9 Important Topper’s Tips for the English Literature optional at IAS Mains

With inputs from Ajay Prakash (AIR 9, CSE 2010) and Shuchita Kishore (AIR 39, CSE 2010) who chose English Literature as an optional, here is a strategy for the subject.

Novels and Drama:

For English-origin novels and drama, either ‘Worldview edition’ or ‘Norton Critical edition’ is recommended. One should supplement the analysis/criticism provided in these books with content available on websites such as Sparknotes , Cliffnotes, Wikipedia etc.

Text of a novel should be read at least once. Do not try to understand the meaning of each and every sentence; instead see a chapter in its entirety and in relation to the overall plot.

Critical essays and analysis of a work should be read thoroughly and important points memorized, especially vital themes, symbols and motifs.

For Indian-origin novels (where Worldview and Norton are not available), one should read the text well and search the net for essays, criticisms and analysis.


Dig the internet to gather as much in-depth knowledge about a poem as possible. Memorizing important lines of a poem is a good idea as its usage in an answer gives a very good impression. You can sail through by using your own analysis during reading of a poem.

History of English Literature:

(Covers important literary periods like Renaissance, Elizabethan era etc. refer syllabus)

Many good books are available for this:

  • Introduction to English Literature by W.H Hudson
  • The Routledge History of Literature in English
  • A short History of English Literature (Pramod K. Nayar)
  • Wikipedia is also a good source.

Unseen Poetry and Prose:

In paper-I, one has to answer questions based on unseen poem and in paper-II, there is similarly a passage from which questions are based. Both combined constitute 100 marks (50 each) and are compulsory.

These can be answered by using one’s common sense without any intensive prior preparation. A book Practical Criticism (Oxford University Press) can be useful in this regard.

A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H Abrams is useful for familiarizing oneself with various literary terms.

General Tips:

  1. If one is fairly interested in literature, one can go for this optional very safely notwithstanding his/her graduation stream.
  2. Coverage of complete syllabus should be a priority. Questions asked, especially in the recent years are so based as to test this aspect.
  3. 3 months is sufficient for a person having background in English to complete the syllabus.
  4. For one with a different background, around 6 months is sufficient depending on one’s familiarity with the texts.
  5. Read the historical portion after completion of the literary works. In most novels, the plot and characters depict clearly the traits of a particular literary period. That way, one would get a fair idea of various periods without any extra effort.
  6. Use simple language while answering questions. Deliberate and unnecessary use of complex lexicon won’t fetch any extra marks. It is a test of one’s knowledge of ‘literature’ and not ‘English’.
  7. Answer-writing practice is of utmost importance. One should do it on a regular basis using the previous year questions (questions from past 10 year paper are relevant).
  8. Since professional guidance (as per UPSC requirement) for this optional is virtually non-existent, one can approach any good university professor for evaluation of one’s answers. If not, even self-evaluation is sufficient.
  9. Do not refer books which are often used by university students for securing a mere passing grade in exams (one such example is Ramji Lall). Their use, if necessitated, should only be restricted to summary of the plot/play. They cannot serve as a basic book for one’s preparation in CS exams.
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By Root

Caretaker @civilsdaily

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