Prose – Critical essays

The following advice was originally for those studying Intermediate 1. The advice is still valid for anyone studying these texts for National 5.

The following essay questions have all been taken from official SQA past papers. If you are to write a good critical essay you MUST keep to the task set. If you do not answer the question you cannot pass.

You should keep in mind that the examiner is looking for your PERSONAL response to the text.

Choose a novel or a short story which interested you because it deals with young people.

Say what happens to the young people and show how the writer helps you to understand the situation they are in.

‘On the Sidewalk Bleeding’ by Evan Hunter is mostly about Andy, a sixteen-year old boy who has been stabbed and is lying dying in an alley. However, the story also involves other young people, like Andy’s girlfriend, Laura, who finds him dead at the end of the story and the young couple who see Andy, badly injured, and are too afraid to help him. What makes the story interesting is that it is a warning to young people about what being in a gang means and the consequences of gang rivalry and violence.

To begin with Andy does not realise how badly he is injured but the writer tells us that if he knew he was dying he would be afraid so we know he will die if no one comes to help him soon.

The writer also tells us often that he is only sixteen. We find out that he has a girlfriend who is still at the ‘jump’ or dance that Andy left so that he could get cigarettes. Andy was stabbed in an alley, not because he started a fight or did anything in particular, but because he was wearing a jacket that marked him out as belonging to the Royals.

As Andy is lying there, too injured even to speak, he thinks about how proud he was to join the Royals. The Royals and the Guardians are the two main gangs in the area and Andy felt it was special to be in the Royals and wear their jacket. He remembers that as the other boy, a member of the Guardians, stabbed him he said, ‘That’s for you, Royal.’ Andy was attacked for being a Royal not for being Andy.

Several people come into the alley. The first is a drunk. The man is too drunk to realise that Andy is hurt and thinks he is drunk too. He offers Andy a drink, threatens to call the police, and then leaves Andy to die alone. He thinks he is doing Andy a favour by not calling the police but, of course, he is not.

Next into the alley are two young people, probably about the same age as Andy and his girlfriend, Laura, as the girl talks about getting home before her ‘people’ worry. They are sheltering from the rain and kissing in a doorway when they hear Andy moan. This is the only noise Andy can make. The boy, Freddie goes to investigate. He knows from Andy’s jacket that Andy is a Royal and even though he can see that Andy is hurt he is too scared to do anything – even call the police – because of what the Guardians might do to him and Angela, his girl.

The only other person to come into the alley is an old woman who rummages in the bins and is too deaf to hear Andy.

The writer shows us that Andy now sees that the jacket he wears has caused his death. He was stabbed because of it and Freddie and his girl were too frightened to help him because he was a Royal. They did not think of him as a teenager like them, a teenager who needed help, but as a gang member.

He knows he is dying but he needs to die as Andy not a Royal. He spends the last moments of his life and the last strength he has taking off his jacket so he can distance himself from the gang.

When Laura finds him and brings back a policeman, the policeman sees the jacket and writes ‘A Royal’ into his notebook even though Laura tells him that this is Andy. Despite all of his efforts, Andy is simply a dead gang member to the policeman and not a sixteen-year old boy who will never fulfil his hopes for the future.

The writer helps us to understand why Andy would be proud of being in the gang. For him it meant that he was brave and he liked that the Royals were respected and even feared. However, he was stabbed in an alley simply because he was wearing a Royals jacket and the person who stabbed him was a member of the Guardians. There was no reason for that to happen. Andy died alone in the rain because of his jacket and what it stands for. His death is pointless and stupid and tragic.

 

Try these questions for youself:

Choose a novel or short story which interested you because of its theme or topic.

Say what the theme or topic is and show how far the writer made it interesting for you.

‘On the Sidewalk Bleeding’ by Evan Hunter interested me because it is about gangs and gang violence.

At the very beginning of the story, sixteen-year old Andy is lying, bleeding to death, in an alley. He has been stabbed by a member of a rival gang…

Choose a novel or short story in which a character gains your sympathy because of the situation he or she is in at one point in the novel or short story.

Say what the situation is and how the character deals with it. Go on to explain why you feel sympathy for him or her.

In ‘On the Sidewalk Bleeding’ by Evan Hunter I feel sorry for sixteen-year old Andy who has been stabbed by a member of a rival gang and is lying in the rain, bleeding to death…

 

Choose a novel or short story which has an important turning point that changes things for one of the characters.

Show how the story builds up to the turning point and say why it is so important for the character.

In the novel ‘Heroes’ by Robert Cormier it is tempting to see the part in the novel where Larry LaSalle assaults Nicole in the Wreck Centre as an important turning point. After all, this causes Francis to lie about his age and go to war at fifteen. However, the ‘important turning point’ actually comes near the end of the novel when Francis goes to Larry’s flat to confront him and to kill him for what he did to Nicole and to Francis that night in the Wreck Centre.

The whole of the novel has been building up to this meeting. In chapter one, Francis Cassavant, still only eighteen, has returned to his hometown, Frenchtown, on a ‘mission’ to kill Larry LaSalle. At this point we have no idea why.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Francis and his life before the war. Francis was shy and quiet. His parents were dead and he lived with his uncle. He had few friends and spent a lot of time reading. When he first met Nicole Renard he fell in love with her but was too shy to speak to her.

Then Larry LaSalle came back to Frenchtown and dazzled the children with his ‘movie star smile’ and ‘Fred Astaire walk’. He opened a recreation centre (the Wreck Centre) and involved all the local children. He made Francis a table-tennis champion and gave him the courage and self-esteem he had always lacked. That is what made Larry’s betrayal of Nicole and Francis so much more terrible.

When Larry sexually assaulted Nicole, Francis blamed himself for not protecting her. Nicole turned him away when he tried to speak to her and asked why he had not helped her. Francis contemplated suicide but instead joined up even though he was much too young. He was badly injured when he threw himself on a grenade and now has ‘no face’.

The turning point comes when Francis discovers that Larry has returned to Frenchtown. As Francis goes to Larry’s lodgings, he describes the gun he is carrying as a ‘tumour’ on his thigh.

Larry is no longer the dazzling star that he was. His good looks have gone and his legs have been wasted away with disease. Larry will no longer be able to charm the young people as he once did. He is surprised when Francis tells him he was there at the Wreck Centre when Larry attacked Nicole but he does not say he is sorry. He says he has a weakness for the ‘sweet young things’ meaning young girls like Nicole. We, like, Francis suspect that he has done this before to other girls. What is even more horrible is that Larry just sees this as a weakness and thinks that the good things he does make up for it.

Larry tells Francis to put away his gun. He says that he has thought about killing himself many times. When Francis is walking down the stairs from the flat he hears the sound of the shot as Larry kills himself.

Francis is now able to move on with his life. If he had killed Larry he almost certainly would have committed suicide as he intended from the start. Now he has been spared killing a man in cold blood. He can also see that the guilt was not his but Larry’s. Larry may have been a hero to his platoon in the war, and a hero to the children in the Wreck Centre but he preyed on young girls and felt no shame or guilt.

Francis is brave about his injuries and cares about other people. He is a much better person than Larry and he deserves to put the past behind him and get on with his life. Now that he has discovered the truth about Larry he has a chance to do that.

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