How to Start Your English Literature A-Level the Right Way
So you’re starting your English Literature A-Level soon, huh? Chances are, you’ve got your GCSE results and you’re not sure what you’re going to be expected to do for the next few years. You might even be going to a new school or college! But after the hundreds of exams that the schools put you through nowadays, you’re not even sure if you can continue with this whole school thing. I get that. So much.
Hopefully, you’ve used your summer well! You’ve taken the time to throw yourself into your hobbies, relax and have fun. Now is the time to get your game face on, though. It can be so tempting to ignore school until that dreaded day when you have to get up before 10 am. Then, it can be even easier to not bother studying properly until January when all the exams are in view. But starting early could save you so much hassle.
I’m going to be clear with you right now: starting an A-Level in an essay subject like English Literature isn’t a walk in the park. In fact, no A-Level is easy! They expect you to act like an adult, read lots and think even more. But with English, you don’t just have one textbook to worry about. So if you don’t even have your set texts for the year yet, how can you help yourself? And even then! When you get them, what else are you really supposed to read?
Well, I’m here to demystify your Eng Lit A-Level for you. There are things you can be doing. There’s research you can do to make your life easier. So I made you a list to help you start your English Literature A-Level properly.
You might have heard of the Oedipus Complex before. It was thought up by a dude we’re going to be talking about a little later on: Sigmund Freud. But in order to get where the Oedipus Complex comes from, you have to first know who Oedipus is and how he’s important in the grand scheme of literature. Plus, other writers touch on the story of Oedipus quite often, so it’s a good idea to brush up on him if you want to start your English Literature course on the right foot.
Well, Oedipus was the mythical king of Thebes. The most well-known account of his story is written by Sophocles as part of a trilogy of plays known as the Theban plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at the Colonus and Antigone.
Of course, you probably want to get down to the reason he’s so well-known, huh? I get that! Well, he’s the guy who killed his father and married his mother. Ew, right? Well, he thought so, too. In fact, he took his eyes out when he found out! Yikes!
Basically, when he was born, his parents received a prophecy about what he was going to do. Obviously, they didn’t like the sound of that, so they sent him away. Oedipus didn’t know his real parents were the king and queen! So when he heard the prophecy, he left home to save his adoptive parents. On his journey, he got in a fight with an older man and killed him. Then, he won the now empty throne and married the widowed queen, without knowing he was the one who killed the previous king.
Of course, it’s more complex than that! I recommend reading about it for yourself!
Greek, Roman and Norse Gods
Let’s face it: a lot of authors in your literature curriculum are going to be a little bit pretentious. Many of them like to refer to the gods of Greek, Roman and Norse literature. This is especially true if your set texts are older than the Reformation when there was a real shift back towards appreciating the works of Ancient Greece and Rome. So, you’ll save yourself a lot of time if you know the names of a few gods at the start of the year before you jump into the nitty-gritty of your English Literature A-Level.
It will save you a lot of time if you know the basics of who Thor, Apollo and Jupiter are because they are referred to so often! You don’t need to know everything. I just recommend knowing enough that you can follow along with the references that they throw out. The references to ancient gods are a lot like the pop culture references in media today! Writers throw them about and just expect you to know them. Do yourself a favour and be familiar with them, even if you don’t know them off by heart.
Here’s a great resource I used to familiarise myself quickly and easily. It will save you a lot of hassle and you can always come back and refer to it whenever you need to!
P.s. it’s a good idea to remember the word “pantheon”! It’s a short way of saying “groups of gods” that you can use to make yourself seem clever in your exams.
Just like the gods, writers throw these creatures around and just expect you to know what they’re talking about! Make sure you’re one step ahead by getting to grips with the basics. It will save you a lot of heartache and stress in the long run.
Of course, set texts can draw from different mythologies for inspiration. Lots of writers use Greek and Roman creatures. Yeats draws on Irish mythology for many of his poems. So it would be pretty useless and time consuming for me to make a list of all of the creatures that could ever show up. You have to actually start your English Literature course to know what kind of creatures will suit you the best. Instead, I’m going to recommend you a great resource or you to look through whenever you’re stuck The Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology. The dictionary format makes it amazing to look through terms in! It will take a lot of the stress out of your research.
Make sure you have a look at sylphs and nymphs in particular. A lot of early modern literature refers to them, so it’s a good idea to have an idea of what they’re all about!
Ah. It’s time to talk about the dude who thought up the Oedipus Complex. I think his ideas on sexual attraction and childhood are super far-fetched, but still. He is a crucial part of Literature. Loads of scholars out there interpret literature from a Freudian point of view. Plus, it’s not all sex and death! The Uncanny is a great book to read if you have any Gothic literature in your reading list!
The Uncanny is all about the fact that humans naturally get creeped out by things that are close to what we’re familiar to, but not quite right. It sets us on edge! A lot of gothic literature uses that idea. Think of a haunted house. We’re used to houses. They’re familiar. Normal. But when the house starts to rot and decay? Well, suddenly it sets us on edge. It’s the fact that it’s so close to what we’re used to that creeps us out. After all, we don’t find rot scary on its own! This is true of the Uncanny Valley theory, too!
Don’t leave it to me, though! Freud explains it better (and longer) than I ever could. Let him be your guide. I can’t recommend his book enough!
But he’s famous for the Oedipus Complex. That’s the idea that all male children experience a desire for their mothers and feel jealous of their fathers. The idea that girls experience a desire for their fathers and feel jealous of their mothers is known as the Electra Complex. If you ask me, he’s taking the whole “daddy’s girl” thing way too far, but there are a lot of books out there that have characters with clear Oedipus Complexes, so it’s good to know!
The Communist Manifesto
No, I’m not suggesting this because I’m a massive commie. I mean, I am a little bit of a socialist, but this isn’t about me. It’s about helping you ace your exams. Just like the Freudian interpretation of literature, a lot of Literature buffs view both history and literature through a Marxist lens. Of course, you don’t have to agree with Marx any more than I agree with the Oedipus Complex! However, it’s good to know what the most common interpretations of literature are. You can use Marx to get you the A you want in your exams! Talking about acing your English Literature A-Level from the start!
The Communist Manifesto is a pretty short book, to be honest. It’s not too challenging to read and it is a great thing to know a little bit about. It will come up again if you decide to study History, Literature, Politics, Sociology and many other essay subjects at University. Not because universities want to indoctrinate you like some people try to claim. No! It’s because the Communist Manifesto had such a huge impact on the way the 20th century turned out. Whether you love or hate it, it’s best to know a little about it.
Basically, Marx interprets history as a struggle of the classes. I wrote a whole paragraph to explain what the basic argument, but I think the SparkNotes summary is much better than what I came up with. Read that, for sure. But seriously. If you’re only going to read anyone of my suggestions, make it this one ‒ if only so you can argue against it better.
I love Shakespeare! Of course, not everyone does, but I feel like once you get past all the hard language, he’s hilarious and so much fun! He might also be a big part of your English Literature course. In fact, most people are going to do a play by him! And they are actually a lot easier to write about because there’s so much there to analyse. Plus, you’re not going to find it hard to find scholars who did great essays on him.
I did Hamlet when I was at 6th Form. At first, I was so worried! But then, I found a simplified version of Shakespeare’s plays to get myself started. It was amazing! It made my life so much easier because I got the gist of what was happening before I started analysing. These simplified versions are everywhere! I suggest No Fear Shakespeare. There’s the free website, but I bought the book of the Hamlet version so I could write all over it.
But you can get up to scratch even before you start your course! I did the same thing with Horrible Histories for my History course (I’ll make a post about that soon), but you should 100% make the most of the children’s versions of Shakespeare! They’re quick, short and they summarise most of the plays. Then, no matter which of his plays you have to cover, you will know the basic plot and you can cross-reference it with all of his other plays! Plus, loads of other writers reference him in their own work, so it will help you with other parts of your course, too. Get yourself started early!
Here are some of my suggestions. They’re all great and they all cover the most popular plays.
It is such a good idea to know the basic Bible tales. From the story of Adam and Eve to the crucifixion of Christ, it’s bound to come up.
And that is a blessing and a curse. As someone who promotes diversity in literature, it can be really frustrating that there are so few texts on the English A-level list that are about other cultures and religions to start with. Then, lots of teachers choose the most well-known ones to make your lives a little easier. That squeezes out a lot of the more unusual authors. Boo.
As a tired student who just wants to get their work done, though, it is so helpful. Bible references will come up so much in your course that it will become second nature to notice them! And since most of the texts draw from the Bible, you won’t have to learn about modern religions until your head explodes. Every little helps. Trust me.
You’ll probably have loads of references to fruit as temptation and women as causing men to fall. Not to mention resurrection and apocalypse! The Great Flood! All these could come up and many, many more. So, coupled with the next suggestion below, I recommend grabbing yourself a kids’ copy of the Bible stories. Yes. That’s right. The kids’ version again. What can I say? It’s an easy way of getting the gist of what’s going on!
Here are a few to look out for. If you feel a little patronised, try the abridged YouCat for teens! It’s the usual Bible language, but only the most important parts.
A Dictionary of Symbols
Why the hell would you need this? What good would it do? I know. It sounds like I’m just trying to sell you things now. Hear me out, though! There’s a method to my madness, I promise! I found out about my trusty dictionary of symbols in my second year of university. I was on a long window shop through Amazon when this popped up! And it changed my life.
You’re sat in an English Literature class with the teacher asking you to analyse the text but you don’t even know where to start. Sound familiar? Did you get through your GCSE by waffling about how this suggests that without really knowing what you’re talking about? I know so many who did! It can seem like people are just making things up in English. I get that.
But when you have a dictionary of symbols, you can let the professionals do all the work for you. So your text keeps talking about fruit and you don’t know what that’s supposed to suggest? Well, you can turn to the right part of your symbols dictionary and it will tell you lots of ways you can interpret that. Problem solved!
It will never stop being useful. I can’t recommend enough!
A Poetry Guide
Poems will be your bread and butter for the next two years. Even when a text isn’t a poem, there’s a 50/50 chance it secretly is. Shakespeare writes in verse. In fact, when Romeo and Juliet talk about their love, it’s written as a sonnet. Cool little fact for you. That means that it’s a good idea to know what on earth poetry actually is!
So one of the first books they want you to buy when you start some first-year English Literature courses at uni is the Poetry Toolkit. It is full of info and examples to get you up to speed on what it is that you’re reading. Stuck on Iambic Pentameter? Well, you can read my post on the matter, or just check the Poetry Toolkit. If the degree students can have a guide to help them, why can’t you? And since it’s one of the first books you get for the course, it’s not hard to read at all!
It covers types of poems, metre, rhyme and all that jazz. That makes it an essential part of your shelf! Plus, you’ll use it again if you do Engish Lit at uni!
If you’re looking for something a little funnier and less like a school book, I love Stephen Fry’s book on poetry. It will do you the world of good!
A Grammar Guide
Yes. You will need good grammar for your course. It is so, so important! So do yourself a favour and get a good grammar guide. As always, I recommend Grammarly for your computer and phone. Yep. That’s right. It’s for your phone, too.
The good thing about Grammarly, when you compare it to Word, is that it’s much more intelligent and you can learn from your mistakes. It doesn’t just tell you that you used the wrong ‘there’. No! It also tells you why what you did was wrong and how you can fix it for yourself next time. As long as you pay attention to the mistakes, Grammarly is a great way to get feedback on what you, personally, do wrong. It’s not going to correct you on the things you got right! So you can focus on fixing your grammar.
I recommend the free version, personally. It deals with the most obvious of mistakes. In my experience, I end up disagreeing with the paid version a little. So I feel like you have to know your grammar quite well in order to know whether the paid suggestions are good for you. However, if you think your work needs some spicing up or you get told your essays are too informal, subscribing for the paid version might just be for you. You can set your goals, tell Grammarly that you’re writing an essay and it will sort out the rest.
If you use Grammarly as much as you can throughout the year and make sure you read the mistake explanations, your grammar should be up to scratch for the written exam by the end of the year!
I cannot stress enough how much Audible saved my life. I can get so tiring reading all of that stuff when you start your English Literature course. So if you can pick up a copy of your text and have it read to you, it will save you time and heartache. It works in lots of different ways.
For one, reading the book and listening to the audiobook at once can help you to keep your concentration on the work. Two, you will have to read the text more than once for it to sink in! So why not mix it up? Read it one time and listen the next? But the best thing about audiobooks is the fact that you can read them on the go. You can still do your lit work when you’re in the gym. You can work while in the car without that awful sick feeling you get when reading. Plus, it 100% counts as revision!
Audiobooks can get expensive, though. That’s why I recommend Audible specifically. You can get an audiobook (or three) per month for a fraction of the price. And you own the books, so you can cancel once you’ve got all the set texts you need and keep them! Or you can keep the subscription going and get a few of the books I recommended above.
I love it so much that I’m an affiliate, so you can click the link below to get a 30 day free trial on me!
Make Sure to Actually Write
Yes. Write. With pen and paper.
Why? Well, it is so much harder to remember how to spell properly when you have spellcheck and Word doing it all for you! Yes, I know I said you should get Grammarly, but that’s for your grammar, not your spelling! If you just type all the time, I promise you’ll forget how to spell loads of words.
So if you get the choice to write an essay typed or by hand, make sure you write it by hand once in a while. Not all the time! But enough to keep your spelling skills up to scratch.
And that’s everything! Don’t stress too much! I know it sounds like so, so much, but all of these are just suggestions! You’re free to incorporate whatever works into your study process and ditch what isn’t right for you. And make sure to come back to this through the year when you need some advice. It will keep you in the right path with your English Literature work and make sure you don’t ever feel lost.
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