Strategy for English Literature Optional for UPSC

The UPSC offers candidates about 50 optional subjects to choose from in the civil services mains exam. Out of these, 23 are literature of languages. English literature is one of them, and is a popular optional among the language optionals. In the 2017 IAS exam, the all-India rank 26 was bagged by Anjali S with her optional as English Literature. Contrary to what many think, it is possible to secure good marks in this subject. In this article, we discuss all you need to know about the literature of English language optional – preparation tips, toppers, success rate, pros and cons, etc.

How many take English Literature optional?

Generally, there are under 50 candidates who opt for english literature as their optional subject. It enjoys a good success rate and every year, there are successful candidates with this optional. In 2005, the first rank went to Mona Pruthi, who had taken english literature as her optional. The following table gives the number of candidates who appeared and cleared using english literature optional in the CSE mains.

English Literature Success Rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates cleared Success Rate (%)
2015 21 2 9.5
2014 33 3 9.1
2013 73 11 15.1
2012 64 14 21.9
2011 30 5 16.7
2010 30 8 26.7

As you can see, the literature of English language optional has a reasonably good success rate. The next table proves that it is possible to get high ranks even with an optional which is considered not-so-scoring.

English Literature Optional Toppers

Name Year Rank
Anjali S 2017 26
Gaurav Garg 2015 320
Ajay Prakash 2010 9
Shuchita Kishore 2010 39
Mona Pruthi 2005 1

How is English Literature optional for IAS Mains?

As is the case with any optional subject, the english literature optional also has its share of advantages and disadvantages for the IAS mains exam. They are discussed below. If you are undecided about your optional subject, you should check the pros and cons of the optional you are considering, and then assess your own strengths and weaknesses before coming to a decision.

English literature optional pros

  • If you love this subject and have taken it out of a genuine interest, you will find the preparation journey a smooth and enjoyable affair. English literature will provide a great respite from the strenuous general studies preparation. English literature is all about reading and understanding the nuances of stories written by great authors, playwrights and poets.
  • The competition you will encounter is also far less here and you will only have to write better than your competition to get a good score.
  • In this subject, there is no limit to how well you can write. If you have been in the habit of reading since your childhood, you can actually perform superbly, provided you keep the particular demands of the IAS exam in mind.
  • Three months is sufficient to prepare for this optional subject.
  • The syllabus is very specific and defined.
  • Although there is no direct overlap with the GS papers as such, this optional can help you in understanding the history of Europe and can be helpful in GS I.
  • This optional can help you with the essay paper as well.
  • For this optional, you will have to understand and analyse classical texts. This will help you improve your analytical skills.

English literature optional cons

  • There is a dearth of professional coaching for this optional subject.
  • It is also difficult to get a good test series for this optional.
  • There is no overlap whatsoever with the general studies papers.
  • Your answers have to be really good to score good marks here.
  • Being a literature subject, it is subjective in nature making your performance unpredictable, quite unlike the sciences subjects.

Who should take English Literature optional?

This optional should be considered by the following groups of candidates provided they have an interest and have checked all the other boxes for opting an optional subject.

  • English graduates
  • Non-English graduates with good language and with a passion for literature
  • Candidates who love to read and have a good command over the English language
  • Candidates with a good command over English and have an academic background in sociology or history

English Literature optional UPSC syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for English Literature for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC exam pattern. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks making the total optional marks to 500.

Download the English Literature syllabus PDFDownload PDF Here

The syllabus, in short, includes the following:

  1. 14 novels
  2. 5 plays
  3. 60 poems (most of them small)
  4. Basic understanding of the history of English literature

English Literature Optional Strategy

Before starting with a detailed strategy, let us begin by talking about the time period of literature this syllabus deals with.

Structure of the Papers

Paper I: 1600 – 1700 (start of modernism)

Paper II: 1900 – 1990 (postmodernism)

Both the papers are divided into sections A and B. Section A deals with drama and poetry while Section B deals with prose, in both papers.

General tips for English Literature optional

  • Go through the syllabus in detail prior to starting your preparation.
  • Go through the past years’ UPSC question papers of English Literature and connect it to the syllabus.
  • When you go through the question papers, you will get an idea of the kind of questions asked. They are not exactly like the ones they ask in university exams for english graduation.
  • After this, you start reading the texts. When you read the texts, there are certain things you should look for. For instance, you should look at the time period when the work is set in and look at the behaviour, practices, belief systems, moral values, etc. of the people of that time setting.
  • You should also compare characters of two different texts set in different time periods. You should be able to compare the belief systems of people of different time periods through different characters set in those time periods.
  • You should have a deep understanding of the socio-political setup of the time period the work is set in.
  • After reading a particular text and highlighting the important aspects of it, you can supplement your thoughts with pointers from scholarly articles you find on the internet.
  • You must do a lot of answer-writing practice in this optional. The main difference between writing literature answers for the civil services and for the university exams is that you can follow the following approach for civil services answers:
    • Start with the time period of the work.
    • Talk about the author of the work. For example, Auden was called a poet of paradoxes, Yeats was called a myth maker, etc.
    • Then, describe or talk about what the question is actually asking.
    • For example, if you are asked about slavery in the novel, ‘Huckleberry Finn’, you should quote certain small incidents from the novel which highlights how slavery was practiced or how it was accepted very matter-of-factly in those times. This would show the examiner that you have actually read the text in its original.
    • You can also talk about how other literary writers or critics viewed the particular text or any aspects in it. This will add value to your answers.
  • Make sure your conclusion to the answer is original and not flicked off from any famous critics. Your view can even be very different from the established view.
  • The questions asked relate not just to the literary merit of the text but also to the social, political and cultural context of the work. Therefore, you must write from a certain “unliterary” point of view also.

For example, look at the following question from the 2018 Paper I:

  1. The apparently superficial concern with marriage in Pride and Prejudice masks a deeper social critique. Discuss with reference to the novel. (20 marks)
  • For poetry, you should learn many of them by heart so that you can quote lines in your answers.
  • As said before, your answers should have substance rather than flowery language. UPSC expects good language but with substance and analyses.
  • Make sure you read the original texts rather than the commentaries only.
  • History of English literature should be done at the end of the preparation, i.e., after you have done the remainder of the syllabus. Again, only a cursory glance over the history is required. No need to read all the details. You can even go through some video lectures available online for literary history.
  • While reading texts with a variety of characters, you can make a flowchart of characters since it will enhance your understanding.
  • Understand and use certain literary devices like euphemism, allusion, imagery, simile, metaphor, personification, etc. in your answers. This will enhance the quality of your writing.

For example, look at the following question from the 2018 Paper I; it requires you to know what is satire.

  1. What are the objects of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s journey to Laputa in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels? (15 marks)
  • You should also understand certain terminologies like feministic reading, Marxist reading, and Shakespearean idea of a play and so on.

Another example from the 2018 Paper I:

  1. “Maggie Tulliver’s intelligence, scholarly competence and wide-ranging imagination become liabilities for a woman.” Discuss this statement with reference to social determinism. (15 marks)

Another example from Paper II, 2018:

  1. “The central weakness of Modernism is that in its pursuit of a more complex sense of reality it fails in coherence.” Do you agree? Justify your answer with some illustrations from twentieth-century poetry and drama. (20 marks)
  • Remember to be creative, original, neat, concise and consistent in your answers.
  • A tip here for working professionals or candidates who are hard pressed for time, you can use audio books for classics and other texts which are easily available and listen to the text while on the go, if you do not find the time to actually sit down and read them.

English Literature Optional UPSC Books

  • For history of literature section:
    • History of Literature – Louis Cazamian
    • The Routledge History of Literature in English – Ronald Carter & John McRae
    • A New History Of English Literature – Bhim S Dahiya
  • Practical Criticism by Oxford University Press
  • A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H Abrams
  • Literary Theory Today by Pramod K Nayar
  • All the original poems, plays and prose in the syllabus

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