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Time and Space 1: Changing English

The Tower of Babel; oil painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

One of the core concepts that you will return to time and time again in your study of IB English is that Language changes in relationship to time and space. This concept is what makes language so intriguing – and admittedly, challenging – to study. In this section you will be asked to consider language that is familiar to you and varieties of English that might be unfamiliar or even surprising. At any given point in time, language can vary significantly according to place and person, just as it has throughout history and across different cultures.


IB Learner Profile: Inquirers

We nurture our curiosity, developing skills for inquiry and research. We know how to learn independently and with others. We learn with enthusiasm and sustain our love of learning throughout life.

Get yourself into good habits right at the start of the course by trying to read beyond the articles provided here or by your teachers. You could begin by browsing the world famous Language Hat blog. Written and collated by retired journalist Steve Dodson, this is a repository of hundreds of articles about all things language-related, including how language is constantly changing and evolving. In the spirit of being an inquirer, why not choose an article that you enjoy and try leading part of a lesson using this as your starting point?

Lang and Lit Concepts: Culture

Language is one of the ways by which different cultures can be defined and distinguished from one another. During this section, you will visit different parts of the anglophone (English-speaking) world and learn about various cultures. As you learn, consider how the changes to English over time and space can tells us things about the different cultures in which the language lives.

Guiding Conceptual Question:

  • How do conventions evolve over time?

Time and Space 2: Taboo

“Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of anything… On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden… When any thing is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.” 

Captain James Cook, 1777
Slaying Holofernes; oil on canvas by Artemisia Gentileschi, Naples, 1610. Find out more about the daring Italian artist who followed in Carravagio’s footsteps and broke Counter-Reformation taboos at a time when women were confined to still-life painting.

The word ‘taboo’ derives from the Tongan word tabu meaning ‘set apart’ or ‘forbidden’, and was first used in 1777 by  Captain James Cook after he observed the eating habits of the people of the South Pacific Islands. Taboo subjects in all societies tend to involve religion, sex, death and bodily functions; things that frighten us and make us uneasy. The first taboo word in Proto-European languages was supposedly ‘bear’ – an animal so ferocious and fierce that people were scared to call it by its name. 

Taboos vary over time, and as they change, so do the words that are considered socially unacceptable. Several hundred years ago, the strongest taboos among English speakers were religious: you may remember hearing characters from Shakespeare shouting ‘Zounds!’ an expression that was vulgar as it was a shortened version of ‘God’s Wounds.’ This taboo has weakened over the 20th century, with words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ largely losing their offensiveness. Different societies have developed a multitude of words and expressions to deal with taboo subjects in a variety of ways, either to avoid mentioning a difficult subject at all or to deliberately use taboo words to shock, incense, hurt or offend.


IB Learner Profile: Caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

IB Learners care about others, and care about the impact they have on others. They don’t stand aside when they see injustice or cruelty, and seek ways to actively improve the lives of others. The notion of ‘action’ is tied intimately to caring; so at some point while you investigate the following topics pause and draw up a resolution. This could be as small as altering the words you use to describe others, or something larger like delivering a presentation in an assembly about the way the language we use can be culturally sensitive. 

Lang and Lit Concept: Perspective

The concept of perspective suggests that works and texts have a range of potential meanings. The potential can arise, for example, from authorial intent, reader bias, and from the time and place in which a work or text was written. You’ll discover that uses of language you might find offensive, from another perspective is inoffensive – and visa-versa. Part of being an IB student is learning to respectfully challenge received wisdom and the opinions of others, and to have your own preconceptions challenged in return.

Guiding Conceptual Question:

  • To what extent do texts provide insights into different cultures?

Time and Space 3: Other Times, Other Places

Reborn sounds of childhood Dreams I; Ibrahim El-Salahi, 1961-1965. Considered the father of African modernism, Ibrahim El Salahi has created over five decades of visionary, Surrealist artworks from mixed Arab and African origins.

The idea that a reader comes to a text with culturally learned preconceptions is an understanding central to this section of the course. To a certain extent we are all ethnocentric – that is, we all struggle with the ingrained idea that our own way life is the natural or ‘right’ way to live. We then use those norms to make judgements about other cultures or ways of living. In this section you’ll study texts from and about people who live in other places or lived at other times and, hopefully, be able to recognise how the meaning of some texts rely on stereotypes or assumptions which may be misleading or untrue.


Learner Profile:


Lang and Lit Concept: Representation

“Representation refers to the relationship between texts and meanings. In any given text, whether literary or non-literary – however one makes that distinction – the relationship between form, structure, and meaning is a central concern. Perspectives differ on the extent to which language and literature does, can, or should represent reality.”

IB Lang and Lit Guide

Conceptual Guiding Question:

  • How do texts reflect, represent or form a part of cultural practices?

Readers, Writers, Texts 1: The Media, Journalism and the Internet

“It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars.”

Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1979
The Death of Journalism; acrylic on wood by Ruben Ubiera, 2010

Public opinion is a powerful force which can be used to decide who gets elected, how people should be educated, and how groups of people should be treated. The underlying concept on this page is how public opinion is managed through channels of mass communication, also known as the media. This unit also fulfils one of the IB Diploma wider aims, which is to promote media literacy: the understanding of how language is used as a tool to mould public opinion. 


IB Learner Profile: Knowledgeable

We develop and use conceptual understanding, exploring knowledge across a range of disciplines. We engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance.

How do you get your knowledge of the world? Which newspapers do you read, or news programmes do you watch, if any? How wide or narrow is the range of sources you use to keep abreast of current affairs?  An IB Learner should strive to be knowledgable about ideas of global significance, and watching or reading the news from a variety of sources can help you broaden your horizons in this regard. 

Lang and Lit Concept:


Guiding Conceptual Question:

  • How do texts adhere to or deviate from conventions associated with genre or text type?

Readers, Writers, Texts 2: The Language of Persuasion

V.I. Lenin and a Demonstration; oil on canvas by Isaak Brodsky, 1919

Have you ever experienced goosebumps whilst you were listening to someone speak? Chances are this response was the result of persuasive language. Persuasive language comes into all kinds of text, from presentations in school assemblies, to political pamphlets, to adverts persuading you to buy something you didn’t really need. In this section you will explore important aspects of persuasive language including propaganda, rhetoric and public speaking (another important application – advertising – is even more deeply enmeshed in our everyday lives and is covered in the next section). 


IB Learner Profile: Thinker

We use critical and creative thinking skills to analyse and take responsible action on complex problems. We exercise initiative in making reasoned, ethical decisions.

sources of information, and the methods with which the ‘real world’ is presented to you through the mass media. You may have to swallow some of your assumptions about the purposes of those creating, programming and writing content for mainstream consumption. Being able to recognize when you are being covertly persuaded, for example, relies on you being media literate, and critically aware. 

Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

Because speeches are inherently a communicative task, these sets of resources have been placed under the concept of communication. Concepts you’ll encounter in this section include how a writer facilitates communication through the style and structure of rhetoric. Writers often have a particular audience in mind, and discovering what assumptions have been made about this audience’s views might make communication with you – an unintended audience – more difficult. You might also question the way a reader and writer must co-operate for a text to be effective.

Conceptual Guiding Questions:

  • In what ways can diverse texts share points of similarity?
  • How does language use vary among text types and literary forms?
  • How do texts offer insights and challenges?

Readers, Writers, Texts 3: Advertising and Representation

“Everyone always feels personally exempt from the affects of advertising. So, wherever I go, what I hear more than anything else is: ‘I don’t pay attention to ads, I just tune them out. Ads have no effect on me.’ Of course, I hear this most often from people wearing Abercrombie T-Shirts, but there you go.” 

Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly, 2007
This painting by John Parry depicts the sudden explosion of advertising in London in 1835. Parry cheekily included an advert for one of his own exhibitions as one of the posters on the wall. Can you spot it?

Advertising today takes a surprising number of forms. While print advertisements, television commercials and roadside billboards are still prevalent, advertising agencies are always looking for creative ways to sell products. Current advertising takes advantage of the viral networking possibilities of social media, the alternative quality of place-based or installation art, and the potential to exploit other media such as the television news programme or the article format (using infomercials and magazine supplements). One of the most important skills a critical consumer of advertising can have today is firstly the ability to recognize advertising wherever it may be hidden! Even then, advertising still has the power to seduce and persuade.


IB Learner Profile: Principled

We act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness and justice, and with respect for the dignity and rights of people everywhere. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

How principled are you when it comes to the products you consume? Advertising and the mass media are powerfully persuasive and, in today’s digital world, positive messages are amplified and strengthened to the point where they are difficult to resist. As you study this section of the course, consider your own principles in light of the brands you purchase, the products you consume – and the messages you believe.

Lang and Lit Concept: Representation

How far that the texts we read represent the truth of our human experience has long been a contentious issue, and none more so than in the beauty industry and the mass media connected to it. Once you have studied the topic of representation in advertising, you will see how the lives of men and women, and the things that they desire and expect from life, are drastically changing across many parts of the world. But do these changes result in a change in the topics that men and women like to read about – and a shift in the way they like to see themselves reflected in texts – or will you find the same old issues of stereotyped representation appearing time and again in the texts you study?

Guiding Conceptual Questions:

  • How important is the cultural or historical context to the production or reception of a text?
  • How do conventions of texts evolve over time?

Intertextuality 1: Making Connections

Intertextuality is a term coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966 explaining that there are two relationships going on whenever we read a text: there’s the relationship between us and the author (the horizontal access) and between the texts and other texts (the vertical axis). It’s the vertical axis that gives us our definition of intertextuality.

Follow Your Dreams; spraypaint and mixed media on paper by Mr Brainwash, 2012

Literary texts possess meaning, and that is why readers extract meaning from them. The process of extracting meaning from texts is called interpretation. However, in contemporary literary theory such ideas have been radically changed. It is now believed that works of literature are built from systems, codes, and traditions established by previous works of literature and other art forms such as films and television, and culture in general. Therefore the act of reading one text, rather than the interpretation of one work, engages the reader in discovering a network of textual relations. Tracing those relations is the way of interpreting the text and discovering its meanings. Reading is like traveling around the world, a process of ‘touring between texts.’ In this section, you’ll learn how to conduct this process of ‘textual tourism.’


IB Learner Profile: open-minded

We critically appreciate our own cultures and personal histories, as well as the values and traditions of others. We seek and evaluate a range of points of view, and we are willing to grow from the experience.

This part of the course could have been tailor-made by somebody with the value of open-minded in mind. In order to fully understand and appreciate the concept of Intertextuality, you will have to be open to all kinds of texts, and even open to the idea that, in order to understand and appreciate one text, you have to have read many other – possibly unrelated – texts first!

Lang and Lit Concept: Creativity


Guiding Conceptual Questions:

  • How valid is the notion of a classic text?
  • How do conventions and systems of reference evolve over time?

TOK Interlude: Words Words Words

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it… Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, (1948)
Thoughtcrime; ink on canvas by Liberty Maniacs, 2010

If we don’t have words for a concept or thing, then how can we conceive of a concept or thing? This is one of the key knowledge issues inherent to language, and needs thinking about in some detail. In this section you can explore ideas that relate closely to your Theory of Knowledge course, such as whether your knowledge is limited by the words you know, why what we call things matters, where the meaning of words resides, and whether you think in metaphors. In today’s political landscape, these ideas have arguably never been more relevant, as this article suggests.


IB Learner Profile: Open-Minded

We critically appreciate our own cultures and personal histories, as well as the values and traditions of others. We seek and evaluate a range of points of view, and we are willing to grow from the experience.

The ideas in this section are intimately tied to work you will do in your Theory of Knowledge course, as language is one of the “ways of knowing,” a primary means of engaging with knowledge and understanding. As you explore language and words as a sign system, keep in mind your own spirit of open-mindedness – especially when the theories and suggestions in this section might seem a bit bewildering, esoteric or obscure.

Lang and Lit Concept: Creativity

The strange and esoteric nature of some of the concepts discussed in this section may require you to have an imaginative and creative response. When it all feels a bit much, remind yourself of the Lang and Lit guide’s definition of creativity: creativity highlights the importance of the reader being able to engage in an imaginative interaction with a text which generates a range of potential meanings from it.

Guiding Conceptual Questions:

  • In what ways is meaning constructed, negotiated, expressed and interpreted?
  • How are we affected by texts in various ways?

Drama Study: The Visit

Dürrenmatt’s play has been adapted for stage many times, most recently for the National Theatre in London. Lesley Manville won rave reviews for her performance as millionaire Claire Zachanassian.

The impoverished town of Guellen looks to multi-milliionaire Claire Zachanassian for financial salvation. When she offers them a million dollars if they kill Ill, a citizen of the town and her former lover, the townspeople initially refuse – but their resolve is worn down by the allure of wealth. Will they hold on to their moral idealism, or will the lure of money prove too much to resist?

The Visit, written in 1956, was Dürrenmatt’s third published work and is set approximately ten years after the end of the second world war. Famously, Switzerland remained neutral throughout the conflict, siding with neither Allied nor Axis forces. However, Switzerland had deported its Jewish citizens, refused to allow migrant Jews fleeing the Nazis to enter Switzerland, hosted Allied soldiers in prisoner of war camps, and accepted looted gold from German forces. In Dürrenmatt’s opinion, ‘neutrality’ was merely a euphemism for ‘complicity’. Therefore, his play is set in Guellen, a thinly veiled representation of Switzerland; a community forced to choose between moral convictions and material gain.

IB Student Learner Profile: Thinker

“We use critical and creative thinking skills to analyse and take responsible action on complex problems. We exercise initiative in making reasoned, ethical decisions.”

If any writers on your course can be called a thinker, Friedrich Dürrenmatt must be near the top of the list. He was born in 1921 in Konolfingen, a small town just outside the Swiss capital of Bern. The son of a pastor, he developed a keen interest in philosophy and went to Berlin where he began a doctoral dissertation on the philosopher Kierkegaard. In the middle of his studies, though, he came to believe that greed and hypocrisy had polluted life in Switzerland after the second world war. He abandoned his dissertation and returned to Switzerland, becoming a playwright and crafting controversial works full of dark humour and grotesqueries, laying bare the absurdity of European politics and society. He famously said, “it is not only possible to think with the philosophy, but also with the theater stage.”

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

Arguably the defining language feature of Dürrenmatt’s play is pervasive irony. Hardly anybody says what they really mean, and their actions contradict their words. Even the ‘hero’ of the piece is guilty of shifting the truth when it suits his purposes. As you read The Visit, consider how certain uses of language can be used to conceal as well as reveal, to distort as well as illuminate, and how communication is rarely straightforward in Dürrenmatt’s world.

Drama Study: Glengarry Glen Ross

In 2017, Glengarry Glen Ross enjoyed a successful run of performances in London’s West End.

Glengarry Glen Ross, by American playwright David Mamet, was first performed by the Royal National Theatre, in London, England, on September 21st 1983. Critic reviews were overwhelmingly positive and the production played in front of sold-out audiences. The play opens in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Three pairs of men sit in different booths, eating and talking. They all work for the same real estate sales office across the road. Bit by bit, we discover that there is a sales contest on: the winner of the first prize will receive a Cadillac; second prize a set of steak knives – all the rest of the salesmen will be fired! The second act relocates to the sales office the next morning: it has been ransacked and a set of important “leads” – information about potential buyers – has been stolen. A police detective is there to investigate the burglary and one by one the salesmen are interrogated. It seems that one of them is the prime suspect. 

IB Learner Profile: Reflective

We thoughtfully consider the world and our own ideas and experience. We work to understand our strengths and weaknesses in order to support our learning and personal development.

Many people, including some studying this course, live in comfortable, well-developed circumstances in societies that have adopted capitalism and free market economics. And it’s true that this system has delivered success and wealth to many countries, institutions and individuals. But, how many of us take the time to wonder about the hidden side of capitalism? As you read this play, be reflective about the societies we live in, and about our global economic systems. What is the human cost of the comfort and convenience most of us enjoy?

Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

In Glengarry Glen Ross, language as a means of communication has been twisted. Language is used by (almost) all the characters in the play only as a tool to manipulate potential customers or each other. Deception is at work on every level. We see lying and fantasy as a way of thinking and operating: certainly there is little truth to anything anyone says to anybody, even when it seems to support a friendship or express a philosophy. As you read through the play, think about language as a tool of communication and ask how certain uses of language can hide and conceal the truth.

Drama Study: The Merchant of Venice

Jonathan Pryce plays Shylock in The Globe Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, 2016.

Merchant of Venice ranks with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed dramas. Written sometime between 1594 and 1598, the play is primarily based on a story in Il Pecorone, a collection of tales and anecdotes by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Fiorentino.

In Venice, Antonio and Bassanio are friends. Bassanio is already in debt to the merchant, but he asks for an additional sum so that he can woo the wealthy and beautiful Portia in Belmont. Because most of his money is invested in three merchant vessels that have not returned from abroad, Antonio is unable to comply with his friend’s request. Bassanio turns to Shylock, who hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money without interest. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats for three months: if the loan is not repaid in time, he will demand a pound of the merchant’s flesh.

IB Learner Profile: Caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

IB Learners care about others, and care about the impact they have on others. They don’t stand aside when they see injustice or cruelty, and seek ways to actively improve the lives of others. In many ways, The Merchant of Venice is a play about the way people choose to treat each other: why does Antonio abuse Shylock on the Rialto? Why does Shylock doggedly pursue his ‘pound of flesh’? Pause at one or two moments in the play and reflect on what may have been different if characters had shown each other more empathy, compassion and caring.  

Lang and Lit Concept: Perspective

The Merchant of Venice has a reputation as a ‘problem play’, the problem being it seems to fall back on stereotypes of Jewish people in order to satisfy the expectation of a 17th century audience. As a Jew, Shylock would have been an archetypal villain, incapable of human emotion such as pity, mercy or kindness. At several points in the play other characters level this charge against Shylock. However, the way the play is written allows for other interpretations of Shylock’s character, and the viewer is left to wonder whether Shakespeare was trying to represent Jewish people in a more progressive way than his culture would normally accept. During your reading of The Merchant of Venice, keep track of the possible perspectives one might have on Shylock’s character.

Drama Study: Pygmalion

Pygmalion and Galatea; oil on canvas by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1890, now exhibited at The Met, New York.

When George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925, he was praised for turning “his weapons against everything that he conceives of as prejudice.” This is clearly true of Pygmalion, which was premiered in German in Vienna in 1913.

The play is a modern interpretation of an ancient myth, the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion, an artist, falls in love with Galatea, a statue of an ideal woman that he created. Pygmalion is a man disgusted with real-life women, so chooses celibacy and the pursuit of an ideal woman whom he carves out of ivory. Wishing the statue were real, he makes a sacrifice to Venus, the goddess of love, who brings the statue to life. By the late Renaissance, poets and dramatists began to contemplate the thoughts and feelings of this woman, who woke full-grown in the arms of a lover. Shaw’s central character—the flower girl Liza Doolittle—expresses articulately how her transformation has made her feel, and he adds the additional twist that Liza turns on her “creator” in the end.

IB Learner Profile: Balanced

We understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional – to achieve well-being for ourselves and others. We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live.

Your study of Literature will be assessed in different ways, one of which is an activity called the Individual Oral Presentation. Pygmalion is a great text for you to think about using, as it contains many passages that connect to concepts you will have studied in other parts of the course. Some students enjoy this activity as it does not require spending lots of time writing essays, and allows you space to work on other aspects of the IB; this is called having intellectual balance in the learner profile. Other students find the Individual Oral stressful and even a little nerve-wracking (affecting what the learner profile calls emotional balance). The important thing to do is to remain balanced: if you gather your thoughts regularly throughout the course and record them in your Learner Portfolio, and hone preparation techniques that work for you, you’ll find this is a great way to boost your internal assessment score.

Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation

Transformation is a central theme of Shaw’s play: Pygmalion‘s all about turning a poor girl into a duchess! Eliza’s metamorphosis is indeed stunning. You could even go so far as to call it a ‘Cinderella story.’ But remember: Cinderella turned back into a poor girl before she finally found her prince. Pay attention and you’ll notice that not all the attempts at transformation here are successful. There are plenty of false starts and false endings. By play’s end, Shaw’s made one thing very clear: be careful what you wish for.

Prose Study: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie’s own experience of being sent to live among peasants during the Cultural Revolution was the inspiration for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which is semi-autobiographical.

The narrator, then 17, and his best friend Luo, who is 18, are sent to the Phoenix of the Sky mountain where the two urban youths are to be re-educated by poor village-dwelling peasants. They arrive streaked with mud from their journey, and immediately the villagers seize all their possessions, including a violin that they believe to be a toy. Then Luo smoothly breaks in with an offer to play a sonata called, ‘Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.’ The village headman smiles. So begins the story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Dai Sijie’s own experience of being sent to live among peasants during the Cultural Revolution was the inspiration for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which is semi-autobiographical. After returning home, he taught at a school in Chengdu before receiving a scholarship to study film in France. He left China in 1984. He directed several films before turning to writing. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was his first novel, winning several French literary awards, been adapted into a film by Dai himself, and been translated into 25 languages.

IB Student Learner Profile: Knowledgable

We develop and use conceptual understanding, exploring knowledge across a range of disciplines. We engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set during the Cultural Revolution in China, years when Mao Zedong’s policies uprooted the old-standing order and tradition of the country and sought to fashion a new, modern nation. One of his keystone policies was to send urban youth, who he dubbed ‘young intellectuals’ to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasantry. But, as the narrator ruefully observes, because Mao had long since closed schools, the boys education was itself rudimentary. As part of your research into this text, you’ll learn about Mao’s ‘Up to the Mountain, Down to the Countryside’ movement, and have the chance to reflect on the crucial role education plays in a person’s life.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation

In many ways, transformation is the central theme of Dai Sijie’s novel. The context of the story is Mao Zedong’s attempt to transform an entire country through the policies of his Cultural Revolution whereby the narrator and his friend Luo are ‘sent down’ to the countryside in order to be re-educated by peasant villagers. However, Sijie reveals that education is always a two-way process, and the boys are destined to leave their own imprint on this hidden corner of China.

Prose Study: Waiting for the Barbarians

This painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre depictsThe Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410

An unnamed magistrate is stationed at a frontier border town of an expanding empire. He’s been posted here for a long time and, despite how far away he is from the capital, he is happy to live out his ‘easy years’ in this remote area on the border of the empire; approaching sixty, he will retire soon and, apart from the occasional sheep raids and sporadic attacks, his posting is not at all dramatic. However, rumour is spreading about a possible barbarian attack by the indigenous peoples who live on the empire’s fringes. Displaced by the foreign settlers, are they now massing together to counter-attack?

The magistrate’s easy days are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Colonel Joll. A ruthless army man, he’s been sent from the capital to discover the truth about the barbarian invasion. The magistrate welcomes Joll uneasily, and soon his suspicions about the officer’s mission are borne out. Joll ruthlessly adopts brutal torture tactics to discover the ‘truth’ from nomadic prisoners abducted from the desert lands around the settlement. The magistrate is repulsed by these techniques, and by the death of an elderly father who could not bear the sight of his daughter being tortured in front of him. Because of his compassion, he is reluctantly drawn into conflict with the empire he is meant to serve.

IB Student Learner Profile: Risk-Takers

Students approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.

When the magistrate encounters a superior officer who employs torture in the pursuit of his political aims, his first instincts are to obey the chain of command. He reasons that it’s none of his business and, besides, after a short time, Colonel Joll will return to the capital and the whole sordid affair will be forgotten. But, when he comes across the site of brutal torture and sees the pain and misery of others with his own eyes, he finds himself compelled to act – at considerable risk to himself. As you read Waiting for the Barbarians, consider where your own thoughts lie in relation to issues such as the use of torture during wartime, and whether one can stand aside when presented with human misery. What risks would you take to uphold your values should they conflict with situations in your own life?

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Culture

While the novel unfolds in an unspecified, unnamed culture, Coetzee is a South African writer and the resemblance between the empire and real-world South Africa is unmistakeable. Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town and, after spending part of his life in London and the US, returned to South Africa in the 1970s, where he taught English at his old alma-mater. At this time, South Africa was divided by the apartheid system – which Coetzee loudly denounced. The plot and themes of Waiting for the Barbarians, written in the 1970s and published on October 27th 1980, parallel the events and history of apartheid South Africa.

Prose Study: The Vegetarian

This artwork by Jen Yoon is inspired byThe Vegetarian.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is one of the most internationally well-known Korean novels. It is not a story about a vegetarian per se; rather, it is a work that investigates what constitutes suffering. It tells the story of Yeong-hye as related through the eyes of three members of her family: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister In-hye. The story begins when Yeong-hye, seemingly from out of the blue, tells her husband she will no longer eat meat and proceeds to throw all the meat in their house away. However, in Korean society, social conformity is regarded as one of the most important social virtues. Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat therefore brings considerable embarrassment to her husband and father. So her decision backfires into a devastating conflict against an almost indomitable enemy: the reigning norms of the patriarchal Korean society of which she is also a member. When she determines to quit eating meat, all of society, including her own husband and family members, turn their backs against her and become her enemy.

IB Learner Profile: Caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

When Yeong-hye makes her decision not to eat meat, her husband’s immediate reaction is to call her crazy. He makes no effort to understand her, or ask how she feels. Her father and mother are even worse, trying to force her to eat meat against her will. Her brother-in-law appears to have sympathy with Yeong-hye – but later he exploits her vulnerable condition for his own benefit. Only her sister appears to care about Yeong-hye, visiting her in hospital and belatedly coming to understand why Yeong-hye is willing to suffer so much. As you read Han Kang’s novel, think about the IB Learner Profile and consider how things might have turned out differently for Yeong-hye if some of the people in her life were just a little more caring, and a little less selfish, than they are.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Identity

Throughout part one of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye recounts vivid and disturbing dreams filled with blood and meat. She suffers severe confusion about her identity, because she has realised that the face of the meat-lover is her own. This image is what catalyses her decision to become vegetarian, which throws her into conflict with wider society. Therefore, a poignant theme of the novel is Yeong-hye’s struggle to hold onto her own identity in the face of strong opposition from her friends and family – even her own parents, husband and sister disagree with her decision to become vegetarian and try to force her to eat meat. Faced with these overwhelming odds, the novel traces Yeong-hye’s descent into madness and the gradual destruction of her independent identity.

Prose Study: The Elephant Vanishes

This illustration by Dariga Idrissova was inspired by Murakami’s short story, the title-piece of this collection.

Haruki Murakami (in Japanese, 村上 春樹) was born in Kyoto in 1949 and moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. After college, Murakami opened a small jazz bar, which he and his wife ran for seven years. If you are ever in Tokyo you can still visit the Peter Cat today. Murakami’s love of music pervades his books. Many of his characters pass the time listening to music and even the title of a well-known novel is named after a Beatles song: Norwegian Wood.

His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, won the Gunzou Literature Prize for budding writers in 1979. He followed this success with two sequels, Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase, which all together form “The Trilogy of the Rat.” Since then Murakami has written over a dozen novels, works of non-fiction and short story collections, including The Elephant Vanishes (originally published in 1993). His work has been translated into more than fifty languages, and nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

IB Learner Profile: Balanced

We critically appreciate our own cultures and personal histories, as well as the values and traditions of others. We seek and evaluate a range of points of view, and we are willing to grow from the experience.

In these stories, a man sees his favourite elephant vanish overnight; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s; and a young woman discovers a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard and can read her thoughts. You never know what is going to happen in one of Murakami’s stories – or even which reality you’re going to find yourself lost inside. Some characters seem stuck in a world bereft of stimulation; others try to escape by plunging into the past, inventing fantasy worlds, or even disappearing into alternate realities. People feel bewildered by the world and seek answers to the point of their own existences. Above all they struggle – often unsuccessfully – to find balance in their lives.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Perspective

A criticism that is sometimes levelled against Murakami’s writing is that his narrators, from book to book, seem remarkably similar. Most are young men of a certain age (mid-twenties to mid-thirties) who have dropped out of mainstream society and seem to be searching for answers to questions of life and purpose that they haven’t properly formulated yet. His female characters tend to be ambiguous, often taking supporting roles and having hidden thoughts and motivations – yet they leave a huge impact on the hero’s life and are often a reason for the strange journey they undertake. As you read the stories in this collection, ask whether these criticisms are wholly fair and explore the effect reading through the eyes of men (or occasionally women) has on your perspective on The Elephant Vanishes.

Prose Study: Broken April

An Albanian poster promising to liberate women from a customary code of law called the Kanun.

The Charter of Paris for a New Europe (also known as the Paris Charter) was signed in 1990 by 34 participating nations – including every European country except Albania. This powerful novel reveals that Albania remained a closed country, haunted by the ghosts of the past and locked in a semi-medieval culture of blood and death. Broken April is one of several novels by Ismail Kadare that has been translated from Albanian into English and it’s simple style and power has lost nothing when read in translation.

The novel describes the way life is lived in the high mountain plateaus of the country, where people follow an ancient code of customary law called the Kanun that has been handed down from generation to generation. The code demands men to take the law into their own hands. Insults must be avenged, family honour must be upheld – and blood must be spilt.

IB Learner Profile: Open-minded

We critically appreciate our own cultures and personal histories, as well as the values and traditions of others. We seek and evaluate a range of points of view, and we are willing to grow from the experience.

Culture is a broad topic and, thanks to a process called enculturation, it is very difficult not to judge other cultures through reference to what is usual in your own culture. When reading Broken April, it is important to keep in mind this cultural bias. Try to be open minded and judge the culture in the text objectively. Of course, Kadare is trying to reveal something about Albanian culture: blood feuds, ritual revenge, and the narrowness of this patriarchal society are all criticised by Kadare. But a sharp reader will recognise the plurality of voices in his work, and be able to find the nuance in his presentation of this strange and twisted culture.

Lang and Lit Concept: Culture

Culture describes the values, goals, beliefs, convictions and attitudes that people share in society. Broken April describes a culture that may be very different to your own – or may share surprising similarities. While you’re reading this work, keep in mind the principles of internationalism that the IB is founded upon, and ask how reading literary works can give us insights into and appreciation of people in cultures that may be very different.

Prose Study: The Bloody Chamber

Bluebeard; 1893; Gustav Dore; engraving with later colouration; illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tale.

Published in 1979, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories retells classic fairy tales in a disturbing, blood-tinged, explicit way. Angela Carter revises Sleeping Beauty, for example, from an adult, twentieth-century perspective. You might think that fairy tales are the sorts of stories to read to children in bed to lull them to sleep – not these versions! Her renditions are intended not to comfort but to disturb and titillate.

In the title story of the collection, The Bloody Chamber, a young woman is traveling by train from Paris to her new home, a fairy tale castle seemingly out of legend. Her husband is asleep near her, and she, a young pianist, lies sleepless, not knowing what to expect of her married life. Her husband, a marquis who is much older than she and much richer than she, had three wives before her— an opera diva, an artist’s model, and a countess— all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. On arrival at the castle, her husband tells her she can go anywhere – except into a strange room that he always keeps locked.

Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation

Transformation in one form or another is a concept you’ll come back to time and again when studying this text. You’ll learn about the appropriation and re-telling of Charles Perrault’s stories from Carter’s fresh, feminist perspective; you’ll see how the male gaze transforms the way women look at themselves; and finally you’ll discover the stages in the ‘rites of passage’ by which children are separated from the world they know and love and follow a path that leads to adulthood.

Prose Study: Border Town

The Border Town by Li Chen; serial sketch; this work is part of a series inspired by Shen Congwen’s novel. It depicts Cuicui listening to her grandfather play the flute, with her yellow dog curled up by her side.

This short novel, written in 1934 by Shen Congwen (in Chinese 沈从文), opens a window onto life in China before the communist revolution of 1945 – 1952. The setting is Fenghuang County, an idyllic rural area in the far west of Hunan Province.

Here Cuicui lives with her grandfather, who operates a ferry boat across a river outside the small provincial town of Chadong. The boat connects the two ‘worlds’ of Shen’s story: his idealised countryside scene is tucked away in a forgotten part of the world, seemingly locked outside of time; but the town is a gateway to China’s interior lands and forces of modernity are slowly creeping towards their sleepy rural paradise.

IB Learner Profile: Principled

We act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness and justice, and with respect for the dignity and rights of people everywhere. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

Shen Congwen was a champion of literary integrity and artistic independence – even when his principled beliefs put him in conflict with the government of an entire country. Although his work has recently been re-adopted by his home country, for decades he was neither published nor read in China and never wrote another novel after 1949. What’s more, he wrote highly principled characters: in this story Cuicui feels a natural desire to to leave her elderly grandfather, but is conflicted by her sense of duty. As you read, take a moment or two to reflect on the principles you hold dear, and ask what you would do should these principles be threatened by either external forces – or your own internal thoughts and fears.

Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

How do writers ‘speak’ to readers through texts? Shen Congwen passed away in 1988 – and the world he writes about in Border Town has largely vanished in 21st century China. To what extent is his work a vehicle for communicating a picture of the past that could easily be forgotten? By studying literature as an art of communication, we are exploring the relationship between readers and writers from the present and the past; in this case, hearing a voice from the past and a faraway land that few of us will ever get to see.

Poetry Study: Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew was a very distinctive writer. Her short stature and refusal to play the part of a docile, submissive female (she walked unescorted about London, rolled her own cigarettes, and wore her hair in a bob) often placed her at odds with ‘polite society’ which she felt was restraining.

On a modest London street in Bloomsbury in 1913 called Devonshire Street stood a tiny independent bookshop by the name of The Poetry Bookshop. It’s proprietor was Harold Munro, and he ran this friendly neighbourhood store until 1926. As well as selling books of poetry, Harold also published – and it’s thanks to him that Charlotte Mew, a sometimes shy-and-silent young woman from Bloomsbury, found her audience. Invited to the shop by Harold’s assistant Alida Klemantaski, while Mew had never sought fame, she was quickly caught up in the whirl of poetic activity – and agreed to the publication of The Farmer’s Bride in 1916.

Despite the moderate success of The Farmer’s Bride, during her lifetime (1869 – 1928) Mew amassed no large following. However, in the last few decades there has been a renewed interest in Mew’s prose and poetry and a re-evaluation of her contribution to literature. In 2021 a new biography of Charlotte Mew, This Rare Spirit by Julia Copus, was released and it seems that Charlotte Mew is belatedly having her moment in the spotlight. I hope that the poems you read on this course will introduce you to her distinctive voice and that you will enjoy reading poems by a person Virginia Woolf once called “the greatest living poet.”

IB Learner Profile: caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

 Born into a family of seven children (Mew was the eldest), three of her brothers and sisters died and two more were committed to insane asylums, leaving only herself and her sickly sister Anne. In 1898, her father passed away, leaving Charlotte and her sister in financial trouble and forcing them to downsize by renting out half their family home to make ends meet. Later, their home would be condemned, forcing Charlotte and Anne to share a rented room. Sadly, Anne developed cancer and Mew would care for her until she died in 1927, leaving Charlotte bereft and alone. Some speculate that the reason Mew left behind only a few poems, stories and essays – and why she never wrote a novel – is because, as well as trying to make ends meet as a female writer in a man’s world, Charlotte was an extremely caring person, putting the needs of her family before her own.

Lang and Lit Concept: perspective

How should we read and appreciate Charlotte Mew’s poetry? Why was her work overlooked for so long? Some posit that her work has been overshadowed by interest in her private life. After all, the hereditary insanity that seemed to curse her family, her frustrated desires for women, and not least her tragic death – she poisoned herself while in hospital – may detract from a genuine interest in her skill as a verse-maker. People like to categorise – was Mew a Victorian, a Georgian, a Modernist? Is she a queer writer? A feminist? While an academic study of poetry may involve a certain amount of learned critical appreciation, an important aim of studying literature is for you to develop your own perspective on the things you read, independent of what others might say.

Poetry Study: John Keats

Words inspire images and images inspire words. This 1893 painting by John William Waterhouse was inspired by La Belle dame sans Merci and is an example of how interdisciplinary creativity can be fostered by great works of poetry.

For many, John Keats fits the quintessential image of a tortured-artistic-genius. Born on 31st October 1795 as the eldest son of Thomas and Frances Keats, his origins were working class. His father was a stable-keeper and it is rumoured the poet might have been born in the stables of the public house in Smithfields, London, where his father worked (and which was owned by his maternal grandfather). His early years and family life were happy and comfortable: the poet grew up with brothers George and Thomas and sister Fanny, who was born in 1803. Despite their working-class background the family were comfortable enough to let John attend a small village school in Enfield. Far from the studious, bookish and sensitive child we might expect, John’s classmates reported that he was robust and healthy – and he particularly enjoyed fighting!

IB Learner Profile: Inquirers

We nurture our curiosity, developing skills for inquiry and research. We know how to learn independently and with others. We learn with enthusiasm and sustain our love of learning throughout life.

Reading Keats’ poems, especially his wonderful ode sequence, can be thought of as a type of inquiry. All composed in a few short months, the odes ask you to contemplate abstract concepts such as what it means to suffer, the nature of happiness and sadness, the point of art, what is beauty, and more. These are not the kinds of subjects to which you can find easy answers – so best to approach these poems in the spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

Lang and Lit Concept: Creativity

By studying John Keats’ writing, you’re joining a long history of those who have been inspired by this brilliant genius who died before achieving his greatest work. You should take a moment to consider how great acts of artistic creativity are able to outlast the grinding of time and the capriciousness of critics who, at various points, have either ridiculed or elevated Keats’ work. In some literary circles Keats’s sensuousness was deemed as effeminate, even unmanly, while he remained fairly obscure to the wider public. However, things gradually began to change. A group of Cambridge undergraduates known as the Apostles dedicated themselves to revaluate and celebrate Keats’s work. Among these students were Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Richard Monckton Milnes, who both became majorly responsible for fostering Keats’s legacy in the Victorian era. 

Poetry Study: The World’s Wife

Little Red Riding Hood; oil on canvas; Jessie Wilcox Smith; 1911

First published in 1999, this collection of poems by Carol Ann Duffy presents stories, myths, and fairy tales popular in western culture. But this time we hear them from the point of view of women; the unsung, silenced or marginalised women close to famous men. Traditionally these women may have had no names; some of the poems’ titles follow a pattern (‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Darwin’, ‘Pygmalion’s Wife’ and so on) which bitterly suggests that women have been so neglected by history and culture the only way they can be identified is by association with their husbands’ name.

IB Learner Profile: Risk-Takers

Students approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.

One of the most powerful and disturbing poems in this collection is The Devil’s Wife, where Duffy adopts the voice of a convicted child murderer to explore notions such as the nature of evil, the limitations of the justice system and the phenomenon of ‘trial by media.’ One of her intentions was to re-humanize a person who was called ‘the most evil woman in Britain.’ This approach is not without certain dangers for a person of Carol Ann Duffy’s standing and reputation. While you study The Devil’s Wife, consider the risk she was taking when writing and publishing a poem like this.

Lang and Lit Concept: Identity

Much of literature through the ages and (despite some recent redressing of balance) even today is patriarchal, presenting the world from a male perspective. The phrase ‘dead white man’ has been applied to the canonical lists of literary texts prescribed by schools and universities. The World’s Wife poems were intended by Carol Ann Duffy to rectify this sorry imbalance. The poems – and through them, the voices of heretofore-silenced women – are witty, smart, adventurous, playful, sharp and complex, revealing the plurality of identities that were, until now, lost in the shadow of the stories of great men.