How to organise learning

Think for yourself

Reading the text and developing your own responses is the single most important thing you can do to improve your own skills in the study of English Literature. The better you know the text, the more effectively you can consider ideas in terms of supporting evidence or arguments against an interpretation. In order to do this, you should read a text for A Level at least three or four times all the way through; The Great Gatsby is very short compared with other texts, so this will not be too time-consuming. On the other hand, it is so densely packed with images and ambiguous language that you will need to read very carefully.

Ask questions

Keep asking yourself questions as you go along. It’s very common for students to try and find the ‘right’ interpretation, and student forums are full of people seeking definitive answers about confusing passages in a text. Good literature prompts questions, raises issues and provokes thought, but rarely offers clear answers. The ability to present more than one side of an argument is often being tested in essay tasks, so you should allow yourself to be open-minded about possible interpretations. Ultimately, the highest skill you should demonstrate is the ability to evaluate different ideas, but you should never make a judgement without having good evidence to back it up, and you need to have considered the evidence for all interpretations.

Keep a record

Your thoughts on the novel, however you record them (annotating in the margins, using index cards, recording your conversations etc.) are crucial to building up arguments about the text. Don’t make so many notes that you can’t make sense of them later, though; heavily annotated pages may look impressive but are usually not assimilated.

Look out for techniques

You will primarily be looking for the ‘meaning’ or what the author is ‘saying’ but you must also remember to observe the techniques used by the author. This aspect, identifying the craft or methods, can be the most difficult thing for students to discuss. The author of The Great Gatsby uses many methods to tell the story, and these are very well hidden at times, so you need to practise identifying features and then being able to explain how they work. It’s definitely not enough at A Level to spot the techniques, or just to quote examples; you’re expected to explain the way that these create effects, so you need to get into good habits straight away. This is an excellent text to work with, since there are interesting features on every page. As a helpful exercise, randomly select a page and then analyse the way in which Fitzgerald creates his effects. If you need ideas, check the commentaries on each chapter and try to build up your own list of techniques so you become familiar with the key features of this text.

Using your knowledge of the context

This is the most difficult aspect of studying a literary text, as details of the context are frequently misused in essays and exam tasks. Exam boards often reward the mention of a relevant context, but you need to check whether this is rewarded for the particular essay or exam task you are undertaking (as there is rarely equal weighting). If it is, make sure that you are clearly linking the contextual detail to the text and using it to make an interpretation. If you’re just telling the examiner or your teacher about an extra detail you find interesting that does not affect interpretation, then don’t. 

Particularly with The Great Gatsby, it is very tempting to discuss the similarities between Fitzgerald’s world and the world of the novel. His life was fascinating but you must be careful: it is, in the end, irrelevant that Daisy’s cynical words wishing her daughter would be a ‘beautiful little fool’ echo those spoken by Zelda Fitzgerald (the author’s wife) after she gave birth to their daughter. Equally, it is too general a comment to say that Daisy’s words reflect the patriarchal society of the time, however it might be relevant to discuss the ways in which beauty and glamour were valued by the post-war generation or the ways in which women were represented as commodities, or the tensions in society between women fulfilling traditional roles and challenging stereotypes. Daisy’s bitterness seems to articulate the suffering of women experiencing this struggle and perhaps being defeated. You must be ready to give details from the text rather than going off on a tangent about the context.

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