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Understanding techniques

Sometimes, when writers deal with specific situations or people, they are also trying to address major themes about life and the world in which we live. Techniques are the elements that a writer brings to his or her story to emphasise the theme on which they are focusing.

To score highly in your critical essay, you must show that you understand what techniques a writer has used to convey themes in both the specific and the wider context. Your essay should show that you've come away from reading the poem, novel, short story or play with a deeper understanding of these themes.

Example 1

The linking of technique and theme is central to the effectiveness of literature.

As a children's story Little Red Riding Hood is a tale about a little girl almost eaten by a wily wolf. In its wider context the story represents the universal theme of evil attempting to destroy goodness; the threat of deceit and malevolence against trust and innocence.

It uses two techniques to get these themes across.


The interior of the grandmother's cottage and the external danger in the forest contrast to represent safety and civilisation in opposition to danger and wilderness. The domestic setting of the mother's house is lost as the little girl's journey takes her off the pathway; she is drawn into the woods representing the world's hidden dangers.


By using traditional characters representing good and evil, order and disorder, innocence and corruption, the story represents a wider universal theme of the power of order and civilisation over destruction and death.

Little Red Riding Hood is the innocent, trusting girl, unaware of the world's dangers. The wolf represents the deceitful, malevolent, murderous chaos of the world. The grandmother is a helpless victim, easy prey for the opportunistic wrongdoer. The father represents a stabilising influence, the restorer of order and justice.

Example 2

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is the opening sentence of the well-known novel 1984 by George Orwell. The main character is called Winston. He lives in a totalitarian state which seeks to control all aspects of its citizens' lives.

It's not coincidental that Orwell chose to set the beginning of his novel in a raw day in April. But we have to think about why he did and about the significance of that setting.

He uses two techniques in the sentence above.


One of the ways in which 1984 develops is that we get to know Winston and share with him his experience of falling in love. Because the scene is set in April, there is a sense of optimism with the anticipated return of the sun and of summer. This mirrors Winston's state of mind; he is love-struck and looking forward with new hope. The bright spring day also represents Winston leaving behind the harshness of the forbidding, totalitarian regime.


There is also some dark humour in the sentence. In the reference to the clock striking thirteen we get a sense of the anarchy and disorder lurking in the story. Clearly an indicator that there is disjointed world ahead of us.


Technique and significance have to be linked in a critical essay!


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