Both Oxford and Cambridge place a heavy emphasis on the importance of literature in their Modern Languages degrees. Therefore, as an Oxbridge applicant you should be prepared to answer questions during your interviews about the literary texts you have mentioned in your personal statement.
This article will guide you through five common Oxbridge literature interview questions, providing you with advice and guidance on how you can prepare for them.
This article will also provide example answers using ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ by Miguel de Cervantes, a text studied by first-year Oxford Spanish students. The story follows two young pícaros (male traveling criminals) called ‘Rinconete’ and ‘Cortadillo.’ Upon arriving in Seville they meet Monipodio, and join his criminal gang.
Why do you think the author included X character in the novel?
When an interviewer mentions a character, it can be tempting to simply start describing what you can remember of the character’s traits, but at Oxbridge you are expected to analyse characters more critically and consider how the existence of this character contributes to the overall framework, tone and style of the text.
Whilst reading your text it can be helpful to keep a log of the main characters, and the key relationships and events that occur over the duration of the text. This log will help you identify any changes in a character’s narrative arc and allow you to develop a theory about the character’s purpose – whether that be for comedic, moral or other effects.
Another fruitful route of character analysis is to consider the names of the characters, as they are often used by the author as a subtle nod to their main character traits. For example, Rinconete and Cortadillo’s names are representative of their crimes, as Rincón is a reference to the galley where criminals were punished in Golden Age Spain and Cortado is the name of an illegal card game. Cervantes’ choice of names could imply that the two picaros tendency towards immorality is an innate and unavoidable part of their personalities.
Can you tell me about the significance of X event in the novel?
Just like in the question above, the interviewer is not asking you to relay everything you can remember about a certain plot point but rather they are looking for you to employ your critical thinking skills and consider what importance this event holds within the broader scope of the text.
To understand a text’s significance, you need to have a foundational understanding of the plot, and creating a timeline of the key events of the novel can help with this. This will allow you to identify any use of foreshadowing and to see how the events of the novel are interlinked. You should also make note of which characters are present and the location of the event, since these may offer further clues as to the event’s significance.
An example of a significant event in ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ is when Monipodio’s criminal gang burst into dance and play music on makeshift instruments cobbled together from household items. The criminals come together to make a piece of untied harmonious music, and their dancing mimics the noble tradition of a ball. However, ultimately the comical image of the gang using mops and kitchen plates as their instruments underscores the scene with a satirical tone. Cervantes may be making a wider point about how the social ascension of the criminals is ultimately superficial, as they are only able to mimic the higher classes.
Why do you think the author chose this form?
Form is the scaffolding around which a text is created, and so it is crucial to consider when analysing any piece of literature. Some examples of the most common literary forms include novels, plays and poetry. It is important to be aware of the different types of forms as writers will often repurpose and play with traditional literary forms for stylistic effect, which can emphasize certain elements and themes within the text.
Cervantes plays with form in his short story, as he includes a comical entremés, which was traditionally a feature of Golden Age plays. The entremés was usually performed during the interlude of a long dramatic work and offered a comedic presentation of characters from the lower classes.
The use of the entremés contributes to Cervantes’ satirical presentation of Monipodio’s gang, as he shatters Monipodio’s notion that his gang is noble and respectable by reducing the characters to comical figures. The entremés also traditionally involved multiple secondary characters entering the stage, performing and subsequently leaving. Cervantes’ reproduction of this technique allows him to show that unlike the united community that Monipodio’s gang initially seems, the criminals are ultimately individuals motivated by a concern for themselves.
Did you notice any specific linguistic choices by the author?
When applying to study a post-A-Level language at Oxbridge, it is important that you complete the reading in the target language, so that you are adequately equipped with the knowledge to comment on the linguistic choices of the author. Authors may choose to include regional vocabulary, slang pertaining to certain social groups or repeat certain words and phrases to support their authorial intent.
In ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo,’ Cervantes includes germanía, which is the name for the slang used in the criminal underworld. The two boys initially lack an understanding of Monipodio and his gang’s germanía, but over the course of the novel they begin to use germanía within their speech, which indicates that they are becoming more comfortable and more closely aligned with the group. Thus, Cervantes uses speech to demonstrate the picaros’ growing affiliation and sense of belonging within Monipodio’s gang.
What contextual factors may have influenced the author to write this novel?
When answering this question, you could discuss both the author’s life and the general time period of the text. A helpful visualisation technique is to create a timeline using websites such as Britannica or BBC History detailing the key events in society and the author’s life. It is also worthwhile to identify famous authors of the period in order to deduce whether your text is part of a wider literary movement.
For example, Cervantes’ jail sentence in Seville in 1597 may have afforded him a unique personal experience of the criminal underworld of Monipodio and his gang, and could have been a motivating factor in his decision to use two pícaros as his protagonists. Cervantes may also have been inspired by Lazarillo de Tormes which was published sixty years earlier and which was the first example of the picaresque novel.
During your Oxbridge interviews, the most important thing to remember is not to simply describe the events and characters within a text, but rather to analyse and explain how these elements contribute to the overall work. Remember to ask yourself – ‘what purpose does X serve’, ‘what effect does Y create?’ and ‘how does Z reflect the author’s intentions?’. You should also think about how the events within the text can be linked to the historical and socio-political context of the period in which the work was written, as fictional narratives are often used to comment on wider societal issues.
However you may decide to approach your answers, just remember – don’t describe, analyse!