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How do I analyse a text to A or A* level?

The examiners are looking for two things from your analysis of a text. Firstly, they want to know that you can identify literary techniques when they are used by the author. Literary techniques dont have to be complex- the use of any word or piece of punctuation can count as a technique. Other things you could look out for are: repetition, metaphor, similie, juxtaposition (drawing a contrast), alliteration. Secondly, they want you to think about WHY the technique has been used. Theres often not a right answer to this but if you can make a comment about how the author may want the reader to feel or think then you'll be well on your way to getting top marks!

When you go into the exam, it can be useful to have a set of 'pre-analysed' quotes that you can draw on. So if you identify literary techniques in advance and think about why they have been used then you can pick and choose the examples that best answer the question you are given.

To give you an example of what sorts of things to look for, lets analyse this short passage from Harper Lee's 'to kill a mockingbird':

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. 
“Your father’s right,” she said. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That's why it's a sin to kill a mocking bird."

Here are some things I'd pick out from that passage:

- Switching the time frame. Through the dialogue, we are transferred to two seperate events which happen some time apart- the conversation between Scout and Atticus and then the later converstaion between Scout and Ms Maudie. By switching the time frame, Harper Lee tells us that the statement by Atticus has had a lasting impact on Scout and therefore highlights its significance to the reader.

- Use of repetition. Ms Maudie tells us that Mockingbirds 'dont do...' , 'dont eat...' 'dont nest...' and again 'dont do...'. The repetition of the word 'dont' helps reiterate the point that mockingbirds are innocent and harmless. As a result, killing a mockingbird seems even more unjust to the reader. It is important for Harper Lee to emphasise the injustice in this context as injustice becomes one of the key themes of the novel later on.

- Use of extended metaphor. The killing of a mockingbird is symbolic of injustice and the punishment of the innocent. The mockingbird therefore becomes a metaphor for the two other innocent individuals who suffer injustice later on in the novel- Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. By using the metaphor of a mockingbird Harper Lee first presents injustice in a context outside the burning social issues of racism and prejudice which encourages the reader to look beyond their instinctive prejudices when they see injustice later on.

Theres much more you could talk about in this short passage- the use of dialogue, the juxtaposition of old and young characters, the use of dialects (language peculiar to a particular region, in this case the Southern states of the USA), the repetition of the title of the book. With each of these, see if you can think of reasons why Harper Lee may have chosen to use the technique

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