Opening Paragraphs for your Essays

One of the BIGGEST problems students have with writing literature essays is how to put the novel / novella / play into CONTEXT. By establishing context you show that you understand a little about the time / place / situation that you are about to discuss in your essay. It allows the examiner to gain some insight into the depth of understanding you have of the text and this should make following your argument / train of thought easier (if they 'get' where you are coming from, they may well be more generous with their marking)...

It is ESSENTIAL that you set the scene for the essay you are about to write! By placing the story in it’s historical or social context the actions of the characters and your interpretation of their actions will make far more sense and give value or weight to your essay.

SO, because I do not want to go slowly insane I have prepared a few “Introductions” for each of the works you will study this year in the hope that more of you will include them in your essays for the final UNISA external exams.
I ask only that you that you resist the temptation to learn these introductions “off by heart” , rather use them as a way of formulating something similar for your own essays in the exams.

Starting with Nervous Conditions and building from there as we work through the various texts...

'Set in post-colonial Rhodesia, Nervous Conditions is a novel about the struggle of five women against the restrictions of a strongly patriarchal society. In addition to the gender inequality and suppression that they experience they are also faced with the reality that black people, especially black women, have no real voice within a post-colonial country. Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel traces the life of Tambu, a young Shona girl, and the women in her life; their varying attempts to free themselves from their social and cultural constraints and their efforts to attain a sense of personal fulfillment...'

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

'Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is set in the 16th Century; a time in history when Jewish people and their faith were regarded with suspicion by Christian society in general. Notions of anti Semitism were commonplace as were stereotypical views of Jewish people as morally corrupt and their practices as evil. Shakespeare’s Shylock embodies all of these stereotypes and is loathed by the Christian characters in the story, Antonio in particular, as well as by the Elizabethan audience that would have watched this play eager to see the Jew as the villain'.

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is set in a time when Europe was experiencing the height of Imperialism. The colonisation of Africa was not only seen as a way of increasing the spread of the Imperialist kingdom, but also as a noble process of bringing salvation to the savages that lived within its dark and sinister boundaries. Marlow is a product of this colonial society. He has a strong faith in the ideals of colonialism and all it promises to achieve. It is with these preconceived ideas about the Congo and its primitive people that he embarks on a life-changing journey down the Congo River in search of the elusive Kurtz, himself a well known representative of The Company who had gone to the Congo and then apparently disappeared...


JM Coetzee’s dark novel Disgrace is set in post apartheid South Africa in a time that saw a great deal of change in the country. Land reforms and changes to education left many white South Africans feeling unsettled and uncertain of their future. David Lurie is a man who resents change, yet he has become virtually redundant both as a professor of classical literature and as an aging male with two failed marriages and a dysfunctional relationship with his lesbian daughter. Reeling from the disgrace of being fired from his job for having an affair with one of his students David attempts to forge a bond between himself and his daughter only to discover that he is more alienated because of this decision than ever before.

Great Gatsby

This story is set during the 1920’s Jazz Era in America. After the war the American economy soared and many people made huge fortunes, some by dubious means like bootlegging and organised crime. Gatsby’s new found wealth made him part of the newly rich, a group of people looked down upon by those with old money. Daisy, the woman of Gatsby’s dreams, comes from a family of old money and well-established snobbery towards those who have come by their wealth through any other means other than inheritance. This divide, as well as the fact that Daisy is married to Tom Buchannan, a rich and selfish playboy, does not deter Gatsby from his desire to win Daisy back. Sadly Daisy is as shallow and materialistic as her husband and essentially unable to live up to the image of perfection that Gatsby has of her. Despite Gatsby’s unwavering love theirs is a relationship doomed to fail because the object of his affections is a woman who is too self-absorbed to truly care about anyone other than herself.

What about Quoting??

It is essential that you quote correctly when writing either a literature essay or when analysing a poem. The quote must flow as part of the sentence. For example if the quote you want to include is:

“I saw him enter the building and take the lift to the second floor”

You need to write something like this:
Greg knew that the killer would strike again when “(he) saw him enter the building and take the lift to the second floor”.

Because you have changed the “I” to a “he” in order for the sentence to make sense you must put the “he” in brackets: (he).

If you alter a quote like this it is fine, but you may NOT alter it in any way that will change the MEANING of the quotation. For example you may NOT do this:

Greg knew that the killer would strike again when “(he) saw him enter the building and (walk up the stairs) to the second floor”.

So, don’t isolate the quote by writing it separately (leaving a line above and below it on your page) – this creates what is called a “sub-heading” and you WILL BE PENALISED for doing this.

If you have any other questions about how to quote, when to quote or how often to quote...please drop me an email and I will do my best to help...