Introduction: How to generate a discussion? What is a discursive essay?

When facing the prose section of Paper 2 (9695/02) you will have a choice of two questions to choose from. Here is an example below of what they look like:

*The writer of this exam has done something I absolutely hate. For those of you who are interested in these sorts of things, see the post-script at the end of this lesson.

For every hundred students I coach through English Literature examinations, I would say around 90% will always choose the second question… the passage-based question.

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How can I engage with a discursive question?

(i) Why nobody seems to do them

I suspect that a key reason for this is that the ‘passage’ question relies a lot less on your memory of plot and quotations, and allows you to focus almost entirely on what is there in front of you. 

This is a sensible instinct, for sure. But if you never engage with the discursive questions on the exam, you are potentially cutting yourself off from two of the most interesting aspects of studying literature: making connections and forming arguments.

(ii) What are discursive essays and what makes them different from the passage questions?

In literature, discursive essays lean heavily on two particular skills which are less prevalent in analytical essays:

  1. Refer widely across the whole text, showing that you understand the book as a whole
  2. Establish an argument or a ‘stance’ and defend it over the course of the essay

The final part of the discursive essay which makes them unique is the word ‘discuss’. In any other situation, the word ‘discuss’ is likely to involve multiple people having a ‘discussion’. But in a discursive essay, you have to take on these multiple perspectives by yourself and demonstrate a ‘discussion’ between different sides of the argument.

(iii) Why would I choose to do one?

Ultimately, the discursive question is harder for most people. You have to choose your focus, your argument and which quotations to use. It is harder to prepare for, as the range of topics which could come up is hugely varied. 

In many ways, this sort of question was much more suitable in the days of coursework and ‘controlled assessments’ which died out in 2015, where people could spend several hours preparing and crafting a more nuanced argument. Who knows, maybe they’ll come back one day.

So why on earth would you subject yourself to answering a discursive question in an hour without a copy of the book to refer to?

Well, if you are a creative and expressive sort of person, which many English Literature students are, the discursive essay makes it much easier to inject a bit of yourself into an essay. By leaving the questions more open-ended and far-reaching, you have a much greater chance to let your personality and let your personal response to a text shine through.

Step One: Understand the Question

Let us suppose that, for ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy, you were faced with a question like this:

‘His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn sheep. His nose, squashed flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me.’ – Prologue

With this quotation in mind, discuss ways in which Levy presents attitudes towards race in Small Island.

So, our first task is to understand the question and to understand it on a range of levels. With ‘discuss’ questions, it is never a case of simply finding the quick answer and then finding the evidence to support it.

The easiest answer to a question like this would probably be something like:

‘Andrea Levy shows us that, back in the day, racism was really bad and everyone was mean to you if you were black before Martin Luther King had a dream.’

But, as anyone who has read the novel will tell you, it’s all a lot more complex than this. The racism of the American GI’s manifests itself in different ways to the British townspeople. The racial attitudes of Britain during WWII are markedly different from those in 1948 during the Windrush era. The feelings of superiority that Hortense feels over her darker-skinned fellow Jamaicans complicate this matter. And a character such as Queenie – are black people curiosity to her? Or a fetish? Or an opportunity for her to manifest as a white saviour? Or does she transcend the prejudice of the attitudes around her?

Andrea Levy deliberately doesn’t make it easy for us to answer these questions. This is why it’s such a great book. Its moral complexity mimics the complexity of life.

Step Two: Collate Your Evidence

Now that we’ve established that the discursive question requires some serious thinking, let’s do one together in slow motion and work out what our argument might be to a question like this.

In the table below, find quotations to support each of the following assertions and, where possible, find quotations to refute the assertion. Always include chapter and page numbers! By all means put several quotations in some boxes if you feel it needs it.

AssertionEvidence supporting assertionEvidence refuting assertion
Levy present Americans as more racist than the British
Levy demonstrates that it isn’t only white people who are capable of racial prejudice
Levy demonstrates the difficulties of dark-skinned people in early 20th Century Britain
Levy shows us that not all white people were complicit in racism in the 1940s
Queenie is guilty of racism
Bernard is guilty of racism
Gilbert is guilty of racism
Hortense is guilty of racism
The world is an unavoidably racist place

As you have probably noticed, the questions become increasingly provocative and potentially controversial the more you move down the list of assertions. This is one of the key functions of a discursive essay… it is a forum for you to ‘stress-test’ the full range of ideas, as long as they logically lead from the question you have been asked.

That’s it for this session. Next lesson we will have a go at turning these into a discursive essay.

*I told you I would say what it is the examiner did that I hated. ‘Discuss ways in which the novel presents Indian attitudes towards the British in India. ‘The novel presents’. I always tell students not to do this. Talking about a novel or a poem as if it’s a living thing going round making choices of its own. Don’t ever do this yourselves… use the authors name and don’t talk about the text as if it’s going around making its own choices!

Phil Brown, 2021

Thanks for reading! For more help with English Language and English Literature, visit our website.