English Literature

AQA English Literature B

AQA LITB3 Revision – Gothic and The Uncanny/Psychoanalysis

Hey! I hope revision is going well for everyone reading! So, here are my notes on The Uncanny/Das Unheimliche within the scope of the gothic. As ever, hope it helps.

Because the LITB3 exam requires a lot of perceptive and original interpretation to achieve the higher bands, it’s useful to look at texts like Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Macbeth and even The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale through the lens of different critical perspectives. Aside from the interpretation of the gothic genre as sensationalist, serving no other purpose than excess and titillation, it is also a plastic, ambivalent discourse that can be used in many ways and to different ends in conveying a number of social, political, cultural messages. For this reason, psychoanalysis provides a theoretical framework through which we can read the gothic, that is perhaps more relevant and less orthodox than the ever-predictible feminist theory, which is applied so much to Carter’s work in the exam, to the extent that people tend overlook what actually makes the text ‘gothic’.

So, to understand the uncanny, it’s useful to have a basic grasp of the concepts underlying psychoanalysis, Freudian theory in particular. Here is a link to Freud’s essay on The Uncanny/Das Unheimliche that should help with this if you want to get a full understanding, but I’ll break down the basic ideas here:

The Unconscious

  • Division of the psyche that contains thoughts that we are unaware of – this is gothic in that it deals with the sexual, primitive and aggressive urges that lie beneath the civilised exterior that we portray to society. These urges motivate our behaviour in powerful ways that we are unmindful of.
  • The unconscious is dynamic, boundless and unknowable.
  • It reveals itself through jokes, parapraxis (slips of the tongue – a ‘Freudian slip’), and dreams (this is particularly important for the gothic).
  • Site of past childhood and developmental traumas.
  • It contains disturbing material that we need to keep out of our awareness – they are too threatening for us to acknowledge. Thus, this information needs to be repressed in order for individuals to function (otherwise – they are mad/criminal)
  • Exerts compulsions and repetitive behaviours.
  • Ambivalent – the competition between civilised conscious thoughts and sex/death instincts – this conflict manifests in the behaviour of many gothic characters.

‘Das Unheimliche’ / ‘The Uncanny’ (all quotes taken from the article I cited earlier in the post)

  • ‘The word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet vey different: on the one hand, it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight’
  • So, Unheimlich can be defined as ‘The name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light’
  • Heimlich is a word meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich’
  • Understanding of the uncanny in relation to the gothic can be simplified as follows – ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar‘ and ‘nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression

The subject of The Uncanny and its manifestations within gothic literature

  • Uncanny feeling is ‘produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced‘.
  • Uncanny as disguise/disguised – what is beneath the disguise?
  • The subject of the uncanny… is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening’.
  • Freud also lists a number of more specific sources of the uncanny including: ‘intellectual uncertainty, doubles, deja vu, coincidences and repetition, omnipotence of thoughts (recalling our surmounted belief in the power of thoughts to affect the material world), the blurring of the boundary between imagination and reality, incest, being buried alive, ghosts and death itself’.
  • Furthermore, castration; doubles; doppelgängers; split personality; mirrors; involuntary repetition or the compulsion to repeat (Wiederholungszwang).
  • The uncanny evil eye; scopophilia and the love of looking; this way, the uncanny can also be related to feminist theory, so if you’re not quite ready to lay to rest the ghost of Angela Carter and her second wave collective, then this might be something to mention! This fear that a person is able to inflict harm upon another being merely by a glance’ ; the ‘substitutive relation between the eye and the male organ […]” particularly in the context of lost vision and dismemberment’.

Macbeth and The Uncanny

In Macbeth, The Uncanny appears in the following forms, and psychoanalysis can be applied accordingly:

  • The uncanny feeling is produced when the distinction between Macbeth’s imagination and uncivilised thoughts of Duncan’s ‘murther which yet is fantastical’ come into fruition as he commits the deed of ‘treasonous malice’.

Put simply, the distinction between his imagination and reality – his brain, which is fundamentally ‘wrought with things forgotten…,’ containing disturbing introspections which he wishes to repress, is obliterated. There is evident conflict between the ‘black and deep desires’ of the psychological id and conscious, rational thoughts of a man who notes that Duncan ‘hath honoured  [him] of late’. As these repressed thoughts creep into the conscious mind, the result is terror – a ‘horrid image that doth unfix [Macbeth’s] hair and make[s his] seated heart knock at his [ribs].’ Though at this stage, uncivilised thought and ‘present fears are less than horrible imaginings’ – as he kills Duncan, Macbeth ‘murther[s] sleep’ and progressively descends into a downward spiral and state of psychological unrest. Furthermore, the notion of the power of thoughts and their ability to affect the material world is significant to a psychoanalytic reading of the play. Macbeth’s subversive thoughts – in the sense that they subvert hierarchy – ‘[shake so his single state of man],’  and as the body can be considered a microcosm for society, the affects of these thoughts causing the earth to become ‘feverous,’ ‘shake’ and even result in literal disruption as ‘the chimneys were blown down’ represents an uncanny destruction of nature.

  • Also, the notion of disguise and concealment is integral to Macbeth (see my essay here on darkness and concealment). Not only through literal concealment, darkness and equivocation, but also Macbeth’s transformation, as he adopts an ‘otherness’ in order to commit his bloody deeds. There is plenty of imagery relating to appearance and reality as a result – Macbeth takes on a ‘vizard‘ to mask his depravity; Lady Macbeth instructs him to ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t‘. The recurrence of ‘false face‘ and duality is inherently Freudian.
  • Coincidences and repetition, in particular the echoing of the ‘fair is foul and foul is fair chiasmus‘ through Macbeth’s own rhetoric (‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen‘), as this sentiment resonates throughout the entirety of the play.
  • Similarly, Lady Macbeth straddles, uncannily, the border of nightmare and reality, exerting compulsive and repetitive behaviours as she expels the damaging content of her unconscious mind though somnambulism.

She suffers the following; ‘A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching. In this slumbery agitation, besides her walking and other actual performances…’. Sleep is a process by which we recover from the hardships of daily life – ‘sleep that knits up th’ravelled sleeve of care‘. Yet, as ‘only the innocent sleep,’ this familiar process is distorted and changed into something horrific; unfamiliar, or uncanny, even. Her repetitive behaviours and compulsions also adhere to Freud’s notion of the unheimlich – as repressed memories of Duncan’s bloody murder creep into her subconscious, she begins to ‘rub her hands,’ an ‘accustomed action,’ to rid herself of the blood that she recalls from the scene.

  • Again, repetition is significant with Duncan/Macbeth, as Duncan notes in a sort of ominous and uncanny proleptic irony that there is ‘no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’ prior to his murder at the hands of Macbeth, who notes that ‘false face must hide what the false heart doth know’ chillingly soon after. Coincidence and fate is also uncanny within the play. The past appears to repeat itself, as the original Thane Of Cawdor, ‘a gentleman on whom [Duncan built] an absolute trust’ is similar to the originally ‘noble’ Macbeth in that he commits treacherous acts and succumbs to his eventual death.
  • The uncanny evil eye – This fear that a person is able to inflict harm upon another being merely by a glance’ ; the ‘substitutive relation between the eye and the male organ […]” particularly in the context of lost vision and dismemberment’. – let the eye wink at the hand and yet let that be which the eye fears‘ – Macbeth fears the eradication of his masculinity and wishes to overcome the moral and ethical consequences of committing murder, which would cause him psychological unrest if he were able to physically see the act.
  • Finally, Banquo’s ghost is also an apt example of the uncanny within the play – he appears in an unfamiliar form which is evidently troubling for Macbeth, resulting in his terror and the ‘very painting of [his] fear’. Thus, as he begs for the ghost to ‘never shake thy gory locks at me, thou canst say I did it!’ he evidently engages in both the denial/repression of his aggressive and uncivilised actions, motivated from the unconscious/id and absolute fear.

The Bloody Chamber and The Uncanny

Because the comment I received about the uncanny specified Macbeth, I’m not going to specify psychoanalysis in The Bloody Chamber in quite so much detail but I’d look out for the following:

  • See my essay on base instincts/subconscious desires here, or my essay on the beasts as more humane than the humans here to read about the uncanny in The Tiger’s Bride. One thing I didn’t really touch on was the full significance of scopophilia and the male gaze and also, the role of the automaton, but I’m sure that’s something you can look into.
  • The Erl-King for me is the most obviously psychoanalytic of all the texts in the collection – the whole story has the potentiality to be a construct of the narrator and a manifestation of her unconscious desire (‘he came alive from the desire of the woods’ ‘all perspectives converged’ ‘invented distance’ ‘imaginary traveller’ – she is addicted and desires the Erl-King, as shown through the imagery of the ‘nicotine’ etc. etc.’.
  • In the titular story, look out for imagery of mirrors, gothic duplicity with the Marquis, references to scopophilia and eyes (Those of the Marquis, contrasting with those of the more benign Jean-Yves – he evades the male gaze, as though he is blind, his eyes are ‘singularly sweet’).
  • The Snow Child is evidently open to psychoanalytic interpretation, due to the dream-like atmosphere and periodic references to desire and aggression. The Count is ‘weeping’ as he succumbs to his own unconscious desire – is he helpless in his depravity? The Countess is similarly ambivalent – she ‘watched him narrowly’ and resigns to her own aggressive instincts.
  • Finally, all of the stories evoke the latent content of fairytales –  childhood stories appear to be subverted into horrific adult nightmares, but Carter is merely extracting the latent content. This is uncanny in that the terror is already underlying the prose that we have read as children, once again, showing the gothic to be a pliable genre that we can use to project didactic messages for our own means, whether they be political, feminist, social etcetera.


AQA LITB3 PPQ – JUNE 2012 – ‘Write about the significance of darkness and concealment in Macbeth’

In Macbeth both darkness and concealment are essential to play and its descent into tragedy, as metaphorical darkness is used most obviously in relation to death and as an element of characterisation, conveying the evil nature and immorality of both the Macbeths and the witches. Concealment is used to a similar avail, characterising Macbeth as a gothic double, yet it is more likely that darkness and concealment are at their most significant when they are used in conjunction with one another, dealing directly with the debate regarding the source of Macbeth’s corruption.

Both Macbeth  and Lady Macbeth evidently utilise literal darkness to conceal their depraved actions from others and as a mode by which they can protect their consciences. As Macbeth calls upon the ‘selling night [to] scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ in a similar fashion to Lady Macbeth’s bid for ‘thick night [to] pall [her] in dunnest smoke,’ both characters essentially profess a desire to disguise their acts ‘that be which the eye fears’ in order to avoid any ethical or divine scrutiny that would prompt them to ‘hold’ and terminate their plans to commit ‘murthers too terrible for the ear’. Thus, it is utilised as a structural device that allows the crises of the play to occur.

Yet, interpreting darkness only it its literal sense is less integral to the reading of Macbeth as a gothic text, as though it acknowledges the significance of metaphorical associations with evil, immorality and death these are certainly underplayed. Shakespeare’s use of the semantic field of ‘night’s predominance’ following Macbeth’s murder of Duncan infers such a connection between darkness and evil, recognising its all-consuming power and ability to prevail, ‘strangle’ and ‘entomb’ benign ‘living light’. Therefore, perhaps figurative darkness, shown through the antithesis of darkness and light , is used to greater effect in characterising ‘Black Macbeth’ as an archetypal gothic protagonist, particularly in his soliloquy preceding Duncan’s death. He reveals his innermost ‘black and deep desires’ and his depraved conscious wish for these to overcome their very antithesis – ‘any signs of nobleness, [which] like stars, shall shine on all deservers’. As he requests for darkness and the ‘stars [to] hide [their] fires,’ he essentially declares his wish to be stripped of all morality so that he is able to commit his bloody deeds.

Furthermore, as themes of depravity and a lack of morality are evidently deal with more appropriately though symbolism, Shakespeare’s contrasting use of light and dark imagery throughout the play details the consequences of straying from moral principles. Shakespeare’s use of the motif of the ‘taper’ as the play approaches its denouement potentially indicates Lady Macbeth’s ascent back to morality. Unconsciously speaking in disorderly prose, she progresses ‘to [have] light by her continually,’ living in fear of the dark and ‘[murky hell]’ that she has previously allowed to control and ‘tend on [her] mortal thoughts’.

Metaphorical darkness is also significant in its association with the excessive ‘dusty death’ that appears to overshadow the entire play, providing a commentary on the brevity life. As Banquo is murdered in darkness, as shown through the stage directions as ‘murderer 1 strikes out the light,’ his life is extinguished similarly to the ‘brief candle’ of Lady Macbeth’s. As Macbeth realises the futility of his ambition and that his life is ‘but a walking shadow,’ it could be interpreted that such symbolism is essential to the play’s classification as a tragedy and its protagonist’s resignation in his own life that he has ‘lived too long’ immorally.

However, perhaps concealment alone is used to a more significant degree in characterising Macbeth as a gothic protagonist, as dissimilarly to the subjective interpretations of symbolism,  soliloquies and asides prove directly Macbeth’s dishonesty and resulting role in the play as a gothic double. His ability to ‘make [his] face [a] vizard to [his] heart, disguising what [it is]’ affirms this view, as the mask-like disguise of his uncivilised thoughts exposes his earlier claim to ‘speak [his] free heart’ to Banquo to be one that is entirely untrue, as he does not divulge the ‘wicked dreams’ that he is plagued by after his meeting with the witches. Yet, as such secrecy develops to be progressively more sinister throughout the play, as Macbeth surpasses his wife’s intervention, telling her to ‘be innocent of the knowledge’ that he is to murder Banquo, it is clear that he is concealing evil deeds that gradually become more ‘black and deep’ in nature. As duplicitous ‘false face’ is used to cover the dark and depraved acts of murder that are essential to the plot, evidently, the two concepts are more significant when used in combination, detailing Macbeth’s corruption.

Therefore, the witches, who are indisputably evil ‘instruments of darkness,’ concealing truth by the means of equivocation, are of greatest significance in Macbeth, as they arguably corrupt his ‘noble stature’ and render it to be ‘foul,’ inciting the whole basis for the play in their chiasmus ‘fair is foul and foul is fair/ hover through the fog and filthy air,’ as the imagery used here echoes this notion of moral contamination. Contextually, the witches would have been perceived as agents of the devil, and by adopting ambiguous language, they ‘palter with [Macbeth] in riddles and affairs of death’ and as a result he is ‘drawn into his confusion’ by their riddles, perhaps committing regicide due to their intervention. Though there is some debate as to whether Macbeth is solely at fault for his regression, ‘burn[ing] in desire’ to become King by his own account, the notion that the witches  ‘trade and traffic’ with him, exploiting him and lead him to his demise, essentially frames the narrative of the whole play – they are there to ‘meet with Macbeth’ and corrupt him from the very exposition. As this is such a central topic of discussion regarding the play, it can indeed be perceived as the most significant example of darkness and concealment.

AQA LITB3 – Section B Revision – Gothic quotations from critics and possible questions for June 2015 – Part I

Recently, my tutor gave us a list of critical quotations for us to apply to The Bloody Chamber, The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale and Macbeth to consider different elements of the gothic that may come up as questions for section B of the exam (or maybe even section A) this summer. Obviously, if you’re studying other texts, like Frankenstein, etc., I’m sure you’ll still be able to get something from this post anyway! Hope it helps.

1. ‘The violation of innocence – “At the heart of the Gothic text is the tension provided by the possible violation of innocence – the concept of ‘virtue in distress'”

The Bloody Chamber

Story 1: The easiest story to refer to for a question on virtue in distress would definitely be the eponymous story of the collection. Talking about the Marquise and debating the source of her corruption (whether she is already corrupt from the offset of the story, or whether she is corrupted by the Marquis).

You would need to specify i. What constitutes as ‘virtue’ – so, virginity, purity, innocence, beauty etc. ii. Whether the violation of this innocence and the virtue in distress creates narrative tension. The most obvious line of debate would be that i. The Marquis attempts to corrupt the narrator, and this results in tension as we contemplate whether or not she will die as a result of said corruption. However, you can counter-argue and evaluate by posing that she is corrupt from the outset (here, you’re incorporating structural analysis – which AQA love – by referring to the exposition in this way), marrying the Marquis only for his wealth. Also, you could argue that as Carter adopts gothic conventions in a very melodramatic and perhaps even parodic way, that this means no tension is created.

Story 2: The other story I’d talk about for a question on this is The Erl-King, which is probably the most complex story of the collection, but I think it’d give the best opportunity of getting the most marks due to its difficulty. It allows you to speak about narrative perspective and structure quite nicely, and sets up a debate as to whether the omniscient (and very subjective) narrator is the cause of her own corruption (as she willingly goes to the Erl-King, inciting her own entrapment and that she allows herself to be subjugated by males, as she perceives herself the way they do), or whether the Erl-King is a predatory character, causing her corruption and resulting entrapment. Again, there’s the same debate as to whether this creates tension, as with TBC.


Again, you would be able to write about structure relatively easily with Macbeth by analysing the imagery in the exposition (the perspective that Macbeth is a tragic hero, regressing from high status to that of an ‘abhorred tyrant’ If you’d like to read some analysis of this, my post on how the first few scenes of Macbeth adhere to the gothic heremy essay on Macbeth’s downfall here and my essay on Macbeth as a butcher here should help. When writing about Macbeth though, I think it’d be good to unpick the critical quotation even more, as the presence of the witches and their arguable control over Macbeth from the exposition means that the violation of his innocence is not a possibility, but an inevitability.

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

In my opinion, this is the most difficult of the texts to refer to (in most cases actually – I’ve yet to see a question that I find easy to answer). I guess you could talk about i. The concept of ‘virtue in distress’ is shown to a much lesser extent in the prologue/tale, because the Pardoner, nor any of the people he speaks of are virtuous. However, you could talk about how the Pardoner preys on the innocence (and thus, virtue) of his audience for his own gain, as he cons them into paying for his false relics and convincing the uneducated that they have committed terrible sins etc. As for tension, I don’t think the concept of virtue in distress/lack of any virtue in the Pardoner creates any tension as such, but rather evokes the disdain, disgust and contemptuous laughter from the reader/contemporaneous audience, as the Pardoner is so obvious in his evil.

2. ‘The shocking elements of the gothic are selfish and go beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable in society’ – “Gothic fictions seemed to promote vice and violence, giving free reign to selfish ambitions and sexual desires beyond the prescriptions of law or familial duty”

The Bloody Chamber

Again, very easy to classify what is shocking – illicit lust/sexual gratification, language, subversion of religion etc. and how these transgress societal boundaries. I’d personally refer to The Snow Child and The Bloody Chamber for this question. The sexual primacy of the Count most definitely transgresses familial duty as he commits to incest and pedophilia (and necrophilia too), having sex with ‘the child of his desire’ intended merely for his own selfish and sexual desires. He’s unpunished within the denouement (thus, structural evaluation and hitting assessment objectives). You could also analyse the Countess as she ‘reigns in her stamping mare’ and symbolically gives free reign to her husband, as she so evidently cannot control him. In TBC, I’d obviously refer to sexual gratification, the link between sex and pain and how this is selfish, but I’d refer to religious transgression as the Marquis is characterised (hitting more assessment objectives!!) as a satanic figure (‘the key to my enfer,’ the fact he has Huysman’s ‘La-Bas’ ‘bound like a missal’ and treated as prayerbook, his ‘chthonic gravity’ etc.), promoting vice and violence, and how this could be perceived as ‘shocking’. Yet, as the Marquis is killed within the denouement, is such behaviour really promoted by Carter?


The main thing for Macbeth would obviously be his act of regicide, as this definitely goes beyond both the prescriptions of law, and of the divine. Selfish and ‘vaulting ambition’ is clearly exercised in order to bring Macbeth’s wish to be king into fruition. Though the play does also becomes progressively more violent and Macbeth succumbs to vice, the play cannot be said to promote such behaviours, as it could be interpreted that Macbeth is punished in the denouement as Macduff enters bearing ‘Macbeth’s head on a pole’ and Malcolm’s dialogue also echoes the sentiment of a morality play as he exclaims a wish to ‘[Produce] forth the evil ministers of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’. Yet, there is a clear absence of unrestrained sexual desire in Macbeth, so this needs to be approached also.

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

Though the Pardoner outwardly preaches against vice and violence, chastising his audience against sin; ‘glutonye,’ and all its ‘cursedness,’ ‘lecherye’ etc. through his use of the sermon form and inaccurate biblical allusions, as he only does this for his own gain, ‘prech[ing] nothing but for coveitise,’ and not suffering any punishment for this, it could be said that the tale does does promote vice (but not violence).

AQA LITB3 PPQ – JUNE 2010 – ‘At the end of the play, Malcolm describes Macbeth as a butcher. Do you think that Macbeth is merely portrayed as a butcher?’

Here’s another band 6 Macbeth mock I did in my own time, this time, focussing in on the excessive violence Macbeth’s tragic regression than the last.

Malcolm’s description of Macbeth as a ‘butcher’ in the play’s denouement is certainly an appropriate one, as he is responsible for many brutal, excessive and unnecessary murders within the play all of which become more ignoble and uncivilised as it progresses. However, though Macbeth’s villainy is obvious, so is his degree of humanity, evident in his early doubts, later disillusionment and his tortured conscience, which could be perceived as transcending that of a mere butcher. Furthermore, though it could be interpreted that he is indeed a savage and trained killer, unfit for sovereign rule, his final soliloquy affirms a philosophical introspection not characteristic to an unthinking butcher. Ultimately, the interpretation of Macbeth as a tragic hero is a stronger one – his unravelling corruption implies that he kills out of madness and paranoia to ensure his safety rather than the evil intent of a butcher.

It could be perceived that, as Shakespeare characterises Macbeth as a typical gothic villain, committing brutal and savage ‘muthers … too terrible for the ear,’ that worsen as the play progresses, then Macbeth is indeed portrayed as a mere butcher. Macbeth’s initial act of regicide is a ‘more than bloody deed,’ excessive to the extent that it is ‘unmannerly breached with gore,’ exercised without any honour, or Duncan’s provocation. Macbeth’s butchery is furthered, as Shakespeare’s allusion to ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’  within Macbeth’s soliloquy, which can be seen to reveal his innermost thoughts, certainly aids his characterisation as an uncivilised butcher, as he describes his movements towards Duncan like that of ‘Tarquin’s ravishing strides,’ evoking his inhumane and tyrannical spirit as he proceeds with the murder. The later murders of Banquo and in particular, the family of Macduff, shown through the asyndetic list of his ‘wife, children, servants, all that could be found’ all exemplify Macbeth’s brutality, and thus, as he ‘savagely slaughter[s]’ so many characters, the interpretation of Macbeth as a ‘mere butcher’ is a credible one.

However, as Macbeth is at first unconvinced by his murderous plans, exhibiting doubt and a guilty conscience that drives him to the brink of his sanity, it is clear that he possesses thoughts that are certainly not characteristic to a one-dimensional and unthinking ‘butcher’. Macbeth’s guilty apprehension is present before he even commits to the act of ‘treasonous malice’, as he remarks that ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ as the very thought of murdering Duncan is ‘horrid’ to him, making his ‘seated heart knock at his ribs’. As he only commits to the act of regicide when he is goaded and ‘chastise[d]’ by his wife, it is likely that he does not have the strength of mind to execute cruel murder as a ‘butcher’ would. Macbeth’s resulting ‘brainsickly’ psychological unrest, which manifests symbolically in the form of Banquo’s ‘horrible shadow’ indicates that he is not ‘merely’ a butcher, able to commit horrific acts of murder without any sense of remorse. Though he is quickly ‘settled’ into such acts, the ‘torture of [his] mind’ demonstrates the humane and regretful contemplation of a man ‘afraid to think on what [he has] done’ and it would be altogether more feasible to interpret that whilst he is a ‘butcher,’ he is also conscience-stricken.

Furthermore, within the exposition, whilst it could be interpreted that Shakespeare does indeed depict Macbeth as a butcher from the outset, delighting in the ‘reeking wounds’ of bloody battle, due to the imagery and verse form that utilised, it is a likelier interpretation that this connotes his nobility of character, rather than the evil intentions of a butcher. Macbeth is initially and universally regarded as ‘noble’ and ‘brave,’ and Shakespeare affirms this by utilising the imagery of the ‘[eagle]’ and the ‘lion’ to in order characterise him as fully ‘deserv[ing]’ of the praise that he receives. Though this imagery, in addition to the depiction of ‘bloody execution’ and how Macbeth ‘unseam[s Macdonwald] from the nave to ‘th chops’ could be perceived as both dire and butcher-like, the verse form of this passage confirms an inherent nobility that a mere butcher could not possibly possess.

Yet, though Macbeth is arguably depicted as noble warrior within the exposition, Malcolm acts as his foil, exposing that he is, perhaps, a trained killer unfit for sovereign rule and instead, prone to uncivilised and butcher-like ‘tyranny’. Though Malcolm claims that he has ‘no relish’ of any ‘king becoming graces,’ this is simply a guise, as he is revealed to be virtuous and ‘yet unknown to woman.’ As he exhibits the ‘good truth and honour’ typical of a king and devotes himself to ‘[his] poor country’s to command’,  the ignoble traits of Macbeth, shown through the syndetic list; ’bloody…avaricious, false, deceitful… malicious, [and] smacking of every sin..’ are emphasised. As as a result, by contrast, pure Malcolm indicates that ‘black Macbeth’ is fundamentally, a sinful butcher by nature, devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Nevertheless, this interpretation can be refuted,’ not only as it is delivered from the biased perspective of Duncan’s son, but also as Macbeth was once undoubtedly a ‘worthy’ character of high status, it is a more credible view that he is not a ‘mere butcher,’ but instead, a more complex tragic hero. Macbeth eventually recognises his own brutality, and that he is ‘in blood stepped in so far…returning were as tedious to go o’er,’ and the endless succession of violence that occurs as ‘blood will have blood.’ Considering the concept that violence will beget more violence and that he is in a position that he cannot return from, then perhaps Macbeth kills as a result of his psychological entrapment – the ‘saucy doubts and fears’ regarding his position as king, that he is ‘cabined, cribbed and confined’ by indicates that he progresses to the role of butcher, consciously acting on the ‘firstlings of [his] hand,’ and suppressing his ‘human kindness’ so that he is able to commit such bloody deeds. This notion is furthered in Macbeth’s final soliloquy within the play’s denouement, which occurs after he has already committed much of his brutal action, as he reflects on the brevity of his ambition and the transience of life, speculating that ‘life’s but a walking shadow’ and the tragedy of his own plight as he comments that his is meaningless, ’signifying nothing’. Thus, even as he is left corrupted at the play’s end, Macbeth’s profound and complex introspection confirms that he is not merely a thoughtless and uncivilised butcher, as he clearly achieves an anagnorisis.

AQA LITB3 PPQ – JANUARY 2012 – ‘Carter explores base instincts rather than subconscious desires’

Probably one of the better essays that I’ve written timed/without the book. I got it marked today and it’s a band 6 response, hope it helps!

In ‘The Bloody Chamber,’ it is true that Carter explores base instincts, such as those of the narrator’s father in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ the depraved sexual primacy of the Count in ‘The Snow Child’ and the malign sexual instincts of The Erl-King. Yet, it is debatable that the exploration of base instincts are favoured by Carter. In fact, in the case of the Count, it could be perceived that base instincts arise from the subconscious mind and that the two are intrinsically linked. Furthermore, by considering the benign nature of ‘La Bestia[’s]’ instincts, in addition to the interpretation of ‘The Erl-King’ as an exploration of the narrator’s subconscious desires, it is clear that Carter does not simply wish to explore base instincts. Ultimately, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive – the ambiguity of Carter’s prose allows her to explore the relationship between the two.

In ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ through the use of parallelism and the motif of the gothic double, Carter explores the base greed of the narrator’s father, which seems to be as instinctive to him as the animalistic ‘ferocity’ of the tiger, in order to convey the innate human tendency to succumb to the psychological id. Within the exposition, the narrator immediately alludes to her father’s base greed through the asyndeton of ‘his gaming, his whoring, his agonising repentances’ that led to the death of her mother. He is characterised as ‘a man in the last stages of debauchery,’ sensually indulging in ‘gambling’ and ‘perpetual pleasure’ and Carter elucidates that such base behaviours are instinctive by utilising the motif of the mask, characterising ‘La Bestia’ as an inverted gothic double, resulting in an ironic caricature of human behaviour. As the tiger wears ‘a mask with a man’s face painted on it,’ where ‘one profile is the mirror image of the other’ Carter echoes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, offering the reader an uncomfortable, yet inherently familiar reflection of uncivilised human instincts, as the tiger is literally a beast behind a guise of civilisation. Perhaps Carter is addressing how humans are either ‘fighting a battle with [themselves]’ as the tiger is, or instinctively succumbing to base and ‘perpetual pleasure’.

However, though Carter does explore some instincts that are base in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ she does not present all instincts as such. As the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis in the story’s denouement, as she ‘shrug[s] the drops off [her] beautiful fur’ and assumes an animal form, she learns from the benign and pure instincts of the the beast, who is actually a ‘delicate creature,’ as he offers her an escape from her entrapment and ‘balked simulation of life’ by encouraging her to shed superficial appearances in order to achieve liberation, as foreshadowed in the exposition by the ‘introspective’ setting in which he lives – his desire to see the narrator ‘unclothed’ is clearly not the product of base and sexual instincts, but of instincts altogether more positive and natural. Nudity is depicted in a completely un-sexualised manner, disconnected from any baseness, as the narrator who was once ‘unaccustomed to [her] own flesh’ and ‘unused to [her] own skin’ evades the objectification of a society ‘who take no account of [her] existence’ as she ‘peels down to the cold, white meat of [her] contract.’ She is able to find solace and rebirth in a ‘peaceable kingdom’ in which the oppressive base instincts of men ‘need not be [her] extinction.’

Furthermore, similarly to the way in which the narrator’s father succumbs to his greed in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ it could be interpreted that the Count acts on his ‘base’ and sexual instincts by having sex with the young girl in ‘The Snow Child,’ yet, as she is a manifestation of his subconscious desire, it is more likely that Carter does not favour the exploration of base instincts, but sees the two concepts in relation to one another. As the Count ‘thrust his virile member into the dead girl,’ helplessly ‘weeping’ in the process, it could be perceived that such base actions are instinctive and do come naturally to him, yet it would not only be controversial to suggest that engaging in rape, necrophilia and incest is instinctive, but also, inaccurate. Due to the fact that the girl is ‘the child of his desire,’ manifesting as soon as ‘[the Count] completed his description,’ it is a likelier interpretation that she is therefore, a product of male subconscious desire, as suggested by the anaphora as the Count ‘wish[es he] had a girl as white as snow,’ ‘… as red as blood,’ ‘… [and] as black as that bird’s feather.’ Carter explores how the depraved and unsettling desires of the Count interact with his instincts, as he acts on such sexual impulses, as the girl is ‘stark naked,’ serving no other real purpose than for the Count to fulfil the fantasies of his subconscious, as she dissipates, ‘[beginning] to melt’ as soon as he has raped her.

Within ‘The Erl-King,’ through the narrative voice and the setting of the woods, Carter arguably continues to focus on subconscious desires, rather than base instincts, yet this time, those of the female. Though the Erl-King is characterised as an enticing figure, leading the narrator to indulge in her sexual instincts in ‘profane mysteries under the leaves,’ as ‘he came alive from the desire of the woods’ he is ultimately a construct of her subconscious desire. This sentiment is furthered through the narrative voice, as she deems herself an ‘imaginary traveller’ and alludes to the ‘invented distance’ of the woods, she evidently desires the ‘embracements’ of the Erl-King in spite of the ‘grievous harm’ she knows he is able to inflict. The denouement of the story affirms this interpretation as the Erl-King proclaims ‘Mother, Mother, you have murdered me!’ as she figuratively ‘murder[s]’ and suppresses the desires that she has previously been ‘mother’ to.

Yet, it could be considered that whilst Carter does explore the subconscious desires of the narrator, she does this in order to expose how females perceive the base instincts of men. The Erl-King is characterised as a powerful and ‘irrevocable’ figure, able to lead the narrator astray, and Carter alludes to his base intentions by utilising intertextuality from Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ as she equates his actions the ‘…thirsty, cankered..’ ones of the goblins of the poem. However, it is inferred that she will be ‘trapped in her illusion’ and her own subconscious desires, as she is essentially, aware of the Erl-King’s dangerous sexuality. Carter proposes that females metaphorically ‘[lose] themselves in the woods’ – it is their perceptions and toleration of male sexual instincts that are more damaging and thus, she explores both subconscious desires and base instincts in relation to one another.

Ultimately, Carter does not explore base instincts at the cost of subconscious desires, but views them as joint, exploring the relationship between the two. Thus, she shows how subconscious desires can be equally sordid and dangerous, and that baseness need not always arise from instinct.

AQA LITB3 Practice essay – To what extent is Macbeth responsible for his own downfall?

Hey there, this is a practice essay (Ie. not a real past paper question) that I completed for homework over half term. I haven’t had it marked yet, but thought it seemed decent enough to post! Reading over what I’ve written, one thing I’d focus on more if I could re-write it, is probably the influence of the witches, considering some of Heccat’s dialogue (‘trade and traffic with Macbeth / in riddles and affairs of death,’ the apparitions, the interpretation of Macbeth as a ‘wayward son’ for some further structural analysis etc.). I did write this with a conclusion (I concluded that he was the source of his downfall, but not responsible for it), but for some reason, it wasn’t saved to my laptop, so I’ll update this when I get my grade back.

The eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s Macbeth undeniably suffers a tragic downfall, from the ‘noble’ thane of Glamis in the play’s exposition, to an ‘abhorred tyrant’ in its denouement. Though it would outwardly appear that Macbeth is rather indisputably corrupted by extraneous forces of evil that lead him to his demise, such as Lady Macbeth and the three witches, perhaps a stronger interpretation is that such forces merely bring his latent evil into being. Ultimately, if we consider a psychoanalytic reading of the text, then we can regard Macbeth’s madness and guilt as a form of psychological defence, rather than proof of his good nature. The source of his downfall lies not with the malign guidance of others, but with the ‘black and deep desires’ of his own subconscious. However, whether Macbeth can actually be held ‘responsible’ for this is subject to interpretation, as he tragically seeks to repress such urges.

It could be interpreted, that as Macbeth is depicted as a ‘noble’ and ‘valiant’ warrior in the play’s exposition, he is an inherently decent character who allows himself to be corrupted by his, wife, and he is thus, not responsible for his own downfall. As Shakespeare uses the imagery of the ‘[eagle]’ and the ‘lion’ to characterise Macbeth as noble and brave and fully ‘deserv[ing]’ of the praise he receives then perhaps Lady Macbeth acts as a femme fatale and preys on his good ‘nature’, which she speculates is ‘too full o’th’ milk of human kindness’ by ‘pour[ing] her spirits in [his] ear, and goading him to commit regicide. Macbeth’s guilt is clear before he even commits to ‘treasonous malice,’ as the very thought of killing Duncan is ‘horrid’ to him, making his ‘seated heart knock at [his ribs], and this would certainly affirm the view that Lady Macbeth ‘chastise[s]’ him into the act and that she is to be held responsible for his downfall, as she is the character that incites his ‘illness’ and his villainy. Though Macbeth falters and states that ‘we will proceed no further in this business,’ the use of sequencing, as he is very quickly ‘settled’ into killing Duncan in addition to Lady Macbeth’s recognition that he already has the ‘desire,’ then it is a stronger interpretation to consider that her intervention is minor and that Macbeth’s earlier descriptions as valiant ‘eagle[s]’ and ‘lion[s]’ merely suggest his predatory nature and delight to ‘bathe in [the] reeking wounds’ of battle. As Macbeth surpasses Lady Macbeth’s mediation by murdering Banquo, ignoring her request for him to ‘leave this’ , his feelings of unrest cannot solely be attributed to her – perhaps `she is not solely responsible for his downfall.

It is also a feasible interpretation to suggest that as Macbeth plays victim to the ‘supernatural soliciting’ of the witches and is seduced into corruption by their favourable prophecies and equivocations, he is thus, not solely responsible for his downfall. Structurally, the witches are established as agents of chaos from the play’s very exposition. Not only do they frame the play’s narrative, but also establish their ability to render things ‘fair’ in nature, perhaps like ‘brave Macbeth’ into things that are ‘foul’ in their ominous chiasmus ‘fair is foul / and foul is fair’. Such control over Macbeth is implied further, as he unknowingly echoes their chiasmus in conversation to Banquo as he remarks ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ and manifests as soon as ‘[their] charm’s wound up’ in a sort of proleptic irony. As they show an apparent power to control the speech and actions of Macbeth, it is not altogether surprising that he is left in a ‘rapt’ state at their claims that he is to inherit the title of ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘King hereafter’. However, though the witches are formidable in their powers, they are clearly not all-powerful; as the witches ‘curse a man forbid’ at the beginning of I:III, the couplet ‘though his bark shall not be lost / yet it shall be tempest tossed’ indicates that though the can manipulate nature to a certain extent, it is not in their power to exert complete destruction. Thus, the use of ‘noble’ Banquo as a foil, whose recognition that ‘To win us to our harm / the instruments of darkness tell us truths / win us with honest trifles / to betray’s in deepest consequence’ leads to the view, that, in spite of their malicious intentions, the witches can only partially lead Macbeth to his downfall. Though the witches are ‘there to meet with Macbeth’ and not Banquo, as he falsely interprets that ‘two truths are told,’ he essentially exhibits clear ‘vaulting ambition’, that is characteristic to him and not the witches, perhaps they are merely manifestations of his own ambivalence and inner conflict that drives him to commit ‘dread exploits’ lending to the interpretation that he is clearly the one to be held accountable for his downfall.

If we consider a psychoanalytic reading of Macbeth and consider him to be an inherently evil character who has previously suppressed his ‘black and deep desires’, then perhaps he is actually responsible for his own downfall. As Lady Macbeth reports how Macbeth ‘burned in desire’ to hear the prophecies of the witches, it is clear that his earlier soliloquy, which can be seen to reveal his innermost thoughts, reveals his subconscious intentions to kill Duncan. The subjunctive mood of Macbeth’s statement that ‘chance may crown [him] without [his] stir’ perhaps reveals not his innocent intentions, but instead, the possibility that he ‘may’ intervene. This is furthered as he speculates that Duncan’s ‘murther yet but is fantastical,’ as he unknowingly comments on the inevitability of treason, it seems to indicate that his evil has been present from the play’s very exposition. As his latent evil is eventually brought into being, the witches, who would have been perceived, contextually as proponents of the devil refer to him as ‘wicked,’ branding him rather indisputably as a gothic villain – the notion that an advocate of Satan would regard him to be evil potentially affirms that he is again, the one to be held accountable for his demise. However, if we consider the prospect that Macbeth is unstable, seeing an unreal ‘air-drawn dagger’ that provokes him to such deeds and plagued by ‘the torture of [his] mind,’ though the source of his downfall does lie within him, perhaps he cannot be held responsible for it due to his unstable state of mind.

AQA LITB4 – Further and Independent reading – Notes on the canon

If you’re preparing your critical anthology coursework piece, you might find these helpful. The vast majority of these notes are taken directly from the anthology, but I’ve divided them into sub-sections for ease of reading and included some extra content that isn’t included.


  • Aesthetics = refined pleasure = art = beauty
  • Derives from a Greek word meaning ‘things perceptible to the sense,’ ‘sensory impressions’.
  • The concept of ‘good taste’ is melded with idealised and socially elitist notions of ‘the sublime’.
  • At its crudest, an aesthetic sense was simply a sign of good breeding.
  • Art for art’s sake” – is the aesthetic nothing more, nor less, than a sensitivity to the sublime and beautiful and an aversion to the ordinary and the ugly?
  • The intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function.
  • Nb: Think Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ – you can set up some interesting debate with aesthetic value here. Wilde claims in the preface that ‘all art is quite useless,’ adopting the mantra of ‘art for art’s sake,’ yet the story is rather ironically, didactic. I’d probably use this for my coursework piece if I hadn’t already used it for my comparative essay! 
  • Canon of literature = high art
  • Popular writing/mass media = treated as artisanal, applied, commercial and ephemeral and therefore, left to communication, cultural and media studies.
  • There is an inherent willingness to play down the fact that many works that are now canonised as timeless classics (Ie. Shakespeare/Dickens etc) were highly popular, commercial and designedly ephemeral in their own day.

Judgement and value

  • Not all literature excites critical interest and comment
  • Literary critics have usually assumed that the texts which seem to repay special attention by many readers over a long period of time, thereby attaining ‘classic’ status, do so because they are intrinsically valuable.
  • Value is seen as a quality residing within the texts themselves – critics stress the importance of characteristics such as aesthetic unity, complexity, literary language, subject-matter and canonical status.
  • Literary texts which are assumed to be of special value are generally characterised by complexity of plot, structure, language and ideas.


  • In this context, used as a synonym of value.
  • But, there are many different forms that ‘complexity’ can take;
  • The existence of a skilfully constructed plot and the co-existence of this plot with sub-plots that mirror and highlight the events and themes of the main one.
  • Language is also typically considered to be complex – writers don’t simply choose ‘ordinary words,’ but instead, words with resonance, historical associations, beauty, or ‘rightness’ for the particular context.
  • The language, structure, plot ideas etc. can be seen to constitute the aesthetic unity of the text.
  • If these elements aren’t cohesively linked to form the same overall structure within a text ad the reader is unable to find complex, unified patterns, the text will not be regarded as high literature and will be judged to be flawed.


  • Language in valued texts is described as elegant, witty, patterned controlled; in short, the author is considered to have taken care in his or her choice, and the reader takes pleasure in the skill which the author displays.
  • Literary language, for critics such as the Russian formalists, is seen to constitute a separate type of language where the author plays conscious with the possibilities of expression i order to produce verbal art that has aesthetic qualities.

Subject matter

  • Generally considered to be serious, dealing with moral and philosophical topics of acknowledged importance.
  • Valued texts are supposed to give the reader an insight into fundamental questions which are of universal concern, such as the nature of evil, the corrupting effect of money, the value of love, etc.
  • Comic texts are rarely accorded status unless they appear to discuss such universal themes.
  • Valued texts = universal themes = durability. Eg. Shakespeare’s texts have significance not only for his time, but for all time.
  • When texts evidently discuss specific political questions in detail (political polemic), they are generally, at odds with literary worth.
  • Nb: Orwell’s ‘1984’ might be a text to consider here (or other dystopian text, but this one springs to mind as it is generally considered as canonical). It clearly discusses very specific issues, so perhaps the canon is somewhat more flexible than we give it credit for.
  • Satire is valued for its observations about humankind in general, not more specific criticisms of specific societies.

The Canon

  • Texts considered to be of the highest value.
  • Constantly changing (especially in schools), but generally taught in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Writers/dramatists poets. etc. belonging to the canon: Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer.
  • Others debated on being included: Dryden, Lawrence, Pope, Swift, Woolf, Joyce, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Jonson, Dickens, Hardy, Burns, Austen, Eliot and the Brontes.
  • Most of these writers are male, middle/upper-class, dead and are all white.
  • Is it a coincidence that most of these writers belong to the same ethnic, socio-economic and gender group, or does the canon support ruling ideologies?

Perspectives on value

– Barthes

  • Shifted the attention from assuming that ‘value’ resides within the text and focused on ‘the pleasure of the text’.
  • Not scholarly enjoyment, but the sexualised pleasure of reading.
  • Realist texts = readerly.
  • In reading ‘readerly’/realist texts, the reader begins not to be aware of the fact that he/she is reading and starts to get caught up in the pleasure of the narrative.
  • Barthes prefers ‘writerly’ texts (experimental/avant garde texts) which force the reader to ‘work’ and ‘play’ more in rode to make sense of them.
  • In ‘writerly’ texts, more attention is drawn to the process of writing (Nb: does this sound familiar??!?!?!) ; we are unable to become lost in the narrative in the same unthinking way as with readerly texts.
  • Though Barthes claimed to be opposed in constructing hierarchies, there does seem to be a value judgement made between readerly and writerly texts.
  • Yet, his writing about the pleasure of the text does question the traditional notion of canonical texts as somehow intrinsically more valuable than others.
  • Here, the reader plays an important role in attributing value to a text.

– Eagleton / Marxism

  • Attacks the concept of the canon, arguing that texts become canonical precisely as they serve to support the ruling ideology.
  • He doesn’t want to dispense with the notion of value completely, since he also thinks that there are literary texts which question or ‘escape’ ideology, and so, force the reader to consider his or her position, and perhaps lead to a form of consciousness raising.
  • Ie. Within The Women’s Movement, feminist novels written by Fay Weldon, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter have been very important in bringing about changes in women’s thinking.
  • These literary texts have brought about a questioning of certain ideological assumptions about the position of women and can therefore, be seen as ‘valuable’ for this reason.

– Michael Foucault

  • Questions the idea of attributing value to texts at all.
  • He argues that literary texts are really, empty texts, containing less rather than more than other texts.
  • They display ‘enunciative poverty’.
  • With literary texts, critics have to work hardest in order to fill gaps that the text leaves gaping open.
  • It is the critics themselves, writing scholarly articles and books on canonical writers, who repeat over and over the message which the text itself failed to tell.
  • Foucault also questions the notion that the writer is in total control of what is written.
  • He draws attention to the importance of other factors in the writing process, such as the common-sense knowledge of time, literary traditions and the economic and literary pressures which lead the writer to write within certain genres or styles, and on certain subjects.

Additional Notes

  • Deciding what belongs in the canon – nostalgia, aesthetics, political status etc.
  • Should it be timeless?
  • unlike the other arts, [literature] can criticise itself. Pieces of art can parody other pieces, and painting can caricature paintings. But this does not amount to a total rejection of music or painting. Literature, however, can totally reject literature, and in this it shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art’ – John Carey, What Good Are The Artss? (2000) (p.175)
  • ‘…the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature’, has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time… ‘Our’ Homer is not identical with the Homer of the Middle Ages, nor ‘our’ Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries; it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a ‘different’ Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same ones.
  • Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.

Some Opinions

  • Whilst the canon is essentially an elitist, perhaps even pretentious construct, it is however, necessary.
  • How else would we decide which texts merit teaching? Are some texts simply better?
  • The problem is not the canon, then, but who decides which texts go into the canon.
  • A text does not have to be structurally and linguistically complex to constitute as ‘great literature’ – complexity of theme is of great importance. Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ is a seminal piece of existentialist literature, yet only compromises of two parts and is written in a concise, economic way. It poses hugely philosophical questions, but with regards to both style and structure, is very accessible.
  • Complexity is necessary, ultimately, because it makes us think. When we read Shakespeare, we do not read in the same, passive way that we would if we read, say, Harry Potter, or other popular escapist literature. Reading becomes a more active process and we are challenged to question things that are of importance that we perhaps, wouldn’t otherwise.