Le commentaire littéraire en anglais


How to improve your literary commentary


Knowledge of contexts

One of the most difficult things for students in khâgne seems to be gaining knowledge of literary movements and the characteristics of the work of key authors. Most of the first-year littéraires who come to us for help struggle to acquire this knowledge and to apply it to the texts they read – and this is perfectly understandable, as it’s hard to find reliable sources. I’ve looked at a lot of the books published in France for students in khâgne and I can’t see how they help. One book gives only biographical information on the author (how is that useful in a commentary?), while another, presenting a major work (and a concours favourite) by a major writer – James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – says only that it’s a “roman de l’apprentissage artistique” and “largement autobiographique”, but again, what use is that in a commentary?


Is knowledge of contexts necessary?

On the one hand, the examiners said in 2020 that “on peut faire une excellente prestation sans connaître forcément l’auteur et le contexte.” However, they added:


Mais lorsque le contexte est convoqué de manière pertinente et permet de faire un repérage efficace des caractéristiques thématiques et stylistiques principales du passage, cela renforce bien évidemment le dynamisme de la démonstration.


And they recommend the following to future candidates:


De façon à améliorer les prestations et surtout l’efficacité des candidats devant travailler très rapidement sur un texte inconnu, il est [...] fortement conseillé de maîtriser les principaux procédés prosodiques, stylistiques et rhétoriques, ainsi que les genres et mouvements littéraires, et leurs évolutions formelles et chronologiques. [...] On s’attendra de même à ce qu’un candidat connaisse les différentes phases du romantisme anglais, situe le roman fin de siècle et le modernisme, la Harlem Renaissance, le transcendantalisme, le théâtre de l’absurde ou le théâtre existentialiste, ainsi que le post-modernisme par exemple. Mais encore une fois il importe de ne pas plaquer ces notions sur le texte, mais au contraire de lire le texte au plus près, afin de voir en quoi l’auteur peut, le cas échéant, déjouer les attentes du lecteur.


How we help our khâgne students at Prépanglais

In response to both the examiners’ recommendations above and the difficulties that students come to us with, we supply all our students with introductory dossiers on the features of key literary genres, movements and authors. As soon as our students receive these dossiers, we see their readings of texts improve remarkably: the dossiers give them a “prism” through which to view a text, making certain features of it appear in greater focus, and allowing them to move quickly to identify the important elements in the text that need to be addressed in the commentary.


Below is an example of the kind of dossier that our students get. You’ll see that there’s nothing on any writer’s life or dates of birth! It’s written especially for students in khâgne to help produce a commentary – nothing else.


Example of a Prépanglais dossier: American naturalism

Read the notes on American naturalism below and then try to apply what you have learnt to the Anderson text you have been given; the questions will help focus your reading of Anderson (and any other naturalist text).


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