Are there really no wrong answers in English? It's complicated...
One of the common statements that I hear students make about studying English is that it is basically “making stuff up” and therefore you can never be wrong. Is this true? Actually, the answer is pretty complicated and not everyone agrees on it. We know that every reader is different and so when they interact with a text there will be varying interpretations of the meaning they find there. There is not one agreed meaning of a text but the variation is perhaps not as wide as you might think. When studying English at HSC level, it’s helpful to consider whether a reading of a text is valid. In other words, does the interpretation fit within the sound and logical critical responses that can reasonably be expected from this particular text. If I look at the Mona Lisa and interpret it as a painting of a hippopotamus than this is simply not a valid reading and my response would not receive a very good mark. The need to validate your reading is one of the reasons why we ask you to provide evidence from the text in your essays. The question of valid interpretation is particularly tricky with the HSC because it encourages students to have a personal response to a text, which sounds as though whatever you say should be right, right? To better understand what a personal response might look like we can look at how the interpretation of texts has developed historically. Let’s look at Robert Frost’s poem The Tuft of Flowers as an example but you can follow this method with any prescribed, related or unseen text.
The most traditional method for analysing text is to address the text at different levels, usually three. First, we should be looking for a literal or plain reading of the text. Because of the genre (text type) of poetry we can use multiple senses too. My first observations might be that the lines appear in pairs, each pair rhymes, and if I hear the poem out loud, as I should, there is a set pattern to the sound of each line. (To use the metalanguage for describing this poetic feature, the poem is made up of heroic couplets or pairs of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter.) I might notice in the first line the use of ‘I’ indicating that this poem has a first person persona or speaker, followed by ‘went’ in the past tense so he is going to recount an event. A plain reading will reveal the story of the persona feeling quite lonely in the field after a worker has been through to mow the grass, then finding a tuft of flowers that the mower has purposely left and realising that the beauty of the flowers has created a joint experience between the persona and the absent mower. Apart from looking up a few old-fashioned or uncommon words (“whetstone”, “scythe”, “wildered”, “tremulous”) the literal meaning is not hard to determine.
At the second level of interpretation, we are looking for meaning beyond the literal. Focusing at this level helps avoid the problem of “retelling” which is common feedback for many students on their essays. Certain ideas may become more prominent because they are repeated, which helps identify the themes of the work. The poet's purpose may become more clear. Did you notice Frost’s word choices (diction)? He uses “alone” and “apart” to end two lines; “apart” actually ends the poem - feelings of isolation are one of his common themes. What about at the beginning of lines? “But” is a hard-working conjunction and a clue that the mood of the poem is changing. “Alone/ as all must be” is soon followed by “But” and the sighting of the butterfly which leads the persona to the tuft of flowers of the poem’s title. The persona is not so alone after all and a perfectly valid interpretation is that the poem reminds us that nature’s beauty is evidence that we should never despair as we are never truly alone. (Beware, not all of Frost’s poems overcome this feeling of isolation.) At this point, because of our particular interest in discovery, we can see that the physical discoveries of the butterfly and the flowers lead to the discovery of a human, social connection with the absent worker. It’s what we might describe today as a “random act of kindness”.
The third level is where you can explore the personal response a little more according to what you found important or significant but it is important to remember that this level is still connected to the thinking about the text that you did earlier. In other words, your personal response is still driven by your connection to the text. A personal response is not the same as a personal opinion; “I didn’t like it” is fine as an opinion but it is a very poor way to show your response to a text. A response that connects to broad social, political and historical values is better. For example, a response to Frost’s poem might be that it resonates very strongly with the messages of contemporary environmentalists who also promote a connection with nature as a fundamental human right, one that is central to building healthy communities. I am able to draw that connection based on my knowledge of this text, my knowledge of other kinds of texts, and broader ideas that circulate in my world. This multi-stage process is the essence of successfully developing a valid response to a text.
So, in short, yes there are wrong answers in English so it pays to empower yourself to learn how to develop valid interpretations that will help you build a strong argument in your written response.
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