students to basically do a couple of things:

·       Address the dominant AO in the introduction

·       Shape the essay with that in mind. Usually, this manifests as topic sentences that are context-based for this question.

They don’t learn the percentages of the AOs or anything like that; it’s more that they know the focus of this question is context, that one is close analysis.

This question, then:

 Endings are always, in some sense, artificial.’
In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers conclude their work.

Would be SO SO easy to write as an essay shaded towards AO2, writers’ methods. But that’s not what we want.

I also think our Rossetti and A Doll’s House combination is a gift for this question, which helps.


Mind-map some aspects of context first and then for each one, attach the texts:

E.g. gender, power, class struggle/conflict/difference, love and marriage, economics, masculinity, femininity, biographical information,

·       GENDER: While the ending of Goblin Market restores order in the form of female femininity and traditional domesticity, Nora’s ‘door slam that reverberated around the world’ leaves open the question of what happens when women rebel against their traditional gender roles. Rossetti’s is the more artificial because it feels, particularly to a modern audience, forced into a fable-like morality tale at odds with the sexualised portrayal of the goblins’ attack.

·       CLASS STRUGGLE: Nora’s leaving throws into sharp relief the fragility of the middle-class lifestyle; while Krogstad and Mrs Linde seem to be on their way to recovering some element of financial stability, Helmer’s reputation at the bank is destroyed and Nora may well be on her way to the watery death that she earlier envisioned for herself, bereft of genuine marketable skills. Rossetti’s middle-class upbringing, with its relatively stable financial background, is perhaps manifest in the poetry regarding proposals; Rossetti herself was able to reject and end several engagements without fear – unlike, say, Austen’s heroines the Dashwood and Bennett sisters, who were crucially aware of their reliance on husbands for their future welfare. Rossetti’s poems Maude Clare and No, Thank You John, both explore ideas of women either rejecting men (No, Thank You, which has a definitive ending of female certainty but potentially shutting herself out from social expectations of her role) or accepting second best; Maude Clare’s Nell seems defiant in her final ‘I’ll love him till he loves me best’, but it is possible there is an element beyond love in her need to marry.

·       MASCULINITY: Both are interesting in that they disempower men, at a time when female suffrage campaigns are developing, the concept of the New Woman / matinee girl is emerging, and women are increasingly looking for employment as well as romantic independence. Helmer is powerless to stop his life disintegrating, with Nora leaving him alone with the children and disgraced at the bank. Dr Rank’s death comes after romantic disappointment when Nora’s response to his declaration is to chastise him for straying beyond the boundaries of innocent flirtation, while Krogstad’s blames his descent into financial ruin on Mrs Linde’s leaving him – hardly an empowered position. Even forming a relationship with Mrs Linde at the end is ambiguous as it’s almost entirely at her instigation and framed as her need for someone to care for – he feels as though he’s being pulled along without truly knowing what’s happening to him. In Rossetti, the men are almost entirely disempowered. We presume the speaker in Winter: My Secret is male only because of the flirtatious tone and traditional expectations – but he remains voiceless and left to the speaker’s whims. Thomas in Maude Clare is a pathetic, stammering mess, John is rejected in increasingly firm tones (reminiscent of Lizzie Bennett’s final retorts to Mr Collins – “My feelings in every respect forbid it.”), and Skene in The Round Tower might superficially appear to be the more masculine but in fact fails to protect his wife except by their suicide pact and during the dialogue between them it’s easy to mistake one for the other. Where Rossetti does give men power, they’re either functioning in the position of God – Shut Out – or as the means of destroying women, like the goblins, a critique of male failure to take responsibility for their moral corruption of women no doubt influenced by her time at Magdalen House. In terms of endings, the poems first mentioned here create a representation of weak men; not artificial, but shining a light on the realities that can exist.

What do you think?

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