Thanks to Sarah Soper and Melissa Smith for sharing their thoughts from the AP Lit reading this year on Question 3. The prompt can be found here at AP Central.
Reflections by Sarah Soper:
When my students came back from the AP test this year (and of course waited the 2 days until we could discuss it), I was really excited when I heard Q3’s topic. A character of an unusual or mysterious origin; it sounded interesting and something accessible to students, so when I found out I had Q3 at the reading, I was excited to see what they had produced.
The first thing I realized was when we initially looked at the prompt that day was that students need to make the prompt work for them. We discussed at our table what “unusual or mysterious” could be taken as and also what it meant by “origin.” We soon saw the prompt being used in various formats. Everything from the obviously mysterious (the ghost in Beloved) to the extremely unusual (the monster in Frankenstein) to the more subtle origin such as difference of culture (Amir in The Kite Runner). As a teacher, I need to make clear to my students that most prompts can be taken in a variety of ways, as long as they explain it clearly, and they need to highlight their strengths with their choice. In addition, they also need to make sure they choose a character that they have ENOUGH to write about. The character doesn’t have to be the protagonist, but writing an entire essay on Boo Radley when we hardly know anything about him may not be the easiest task.
Another thing that soon became apparent as I worked through the essays was that many students didn’t understand the phrase “the meaning of the work as a whole” means THEME. So many students would actually use that exact phrasing but discuss how it affected the plot, or they would just leave out that part completely. In order to score in the mid to upper range, it is essential that the students not only discuss a theme, but that they articulate it clearly and do so throughout the entirety of the essay. In other words, it can’t only be in the thesis statement or at the end; it needs to be woven throughout the essay and related back to the character in the prompt.
After reading essay after essay after essay (yes, it deserves to be repeated at least 3 times), we readers began to comment on how important student voice is in the essays. There were students, and probably classes, who tended to have more of a formulaic approach to the prompt. While this may work for some students and be exactly what they need, these just didn’t have the student voice in them that others did. Students who were able to show their personality in their writing generally tended to score higher, and I realized this is something I need to put more focus on as a teacher.
And finally, along the same lines of showing personality, it was refreshing to read essays that weren’t on the same book that everyone else was writing about (cough, cough, Frankenstein). When you get a folder of essays, they generally tend to come from the same class or school, so it’s likely that the students have mostly read the same things and therefore, tend to write using the same 1 or 2 texts. As a reader getting essays on the same books over and over, the ones that were different definitely stand out. So how do I, as a teacher, prevent this from happening with my own students? One thing I’m going to focus on is continuing my AP choice reading in order to combat this and to give students more options and books they truly WANT to write about. Another idea, that I got from speaking to a fellow AP Lit. teacher at my table, is to perhaps not always gravitate to the normal classic canonical works as a class read, but choose something different. Obviously, budgets and resources may not lend itself to this option, but it’s certainly something that has gotten me thinking.
Melissa Smith’s Reflections:
As an acorn, or first year AP Reader, I was blown away by the efficiency AP Exam scoring. Essays moved fluidly from reader to reader with accuracy and speed. Each essay is scored at least once, some twice with a back-read from the Table Leader or Question Leader. College Board has this down to a science.
I quickly learned that students write on the same books. Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby were the two most popular choices for this year’s prompt. Followed by Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Brave New World. Seeing essays written on books that were unique from the usual selections was refreshing. The usual titles are all great books–I’m not saying don’t teach them–but a little variety with some lesser-taught books might give your students an edge in offering the readers a break from the same old story.
Length matters. I don’t think I scored a single essay that was under a page and a half (front and half of the back) higher than a 4. They just weren’t long enough to go into any kind of detail in textual evidence or really explain how the origins affected the character, other characters, and overall meaning. However, in regards to length, I also read plenty of 4-page essays that were all plot summary. They just retold the story–so they got a 3. Or maybe a 4 if they had a hint of a theme in there somewhere. Make sure if you go into plot that you are doing so only because it supports what the prompt is asking and illustrates the overall meaning that is the basis for your argument.
Essays that scored a 5 were usually formulaic in answering the prompt. They had a simple introductory paragraph, followed by a body paragraph about the first leg of the prompt – explaining the character’s mysterious and/or unique origins and how they affect him/her, then a paragraph on the next part of the prompt – the effect of the origins on other characters, and finally a paragraph on the last bit of the prompt – how the origins illustrate a meaning of the work as a whole. The reason these essays did not score in the upper half was that they read in a disjointed, formulaic manner. The overall meaning of the work was not adequately argued throughout the essay but saved almost as a final thought.
Essays that scored in the upper half did a better job at presenting the overall meaning of the work in the introductory paragraph and in every paragraph that followed. Many students still followed the order of the prompt to organize their essays; the theme was clearly stated in the introduction in a solid thesis statement, and each paragraph explicitly stated how the mysterious or unusual origins helped to establish the theme. They included apt and specific textual evidence and explicitly explained how it helped the author to create meaning.
Essays that scored an 8 or 9 had two key additional factors. The first is students’ use of sophisticated diction–used correctly and without sounding forced. They also had sentence variety, and these two elements together allowed their writers’ voices to be heard. The second factor the 8s and 9s accomplished is that they had an additional level of complexity to their analysis. For example, some brought in a deeper intention of the author and what he/she was trying to achieve with the text. I remember of all the Gatsby essays, there was one that dug deeply into Fitzgerald’s judgment on the materialistic and depraved lifestyles of NYC in the 1920s, using Gatsby’s mysterious origins as a catalyst into what Fitzgerald was really trying to get at. Or maybe the student brought in a literary lens to analyze the work, such as the feminist or psychoanalytic lens to explore the text’s meaning. I read a 9 essay that explored Kurtz’s origins in Heart of Darkness and how he transformed psychologically throughout the text; clearly, there was much discussion in class on Freudian analysis. Another 9 essay was on Pilate in Song of Solomon that took a feminist approach. It was this extra level of complexity in these essays that gave them the boost to the 8 and 9 range.
Lastly, I was surprised to see many students organizing their Q3s by literary techniques. While it’s acceptable to mention symbolism or tone in how they help to create overall meaning, literary devices really don’t belong in a thesis statement of a Q3 essay. I’m assuming these students were lumping Q3 with the other two essay questions, but remember that Q3 is a different beast. Its focus is theme-based, not device-based.
2017 Poetry Prompt Reflections
2017 Prose Prompt Reflections
Melissa Smith teaches AP Literature and 11th grade American Literature at Lake Norman Charter High School in Charlotte, NC. She is a proud to be a mom of two, LNC’s ’16-’17 Teacher of the Year, National Board Certified, and a black belt who spends all of her money on poetry books.
Sarah Soperhas been teaching English for 12 years at Northwest High School in Jackson, MI and has been teaching AP Lit. for 8 of those. She has a love for both classics like Shakespeare and modern young adult literature. When she’s not teaching or grading essays, she’s busy being a wife and mommy, reading, working out, and attending Michigan football games.
Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash
The thought of writing the AP English Lit essay can be a daunting one, but if you know the texts and understand the themes, there is nothing to worry about.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deals with many themes that we will go over in this article, and we will explore how the themes and issues can be adapted to suit the question. You’ll often find that the themes in text run parallel with each other, so it can be easier to understand the novel when all the themes run into each other.
We will look at the AP English Literature free response questions from previous years, so you can get a better idea of how to answer them and any future free response questions.
Frankenstein AP English Lit Essay Themes
There are a number of themes in Frankenstein that can be applied to your AP English Lit essay. Nature, knowledge, technology, science, supernatural, secrecy, and the fear of the unknown are all evident in the novel.
Some of the themes run parallel with each other and help to develop other issues in the text, such as science and technology being directly related to knowledge. With the Industrial Revolution sparking new technological developments, these themes of science, technology and knowledge go hand-in-hand.
Frankenstein is a Romantic Gothic novel and during the Romantic period, nature played an important role in art and literature. Natural surroundings are significant to Frankenstein and can be seen through Shelley’s descriptions of the landscape. Shelley also uses nature as devices to create messages, for example, when the monster writes messages for Frankenstein on the trees and stones.
The theme of the supernatural runs throughout the novel, which was significant in Gothic and Romantic literature. Writers and artists were making use of their imaginations, giving light to new ways of looking at the world, and this can be seen through the character of the monster.
Secrecy is an important theme in the novel, as Frankenstein is so secretive about his work and science that it kills his loved ones and eventually himself. The monster is created in secret, and Frankenstein then continues to keep him secret, leading to the events that unfold.
How to use Frankenstein for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
“Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”
Frankenstein is a good choice to use for answering free response questions that deal with deception, as deception features prominently in the text. The character of Victor Frankenstein is where we see the most deception.
The novel focuses on Victor’s attempts to keep the monster a secret. The fact that Victor has created a monster is kept secret until the end, when he confesses everything to Walton just before he dies. Victor spends most of the novel trying to kill the monster that he created, but he keeps this ambition hidden from everyone.
Victor is deceiving those around him by keeping the monster’s existence to himself. Victor’s creation is responsible for the death of his younger brother. Justine, the innocent young girl in the Frankenstein family, gets blamed for the murder of Victor’s brother and is executed as a result.
Victor loses two younger members of his family as a direct result of the creation of his monster. The monster then goes on to kill Victor’s friend, Henry, before killing his new wife, Elizabeth. If Victor had informed someone of the existence of his creation, he might have avoided losing his loved ones.
Victor deceives others to protect his scientific discovery and his own knowledge. It is this deception by Victor that is the reason for his demise. By deceiving people he suffers extreme guilt, which leads him to become obsessed with trying to stop the monster.
This obsession with trying to eliminate the monster consumes Victor. His life revolves around his trying to correct the mistake he made by creating the monster in the first place. Keeping his creation of the monster a secret, he has to deal with the consequences alone. The theme of secrecy is reflected through Victor and through his deception of others.
By keeping such a secret, Victor’s mental health deteriorates from guilt, as it is he who is responsible for the death of his loved ones. The secrecy is important to the plot of Frankenstein and contributes to the other aspects of the novel, such as the quest for knowledge and science, as well as the fear of the unknown.
How to use Frankenstein for the 2015 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
“Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.”
For free response questions that ask you to analyze cruelty in a text, Frankenstein is an ideal choice. The novel features various acts of cruelty that can link back to the question.
With Frankenstein’s creation of the monster he is ultimately unleashing cruelty into his society. The character of Justine suffers cruelty when she is blamed for the murder of Frankenstein’s brother, causing her to be executed. She has to endure the grief of losing a loved one before she is wrongly convicted of William’s murder.
With the monster murdering William, Henry, and Elizabeth, these are clearly cruel acts. However, it is Frankenstein who then has to suffer the grief of losing his loved ones and the guilt over what his creation has done.
We learn at the end of the novel that Frankenstein’s monster has also suffered. When Frankenstein created the monster, he didn’t factor in the consequences that could arise as a result. He created a life without any consideration for its feelings and he brought it into a world that was not accepting of it.
The monster has intelligence and emotions, and the cruelty he suffers is the reason for his behavior. Society has excluded him because Frankenstein has kept his science secret, and the monster is seen as hideous and terrifying, due to his appearance. Frankenstein also immediately regrets making the monster, fueling the monster’s anger and prompting him to seek revenge.
We can see that there are a range of cruel acts that can be investigated in the novel, and from different vantage points. The cruelty that is suffered by both the monster and Frankenstein helps to shape the novel and reflect the themes of secrecy and the supernatural, as well as the dangers of knowledge and science.
How to use Frankenstein for the 2014 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
“Select a character that has deliberately sacrificed, surrendered, or forfeited something in a way that highlights that character’s values. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how the particular sacrifice illuminates the character’s values and provides a deeper understanding of the meaning of the work as a whole.”
For free response questions that deal with sacrifice, Frankenstein is an ideal text to use. The original publication of Mary Shelley’s novel was Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a god from Greek mythology who is said to have created humanity and gifted them fire after stealing it from Mount Olympus, sacrificing himself to be doomed to eternal punishment by Zeus.
In understanding the original title of the novel you can see that Shelley wanted the reader to think of Victor Frankenstein as a Prometheus character and for us to draw parallels between them. While Victor Frankenstein didn’t create humanity, he did create a supernatural being that was human-like in appearance and, as we discover at the end, also has human-like emotions.
Victor Frankenstein ultimately sacrifices his own life and his family’s for the sake of science. Scientific discoveries and the quest for knowledge are important to Victor. In his attempt to create life, he endangers the lives of his family members and suffers himself as a consequence, just as Prometheus did.
Frankenstein’s brother, friend and wife are all murdered by the monster he has created. The young Justine is blamed for the murder of Frankenstein’s brother and is executed after a trial. Lives are lost because of Frankenstein’s creation and his secrecy surrounding it. Even Frankenstein is sent to prison for the death of his friend, Henry, when it was the monster who physically murdered him.
With the deaths of his loved ones, Frankenstein is suffering from grief and guilt, but it is at his own hands, as he is the one responsible for the monster being alive in the first place. Frankenstein had dedicated his life to science, but he then dedicates himself to eliminating the monster.
He succeeded in creating a life, although it was not as he had expected, but the sacrifice of his life and his family’s lives had already been made when Frankenstein first decided to create the monster. Keeping his science secret seems to be more important to Frankenstein than his own life, which is ironic since it is the secret to life that he is trying to keep.
Frankenstein sacrificing lives highlights one of the main themes in the novel, which is the growth of science and knowledge and the dangers that it can bring.
How to use Frankenstein for the 2013 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
“Select a single pivotal moment in the psychological or moral development of the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Then write a well-organized essay that analyzes how that single moment shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.”
For free response questions that ask you to analyze a bildungsroman, Frankenstein is not the best book to use. Other texts you could use for this question are Emma or Great Expectations.
How to use Frankenstein for the 2012 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
“Choose a novel or play in which cultural, physical, or geographical surroundings shape psychological or moral traits in a character. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how surroundings affect this character and illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.”
For free response questions that require an analysis of surroundings, Frankenstein works well.
The monster is affected by his surroundings, and it is his experiences in these surroundings that cause him to seek revenge on Frankenstein. The environment into which Frankenstein brings the monster is not prepared for him. Frankenstein’s society is unprepared for the science behind the monster’s creation, leading the people to react in fear and highlighting the theme of fear of the unknown.
The monster learns language and how to communicate from observing the peasants. He makes further use of his surroundings by using his newly learned language skills to write words and messages on trees and rocks.
When Frankenstein creates a female version of the monster, he destroys it. Being excluded from society, the monster sees this female version as his only hope to have a companion and when it was destroyed by Frankenstein this further fueled his feelings of abandonment and loneliness.
By being different from the rest of society, the monster’s personality is shaped by the suffering he experiences, causing him to become even further cast out from society. When the reader learns that the monster has suffered a cruel life, it reinforces the theme of science and that perhaps it shouldn’t be practiced without full knowledge of the consequences.
After reading the past free response questions you should have a better understanding of how to approach writing your AP English Lit essay. It’s a good idea to study the themes of Frankenstein when you re-read the novel, as you will often find additional aspects of the text that weren’t obvious on your first reading.
You can always find additional study resources on Albert.io, including practice exam questions and links to past exam papers. You also might find it helpful to read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs for extra advice on the exam.
Looking for AP English Literature practice?
Kickstart your AP English Literature prep with Albert. Start your AP exam prep today.