When it comes to English, language and literature are not as similar as you might think. The differences will become particularly apparent when you take your GCSEs and you will see that English language is more about the different purposes of writing (such as creative writing, writing to advise, writing to persuade, writing to argue etc).

English literature on the other hand is almost a celebration of the fine writers and poets who have contributed to world renowned bodies of work such as poems, novels, and plays.

Your English literature GCSE will take on a journey through the works of Shakespeare, post 1789 poems, and novels from the nineteenth century. It will also include a part on post 1914 prose/drama which will involve you studying either a novel or a play.

The text that you study will depend largely on which exam board you take your English literature exam with because, although there is a large amount of overlap, there are differences between the specifications of exam boards such as AQA, Edexcel, OCR, and Eduqas but to name a few.

However, some of the more common post 1914 prose/drama texts are the following:

  • An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley
  • Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Anita and Me by Meera Syal
  • DNA by Dennis Kelly
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The exact way that you will need to approach these literary works will depend on your exam board, but generally speaking you will study only one and have to answer a question on that text.

This is different to the poem part of your GCSE where you will have to compare two poems. The post 1914 prose/drama question will only focus on one previously chosen text that you must have read (long) before exam day.

In this blog we will look at two texts; An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley and Animal Farm by George Orwell. We will look at each in turn, examining the plot, themes, and characters, as well as looking at how to answer an exam question.

A large stack of books.
Post 1914 prose/drama at GCSE includes a number of famous books and plays

An Inspector Calls

Plot

Set in an English manufacturing town just before the start of the First World War, An Inspector Calls is a play which sees the Birling family visited by Inspector Goole whilst they are celebrating the engagement of their daughter. The inspector is investigating the apparent suicide of a young girl who had seemingly named members of the family in her diary, and all of whom appear to have connections to her. After he leaves, it becomes clear that the Inspector wasn’t who he claimed to have been and there was no suicide. However, the play ends with a telephone call informing them that the police are on their way over to question them about a suicide.

Main Characters

  • Arthur Birling: Owner of a manufacturing company and father of the family. He is the host of the dinner part during which the play is set. He learns no lessons about the errors of his ways and is delighted to find out Inspector Goole is an imposter.
  • Sybil Birling: Arthur’s wife and Sheila’s mother. She is cold hearted and somewhat ignorant and condemns her own son without meaning to under questioning from Inspector Goole.
  • Sheila Birling: Daughter of Arthur and Sybil, she is celebrating her engagement to Gerald Croft when the Inspector calls. Although she starts off as being quite naïve and immature, she begins to grow up and stand up for herself more. By the end she has accepted that there are consequences to her actions, something that her parents fail to do.
  • Eric Birling: Sheila’s older brother. He has a drinking problem that the family chooses to ignore by when the Inspector reveals that he is the father to a child born out of wedlock the family have to face some uncomfortable truths about his lifestyle.
  • Gerald Croft: Engaged to Sheila and from a family with a higher social standing which is of concern to Arthur. His confident demeanour evades him when he realises that Eva has changed her name to Daisy and Sheila finds out that he has had an affair.
  • Inspector Goole: Supposedly from the local police force, he arrives during the engagement celebrations and questions each member of the family in turn. However, at the end it is revealed that he isn’t actually from the police and the playwright leaves it up to the audience to decide who he really is.
  • Eva Smith/Daisy Renton: We never see Eva so her character is built from what the Inspector tells us and the interactions that she has had with the other characters. The Inspector shows her photo to one character at a time which leads to suspicions that they might not all be talking about the same person. She organises a wage strike at Arthur’s factory showing her bravery and her sensitivity is shown through her diary entries regarding Gerald.

    New musicals premiere in classical theatres every year
    An Inspector Calls has been performed at theatres in the UK since 1946. (Image by MustangJoe from Pixabay)

Themes

  • Social responsibility: This is one of the biggest themes running through the play. Through the way that each character treats Eva based on her position in society, we can see how different people interact with their responsibility towards the less fortunate. Some characters accept the responsibility of the consequences of their actions (Sheila and Eric), whilst others completely reject the idea that they had anything to do with her death (Arthur and Sybil).
  • Generational differences: Priestley is very eager to show that the younger generations can learn from their mistakes. Given that his play was first performed in the UK in 1946, the importance of learning from the mistakes that led to the two world wars was important. In the play, Arthur and Sybil both don’t see their mistakes whereas the younger Sheila and Eric both do.
  • Gender: The theme of gender is shown in a number of ways including how Eva is treated by different characters including Sybil, how Gerald and Arthur both talk about women, and the construction that Eva was strong willed and outspoken before she died.

How to Answer an Exam Question

Much like the question that you will answer on Shakespeare at GCSE, the questions on post-1914 prose/drama usually include an extract around which you should base your answer. However, it is important to remember that you shouldn’t just focus on this extract. You need to draw from the wider novel/play as a whole and see how the extract given fits in.

For example, if the extract asks you to examine a particular character, you need to first think about how the character is portrayed in the extract, but then also how does this fit in with what we know about the character as a whole? Does it show a change in their characteristics? Does it lay the foundation for a change that we see happen later on?

Let’s take an example question about how the author portrays Sheila in the play. Go through the extract you are given and highlight the keywords or phrases that tell us about Sheila’s character. Once you have done this, make a few notes about her character overall in the play. Is it the same as in the extract? Or is it a contrast to how she is portrayed elsewhere?

Once you have done this you can begin to plan your answer:

1) Introduction: Place the extract in the overall context of the play.

2) Who is Sheila Birling?

3) Point 1: How is Sheila represented in this extract? What language and structure does the author use to explain this?

4) Point 2: How is Sheila portrayed in the rest of the play? Is that the same or different from this extract?

5) Conclusion: Draw everything together and sum up your answer.

You can write your statement of purpose from a checklist of ideas
Having a good checklist can help you plan the perfect answer (Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay)

Animal Farm

Plot

Animal Farm is a novel about a group of farm animals who revolt against the farmer on the farm where they live in order to create a more equal and happier place to live. However, this is used as a way to base the novel on the Russian revolution of 1917.

Characters

  • Napoleon: Based on Joseph Stalin, he is the pig who leads Animal Farm after the rebellion. He uses his attack dogs to intimidate the other animals.
  • Snowball: Challenges Napoleon for control of Animal Farm. He is based on Trotsky and is less devious than Napoleon. He earns the support of the other animals.
  • Boxer: A strong and loyal cart-horse. He clearly believes in Animal Farm’s ideals and is always on hand to help but he places too much trust in the pigs.
  • Squealer: The spreader of Napoleon’s propaganda, including giving out incorrect numbers which point to the farm’s success.
  • Old Major: Inspires the rebellion with his dream for a socialist utopia. He has the vision for the utopia which he describes to the others but he dies before it can be made a true reality. He is based on Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
  • Benjamin: A donkey who remains uninspired by the revolution. He doesn’t believe life will change but he appears to be the only one who fully understands the changes that the pigs are implementing.

Themes

  • Power: This is probably the central theme of Animal Farm. Orwell shows Mr Jones as an authoritarian figure who exploits the animals and keeps them in a position of weakness. The animals then use their collective power to take over the farm in a move which surprises the humans. However once in power, the pigs cleverly use propaganda and disinformation to exert their power over the other animals.
  • Class: Each character in Animal Farm symbolises an aspect of the Russian revolution. The farmer, Mr Jones, is the Tsar who is incompetent and overfed whilst his animals don’t have enough to eat. But the united classes (in this case animals) become divided once the common enemy (Mr Jones) has been overthrown, and a new class structure establishes itself.
  • Equality: At the beginning, there is strong inequality between the animals and the humans. The animals take over to ensure more equality, however, more inequality subsequently develops from the new power structure.

    Analysing the novel Animal Farm
    Animal Farm is based on Lenin's revolution which ended the Russian Empire in 1917.

Approaching an Exam Question

An exam question on Animal Farm, just like any question on post 1914 prose/drama, will likely give you an extract from the text to base your answer around. Always remember that this extract should be the starting point, but you should always put it in to the context of the novel/ as a whole.

Let’s take an example question that looks at how Orwell uses Old Major to explore ideas about inequality. To start with, you should go through the extract that you have been given to highlight key words and phrases where these ideas are discussed. Once you have done this, think about elsewhere in the novel where inequality is explored, and how is this similar/ different to this passage?

At this point you can start planning your answer. Remember to include an introduction at the start to show what you will talk about and how the extract fits in to the wider novel, as well as a conclusion at the end to draw together your ideas in a short summary. You will need to include a number of points in the main body of your essay.

When it comes to discussing inequality, you should start with Old Major and how he highlights it, but don’t neglect how the animals aim to take back the farm to restore equality, and finally how inequality returns under the new power structure created by the pigs.

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