"I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity". To what extent can it be argued that torture and insanity are integral elements of The Prussian Officer, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart?
Insanity could be defined as “the state of being mentally ill; madness”, thus it is no surprise that writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and D. H. Lawrence beauteously integrated aspects of insanity into their stories in order to chisel the perfect piece of gothic literature, simultaneously luring the reader in to a world carved by madness and drowned in an eerie atmosphere. Portraying one as insane is a powerful gothic literary device that has been used throughout the era of the gothic, notably in Matthew Lewis' “The Monk” and Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”. One way in which writers complement and enhance the insanity of their sadistic characters is through the psychological and mental torture that is often inflicted upon the victims of the novel or story, a prime example being Hindley in Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”. Although many deemed Edgar Allan Poe as “insane” himself, in the words of C. Chauncey Burr in 1852, “that perfection of horror which abounds in his writings, has been unjustly attributed to some moral defect in the man”; indeed it could be suggested that Poe simply embedded his writing with the “unnatural” to enhance its gothic nature. Lawrence, on the other hand, was perhaps influenced by real life events, as, as stated by Keith Cushman, “the temporal, biographical and cultural context of this short story is connected with Lawrence's stay in Germany in the early summer of 1913.”
Extensive use of repetition within “The Tell-Tale Heart” reflects the sheer extent of insanity; the narrator is undoubtedly psychologically unstable and such madness simply heightens the terror the story inflicts upon the “unfortunate” reader. This is clear in the opening sentence when the narrator says “TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” The enhancement of his insanity is conveyed through the repetition of “nervous” and “very”, which evidently portray his unstable state of mind and thus the likeliness for him to commit such a brutal and sadistic murder. Furthermore, the language and syntax used by Edgar Allan Poe has the ability to lure the reader to believe that the narrator is anxious and uneasy; a character whose insanity shines through his speech. Unlike the narrator of “The Tell Tale Heart”, the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil and the burden of emotional distress does not hinder his account of the event.
Insanity is similarly expressed through repetition whereby the victim of torture expresses “the deepest slumber -- no! In delirium -- no! In a swoon -- no! In death -- no!” The repetition of the word “no!” radiates a feeling of madness as a result of the brutal tribulation to which the prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is subjected, or perhaps the determination the prisoner has to prevent himself from going insane. "I became insane with long periods of horrible sanity" perfectly defines his state of mind, reflecting that the prisoner extensively dreads the anticipation he is left to endure, anticipation that appears to be far worse than completely losing his mind due to the encroaching insanity. This could, however, be deemed a form of mental entrapment wherein the victim is confined to a certain state of mind. The gothic trope of madness expresses this form of entrapment; the insane are trapped in their own mental universe; a universe which no one else can enter, emphasised to a greater extent when the protagonist says “down -- steadily down it crept…Down -- certainly, relentlessly down…Down -- still unceasingly -- still inevitably down”. The entrapment of characters in gothic literature effectively mirrors the entrapment faced by individuals in the Victorian society; individuals were entrapped as they were forced to repress certain desires in order to observe strict Victorian social decorum whilst working towards an ordered society. Just as Edgar Allan Poe does, D. H. Lawrence uses the literary and language device of repetition in “The Prussian Officer” to express the mild insanity of the Officer that may be present as a result of his pessimistic and mundane life. The Officer not only shows his insanity in his repetition of the sentence “Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?", but the psychological torture and intimidation that he inflicts on the orderly.
“I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it” - Edgar Allan Poe perfectly defines the opinions of the characters used in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Prussian Officer”. The narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” appears to thrive off his own insanity, evident in the way that he says “Hearken! And observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story”; no sane person could recount for their murderous and torturous actions “healthily” and “calmly”. Furthermore, the way in which he constantly reassures the reader of his sanity ultimately has the counter effect of expressing the insanity which he possesses as shown by his rhetorical questioning of “how, then, am I mad?”, “Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?” and “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body”. If the protagonist was in fact sane, why would he feel it were his duty to constantly remind the reader of the fact that he is not “mad”? Further evidence of the narrator “enjoying every minute” of his insanity is notable from the way he claims the reader will “have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” and how he “smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.” Enjoyment of insanity is also a gothic element integral to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, however rather than the enjoyment being expressed by the protagonist and victim, it is enjoyed by those enforcing the brutal torture upon him. Evidently, the fact that the torturers appear “thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness” as well expressing “stern contempt of human torture”, they “enjoy every minute” of their insanity. This also plays a pivotal role in “The Prussian Officer” as it becomes apparent that the Officer seeks pleasure in torturing the orderly, thus seeks pleasure in his minor insanity. This is notable when “he had felt at once a thrill of deep pleasure” after brutally attacking the orderly with his belt. Furthermore, after psychologically tormenting the orderly, the Officer expresses a “sickly smile”, showing that his regrets are minimal and he thrives off both his insanity and the discomfort of others.
Torture, “to inflict extreme pain or physical and mental punishment on somebody” often plays a pivotal role in gothic texts; it has the manipulative ability to inflict terror on the reader, much like the victims within the texts themselves face. Since the alleged first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, the human body has been a prominent topic of uncertainty, disruption and transgression, such qualities becoming magnified throughout the texts in question, with torture further enhancing the insanity. Those who enforce torturous acts upon the innocent clearly have a degree of insanity whether it be major or minor. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” provides a fine example for such an analogy as he takes pleasure from psychologically tormenting the old man, evident when he says “it was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” That the narrator can hear the beating of the old man’s heart suggests the stress and psychological torture that has been inflicted upon him and becomes an inevitable part of his “downfall” due the heart’s weakening. This is further supported as it is clear that “the old man's terror must have been extreme” as the heart beat “grew louder…louder every moment”. However, the beating could also be expressed in a metaphorical sense; a sign of the protagonist’s guilt or, in contrast, his desire to kill, the heartbeat representing his mind encouraging him. The narrator not only lures the old man into psychological torture, but also physical during and after the inhumane murder. The way in which he “dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him” and afterwards “dismembered the corpse” and “cut off the head and the arms and the legs” conveys the idea that torture is a vital component of gothic texts in order to create a sense of terror, despair and disbelief for the reader. This also reinforces the idea of the body being an integral topic of focus within gothic literature, similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whereby the human body is often conveyed in a disturbing, dehumanising manner as “[Victor’s] limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering.”
Edgar Allan Poe adopted a similar strategy of engraving torture into the allegory “The Pit and the Pendulum” in order to intensify the gothic nature of the text which is solely based around the prisoner’s account of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. The text opens to the severe degree of torture the prisoner is facing; he is “sick unto death with that long agony”. Furthermore, the prisoner “felt every fibre in [his] frame thrill as if [he] had touched the wire of a galvanic battery”. “Galvanic battery” suggests immense pain, thus conveying the cruel horrors to which the torturers had previously subjected him. Moreover, it conveys the idea that the actions of the torturers become effectively mechanical and consequently the ‘norm’. Of course, the aspects of torture are of high frequency within “The Pit and the Pendulum” much like they were during the Inquisition; an institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Despite the fact much of Poe’s perception of such historical fact is misrepresented, he transforms the theories into enhanced destruction in his gothic pieces; he thrives off the misrepresentation.
Infliction of pain can also be seen to enhance the story’s gothic qualities. The prisoner states “I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me”. Poe’s language Poe, notably the word “species”, alienates the methods of torture and enhances the fact that the prisoner remains distant to what he is facing, disregarding them for what they are and providing the methods with a perhaps “gentle” name in order to blind himself from the cruel reality. The prisoner is also “consumed with intolerable thirst”, suggesting that the torturers lack any form of sympathy; they deprive and weaken him, luring him closer to his demise. He continues to say how “entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths”, integrating both the gothic element of torture as well as the traditional implementation of entrapment. This is much like the physical entrapment found in Stoker’s Dracula as, when Harker is driven to Dracula’s castle, he is subjected to physical entrapment in the landscape of Transylvania, as is evident when “[it] seemed to me that we were simply going over and over the same ground again; and so I took note of some salient point, and found that this was so.”
Independent critical study: Texts across time
This resource provides guidance on the NEA requirements for A-level English Literature A, and should be read in conjunction with the NEA requirements set out in the specification. It develops and exemplifies the requirements, but is wholly consistent with them. Exemplar student responses accompany this guidance.
Texts across time is the non-exam assessment (NEA) component of our new A-level English Literature A specification. The specification is committed to the notion of autonomous personal reading and Texts across time provides students with the invaluable opportunity to work independently, follow their own interests and to develop their own ideas and meanings. To that end, few restrictions are placed on the student’s freedom to choose their own texts and shape their own task but the following requirements must be met:
- Students write a comparative critical study of two texts on a theme of their choice
- An appropriate academic bibliography must be included
- An academic form of referencing must be used
- The word count is 2,500 words (not including quotations or academic bibliography)
- The task must be worded so that it gives access to all five assessment objectives (AOs)
- One text must have been written pre-1900
- Two different authors must be studied
- Equal attention must be paid to each text
- A-level core set texts and chosen comparative set texts listed for study in either Love through the ages or in Texts in shared contexts cannot be used for NEA
- Texts in translation, that have been influential and significant in the development of literature in English, can be used
- Poetry texts must be as substantial as a novel or a play. A poetry text could be either one longer narrative poem or a single authored collection of shorter poems. A discrete Chaucer Tale would be suitable as a text for study, as would a poem such as The Rape of the Lock. If students are using a collection of short poems, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two poems to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection
- Single authored collections of short stories are permissible. If students are using a collection of short stories, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two stories to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection.
Managing the NEA
The introduction to NEA should provide students with a detailed review of the above requirements and guidance on what it means to work independently (e.g. productive research skills, effective time management). The point at which students begin their NEA preparation will depend on individual school and college decisions. Schools and colleges may aim to introduce the NEA in the first year of the course. An appropriate opportunity would be the six weeks which follow the completion of AS examinations but other opportunities will be available, especially where schools and colleges are not entering their students for AS.
Approaching the NEA
Schools and colleges will differ in how they approach NEA and this may be dependent upon whether:
- Students all choose individual texts and tasks for their NEA
- One text is taught to the whole cohort and the second text is individually chosen
- AS and A-level students are co-taught and an AS only prose text (The Mill on the Floss/The Rotters’ Club) is studied for NEA with the second text individually chosen.
These approaches are equally valid and take account of the different contexts in which schools and colleges will be working. What is important is that each approach recognises that a degree of autonomy in student text and task choice is required. Ideally a range of differentiated texts and tasks will be seen across a submission for this component. That said, students will choose their texts and shape their tasks with your support (and you will be supported by your NEA advisor) and the following offers you some guidance on how to help your students make these choices.
Advice on text choice
Connecting two texts on a common theme means choosing two texts which maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences. Whilst the only date requirement is that one text must be written pre-1900, the component title 'Texts across time' indicates that effective comparison and contrast occurs when the same theme is explored in two texts separated by a significant period of time; here the different contexts of production will inform the similarities and differences in approach taken by the writers to the chosen theme and students will have encountered this diachronic approach in component 1, Love through the ages. This is particularly pertinent if students choose two texts from the same genre (poetry, prose, drama). If, however, students are interested in writing about a theme within a clearly defined time period, it is advisable to consider how the study of texts from different genres will open up discussion of similarities and differences. Students will encounter this synchronic approach in component 2: Texts in shared contexts, and exemplar student response A is an excellent example of the successful connection of a prose and drama text, written within twenty five years of each other, from the Victorian period.
When supporting students with their choice of texts, therefore, the following guidance is useful:
- both texts should be of sufficient weight and of suitable ‘quality’ for A-level study; the set text lists for the examined components help to exemplify what is meant by a substantial text, particularly in relation to selecting an appropriate amount of poetry for a poetry ‘text’. Remember, however, that the A-level set texts cannot be used in NEA
- texts chosen for study must maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences
- texts must allow access to a range of critical views and interpretations, including over time, which students can evaluate and apply autonomously. Secondary sources, relevant to the texts, can include film and stage productions, books and articles; an example of an appropriate bibliography accompanies the exemplar student responses
- once texts are identified, which both address the student’s chosen theme, a more defined focus for the essay is needed; this may arise, for example, from similarities and differences in genre (poetry, prose, drama), type (e.g. gothic fiction), contexts (e.g. of production and reception), authorial method (e.g. narrative structure or point of view), theoretical perspective (e.g. feminism). Exemplar student response A is a good example of how the wider theme of the role of women in the nineteenth-century has been more clearly defined in the focus on two specific relationships and the inclusion of a clear viewpoint – that ‘the personal is political’ – for consideration.
If students are struggling to identify a thematic topic area of interest to them, or texts for study, the specification offers suggestions of themes (page 20) and, as at least one of the texts must have been written pre-1900, of pre-1900 texts (pages 21-22). This is by no means an exhaustive list and it should be emphasised that students are free to develop their own interests from their independent reading. The exemplar NEA responses, however, show how these suggestions might be taken as a starting point and then developed with a more clearly defined focus. Other such combinations to consider as a starting point might include:
- representations of men in Vanity Fair and A Doll’s House
- the gothic in Northanger Abbey and Keats’ poems (‘Lamia’, 'Isabella or The Pot of Basil’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’)
- representations of social class and culture in Middlemarch and She Stoops to Conquer
- satire and dystopia in Frankenstein and The School for Scandal
- representations of women in The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’
Clearly the texts mentioned may be interchangeable with other texts suggested in the specification or indeed with the student’s own choice of texts (which may include one post-1900 text); the broad themes will undoubtedly be interchangeable with others and will need to be refined to identify a more clearly defined comparative focus. What these suggestions provide, therefore, is a way for students to begin thinking about the NEA and student autonomy should always be encouraged.
Advice on task choice
We encourage schools and colleges to check individual students’ essay titles with their AQA NEA adviser before students embark on their research, especially where there may be some uncertainty about the appropriateness of texts or the approach being taken.
What is clear, given that the NEA assesses all five assessment objectives (AOs), is that the task must allow access to them all. Students should be familiar with this concept by the time they approach the NEA as all AOs are tested in all questions in the examined components 1 and 2. Exemplar student response A is a good example of how access to all AOs is enabled by the task and the moderator commentary explains how the AOs have been addressed by the student. It is worth considering how key terms in the task wording enable different AOs to be accessed:
Compare and contrast the ways in which Elizabeth Gaskell and Henrik Ibsen present the relationships between Margaret Hale and John Thornton in North and South (1854-55) and Nora and Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House (1879).
Examine the view that in both texts, ‘the personal is political’.
AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
The use of the command words ‘compare and contrast’ invites the student to organise her response around relevant similarities and differences in the presentation of relationships in the chosen texts. In doing so, she will express her ideas using appropriate terminology.
AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
The key word ‘present’ explicitly invites the student to write about the different genres of her chosen texts and, together with ‘the ways in which’, signals the need to discuss a range of authorial methods involved.
AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
The focus on specific relationships and on the concept of ‘the personal as political’ engages with how literary representations thereof can reflect social, cultural and historical aspects of the time period in which these texts were written.
AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.
The command words ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ instruct the student to make connections between the texts in terms of subject matter and authorial method.
AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.
The directive to ‘examine’ a clear viewpoint - that ‘the personal is political’ - signals the need to debate this given opinion and so to engage with multiple readings and interpretations.
Advice on writing the essay
Having completed the study of their chosen texts, researched secondary sources and devised an appropriate task, students will need guidance on how to pull their ideas together into a coherent response. Here again, exemplar student response A offers an excellent example of how to structure a sophisticated argument and the moderator commentary explains how this student achieves this. Some key points to note are:
- this is a connective task and so students should be prepared to make connections between their texts in terms of similarity and difference throughout the response; students should make the connections they wish to explore from a range including authorial method, context, genre and critical theory
- contexts and critical views should not be bolted on but instead should be woven through the response, evaluated as a way of reading the primary texts and then used as a stepping-stone into the development of an interesting and persuasive personal overview
- well-selected, concise quotations should be embedded and adapted to the student’s own syntax and required meaning
- a bibliography and academic referencing are required to indicate the secondary sources used by the student during the writing of their essay. AQA does not insist on a particular form of referencing but following the example given in the exemplar student responses would be appropriate.
Supervising and authenticating students' work
The role and responsibilities of the teacher in supervising and authenticating students’ work are set out in Section 6.1 of the specification. It is worthwhile emphasising that the teacher must confirm that each essay submitted is the work of the individual student. The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) document Instructions for conducting coursework provides further guidance about the level of support and guidance that is appropriate for teachers to provide to students. In accordance with JCQ guidance, the following support would not be acceptable:
- having reviewed the candidate’s work, giving detailed advice and suggestions as to how the work may be improved in order to meet the assessment criteria
- giving detailed indications of errors or omissions which leave the candidate no opportunity for individual initiative
- giving advice on specific improvements needed to meet the assessment criteria
- providing writing frames specific to the task (e.g. outlines, paragraph headings or section headings)
- intervening personally to improve the presentation or content of the work.
The role and responsibilities of teachers in submitting marks are set out in Section 6.6 of the specification. Please note that a mark out of 50 is required. This means that the mark you award against the assessment criteria, which will be out of 25, needs to be doubled when entering on the Candidate record form, before submitting marks to AQA.