Edexcel English IGCSE: From Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur

Q3. How does this passage provoke sympathy for Ellen MacArthur?

In your answer, consider:

  • the conditions at sea;
  • the physical difficulties of her task;
  • MacArthur’s experience of the climb;
  • the writer’s use of language techniques.

You should refer closely to the passage to support your answer. You may use brief quotations.

Edexcel English IGCSE Model Essay by an Expert

By describing the terrible weather conditions and the physical challenges of climbing the mast, MacArthur captures the  terrible difficulty of the task, and evokes sympathy in the reader.

There are a number of dangers involved in climbing the mast, including the risk of physical injury, which is made more likely by the threatening conditions at sea. In order to highlight her vulnerability in relation to the sea, MacArthur portrays the sea as a violent force which could easily harm her. The vocabulary used to describe the motion of the waves is violent, and creates an image of dangerous and painful impact: the boat “ploughed into” and “pile into” waves, for example. MacArthur also shows her own vulnerability up the mast: the repeated image of her being “thrown away” from and “smacking back” into the rig creates for the reader the impression that she is small and at the mercy of the waves. This makes the reader hope that she will be safe.

MacArthur also provokes sympathy by describing the physical challenges involved in climbing the mast. She “worked through the night” to prepare for the climb, meaning that she was not even able to sleep properly before embarking on her dangerous mission. Because of the violent motion of the boat, one of the hardest challenges is just to stay on the mast. The verbs “hang on” and “cling on” are used repeatedly throughout the description, showing the effort it takes to hold onto the mast, let alone climb it. The use of comparatives in the latter half of the passage emphasise the increasing difficulty of the task: for example, “harder and harder”, “heavier”, and “more violent”. The reader pities MacArthur because the task gets more difficult as she becomes more exhausted.

The description of the climb itself evokes further pity in the reader, as well as admiration for MacArthur’s resilience. Exhaustion seems to be central to the experience of climbing the mast: this strong, emotive word is used several times throughout the description. It also creates tension, since MacArthur knows that she will not have enough energy to do the climb more than once. The climb is described as a “physical drain”, which provides a metaphorical image of MacArthur’s energy pouring away. However, the struggle is not just physical; MacArthur is open about the need for mental determination to carry on. This is expressed when she describes how she talks to herself – “not far now, kiddo, come on” – to give herself encouragement. This provokes sympathy as it highlights her isolation and loneliness; there is nobody else there to support her.

The reader simultaneously pities and admires MacArthur for her ability to cope with such a mentally and physically challenging task on her own, and in such difficult conditions.

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