Unseen Text: Gryphon by Charles Baxter
Literary Genre: Prose Fiction
Guiding Question: Comment on the interactions between the teacher and the children, and what these interactions imply about life and learning.
The purpose of Language A: Literature Paper 1 is for you to write a Guided Literary Analysis to a passage taken from any one of four major literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama, prose non-fiction. You have one hour and fifteen minutes to create your response (or two hours and 15 minute for HL students to complete two responses). Therefore, it’s not meant to be a comprehensive, line-by-line analysis; you simply don’t have time to write about every single idea and feature in the given text. ‘Guided’ means that you are provided with a question that gives you a focus for your writing and I highly recommend that you use this question to help you plan a response of reasonable length that you can produce in the time available to you. That’s not to say that you should limit yourself or write dogmatically. The response below demonstrates how, if you begin with a focus on the terms of the question, later in your answer you can include other relevant observations. In this example, the question asks for an analysis of ‘the interactions between teacher and the children’ so this is where the sample response begins. However, later paragraphs include comments about setting and an important instance of symbolism as well. Of course, this is just one way of approaching this text; if you have different ideas, or even a different approach to the task, these can be equally valid.
This passage from Gryphon, by Charles Baxter, describes a classroom scene of a teacher delivering a math lesson to a group of young children. From the content of the class (multiplication tables) the reader can infer the children are in primary school and are probably around six or seven years old. While the scene may seem quite recognisable, at a certain point, however, it should dawn on the reader that actually this isn’t such an ‘ordinary’ lesson at all. Ms Ferenczi is, in fact, a substitute teacher, and she tries to impart her own brand of wisdom to the children. She wants them to be able to not only memorise their times tables and recite by rote, but to be imaginative and embrace alternative possibilities as well. When a boy makes a mistake in his multiplication recital – that’s when the lesson comes alive. Through her interactions with the children, the writer develops the theme that traditional educational material can be rather narrow and, instead of broadening children’s horizons, actually constrains imaginative thinking.
The sense of a teacher trying to open the children’s minds is created primarily through the dialogue in the passage. The verbal interactions begin when the children overhear a student making a mistake in his multiplication recitation. Ms Ferenczi’s pleasant character shines through in this section – she is neither quick to pounce on the mistake, nor does she reprimand the other children for calling it out. Instead, she tries to develop the mistake into an unusual learning point, telling the class that six times eleven is sixty-six… ‘but at some times it is sixty-eight’ as well. The question-answer format of the dialogue develops the idea that children are naturally curious and eager to participate in the lesson. The narrator notices how ‘one of the Eddy twins was waving her hands desperately in the air’, conjuring the image of an eager schoolchild who wants to be called upon. Exclamation marks punctuate her repetition of the teacher’s name as the student can hardly contain her enthusiasm. Stichomythia is a technique sometimes used in playscripts where two or more characters exchange short sharp lines very quickly: the question-answer between Ms Ferenczi and the children resembles stichomythia and creates the effect that the students are eager to learn more from their unusual teacher. The interaction culminates with ‘We were all waiting’, a short sentence presented on a line by itself, recreating the thrill of anticipation as Ms Ferenczi pauses before divulging a secret to the class.
Seeing the lesson from the perspective of a child in the class creates the effect of Ms Ferenczi being a mysterious outsider, familiar enough to the children to guide them through the lesson, but nevertheless having an aura of strangeness that is alluring. The narrator is initially ‘disappointed’ that the lesson is only ‘ordinary’, suggesting that perhaps she expected to see and hear something more interesting in the lesson – she may have encountered Ms Ferenczi before, or heard about her from other children. While Ms Ferenczi’s powers aren’t yet on show, they are hinted at in the first paragraph, when the simple motion of removing a handkerchief from her sleeve is conveyed using the metaphor ‘magician style’. She is also described as wearing ‘blue-tinted glasses,’ giving her something of a secretive and mysterious aura, again suggesting her hidden, possibly magical, potential. Later on, she gives the children a look that is described as ‘glinting,’ an unusual verb creating the impression her gaze is magical. It’s at this point that she seems to unleash a little of her magical power, sprinkling it on the class and drawing the children under her spell. All in all, Ms Ferenczi is a character who represents the possibility that education can be ‘magical’ or creative.
However, when Ms Ferenczi finally divulges the secret of how six times eleven can be sixty six and sixty eight simultaneously, it comes across as something of an anti-climax. She explains: ‘In higher mathematics… six times eleven can be considered to be sixty eight’ but has to admit that the children are not yet old enough to understand. She gives them the metaphor of numbers being like water that can fill different sized containers (‘a thimble, a cup, a saucepan’), but eventually gives up this explanation. Nevertheless, the reader can appreciate the transformational quality of the metaphor, and pouring water from vessel to vessel fits the way she is characterised as a kind of good witch, mixing her liquidy potions in various pots. The writer creates the impression that she’s drawing the students into a conspiracy, or placing them under a spell, as she leans towards them and suggests that they should keep this a secret for ‘only when I’m in the room.’ There’s an element of dramatic irony here, as the reader suspects she might get into trouble for her unorthodox explanation. It’s humorous when she explains that, as she’s a substitute teacher, this can be considered a ‘substitute fact’.
The magical suspension of normal teaching rules can’t last, and Ms Ferenczi admits defeat when she abandons this line of inquiry. She says, ‘I think we’ve spent enough time on this matter now… you are free to think what you like.’ The lexis ‘free’ is pointed and ironic because the imagery in the text has worked to suggest that children are not free when educated in a narrow way: symbols of entrapment include ‘monkey bars,’ tables arranged in ‘rows,’ ‘assigned problems,’ and the phrase ‘painstakingly outlined.’ By contrast, images of freedom are created only when the narrator looks out of the window and sees a gorgeously lit landscape, ‘when the lazy autumn sunlight dazzled its way through ribbons of clouds’. The verb ‘dazzled’ is of a lexical field with ‘glinted’, suggesting that, while Ms Ferenczi is in the room, something of this magical scene comes inside with her. Yet the inevitable return of normality is hinted at when Ms Ferenczi reminds the class that Mr Hibler will continue the lesson tomorrow.
Actually, perhaps the strongest feature suggesting the limits of conventional education is not in the interactions between teacher and student at all, but in the symbolism of the plants that Ms Ferenczi looks meaningfully at. Some plants are described as ‘thriving’ while others as ‘wilted’. The personification of the plants makes it clear they represent the children in the class; some will benefit from a factual, rule-based curriculum, while others will be stunted if there is never any room for imagination and that little bit of magical thinking encouraged by Ms Ferenczi.
Categories:Paper 1 Analysis