Aqa English Literature B Example Essays

An exemplar student response to a Paper 2A, Section C question in the specimen assessment materials, followed by an examiner commentary on the response.

Sample question

'In crime writing there are always victims.'

Explore the significance of the ways that victims are presented in two crime texts you have studied.

Band 5 response

Atonement and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are unusual crime writing texts though serious crimes are central to their designs, and true to crime writing there are victims. Interestingly in both texts the perpetrator of the major crime (the mariner who shoots the albatross and Briony who wrongly accuses Robbie of rape) are also victims. It is important too that both the mariner and Briony are the narrators of the crime stories (the omniscient narrator of Coleridge's poem can in a sense be discounted) and both narrators document the impact that the crimes have had on them. However, although neither narrator describes him or herself as a victim the reader can see that they are. It is important to note that the writers of the texts place the crimes towards the beginning of their stories and this allows them to develop their narrator protagonists as victims in the events that follow.

The mariner is often hailed as a criminal against the natural order and the 'One Life' that Coleridge championed. Those who read the ballad as an example of man's disregard for the environment (eco-critics for example), tend to focus on the albatross as a victim of the arrogance of man who sits above the rest of creation. There are also those who read the text from a Christian perspective and see the albatross as a symbol of Christ and focus on it as a victim of a cruel world (the bird is 'hailed' in 'God's name' and described as 'a Christian soul'). However, while these readings can be supported by the poem, I find it hard to agree with them. Yes, the mariner shoots the albatross and it is not a good trait to kill birds in the random way he does. But it is just a bird and what happens to the mariner as a result is not proportionate. It must also be remembered that animals and birds are killed every day of the week for food and sport and most people do not feel any outrage about this. Neither do the spirits from the land of mist and snow pursue all those who pull triggers or use cross bows. Animal cruelty was not high on the political agenda in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries either, so you wouldn't have had to look far to see worse crimes against the natural world than the mariner's shooting of the albatross. At least the bird seemed to die immediately. Those critics who condemn the mariner often focus on the random nature of the killing. The bird had become part of the ship's community; it shares food and prayers with the crew ('It perched for vespers nine') and then for no given reason the mariner shoots it. But how many of us have not randomly squashed an insect or pulled leaves off trees? Human beings do commit random acts as part of their nature.

But this just excuses the mariner's act. It does not explain why he is a victim. It is what happens to him afterwards and for the rest of his life that places him as a victim. He is pursued and plagued with seeming delight by the spirit from the land of mist and snow. This spirit is not discriminating either as it victimises the crew as well who were not party to the shooting. In this sense they are innocents: their parched tongues are 'withered at the root', they are tortured with the life in death ship and then killed. It would be hard to see them as anything but victims but the mariner's fate is even worse. He suffers with the rest of the crew and then is singled out for more harrowing punishment. He is 'Alone, alone, all, all alone/ alone on a wide wide sea' , so alone in fact he feels beyond the realms of pity and of God (so lonely 'twas, that God himself/ Scarce seemed there to be'). Coleridge's use of repetition and assonance focuses the reader's attention on the speaker's suffering and despair. Even when the mariner connects again with the natural world by blessing the water snakes he is still punished - or victimised. The voices who torture him while he sleeps promise that though he has penance done, he will do even more. Even his return to land shows how he can be regarded as a victim. He is in agony as he tells the hermit what has happened to him and then 'at an uncertain hour/That agony returns'. Surely the 'uncertain' here suggests there is something random about the punishment that the spirits inflict, making them no better, and probably worse, than him. Unlike the albatross whose death was quick and sudden, the mariner is forced to endure a living death, every now and again having to tell his 'ghastly tale' as he passes 'like night, from land to land'. In being forced to wander the earth like Cain, he is deprived of community life (though he knows being part of a 'goodly company' is the sweetest thing). And not only is he a victim here, but the wedding guest also becomes a victim given that he has to miss the wedding feast, becomes forlorn and rises the next day 'sadder and wiser' after hearing the mariner's story.

In Atonement it is easy to see Robbie, Cecilia and Lola as the obvious victims. Lola is the victim of rape by the predatory Paul Marshall, Robbie is imprisoned by Briony's false accusation and Cecilia and Robbie's passionate love is cut short because of Briony's actions. However, Briony is as much a victim as they are. Firstly she is a victim of her over active imagination, an imagination that is creative and invents stories (her play The Trials of Arabella is a precursor for the trials of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner). She is also a victim of her class and indulgent and inadequate parenting (a different sort of crime) and of her own pubescence (at thirteen she has become sexually aware without understanding the feelings and behaviours she witnesses). Although by the end of the novel we realise that Briony is McEwan's assumed writer, during the first part of the novel she is at times just a focaliser and when events are focalised through the young girl, we can see how she struggles to find meanings. The scene between her sister and Robbie at the fountain baffles her (she sees it having 'an air of ugly threat') and the letter she reads excites her imagination more: it is 'something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal'. Briony suffers from loneliness and jealousy. Her mother does not offer her the support she needs, does not understand where she is at physically and emotionally. She thinks of Briony as 'the softest little thing' and retreats from her maternal responsibilities into her own thoughts and her migraines. Briony's needs which have hitherto been met by her sister are now under threat (she imagines Robbie is a 'maniac' who will take Cecilia away from her) and therefore it is not difficult to see Briony as a victim.

Her victim status is made even more explicit in parts three and four of the novel. In part three she is a nurse trying to atone for her earlier crime while always knowing that 'she would never undo the damage' and that she is 'unforgiveable'. Here it is possible to see Briony as a victim of her own harsh judgement and of a society and family which does not see how much she suffers. Briony is also a victim of the war. She thinks about Robbie fighting in France and is deeply troubled by it. It is 'her secret torment'; she thinks that if Robbie is killed it will 'compound her crime'. In the world of this complex postmodern novel, Robbie of course does lose his life in war and all Briony can do is try to offer recompense by writing his story with a romantic ending. Her desperation is all too evident in part 4 where the truth is told, but Briony knows that her novel cannot be published while Marshall and Lola live. So in this sense she becomes a victim finally to the legal system.

Thus the mariner and Briony might not be the most obvious victims but victims they are and ones who deserve the greatest sympathy.

Examiner commentary

There is some perception in this response. The candidate tackles the question in an unusual and personal way. The argument is not entirely convincing and there is some straining of what it means to be a victim, but the candidate is confident and drives the ideas through to the end. There is some depth in the coverage of both texts. The candidate has used the texts appropriately in the open book exam and has confidently selected relevant details.


The response is very well structured and the introduction sets up a direction for the argument. The task is specifically addressed and the candidate is assured in the use of literary terminology. The writing is mature, at times impressive though at times there is some awkwardness.


There is perceptive understanding of the authors' shaping meanings through their structural choices and their use of narrators.


There is some perceptive understanding of religious, social and literary contexts. These contexts are connected well to the crime writing genre.


There is perceptive exploration of how the texts connect with the crime writing genre. Relevant and assured comments are made about how victims can be created in crime texts.


There is some excellent debate here. The candidate pursues the argument in a confident way and is aware that other readers might approach the task differently. At times the argument in Atonement is a little overworked, but the response is interesting.

This response seems consistent with the Band 5 descriptors, though perhaps at the bottom of the range.

This resource is part of the Elements of crime writing resource package.

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  1. Hiya, if anyone else is doing the tragedy section of AQA English Lit B for A2, then I'd really appreciate some kind of help on how to write an Othello extract answer. I haven't done terribly in essays thus far, and I got 19/25 in my last one, but it is definitely my weakest essay! Any organisational tips/things to bear in mind/planning methods etc etc would be great! Or, alternatively, any essays you've written that you got a Band 5 in and would be willing to send to me to show me what to do exactly )) Thankssss
  2. Hi, I'm doing Othello
    I used to structure my essays according to the extract, and look at structure, language etc but got really low marks as it often meant i couldn't make strong links to elsewhere in the play. Now I always structure according to the points I make at AO1, and am getting in the habit of planning out how each AO can get in to the paragraph - though its not crucial for every single one, it's good to get a balance across the essay.
    For example, if there is an extract from Act 1 scene 1 where they're confronting Brabantio, a question could be:

    "Examine the view that, in the passage and elsewhere in the play, Desdemona is viewed as a possession of men"

    The way I would structure this would be:
    AO1: The way she is passed on from father to husband shows clearly she has little societal power or status, and she is indeed treated a possession in the eyes of the men in the play, as well as in this extract.
    AO2: 2 or 3 quotes from the extract and another 1/2 from elsewhere in the play (this way you're reaching out), if relevant structural points and how they shape meaning in regards to gender.
    AO3: perhaps make a comment of how this was expected in the context, and how audiences would have reacted to Desdemona's independence. For some questions, its impressive to pull out a date, but Othello doesn't have many real life key events attached to it so I tend not to focus on it.
    AO4: For me I would make reference to Hamlet as I'm confident with it, and so link in Desdemona with the character of Ophelia, showing links across plays. If not this, a critics view might be applicable. How it links to tragedy (if relevant) will also be impressive.
    AO5: View the AO1 from a different angle; is Desdemona really passed on? she has independence so is it accurate to call her a possession? I would also perhaps put another quote or begin to make reference to my second paragraph. challenge my own AO5 and AO1, to make sure i reach a clear conclusion and it's obvious to the examiner where I stand. For example, though at the beginning you said she is a possession, perhaps come to conclusion she is an anomaly and that she does have independence, though it is limited in that she does not have the trust of her father nor husband, leading to her downfall in a male dominated society.

    This makes my paragraphs pretty long, so I only do 3, maybe 4 if I'm feeling the question haha.

    Other than that, i feel as though there isn't one 'set structure' which you can follow. You almost just have to let your mind roll with the question and try and consider different interpretation/viewpoints of quotes and techniques.
    I have one essay typed which I could probably send you which was 23/25 but stupidly I did the AS question of "How is love presented in this extract?" and nothing else so I didn't reach out at all to elsewhere and it's not great for A2 lol.

    anyway I hope it goes well, othello revision is kinda sucking my soul out of me rn,but good luck w/ the exam!!
    (Original post by mughushed)
    Hiya, if anyone else is doing the tragedy section of AQA English Lit B for A2, then I'd really appreciate some kind of help on how to write an Othello extract answer. I haven't done terribly in essays thus far, and I got 19/25 in my last one, but it is definitely my weakest essay! Any organisational tips/things to bear in mind/planning methods etc etc would be great! Or, alternatively, any essays you've written that you got a Band 5 in and would be willing to send to me to show me what to do exactly )) Thankssss
  3. just reread your original post - I'm doing English Lit A, w/ Love through the ages. Hopefully you can still apply it but adapt it to your markscheme


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