OCR offered an extract from Sarah Waters’ novel, The Paying Guests as a way of exploring an example of question 4 on their literary fiction paper ( Paper Two OCR). This example is also helpful for students studying AQA, Edexcel and Eduqas too).
I always tell tuition students to use the context and information given by an exam board about an extract, in order to ‘tune into’ the text and specifically, to focus on the ideas that the examiner wishes to see explored.
And if I had ONE tip for students approaching the question that carries the highest marks, it would be don’t overlook the obvious. Start simply. Use the central phrases from the question in your answer. Build your argument steadily. never forget the focus of the question. An analysis in English ( like Maths!) does need to show your workings!
So here’s the question about the extract from Sarah Waters’ novel:
Q 4). How is ‘home’ presented as ‘surprising‘ in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests?
Frances and her mother are forced into taking lodgers or ‘paying guests’ because of economic hardship. Frances’ brothers, Noel and John Arthur, have been killed in the First World War.
(I placed in italics words/ideas that seemed central to the situation we are about to read about. Obviously, the idea of ‘home’ must be explored again and again. ‘Home’ must form a spine to the response. And we must examine the term ‘ surprising’ too. Think about the way that these ideas might help us ‘filter’ through the narrative. I am certainly ‘expecting’ a story interested in grief. I also might expect the narrative to explore the protagonist’s anxiety concerning her future and the possibly uncomfortable effect of the interlopers on the protagonist’s experience of ‘home’. Perhaps we might be reading about awkwardness and hostility too? Perhaps, we might discern a strong sense of upset brought about by the necessary ‘invasion’ of the ‘paying guests’ who will alter home forever and render Frances and her mother, ironically, not at home. And all of these ideas might be made ‘surprising by Sarah Waters because she will make the reader interested by keeping her protagonist’s predicament somehow fresh, through her use of language. )
Or perhaps we might be completely surprised? !!
As Frances reached to the lamp there were more footsteps in the room above; and then her hazel eyes returned to the ceiling.
‘It might be Noel or John Arthur up there,’ she murmured, as the light went down.
And, yes, thought Frances a moment later, lingering in the shadowy hall, it might be; for she could smell tobacco smoke now, and hear some sort of masculine muttering up on the landing, along with the tap of a slippered male foot . . . And just like that, like a knee or an elbow receiving a blow on the wrong spot, her heart was jangling. How grief could catch one out, still! She had to stand at the foot of the stairs while the fit of sorrow ran through her. But if only, she thought, as she began to climb—she hadn’t thought it in ages—if only, if only she might turn the stair and find one of her brothers at the top—John Arthur, say, looking lean, looking bookish, looking like a whimsical monk in his brown Jaeger dressing-gown and Garden City sandals.
There was no one save Mr Barber, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his jacket off, his cuffs rolled back; he was fiddling with a nasty thing he had evidently just hung on the landing wall, a combination barometer-and-clothes-brush set with a lurid orangey varnish. But lurid touches were everywhere, she saw with dismay. It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs. The lovely pier-glass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl. A print on one of the walls appeared to be a Classical nude in the Lord Leighton manner. The wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on a papier-mâché perch.
The landing light was turned up high, hissing away as if furious. Frances wondered if the couple had remembered that she and her mother were paying for that. Catching Mr Barber’s eye, she said, in a voice to match the dreadful brightness all around them, ‘Got everything straight, have you?’
Here are a few bullet points to consider:
- The passage is narrated primarily from Frances’s point of view. (POV). This is important as it is her home that is being ‘invaded’ by the new lodgers, therefore the narrative will leak/reveal her emotional responses and the reader will share her misgivings about the ‘invaders.’
- Frances’s sensory impressions are the key to unlocking the surprising problems facing her. Her impressions convey her agitation and acute sensitivity to her changed circumstances. Frances is caught unawares. Her reactions to the lodgers surprise her.
- The house is a ‘home’ because of the memories attached to the place and these memories surface again due to the disruptive and surprising effect of the interlopers or guests. Memories are naturally disruptive too, as they alter the stability or composure of the present.
- When the lodgers move into the ‘home’ they bring their own sense of home with them. Their furniture and objects change the reality of Frances’s home in surprising, seemingly ‘exotic’ ways. In a way, the lodgers are like colonialists as they are invading Frances’s home, although in this case, they are legitimate as they are ‘paying’ to live in Frances’s space. Their new belongings take away the familiar identity of the old home; they defamiliarise the old place. If the house is becoming surprisingly unrecognisable to Frances, can it still be her home?
- The Paying Guests is not a literal ghost story, but it does explore the experience of being haunted by memories. This extract explores involuntary( surprising) remembrance. And this makes the novel emotionally affecting as we stay so close to the POV of the haunted Frances.
- Are the newcomers from a different class to Frances? Are their belongings seen as vulgar or ostentatiously ‘exotic’ or ‘fake’ through the narratorial viewpoint of Frances?
- How important is it that one of the lodgers is male? Are there signs that ‘masculinity’ has been absent from this house for a while? And is the lodger’s careless maleness an implicit affront to the bookish, middle-class, dead brothers?
- Look at the value judgements around the Barbers’ choice of furnishings. Does this seem snobbish of Frances or are we surprisingly sympathetic to her viewpoint as she is a victim of tragic circumstance? Can we trust her belief that there is something artificial and ‘fake’ about the new lodgers? Do we understand why her voice at the end of the passage seems so artificially high pitched and even desperate?
- Is the house animated out of a form of self-defence (by Frances) against the vulgar invaders? Even the lights seem to retaliate against the wastefulness of the Barbers, and symbolically ‘hissed’ as if antagonistic towards their new users.
- Is there something surprisingly symbolic about the ‘papier -mache’ parrot? Could it be Frances caged in her own home? Or will we find out that this is not the case at all and that we have been misdirected?
- In my next blog, I will weave these bullet points together into an answer.
The Woman in Black
Bookshelf 2.0 developed by revood.com