Commentary-Writing Guidelines

In all languages studied in the School, attention is made to Commentary writing – close reading of literary or filmic texts.

The aim of a commentary is to produce a detailed analysis of a passage of text, extracting as much potential meaning as possible and relating it, where relevant, and with due brevity, to the wider context of the work as a whole. In order to assist you to concentrate on the detail of the passage, you might find it helpful to add line numbers (5, 10, 15, etc.) in the margins of a written text or note down time indicators (hr, mins) while studying a film extract.

We can start with three crucial pieces of advice or warnings: this is a commentary exercise and not an essay. It has a set of general rules which should be adhered to. Do not simply paraphrase or translate the passage. Only comments strictly relevant to the passage should be included – do not wander off into a more general discussion of the book/film as a whole. Avoid the temptation to include all you know about the author/director. Commentaries test primarily your analytical abilities as an interpreter of texts.

The headings under which this sort of exercise are traditionally organized are:

1.       Introduction and context

2.       Analysis of structure, content, form and style: general considerations are followed by detailed                  analysis

3.       Conclusion

1.      Introduction and Context (this section should be short)

a)      State briefly where the passage comes from.

b)      Provide any contextual information necessary to the understanding of the passage, i.e. indicate at what point in the text the passage occurs, what precedes and what follows it. More precision will naturally be required when the commentary is not being done under exam conditions.

2.      Analysis of Structure, Content, Form and Style

The sort of questions to be considered in this central, substantial section of your commentary might include the following:

a) general considerations relating to the passage as a whole

What is the passage about? (remember the warnings given above about avoiding translation or paraphrase – keep it brief!)

What are the principal ideas or themes of the passage and how do they relate (briefly) to the concerns of the text as a whole? (Bear in mind the question, why might the tutor have chosen this particular passage as a suitable/interesting passage for a commentary exercise?).

Are there any subsections into which the passage may be subdivided and how do the subsections interconnect?

Does the passage consist of narrative or dialogue or both?

b) questions relating to a detailed analysis taking the passage line by line, sentence by sentence, word by word in the case of literary texts, or image by image, and scene by scene in the case of film. Use the line numbers and time indicators for ease of reference. In this section you may refer to other areas of the text as a whole but always in connection with, and with the aim of casting light upon, this particular passage.

Identify and consider leitmotifs, keywords, themes, ideas and their development/deployment in the passage.

How does the narration work? Is it in the first or third person? Is it descriptive, analytical or ironic, etc? What can one say about the author’s/director’s position in relation to the narrative point of view (if appropriate)?

How is the reader/viewer of the narrative being addressed (if at all) and how are his/her responses being conditioned?

How is dialogue handled?

How does the characterization work? (issues of gender, authorial bias, irony might all come in here).

What imagery is used?

Is the vocabulary abstract, concrete, formal, informal, etc?

Are we being asked to make cross-references to other texts or other reading/viewing experiences?

Is the passage using devices which we usually associate with other genres (poetry, fable, play, short-story, etc) or media (television, press, etc.)

c) certain kinds of texts invite additional questions – poetic texts raise issues of form, imagery and rhythm more acutely and subtly than most prose texts; dramatic texts invite discussion of character, performance issues, comic or tragic qualities.

3.      Conclusion

This section should once more be brief, offering a summary of your findings and possibly once again opening out towards the text as a whole.