Individual Study
Preparation of the Critical Essay
Based on an example from 2010
Stage 1: Topic

Compare the ways in which Daniel Mason in The Piano Tuner and Ann Patchett in Bel Canto use the
idea of music to explore the breakdown of cultural barriers.
Stage 2: Thesis (120-150 words)
A recurrent motif of Latin American and Post-Colonial literature is the breaking down of oppositions
between contrasting cultures, embodied in Patchett and Mason’s novels by the idea of music. Both authors
use musical protagonists as a vehicle for exploring cultural binaries: Patchett’s Roxanne Coss overcomes
language barriers through song in an ethnically diverse community trapped in a mansion captured by Latin
American terrorists; Mason’s Edgar Drake bridges the divide between the colonised and their colonial
overlords in British occupied Burma through his skill with instruments as a piano tuner. Mason and
Patchett’s portrayal of music as a device enabling forbidden romance forces the reader to reject the idea
that love between different cultures is impossible. Factors that both assist and hinder cultural integration
are also emphasized through the use of musical motifs. Lastly, music’s accessibility to different characters
is used in the two novels as a metaphor for the fragile potential of bridging cultural divides.
155 words
Stage 2: Essay
A perennial motif of both Latin American and Post-Colonial literature is the breaking down of false
dichotomies between contrasting cultures, and Ann Patchett and Daniel Mason have chosen the idea of
music as a means of achieving this in their respective novels, The Piano Tuner and Bel Canto. Both authors
create a central character whose musical abilities provide a bridge between cultures, and through these
characters, explore the possibility of peaceful coexistence as opposed to the inherent conflict of cultural
hierarchies. Mason and Patchett also utilize Edgar’s playing and Roxanne’s singing as a language of love
with which they can express their emotions. The musical motifs and references each author uses shape the
reader’s response to the cultures presented in the novels, as does music’s gradual change from an ineffable
form to a universal language.
Mason and Patchett create characters with the ability to produce and manipulate music, using them as a
vehicle for their exploration of the cultural binaries presented in their novels. A major obstacle preventing
relationships in the ethnically diverse community of Bel Canto, trapped in a mansion captured by terrorists
in an unnamed Latin American country, is the language barrier for which Patchett uses the character of
Roxanne to overcome. A physical embodiment of music, Roxanne is beloved by all of the characters, who
want to “crawl[ ] on top of her, filling her mouth with their tongues” and “drink in” “the beauty of her
voice,” representing a Dionysian appreciation of music proving that “speaking the same language [is] not
the only way of communicating.” In The Piano Tuner, Edgar’s ability to break down the barriers between
the subaltern and the hegemonic power in the British occupation of Burma lies not in his musical talent, but
in his piano tuning skills. “He knows how to listen,” and this allows him to experience new ways of
listening and therefore responding to the ‘other.’ Edgar attaches “not only sentiment to song, but song to
sentiment,” allowing him to sympathize with the Burmese, whose “songs of loss are universal.” The piano
which Edgar tunes comes to represent him, and also the hope that there will be peace in Burma, as Edgar is
not a military man, and similarly, the “piano[ ] [doesn’t] make alliances.” Thus the destruction of the piano
foreshadows Edgar’s death in the “wail of the Erard” as its “hammers” are “throw[n]…back against the
strings,” and the death of any hope for a peaceful colonial relationship between Burma and Britain.
Mason and Patchett’s portrayal of music as a tool in assisting forbidden romance forces the reader to reject
the idea that love between different cultures is impossible. Mason initially portrays Edgar and Khin Myo’s
relationship as an awkward friendship rife with stifled sexual tension, because passion “expects too much of
a man who…creat[es] order so that others may make beauty.” In contrast, Hosokawa’s love for Roxane
stems from his passion for opera transferred onto the diva, as “music [becomes] a person.” Music creates
for both these relationships a language of love they can share, without the need for Edgar to be bold or
Hosokawa to learn English. Edgar expresses love through his choice of song, the “Fugue in F sharp minor,”
which reminds him of “an opening of flowers, a meeting of lovers,” and the music in turn creates an
auditory expression of the lovers’ emotions, “[rising] faster, then dipp[ing] sweetly.” Patchett also uses
music to express the power of love when Roxanne, realizing that without Hosokawa “listening while she
sang…[there would not] have been any chance to get to know someone [she] couldn’t speak to,” “infuse[s]
[her singing] with…compassion and understanding” like never before .
Note that you need to have one topic sentence per argument (which will end up contributing a body
paragraph to the finished essay). So if you have four arguments, you need four topic sentences.
Going back to the example above, we can examine more closely how the topic winds its way through each
of the four hyper-themes, arguments or topic sentences in different ways:
[go to the next page]

Compare the ways in which Daniel Mason in The Piano Tuner and Ann Patchett in Bel Canto use the idea of
music to explore the breakdown of cultural barriers.
This was developed into four arguments or ‘hyper-themes’ in response to that topic:
1. Both authors use musical protagonists as a vehicle for exploring cultural binaries. [Mason and Patchett
create characters with the ability to produce and manipulate music, using them as a vehicle for their
exploration of the cultural binaries presented in their novels. ]
2. Mason and Patchett’s portrayal of music as an enabling device for forbidden romance forces the reader’s
rejection of the idea that love between different cultures is impossible.
3. Factors that both assist and hinder cultural integration are also emphasized through the use of musical
motifs.
4. Lastly, music’s accessibility to different characters is used in the two novels as a metaphor for the fragile
potential of bridging cultural divides
NOTE the colour coding, which shows how the topic’s literary feature or device and its common theme can
both be traced through each of the four hyper-themes, arguments or topic sentences in different ways.
E.G. by taking the topic’s common theme the breakdown of cultural barriers, we can see it expressed as a
series of different nominalizations thus:
You could map out the same hierarchy between the macro-theme of the literary device “the idea of music”
and its rephrasing as different nominalizations in the hyper-themes, like musical protagonists and music as an
enabling device for forbidden romance, etc.
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From topic to thesis to essay exemplar