When it comes to English at GCSE, language and literature are very different. Your English language GCSE focuses on writing for effect such as to persuade, to describe, to argue etc, whereas English literature is centred on studying important historical fiction texts such as novels, plays, and poems.

Such literary works are split up differently depending on your exam syllabus. Generally speaking, you will answer a question on the writings of Shakespeare, modern poetry, modern drama texts, and nineteenth century prose.

When it comes to 19th century prose, the focus is very much on British literature of the time that was influenced in one way or another by romanticism in the eighteenth century. The piece of prose fiction that you study will depend on the exam board that you do your English literature GCSE with. This is because AQA differs slightly from Edexcel which differs slightly from OCR, and so on.

However, it is likely that you will study one of the following novels:

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The War of the Worlds by H G Wells
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

You will be expected to how the language and structure used by the novelist impact on the how the text is read. To do this, the exam question will focus on aspects including themes, ideas, plot development, and language.

In this blog we will look at the plot, themes and characters of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, as well as how to tackle an English literature question on either of these two texts.

reviewing in silence
Reading one of the English language's greatest novels can be a rewarding experience (Source: pixabay)

A Christmas Carol

Plot

Ebenezer Scrooge is an old, cold-hearted man who hates Christmas. One Christmas Eve he is visited by four different spirits; his old business partner Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Between them they show him the effect of his behaviour on the people around him, and he is relieved that there is still time for him to change his ways in order to avoid an unpleasant future.

Characters

  • Ebenezer Scrooge: The main character in the novella, Scrooge is a miserly owner of a London counting house. He hates Christmas but he is visited by four spirits on Christmas eve in an attempt to get him to change his ways.
  • Bob Cratchit: A timid and poor man who works in poor conditions as Scrooge’s clerk. His son, Tiny Tim, is the vehicle through which the three Christmas ghosts show Scrooge the impact of his actions.
  • Tiny Tim: Bob Cratchit’s young and crippled son. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows the family struggling with Tiny Tim’s health. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge that Tiny Tim has passed away.
  • Jacob Marley: Scrooge’s business partner whilst he was still alive but shown to be wandering around in heavy chains after death. He is the first ghost to visit Scrooge and he attempts to save Scrooge from the same fate.
  • Fred: Scrooge’s positive, persistent, Christmas-loving nephew who invites him to Christmas dinner every year only to be constantly turned down by his grumpy uncle.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past: The first Ghost to visit Scrooge with a strong light emanating from its head. It shows Scrooge scenes from happier times including his childhood and early adulthood.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present: The second Ghost to visit Scrooge is a huge apparition. He shows Scrooge how Bob Cratchit and Fred are spending Christmas day.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: The third and final Ghost doesn’t speak. He glides along, showing Scrooge a funeral scene and then the Cratchit’s house where it is found that Tiny Tim has died. Finally, he shows Scrooge his own tombstone at which point Scrooge pleads to be given the chance to change his ways and avoid dying sad and alone.

    Which are the best Christmas carols?
    Christmas is a great time of year for some, but not for Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (Source: Pexels)

Themes

  • Social Injustice: A key theme in all of Dicken’s novels is how Victorian society treated its poorest members. The rich feasted at Christmas whilst children lived and worked in terrible conditions in workhouses. Dickens exhibits social injustice through Scrooge refusing to give money to charity and the character of Ignorance and Want who hide under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes.
  • Redemption: Scrooge starts the novel as a selfish and miserly old man. However, he sees the error of his ways and by the end he has transformed into a generous man who is welcomed into the homes of his friends and family.
  • Forgiveness: Scrooge is one of the most impoverished characters in A Christmas Carol; he is sad and alone and is on course for a terrible fate. He is surrounded by financially poor people, but all of whom are filled with kindness and they show Scrooge the true meaning of goodness when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes him on a tour of their homes on Christmas day. No matter how badly he has treated characters like Bob Cratchit and Fred, his is forgiven and welcomed in by them at the end.

How to Answer an Example Question

A GCSE question on poetry will ask you to compare two poems. However, a GCSE English Literature question on A Christmas Carol will more than likely give you an extract from the text around which you should base your answer.

It is important to remember that to get the higher marks you should not only focus on the extract given, but rather bring the whole novel into your answer. Yes, the extract is important, but how it fits in to the wider text is important as well.

So, let’s take the example of a question about how Scrooge’s changed nature is portrayed. You will be given an extract (likely from the end of the novel where Scrooge has seen the error of his ways) and you will have to use this to show how is portrayed as a changed man, whilst also drawing on other parts of the novel to demonstrate the changes compared to earlier behaviour.

The first thing to do is to look through the extract and find evidence that shows Scrooge’s changed nature. To do this, you should look at the language used. What does Scrooge say? How does Dickens describe him and his actions?

Once you have done this, you can begin to plan your answer. This should focus on Scrooge’s behaviour and how he talks during the extract. You can then use this to compare with Scrooge’s behaviour and how he talks at the start of the novel to show the changes.

Using a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structures combined with good spelling and grammar will also boost the score that the examiner gives you.

Jane Eyre

Plot

Jane Eyre chronicles the life of a young orphaned girl who shows a lot of courage and determination to overcome constant struggles and obstacles in her life. From her cruel aunt, to the terrible conditions at her school, and to finding out that the man she loves is already married, Jane battles on to get the better of each challenge that life throws at her.

Jane Eyre
Victorian England was a difficult place for some people to live. (Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via VisualHunt / No known copyright restrictions)

Characters

  • Jane Eyre: The passionate and outspoken orphan is the title character and narrator of the novel. The novel starts with her living with her cruel aunt and her school life is equally is miserable. As she grows up, she falls in love with Edward Rochester, they decide to marry, but the revelation that he already has a wife leads her to run away and live penniless on the streets until she is taken in by the Rivers. She eventually marries Rochester.
  • Edward Rochester: He is the master of Thornfield who is dark and passionate. Secretly he has an insane wife, Bertha Mason, and he has suffered for a long time although he has also made his own fair share of indiscretions. He hires Jane to teach his foster daughter and later wants to marry her. Jane leaves him at the altar when she learns he is married but she later returns to find he has lost his sight in a fire started by Bertha. He marries Jane.
  • St. John Rivers: His cold and reserved nature is the complete opposite to Rochester. He takes Jane in when she leaves Rochester at the altar. He proposes to Jane as he believes she would make a good missionary’s wife, but Jane declines as she doesn’t love him.
  • Aunt Reed: Jane’s cruel aunt who raises the orphan and treats her badly. When Jane learns that her aunt is on her deathbed, she tries to reconcile with her, but she finds that she is still met with resentment due to aunt Reed’s husband loving Jane more than his own children. She dies alone and unloved by her children.
  • John Reed: Jane’s cousin who hates her just as much as aunt Reed. Overestimating his own importance as heir to the family’s wealth, he is arrogant and selfish. He is an alcoholic and is addicted to gambling and commits suicide when his mother stops paying off his debts.
  • Helen Burns: Jane’s closest friend at school, she is continuously harassed by her teachers but always remains dignified and never voices her opinions. She accepts her failings and sees the world through others’ eyes, but Jane wishes she would stand up for herself more. She dies in Jane’s arms.

Themes

  • Social class: This theme is found at every turn in Jane Eyre as it impacts on everything each character can and can’t do, as was the case in Victorian England. Jane has a lack of money which influences how others view her. Jane taking on the role of governess and showing a level of independence and willingness to support herself was uncommon at the time that the novel was written.
  • Gender relations: All of Jane’s struggles ultimately stem from patriarchal oppression. Characters such as Edward Rochester and St. John Rivers want to control Jane to a certain extent. She rejects Rivers and only marries Rochester when she can be sure they will marry as equals, and even then he is blind and must rely more on Jane than when they first try to get married.
  • Love vs hate: These two opposing emotions are shown through Jane’s relationships. The Reed family are said to detest Jane, Jane loves Helen Burns when she goes to school, and Bertha’s hatred towards Jane becomes visible as she tries to show her love toward Rochester by marrying him.

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    Studying for GCSE English literature doesn't need to feel like an uphill task. (Image by silviarita from Pixabay)

How to Answer an Example Question

Just like GCSE questions on post 1914 drama/prose, any GCSE English literature 19th century prose question will give you an extract which will be used to answer the question. This extract should be the starting point for your answer, but you should always try to expand it out to include some analysis of the novel as a whole.

A potential question for Jane Eyre could relate to how Charlotte Brontë portrays Jane’s character in a given extract. Regardless of what that is, you should approach this task in the same way. Start by underlining each part of the extract that relates to Jane’s character. It could be how she reacts to a situation, or what she says to a particular character. You will have to analyse the language used in these parts to explain how her character is portrayed.

From this point you can start planning your answer. Pick two or three key characteristics shown in the extract to focus on and build your answer around these. What evidence is there to show this? What language does Brontë choose to use? What structures does she use?

These are the things that you need to analyse within the extract, but also think about the characteristics that you have chosen and how they are shown elsewhere in the novel. Think about what Jane is like in regard to how she is expected to behave in Victorian times when the story is set.

The final ingredient to add is good spelling and grammar, as well as a good variety of sentence structures to impress the examiner.

Why Choose Superprof?

As we have seen in this blog, novelists and their acclaimed works can be quite intimidating when it comes to GCSE English literature. Just like studying poets and each poem that they have written; you will need quite a developed understanding of the text and the context in which the novels were written in order to get a good grade.

Literary studies, and in this case Victorian literature, at GCSE therefore sometime require some extra guidance to either explain things in more detail, or just to make sure that you are on the right track.

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