Your 2024 VCE English cheat sheets: Text summaries, key themes and approaches to genre

Published on
May 30, 2024
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Specialising in English means we can dedicate all our time mastering VCE English texts and prioritise creating resources for specific texts above all. If you’re nervous about next year, our ultimate study guides will have you covered. That means every single text in the VCE English text list will have one of our comprehensive tutor-written study guides dedicated to it. 

Fun fact: Did you know that every single year, approximately 25% of the VCE English text list will be changed by VCAA? Typically, texts will not appear on the list for more than four consecutive years. This underscores the importance of keeping our resources up-to-date and relevant. 

If you want to be the first to know when our study guide releases will be, we invite you to sign up to our email newsletter. Plus, you’ll gain access to our newsletter-exclusive free resources, offers and advice straight from our tutoring team. This includes perks like sample essays, early bird program enrollments, discounts on our resources.

Without further ado - take a look below for our short and sweet summaries for each text. Bolded are tutor-approved vocabulary that can be easily incorporated into your essay introductions. You also don’t want to miss the key likely-to-come-up-in-exams ideas listed under each text – bookmark this for later!

Novels 

If your school has chosen a novel, reading it will be the most difficult part. They can be long, convoluted, or in some cases, quite boring for some. However, with the key themes and messages in mind, you will be able to gain a competitive edge— ensuring that you know exactly what you are looking for as you read the novels for the first time. To score A+ in analysing novels, you will primarily rely on quotes, symbols and literary devices. The summaries below are designed to help you walk out of each reading session with the right annotations, key quotes highlighted. I however recommend making notes in a Google Doc as you go, chapter summaries and key evidence included, so you won’t have to read them multiple times to understand the hidden meaning of obscure passages. 

If this sounds daunting, you can also join our reading sessions to be paired with students who are studying the same texts and tutors who know them cover-to-cover.

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

Set against the backdrop of colonial expansion in Eastern Nigeria, "Things Fall Apart" traces the existential crisis of Okonkwo, a revered Umuofia tribesman. Achebe chronicles Okonkwo's journey from an impetuous youth to a figure of respect, navigating through the intricate tapestry of tribal society. The narrative explores themes of cultural dissonance, tradition, masculinity, and the inexorable impact of colonialism as Okonkwo confronts the erosion of his world following a fateful mishap and the incursion of missionaries and colonial authorities.

Key themes: Cultural dissonance, tradition, masculinity, the inexorable impact of colonialism

View full guide here.

Flames (Robbie Arnott)

"Flames" is an avant-garde narrative rooted in the mystical landscape of Tasmania. Employing magical realism, Robbie Arnott weaves a tale that commences with a resurrected, self-immolating woman, propelling her son on a surreal journey to procure an appropriate coffin for his sister. The odyssey introduces eclectic characters and unfolds through variegated narrative styles. Themes of grief, familial bonds, conservation, and the complexities of human relationships are intricately explored through anthropomorphic elements and a tapestry of interconnected tales.

Key themes: Grief, familial bonds, conservations, complexities of human relationships, anthropomorphic elements, interconnected storytelling

View full guide here.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Set in Regency England, "Pride and Prejudice" presents the intricate dance of misunderstandings and self-revelation between the spirited Elizabeth Bennet and the affluent Fitzwilliam Darcy. Austen's masterpiece delves into the Georgian preoccupation with matrimony, social standing, and decorum, utilising irony and free indirect discourse. The narrative dissects the necessity of self-awareness as a precursor to understanding others and navigates the labyrinthine societal expectations and the archetype of the 'accomplished woman'.

Key themes: Georgian preoccupation with matrimony, social standing, decorum, irony, free indirect discourse, the societal expectations of the ‘accomplished woman’

View full guide here.

Go, Went, Gone (Jenny Erpenbeck)

"Go, Went, Gone" is an introspective narrative that examines the complexities of empathy, truth, and self-identity. Set in Berlin, the story unfurls around Richard, an academic on the cusp of retirement, whose existential ennui is overshadowed by the influx of refugees from North Africa. Erpenbeck deftly navigates the juxtaposition between Richard's privileged disquiet and the refugees' visceral struggle with dispossession. The prose is stark and emotionally detached, mirroring Richard's disposition, while the narrative grapples with language barriers and the imperative of bridging cultural divides.

Key themes: introspection, empathy, truth, self-identity, language barriers, privilege, bridging cultural divides

My Brilliant Career (Miles Franklin)

"My Brilliant Career" is a seminal Australian novel that chronicles the plight of Sybylla Melvyn, a precocious and defiant young woman constrained by gender norms, poverty, and rural isolation. Authored by Miles Franklin, the narrative is a poignant commentary on societal expectations and the pursuit of artistic independence in the face of adversity. Sybylla's narrative voice is candid and evocative, offering a glimpse into Australian life at the turn of the century and its enduring relevance.

Key themes: Womanhood, gender norms, poverty, societal expectations, rural isolation, Australian life, turn of the century

View full guide here.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel García Márquez)

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold," penned by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, is a riveting novella that dissects the sociocultural underpinnings leading to an anticipated murder. Employing non-linear storytelling, the narrative is not a mystery but an exploration of collective culpability woven through societal norms, prejudices, and the confluence of truths shaping the event's trajectory. The text is a masterful blend of humour and tragedy, unravelling the complexities of human nature.

Key themes: Societal norms, prejudices, truth, collective culpability, intrinsic human nature

View full guide here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Shirley Jackson's final literary novella, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," is deeply entrenched in themes of persecution stemming from societal 'otherness'. The narrative revolves around the secluded lives of Merricat and Constance, two sisters ostracised by their community after a family tragedy involving an unresolved murder. The story, articulated through Merricat's perspective, delves into the complexities of their isolation and the subsequent disruption caused by Cousin Charles' arrival, threatening their precariously balanced existence.

Key themes: Prejudice, social persecution, “otherness”, isolation, complex family dynamics

View full guide here.

The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa)

Yōko Ogawa's "The Memory Police" is a dystopian novella that portrays an island plagued by mysterious disappearances of objects, memories, and even human faculties, orchestrated by the enigmatic Memory Police. The narrator, a novelist, resists this systemic erasure by sheltering her editor, a man immune to the collective amnesia. Ogawa's narrative intersects contemporary concerns of loss and oblivion with haunting reminiscences of Orwellian themes, ultimately exploring the intrinsic human reliance on memory and storytelling for survival and identity.

Key themes: Survival, identity, memory, storytelling, Orwellian themes, loss & oblivion

View full guide here.

Short stories

Short stories are sometimes preferred by schools and students over novels. Some see them as more exciting, perhaps because they have faster paces, with the storyline opening and ending in 10-20 pages instead of 100+ pages. However, the challenge will lie with synthesising your ideas, as you will be required to draw from multiple narratives with different characters and, at times, thematic concerns. The summaries below elaborate on what they will all share, which can be a great starting point if you find it difficult to formulate arguments based on different short stories.

Bad Dreams and Other Stories (Tessa Hadley)

In "Bad Dreams and Other Stories," Tessa Hadley illuminates the profundity within the mundane, capturing pivotal moments in the lives of her characters. The collection explores themes of identity, transformation, and the ripple effects of seemingly insignificant actions, predominantly through female perspectives. Hadley's lucid prose offers insights into both the predictable and unforeseeable aspects of human behaviour, inviting reflection on contemporary societal issues.
Key themes: Identity, transformation, ripple effects of insignificant actions, female perspectives, human behaviour, contemporary societal issues, the ordinary

Runaway (Alice Munro)

Alice Munro's "Runaway" is a compendium of short stories that intricately map the inner landscapes of Canadian women navigating the vicissitudes of modern existence. Munro employs narrative devices such as flashbacks to forge connections between stories and characters. Her restrained dialogue and unbiased exposition immerse readers in the characters' internal dialogues, fostering contemplation on modern morality and selfhood.

Key themes: Modern morality, selfhood, female perspective, sense of self

Plays

Many have a love-hate relationship with plays. If your school has chosen Shakespeare or Sophocles, you may not be having the best time reading it despite its brevity. Plays are often seen as more advanced in terms of literary value; if they are “done right”, you are at great advantage and have a greater chance of scoring top marks. Central to plays are complex philosophical ideas or sociocultural considerations that reflect the worlds of the texts. However, these won’t be explicitly conveyed, so it’s incredibly important to take your time reading these line-by-line, to get the most out of your reading sessions. I cannot stress enough the importance of close reading here to effectively examine the use of symbols and theatrical devices.

Rainbow’s End (Jane Harrison)

"Rainbow's End," set in 1950s Victoria, Australia, Jane Harrison's play confronts the repercussions of dispossession and colonisation experienced by the Koori community. Centered around the Dear family, the narrative juxtaposes the Menzies era's promise of homeownership with the grim reality of systemic discrimination. Through the women's resilient endeavours, the play forges pathways toward understanding and reconciliation.

Key themes: Colonisation & dispossession, systemic discrimination, reconciliation.

View full guide here.

Much Ado About Nothing (William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" is a comedic tapestry woven with themes of love, deception, and societal expectations. The play scrutinises the discord between male and female roles through the dynamics between its characters, particularly the witty repartee of Beatrice and Benedick and the tragic misunderstanding involving Hero and Claudio. It serves as a reflection on the nature of true love amidst societal constraints.

Key themes: Love, deception, societal expectations, the nature of true love amidst societal constraints

View full guide here.

Oedipus the King (Sophocles)

Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" embodies the harrowing tragedy of self-discovery and predestination. Oedipus, in his relentless pursuit of truth, unravels the very fabric of his existence by uncovering unspeakable personal transgressions. This classical tragedy, with its rich symbolism and profound thematic depth, offers myriad interpretive possibilities, accentuated by Fagles' evocative translation.

Key themes: Self-discovery, predestination, destiny, truth, agency

View full guide here.

Poetry/songs

If your school chose poetry or songs, you’ll spend a great deal of time in class discussing different interpretations and perspectives of your chosen author’s works. Don’t neglect the finer particularities of poetry & musical language - attention to detail will set you apart from more general takes.

Incorporating the concept ‘economy of words’, the lyrical brevity means that each word is chosen with great care - in other words every word holds meaning. And not only are the literal words significant, the spoken rhythm can contribute to the emotion of the piece. Familiarising yourself with different poetic structures and forms (sonnets, haikus, free verse, etc) and the historical significance of them can also provide your essays with more depth. 

False Claims of Colonial Thieves (Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella)

This poetic collaboration between Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella initiates a cross-cultural dialogue addressing the legacy of colonialism in Australia. The poets' exchange, rooted in the Australian landscape, grapples with themes of dispossession, trauma, and identity. Despite the collection's undercurrents of righteous indignation, its conversational structure symbolises a collective aspiration for reconciliation and understanding.

Key themes: Colonialism, trauma, dispossession, identity, reconciliation

View full guide here.

Poems selected by Seamus Heaney (William Wordsworth)

William Wordsworth's poetry, curated by Seamus Heaney, exemplifies the Romantic ethos, juxtaposing the burgeoning industrialisation with an impassioned veneration for nature's sanctity. Wordsworth's lyrical exploration of the human condition, framed by the sublime English landscape, offers profound introspection on the emotional and experiential facets of life.

Key themes: Nature, industrialisation, the sublime, introspection, the experience of life, romanticism

View full guide here.

Films

If your school chose a film, sit back, relax with some popcorn and begin your “study”. However, definitely do not underestimate the level of complexity expected from assessors and markers here. While you don’t need to remember as many quotes, past examiner’s reports have identified that students analyse films in the exams generally perform worse (which could be good news, or bad). This is because it is much harder to stand out; most students will “understand” the texts, you will need to take it a step further.

In all seriousness - film as a medium is rich with opportunities for analysis. Meaning, there’s lots of material to produce an insightful and poignant essay. From the mise-en-scene, to the auditory elements and cinematic techniques, there are plenty of ways in which directors embed meaning into their storytelling. 

When you’re unpacking your film, don’t forget to ask yourself the essential question, “why did the director make this particular choice?”. Analyse them scene-by-scene, and ensure that you can effectively use language to describe visual elements.

High Ground (Stephen Johnson)

An Australian film set in the aftermath of World War I, "High Ground" employs the aesthetic of a Western to narrate the confluence of destinies between Travis, a war veteran, and Gutjuk, a young Indigenous boy orphaned by colonial violence. As Gutjuk's uncle seeks vengeance, Travis is enlisted to track him down. The film, set against the backdrop of Arnhem Land, critiques the colonial ethos underpinning Australian history and explores the vicious cycle of retribution, shedding light on the devastating consequences of such a cycle.

Key themes: Destiny, war, colonisation, vengeance, patterns & cycles

View full guide here.

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder

"Sunset Boulevard," directed by Billy Wilder, is a cinematic exploration of the illusions of fame and the dark underbelly of celebrity culture. Joe, a struggling writer, finds himself entangled in the delusions of ageing film star Norma Desmond, indulging her comeback fantasies in exchange for patronage. The film, blending humour and horror, examines the constructed nature of gender roles and the psychological imprisonment they can entail. 

Key themes: The rigidity of gender roles, fame, celebrity culture, womanhood & ageing

View full guide here.

Other

Similar to films, the reading may be easy, but standing out is harder. With shorter texts, everything on the page matters. Pay attention to the spread, connections between prose and graphic elements, the composition of the page, the significance of the prose’s brevity, and through your analysis, foreground the thematic ideas below to impress assessors.

Requiem for a Beast (Matt Ottley)

"Requiem for a Beast" is a multi-modal composition by Matt Ottley, comprising graphic novel elements, traditional prose, and orchestral music. The work juxtaposes two narratives: a young stockman's journey towards self-discovery in Queensland, and an older Indigenous woman's reflections on the Stolen Generations. Integrating Australian oil painting traditions with contemporary graphic novel layouts, Ottley invites readers to contemplate the enduring impact of history on Australian society and individual identities.

Key themes: Self-discovery, Indigenous Australian history, colonisation, history, individual identity, Australian society

Non-fiction texts

Similar to novels, quotes are important. However, you will find that it is slightly more difficult to find substantive literary materials to analyse in your texts, as the narratives of non-fictions are more grounded in reality. To write insightful analysis that will stand out, focus on narrative perspectives and biographical elements, as well as symbols and links to sociocultural contexts.

The Erratics (Vicki Laveau-Harvie)

Vicki Laveau-Harvie's memoir "The Erratics" delves into the harrowing effects of mental illness within a family dynamic. The narrative centres around Laveau-Harvie's return to Alberta during her mother's terminal illness, using this event to unravel a painful family history marked by abuse and manipulation. The memoir traverses the terrains of memory, perception, and the nuanced nature of interpersonal relationships, revealing the profound impact that such relationships can have on our lives and questioning the limits of familial loyalty.

Key themes: Mental illness, complex family dynamics, abuse and manipulation, memory, perception, nuance in interpersonal relationships, loyalty

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah)

Trevor Noah's memoir "Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood" chronicles his life as the child of a mixed-race couple during the Apartheid era. With a blend of humour and frankness, Noah's narrative addresses issues of race, poverty, and identity in a society that criminalises his existence. The memoir highlights his mother Patricia's influence, showcasing her strength and resilience in raising Noah amidst social and economic disenfranchisement. While addressing serious themes of racial and domestic violence, Noah's memoir also celebrates the triumphs of humour and resilience over adversity.

Key themes: Race, poverty, identity, resilience, socioeconomic influences, violence

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