4. SOME NOTES ON COMMENTARY WRITING
Writing a commentary is not significantly different to writing an essay, in that the five principles outlined in the page on writing all apply in terms of preparation and writing, and also in that you are being asked to respond at a certain length both personally and analytically to stimulus. However, whereas an essay asks you to respond in terms of a complete text, a commentary asks you to respond to only a fraction of that text. Essentially, therefore, you are being given the opportunity to examine and analyse in greater detail.
A commentary title will often follow something like the following pattern : "Write a thematic and stylistic commentary on Andromaque, V.i., 1393-1429." The important words here are "thematic" and "stylistic". Essentialy, the structuring of your commentary will bear this in mind, adding intyroduction and conclusion. If, for the basic structure of any commentary, you remember the four C's, you will not go far wrong, i.e.: context (introduction), content (theme), construction (style) and finally, conclusion.
Setting a passage in its context is the essential introduction to your commentary. For a passage from a novel or a play, this means only five or six lines in which you establish the immediate context of the passage being examined. Indicate briefly what important events have occured just prior to the passage, being very careful to avoid a regurgitation of the whole plot up to the beginning of the passage you can safely assume that your tutor is reasonably familiar with the plot! When a commentary is on a whole work (short story or poem), it is often unnecessary to set it in context, as there is often no context to set it in. You should however find some means of introducing such a commentary by means of a brief overview of the basic content of the passage, or a comment on poetic form (e.g. sonnet).
The second part of the commentary structure is content. In this section you will analyse the thematic content of the passage. Analyse firstly how themes are conveyed within the passage itself, and then extend this analysis in relation to the work as a whole. Never bring in from outside a passage thematic elements which are not contained in the passage itself, in other words, remain relevant at all times. Some of your analysis of the thematic content of a passage will necessarily involve some stylistic comment also, and you should not be afraid to use such comment to reinforce your observations on theme.
Most of your stylistic analysis will however appear in the third C, construction. In this section, you should examine the major features of expression. These include, depending on relevance, narrative perspective, choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, rhythm, rhyme, abstract and concrete expression, metaphor, register, sound. You do not have to comment on every word, but salient features must be analysed. For instance, if you have a prose text of 25 lines or so, with an average sentence length of 3 lines, yet one sentence of 8 lines in length, there is obviously something worth commenting on there, so look for it. Or if an author suddenly switches register, point it out, and analyse the reasons.
Above all, remember that it is analysis which is important, not just observation. There is no point in signalling the repeated use of sibilants through two lines of text if you do not say what the effect is. Likewise, it is of little use to point out enjambement in lines 3, 8 and 9 of such and such a poem if you do not identify the impact of the technique in its context.
Where commentary is concerned, avoid a linear approach, except perhaps in the shortest of poems. That is to say, rather than analyse stylistic elements of each line in turn, which can lead to a very fragmented and repetitive answer, you should identify the best examples of a technique in a passage and accord them a paragraph on their own. You might also wish to give a paragraph over to techniques used to create atmosphere if there is a particularly strong atmosphere created in a passage.
Finally, a commentary should not just stop, so do not forget the fourth C conclusion. It is important to signal that you have reached the end of your analysis. You might rehearse again the most salient points covered before you close, stating finally why the passage is, or is not, interesting or important.
In the end, each commentary passage is different, and will require a slightly different analytical approach. However, that analytical approach should follow as far as is possible, the basic structure of the four C's.
You may often find it necessary to refer to critical works in your commentary. If this is the case, then the same guidelines apply for the presentation of references and bibliography as outlined in the page on layout.
NB : in essays, and especially in commentaries, you will be called on to include comment on sound. To this end, you should use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as it applies to French. You will find the IPA symbols for French at the front of Le Petit Robert, and also at the front of both the Collins / Robert, and Oxford / Hachette French - English dictionaries. When using phonetic symbols, they should be enclosed either in square brackets [i], or in slashes /i/.