Le commentaire littéraire en anglais : the top ten mistakes you must not make

1. Miscopying names etc from the text

One of the most basic mistakes that littéraire students make is miscopying words from the text – especially proper names, which are often unusual words. One student who sent me his copie from the ENS exam in 2019 had spelt the name of the town described in the text in two different ways: “Gravesand” (wrong) and “Gravesend” (right); other words from the text were likewise spelt right in one place and wrong elsewhere, and this is something I see again and again. The commentaire littéraire is a highly demanding exercise, but copying things from the text is by far the easiest part, so you really need to get it right! Think about the impression it has on the examiner...

2. Using inappropriate tenses

When you talk about texts there will be a limited number of tenses that you need to use. For the vast majority of the commentary you will only need the present simple. This is used for referring to:

  1. The actions of characters: Eveline sits by the window resting her head on the curtains.

  2. The movements of the plot: When the house burns down at the end of the novel, this precipitates…

  3. Things that the narrator does (he says, he describes, he suggests, he compares, etc.): The narrator compares her to a disobedient child.

You should use the present perfect when you refer back to anything you have previously said in your commentary:

As we have seen, … As I have already mentioned, ...

However, you should use the simple past if you are discussing two passages, one of which is earlier than the other:

Where she was earlier described as “full of life”, Rachel is now described as “weary”.

Other circumstances where you will need to use the simple past to talk about any of the actions described in the passage will be extremely rare (for example, The protagonist was born in this town). However, you can (and may have to) use it to refer to the author’s life or to historical events:

When Hemingway wrote “Another Country”, the First World War was still fresh in people’s minds.

Finally, you can use the present continuous when you are making deep interpretations; this is best done after the word “seem”:

Anderson seems to be suggesting that the nineteenth-century adventure story no longer has validity in the twentieth century.

3. Using “we can”

Many students have a tendency to punctuate their commentaries (whether written or oral) with French discourse-management strategies. One particularly common example of this is the use of “we can” in phrases such as “We can ask ourselves...” or “In the two scenes we can distinguish…” This sounds very unnatural in English. There are some simple, elegant ways around this, and using them will impress the examiners:

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