Pairing quotations for literature texts

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There’s so many potential quotations to learn: how do you choose the ‘right’ ones? Mark-schemes use langauge like “selective” and “judicious”.

It comes down to this: you have to be able to choose a quotation that has a lot to it, that works to show you something not just about that moment, but about the whole text in some way.

In her book, Jennifer Webb describes them as “juicy quotations” – the ones you can really squeeze to get a lot out of them.

Working with Year 8 recently, we’ve come up with a bit of a list of some things we want to be able to get out of a quotation:

  • Multiple connotations or interpretations (using the symbolically/metaphorically can help here, or moving from one part of a quotation to another. 
  • Links to context
  • Links to themes
  • A link to another quotation (more on this below)
  • Links to somewhere else earlier and/or later in the play
  • Ability to show understanding of method, which might include literary vocabulary (a little long-winded, but basically – they do need to show this, so choose a quotation that enables it)

While this doesn’t have a catchy acronym, it’s proved quite useful in exploring whether a quotation is worth selecting or not. When a quotation has some of these, it’s probably useful – if all it has is a comment that the character is, say, afraid or happy, then it’s not that useful to commit it to memory.

For Year 11, some revision lessons including looking at pairs of quotations that could be learned together which then showed us something about either character or thematic development, for example:

  • Lady Macbeth: “A little water clears us of this deed” / “out damned spot!”
    On its own, “out damned spot” might be easy to learn but doesn’t have an awful lot to say about it. But pair it with this earlier quotation from Act 1 when she’s convinced she’ll never feel this level of guilt, and it encapsulates the change in her character. We have the themes of guilt, ambition and power, the imagery of water which runs throughout, and the structural change is inherent int he pairing. We can look at the metaphor of water as being cleansing, and link to the religious contexts of baptism and purity as well as sin. Some pretty high-value quotations.

If you’re preparing or revising for the poetry exam at the moment, consider pairs of lines e.g

  • Mother, Any Distance: “Anchor. Kite.” / “to fall or fly.”
  • Sonnet 29: “my thoughts do twine and bud about thee” / “let these bands of greenery…drop heavily down.”

It’s much easier, too, to learn connected lines – thematically or linguistically connected, rather than literally following on. The conceptual understanding of the poem can be summarised through the way the concept or image is changing.

Even with the poetry, the structural change is important: you can either demonstrate change or lack thereof through your quotations. They don’t have to be at the beginning and end; they could demonstrate a change in thinking or a thinking through – two alternative ideas suggested by the poet as they try to come to a conclusion.

What do you think?

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