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Critical essay help

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  • Message 1. 

    Posted by Pink Koala (U15710797) on Tuesday, 30th April 2013

    I am doing Higher English this year and have never been good at writing critical essays. I have never properly been told how to write them.

    I looked up how to do essay structures online and then did a few essays at home but my teacher gave them very bad grades. Is there a structure that I could use for my essays which would make them better?

    I have written an essay below on "The Kite Runner" which didn't get good marks from my teacher but she never fully explained why.

    In Khaled Hosseini's novel, "The Kite Runner", the central character, Amir, successfully faces up to a challenge. Spanning 20 years and 2 continents between 1975 and 2001, the novel tells a story of suffering and atonement as seen through the eyes of Amir, the omnicient narrator. Set against a background of war in Afghanistan and the rise of Taliban oppression, the author addresses issues of betrayal and the persistence of the past. In saving Hassan's son, Sohrab from sexual abuse, Amir faces his biggest challenge and finds his way to "be good again".

    As a child, Amir fails to save his closest friend, Hassan from rape, so he can bring back the blue kite, the Kite Tourament winner's trophy and the key to Baba's heart. However, the irony is that instead of becoming closer to his father, he does exactly what his father is against and instead of becoming happier because of his closer relationship with his father, Amir is overcome with guilt for the rest of his life. Baba said, " A boy who can't stand up for himself becomes a man who can't stand up for anything". By failing to save Hassan, Amir becomes the son Baba feared he would be. This cowardly incident becomes Amir's way to atone for his earlier sins and finally stand up for what is right.

    When Amir fights Assef as an adult to save Sohrab from sexual abuse, there is a direct parallel with the fight Amir should have had with Assef as a child to save Hassan from the rape. Therefore, Amir atones for his sins by saving Sohrab and taking him back to America to try and treat him as he should have treated Hassan. After winning the Kite Fighting Tournament, Hassan shouted to Amir, " for you a thousand times over". This shows that Hassan would do anything for Amir which makes Amir's betrayal even more tragic. However, in fighting Assef to protect Sohrab, Amir does everything to save Hassan's son and redeems himself. By fighting Assef, Amir successfully faces up to his challenge, however it could be said that he never trult atones because Sohrab takes out Assef's eye with a catapult to allow them to escape, paralleling Hassan protecting Amir from fights as children. As, in the end, it is Sohrab that saves Amir, one could say that Amir never truly learns to stand up for himself.

    Amir was severely injured in the fight, one of the injuries being a burst lip. The burst lip is significant because it healed but left a permenant scar, like Hassan's after the operation. The permenant scar shows that Amir has finally learnt his lesson and treated Sohrab as he should have treated Hassan like Hassan did for him. The two parts of Amir's lips coming together symbolises that he has treated the two races of Afghanistan, Pashtun and Hazara equally. Amir made a sacrifice to stand up for what is right and Hosseini is saying that people in Afghanistan need to make a sacrifice and stand up for what is right to "be good again". By facing up to his challenge, Amir has faced his fears and has taken the step that Afghanistan needs to take to atone for their sins.

    "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hossein is a complex novel which explores the timeless the, of the importance of doing what is right, even if it involves sacrifice and it portrays the cruelty of war. I found the novel very thought-provoking and although it exposed the harsh realities of war in Afghanistan, this allows the reader to understand the main themes more clearly and feel empathy for Amir. Amir will always be emotionally scarred from his past experiences but he has found a way to move on and remain hopeful for the future.

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  • Message 2

    , in reply to message 1.

    Posted by bitesize_english_teacher (U15197928) on Tuesday, 30th April 2013

    Yes, there is definitely a structure to follow. The secret is to identify the key words of the task in the question and to use these words in topic sentences at the start of paragraphs, so that you relate each point back to the task in the question.

    This is the problem with the sample essay you posted. It seems to be an answer to a question about "facing up to a challenge" but you lose sight of this topic as the essay goes on. Your paragraphs don't open with a sentence that refers back to the task. By the end of the essay, you have started talking about something completely different (themes, reality of war, etc).

    Here is some general advice on critical essay construction which I hope will be of help to you. There are some examples of topic sentences using 'Macbeth', which is a popular text in many schools. Even if you are not doing this text, the method can be applied to any other text).

    The most likely reason for a poor critical essay performance is that the essay fails to answer the question asked. No matter how well you know your play, poem or novel, your essay will not be good enough if it doesn’t address the question.

    The most important sentences in any critical essay are the ones at the start of paragraphs.

    These should be topic sentences which

    (1) make clear the topic that is developed in detail in the rest of the paragraph
    (2) use words from the question

    They should not be ‘narrative’ sentences that simply tell what is happening in the story, without reference to the question.

    For example:

    (1) The relationship between Macbeth and his wife changes significantly in the course of the play.

    (2) Later on, Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle to pay him a visit.

    The first one is a topic sentence whereas the second one simply makes a statement.

    Here are four topic sentences that could be used to structure an essay on the relationship of Macbeth and his wife.

    QUESTION: Choose a play in which the relationship between a male and female character changes significantly.

    Show how the relationship between the two characters changes and discuss to what extent this illuminates a central idea of the play.

    Topic sentences:
    • The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth changes significantly in the course of the play. . ,
    • A further significant change in their relationship occurs after the murder of Duncan . . .
    • By the end of the play Macbeth’s attitude towards his wife contrasts dramatically with the close relationship depicted in Act One . . .
    • The deterioration of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth illustrates one of the central ideas of the play . . . [choose whichever theme you have studied in most detail]

    Obviously, the more practice essays you write the better. However, here’s another – quicker – way of improving your critical essay performance.

    The key skill you’ll need to have during the 45 minutes allocated to each critical essay is flexibility: you will have to think quickly about how you can ‘repackage’ your knowledge to fit the question set. The main content of your essay will often be much the same whatever the question, but it must be adapted to fit the specific question.

    Try this method during your revision time:

    • Pick a random question from the book of past papers.
    • Underline the key phrases which identify the task you are being given
    • Write these phrase out as headings
    • As briefly as possible, bullet point the main aspects of your text that relate to these phrases
    • Now write three or four topic sentences that will introduce the main stages of your essay answer. The key phrases you underlined in the question should be used in these topic sentences.

    EVEN DURING THE HIGHER EXAM, YOU SHOULD SET ASIDE FIVE MINUTES TO DO THIS RATHER THAN IMMEDIATELY STARTING TO WRITE THE ESSAY. This will save time in the long run: once you start writing you will know exactly where the essay is heading and your answer will have a clearer structure which will save you time stopping in the middle and wondering what to discuss next.

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