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Dominique Hecq was born in 1961. She grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium and studied Germanic philology at the university of Liège where she took an MA in literary translation. 1n 1985 she won a scholarship to read Australian literature at La Trobe University. She now lives in Melbourne with her husband and their three children, combining the pleasures and torments of motherhood with those of writing and teaching. She is the author of The Book of Elsa (Papyrus), Mythfits (Penfolk), Good Grief & Other Poems (Papyrus), The Gaze of Silence (The SideWaLK Collective), One Eye Too Many. Also, with Russell Grigg and Craig Smith, Female Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies (Rebus, UK). She is an active member of the Victorian Writers' Centre.
Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Isaiah, 58:8
The daughter was too far gone already. The nurse had just been. She had
wasted three needles on the injection. Over the last few weeks, it had,
in fact, become harder each time for her to stick a needle in the rough
husk the daughter's skin had become. It now all seemed pointless. The
oily fluid would remain trapped between scales and bone, forming a cracking
and oozing bubble on the surface.
It had all started with rumours of an affair between the daughter's boyfriend
and their science teacher. The daughter had said nothing to her mother
at the time, but the mother had soon heard about the scandal, for such
news travels fast, getting juicier and juicier as it passes from one mouth
to the other. And so the mother who could see the sorrow on her daughter's
face said that it was best to forget all about boys who were not worth
their salt. The daughter perceived her mother's loathing in the way she
pronounced the word boy. The tone of her mother's voice was as hateful
as when she told the daughter she was fat and ugly. The daughter looked
at her mother's painted bps. She took a few steps back-wards, side-stepping
the sack-cloth mat in the pool of light where the cat lay curled in a
tight ring. She left the living room.
One day, she discovered that she could tuck small amounts of food in
her cheeks and spit it out later in the toilet bowl. She did this until
she was caught.
Towards the end of the holidays, the mother complained about her weight.
She blamed her daughter's cooking for the extra kilos hugging her waist.
She also blamed water retention. The daughter stopped using salt in her
cooking, but she kept cooking.
The daughter set herself high goals for the year. She would jump through all the hoops and even distinguish herself but she would have to toughen up. She would therefore study hard and banish all form of recreation, except for half an hour of solid exercise every night followed by a cold shower to wake herself up before further study. She would wear as little clothing as possible, and skip, or run, whenever possible, in order to boost her own energy. She would train herself never to feel hungry, cold, or tired. She would also do her best not to displease her mother.
But some time into the year, as things seemed to be getting tougher and tougher, it had become clear to the daughter that she had underestimated the watchful eye of her mother. One rainy afternoon, the daughter met her old boyfriend on the train. He rubbed it in, as it were, saying that she looked terrific. When the daughter got home later that evening, the mother asked if she'd met anyone she knew. The daughter acted innocent. 'And yet you look skinny as a take and so terrific: said the mother knowingly.
From then on, the deceptions became more frequent and the lies more diverse. The daughter, who could no longer control what she ate in the evening without upsetting her mother, started to drink chamomile oil to make herself vomit. She would in fact spend hours in the toilet either to get rid of what she didn't want to hold down, or to devour books, while just sitting there.
Then came the rows. The mother hit the daughter and the daughter dreamed of hitting the mother. 'The key to the toilet was confiscated.
More rows followed. Savage ones. All pretence had dropped.
Everyone in the family got involved in some way then, yet mother and
daughter remained centre stage.
The mother told her daughter that she was mad and evil. 'The salt of
evil' she said, meaning the root.
And so the daughter is now back in the old living room, all curled up
in an ugly heap of clothes with her head on her knees and her arms around
her shins. With no hope in her eyes, she looks like the stray cat the
mother once picked up out of a rubbish bin. From underneath the clothes
grown baggy, you can see the daughter's bones sticking out. You can hear
her moaning 'Let me die - Oh PLEASE. God let me die.'
Sample essay question:
Discuss the daughter's predicament and her relation to her mother. Consider the structure of the story, the shifts in perspective, the different uses of the word "salt" and the relevance of other images.
It's funny being back. I'm too much again. My footsteps are too loud, my breathing too heavy, my smell too pungent and my fingers are shrinking on doorknobs even though no one is home.
They knew I was coming back today though. When I walked in the door I
saw my own letter pressed on the fridge with a frog magnet.
And who told us? Father?
Now I'm scared. Last night I woke up and saw my bed covered in rubbish.
Rubbish and vermin. just like all those years back. I'm scared shitless
of old nightmares. Scared of what they might bring. I sit up late, dreading
the moment I'll have to switch the light off because I know that there
are knives lurking in the dark recesses of my mind, waiting to appear
in my field of vision and cut me all over.
You were out when I tried to ring today, busy getting ready for Christmas
and that kind of rubbish, I guess, so I'm sending you a note. I remembered
another dream last night as I was trying to remember the time when mother
first went to hospital, the dream where father cuts off my head while
mother is cutting her own throat. I'm sure I first had that dream back
then. That's when you started to burn and hit your fat stomach to make
your guts come out. And that's also when you started to tell the world
how much I hated you. I only wanted to help. But you said I was tricking
you to find out your secrets.
November 2nd, 11 pm
I went to see mother. I got to her room as she was having her first meal,
believe it or not. She looked at me so much as to say, you ungrateful
little shit, where have you been all this time when I was in agony. She
complained about the food. 'All you get is rubbish,' she said. She can
have only slops. She asked after you, screwing up her nose as she does
sometimes. So I told her we'd been out of touch.
November 3rd, 1996
I dreamed a terrible dream tonight and I woke up with the image of you sprawled on the floor in your cottage at Basalt. I tried to stop the dream but the hands in my mind turned your body over to look at your face and I saw a huge bleeding gash where your features had been: you had blown your brains out through your mouth with father's rifle.
Now don't freak out. It's no wish-fulfilment. Still, all that hush and
rush of blood in your mouth in my dream. It must be because you told me
the other night that you'd been spewing blood. I reckon you should see
November 3rd, 4pm
I did as you asked. I took all the books out of your bookshelf and collected
all the notes you had hidden behind the spines of the boo's. I shoved
them in a C5 size envelope. I'll post it later today. I also went through
mother's jewel box and I retrieved your gold bracelet as well as your
two swimming medals. I also found two envelopes addressed to you. They
had been opened. One of them contained a couple of photographs of you
I hope it was all right for me to read that stuff. I'm all self conscious
now. I just thought you expected me to, entrusting me with the mission
of tracking down old secrets as you did.
I keep thinking about you. I keep trying to ring you too, and missing
you. Happy hours and going-away parties and other such rubbish, I suppose.
Fair enough. I noticed that your answering machine was back on. I'm getting
sick of the message.
November 5th, 1996
Why don't you answer my letters? I'm worried about you, you know. I keep
waking up at night with bad dreams about you only to see my bed covered
in rubbish and find that all doors are locked.
I am sick of this all. The moment I get in mother's ward I feel the chill
cut me through to the bone. Mother won't even look at me now. She doesn't
listen when I speak either. Everything I say is rubbish. Father is silent
and looks away as soon as I open the door. And you don't answer my calls,
nor do you write back. If this goes on I'm catching the ferry. No, I'll
catch the plane. Be prepared.
That's it. I'm coming over.
Sample essay question:
Examine what we are given to perceive about the relationship between "Bap" and "Nicky", their position to their mother, and the connection with the story's title.
1. In the last paragraph of Joyce's “In The Boarding House” Polly forgets and then remembers what she has been waiting for. What does this tell us about Bob Doran’s situation in the story.
2. Analyse Thomas's imagery in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, explaining how it relates to his main themes, and how it makes interpretation of the poem more open.
3. Explore the theme of obsession in John Steinbeck's “The Snake”.
4. Explain the central metaphor of Ted Hughes'“The Thought Fox”. What does the poem tell us about Hughes'experience as a writer?
5. Explore the themes of generosity and guilt in Bradbury's “The Beggar on the Dublin Bridge”. Does the narrator change his attitudes and ideas during the course of the story?
6. Discuss Peter Porter's ‘Mort aux chats’ as a poem dealing with various forms of intolerance and prejudice. (This poem was in the 2000-2001 syllabus - click here to read it)
The essays, written a couple of years ago for the May/June session, have been copied word for word. A detailed discussion of the good and weak characteristics follows. Interpretation, analysis, engagement with the essay question, use of grammar and structure are the main points looked at here. It might be useful for you to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each essay before reading the detailed comments.
NB: We will not offer complete rewritings and improvements of each sentence. It should be obvious that many of the sentences could be better written, or at the very least written differently. Most, if not all, of the expressions or words which are wrong, weak or clumsy are italicised. If there is a particular construction or phrasing that you find puzzling then please don’t hesitate to ask.
First essay: 13
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§ 1 (1) In ‘Salt’ Dominique Hecq deals with the difficult relationship of a daughter with her mother, and with the feelings of despair that can arise during the teenage years when there is no maternal love. (2) Through the story, we follow the girl’s descent into hell, in the indifference her family show towards her.
§ 2 (1) Right from the start, we understand the dramatic end of the story. (2) The beginning is in fact linked to the end and this brings a particular feeling when we read the story. (3) The mother’s cruelty is immediately perceived and the role she played in her daughter’s decadence is quite evident.
§ 3 (1) And the mother’s attitude is in fact the main point in the story. (2) She does not understand how important her opinion is for her daughter and how much a teenage girl needs to be reassure. (3) She told her child that she is ‘fat and ugly’ and this sparks off the decline.
§ 4 (1) The girl’s attitude towards food is of course a consequence of the complex her mother gives her. (2) She does not want her to see that she gives her food to the dog or that she spit it out in the toilet bowl. (3) She has lost her boyfriend and her mother ‘helped’ her to understand that it was probably because she was not pretty. (4) She feels humiliated but does not want her mother to know it. (5) She does not want her to know that she has reached his goal.
§ 5 (1) That is the reason why she needs to find a way to escape. (2) She begins to work very hard to forget that food exists. (3) She reacts a lot and feeds herself with words and sentences. (4) She does it for herself, because she knows that nothing could make her mother loves her. (5) Then she begins to cook. (6) But ‘for the pleasure of watching others eat.’ (7) Because she will not eat what she prepares, she ‘eats’ the names of foodstuffs, which give her energy.
§ 6 (1) Then, if we take the perspective of the mother, we can see that she is in a way paradoxical. (2) She promises to keep an eye on her daughter when she goes to university, but does not seem to care when she looks like a skeleton. (3) As if her daughter was born to give her everything she never had in her own life. (4) The girl must have good results, she must correspond to a rigid image she has in her mind. (5) She probably wanted to have a beautiful girl, and she is fat and ugly. (6) The disappointment is too heavy.
§ 7 (1) The symbolism of the mirror is another important part. (2) The girl destroys it because she does not have the impression to see her own image. (3) Maybe she feels that she does not have the right to be herself. (4) As soon as she has broken the mirror, Hecq tells us that ‘the mother disappeared from the daughter’s sight.’ (5) When she looks at herself, she hears her mother’s words and nastiness.
§ 8 (1) Then the image of salt appears to be very important. (2) Salt is an absorbent product, when the girl rejects everything. (3) When her mother asks her not to salt her cooking, it is as if she asked her to stop living. (4) Then she is for her mother ‘the salt of evil,’ in opposition with ‘the salt of the earth.’ (5) She is nothing. (6) She can only be something bad.
§ 9 (1) The fact that the girl is called ‘cookie’ by the nurse is very ironic. (2) It shows us that she does not look like a human being anymore, she is about to be ‘eaten’ by death. (3) It is also ironical because the nurse gives her the name of a food when she has not eaten for months. (4) The mother does not react.
§ 10 (1) And this is not surprising when we understand that her daughter could never have satisfied her. (2) She reproaches her to be fat, and later she reproaches her to ‘look skinny as a rake.’
§ 11 (1) However, the daughter’s perspective is very courageous. (2) She refuses to displease her mother and pays attention not to upset her. (3) In a way she does not want to see that her mother is responsible. (4) She wants to stay alone in her dramatic situation. (5) She harms herself to be somebody important.
§ 12 (1) When the conflicts begin to be more frequent between mother and daughter, the girl understands that she will never escape from her mother’s ‘watchful eye.’ (2) She will never have her own life, her own personality. (3) It is not worth living and she decides not to take the pills and to resist the injections. (4) She is mad for the family.
§ 13 (1) But at the end of the story, the mother becomes more human. (2) It is as if she suddenly had an epiphany. (3) She looks at her daughter, she looks at the empty table and discovers the importance of her lack of love and support. (4) She smashes the salt shaker and the daughter stops moaning. (5) They have come full circle. (6) The girl can begin to live.
14 (1) In conclusion, I would say that this story teaches us a lot
about the importance of comprehension between children and parents.
(2) Dominique Hecq shows us a different perspective so that we can understand
the mother’s and daughter’s point of view. (3) The
parents must help their children to grow but not identify themselves with
them. (4) The teenagers need to be supported to develop their
own personality. (5) This short story is a very good example and
can help us not to do the same mistakes when we are parents.
(6) The title summarises the whole symbolism of the short story.
‘Salt’ is a complex and nuanced story concerning family relationships and eating disorders. It is by no means a story which is easy to get to grips with. Here the student has written a competent essay which includes some insight into the main themes and imagery of the story. An honest attempt is made to answer the essay question. The essay is well structured on the whole: it moves from point to point relatively clearly, avoids unnecessary repetition, avoids merely retelling the story, and most of the paragraphs are self-contained and well handled, dealing relatively clearly with a single point. The paragraphs usually begin strongly and thus the reader is always able to situate him or herself. The student quotes well, using key phrases to underline her points, and the quotations are unobtrusively integrated within the essay. Having said that, at times the student should have quoted more as evidence for the validity of some of the more speculative points. In terms of language ability the level of English is fair and overall the basics are in place, although there are some classic errors and one or two sentences which are badly constructed and as a consequence very difficult to understand
A weak point is that both the introduction and conclusion are either a bit thin, slightly misleading, or a little moralising. Also, some of the points are a little weak, even redundant. They need to be developed and taken further at times. Points need to be made fully and sometimes just one or two additional sentences would be enough. Some points in the essay are too speculative and are made without any evidence from the story itself. Furthermore the verb tenses are inconsistent..
Overall then, an essay which attempts, reasonably successfully, to interpret and analyse the story, and which is quite well structured and written in an English in which the basic grammar is more or less in place. Perhaps the 13 is a little generous; it is at least a solid 12 and certainly this is not an essay that would ever gain a 14. To have done better the student would have needed to write much more fluently, eliminating basic errors and using more complex sentences, and should have tackled the imagery with greater subtlety and insight.
There are a number of points that could have been dealt with better.
One is sexuality. What is the significance of the rumoured affair between
the daughter’s boyfriend and the science teacher? How might the
mother’s ‘loathing in the way she pronounced the word boy’
be interpreted? Also, significantly, the daughter’s subjectivity
is not fully analysed, nor is the fact that overall we see the story from
her perspective. We do not know that ‘there is no maternal love’:
the mother appears devastated when the daughter actually dies. The fact
that the daughter has to go to elaborate lengths to conceal the fact that
she is not eating suggests that the mother is not indifferent. Did the
mother mean to hurt her when she said that her daughter looks fat and
ugly? It may have been a way of suggesting that she dress differently,
said in full confidence that the daughter knew she was actually pretty
and slim. What is certainly highlighted is a teenager’s sensitivity
to personal comments and how an unfortunate word may trigger a self-destructive
Detailed comments paragraph by paragraph:
Paragraph 1. The introduction could be better. It is not so much that it is short but that it says little about the essay overall, and how the story will be analysed. The main theme of eating disorders is not mentioned, and the reference to hell is overly melodramatic. (1) ‘deals with a daughter’s difficult relationship with her mother’ (2) ‘hell, which stems from her family’s indifference towards her’. It should be stated that we do not really know if her family is really indifferent, as the daughter’s perspective dominates the story.
Paragraph 2. Much of this is redundant, or the sentences are more or less empty. A classic flaw is the inappropriate use of the word ‘dramatic’. Also, the student does not signal how she understands the ending of the story. What the student is probably trying to refer to is the fact that the beginning of the story takes us to a moment in time that occurs right at the end of the story. This is often done in fiction, stimulating curiosity and prompting the reader to find out how the situation that is bluntly presented in the opening paragraph has come about. (1) The sentence is unclear (2) ‘brings a particular feeling’ says nothing. ‘and thus a particular tone is established and maintained throughout the reading’? This is better English but not much better at the level of content. ‘Particular’ is too vague (3) ‘perceived, as is’ (3) ‘daughter’s decline’. ‘Decadence’ is wrong.
Paragraph 3. Beginning a paragraph with ‘And’ is a bit clumsy. In fact this paragraph should be integrated within the previous one, which ends with a statement about the mother’s cruelty. As this paragraph does not talk about the cruelty in a significantly different way there is no need to start a new paragraph. (1) ‘the main point’ is too vague. Does the student believe everything stems from the attitude of the mother, or that ‘Salt’ is mainly about the mother? (2) reassured (3) Inconsistent tenses.
Paragraph 4.This is a fair paragraph, but not a tightly organised one. A flaw is that there is no clear definition of what the mother’s aim is. Is it to make her daughter starve? This is not really borne out by the story, which states that the mother does try to make her daughter eat. Is it to humiliate her? Possibly, but the student needs to provide, or at least suggest, evidence that this is so. Furthermore, it has still not been clearly stated in the essay what the daughter’s attitude to food is. A further weakness is that the connections between the sentences are a little loose. (2) ‘that she spits it out’ (5) ‘she has achieved her aim’.
Paragraph 5. Again some of this is fair but some of it is also poorly written and somewhat unconvincing at the level of interpretation. (1) ‘a way of escaping’ is a preferred alternative (1) using the verb ‘to escape’ is a little suspect as it is not entirely clear that this is what the girl is doing by immersing herself first in her studies and then in cooking. Possibly she tries to escape her home situation by throwing herself into work at school, but is she not doing this to gain approval at home? It can also be argued that she cooks sumptuous meals to make her mother gain weight. To describe this as a form of escape misses the point. (2) This is perhaps fair but doesn’t take into account her dreaming of ‘fresh bread rolls’ at school. (3) This is a meaningless statement. ‘she starts to act obsessively and’? (4) ‘her mother love her’ (4) Is she doing it for herself? (5) (6) (7) should be one sentence, not three. (6) This is not a sentence (6) A bit more could be made of the fact that she takes ‘pleasure’ in this, given that much of what else she does involves disciplined hard work and self-denial (7) (3) One or two more sentences could usefully interpret the eating of words and names.
Paragraph 6. Some of the argument here is a little too speculative and difficult to sustain in the face of what is actually said in the short story. (1) Not ‘then’, which is misleading, as is ‘perspective’. ‘Turning to the mother’s attitude, it can be said to be paradoxical in some ways’ (3) ‘As if’ is wrong here in terms of linking words. There is no logical connection between (2) and (3) (3) Is there any real evidence for this statement? (4) Why not ‘the daughter’? (5) One point that remains unresolved is whether or not the girl ‘is fat and ugly’. This is an important question in a story dealing with perception, and self-perception. (6) ‘heavy’ is too colloquial. ‘too heavy to bear’ ‘too much’ ‘too difficult to deal with’.
Paragraph 7. The student shows some insight here and in a better essay this would have been taken much further. Self-image is indeed a vital aspect of the story. The suggestion in the story that when she looks at herself in the mirror the daughter sees her mother could have been analysed further and is not clearly acknowledged in the essay. The smashing of the mirror could have been looked at in relation to the smashing of the salt-cellar. Are the same impulses and / or insights at work? (1) ‘another important element’ ‘another important motif’ (2) Unclear. Poor English. ‘because she does not want to see her own image’? ‘because she does not really see herself in the mirror’? (3) This is a good point but the student needs to say more and make the point more fully. (5) This is fine but some confusion is caused by the slip between hearing and seeing.
Paragraph 8. This is a confusing and unconvincing paragraph. (1) See paragraph 6 on ‘then’ (1) ‘appears’ is too hesitant. If the student does not think the imagery is important, why write about it? (2) Frankly this is such a botched sentence it is impossible to understand what the student is trying to say. What is the significance of salt’s absorbent properties? Does the girl ever reject everything? (3) Tense inconsistencies. This is potentially an interesting point but the student does not take it far enough. (4) Again, a problem with the use of ‘then’. (4) ‘as opposed to’ (4) ‘salt of the earth’ is not actually mentioned in the story (5) (6) Repetition. (6) is a clumsy sentence.
Paragraph 9. This is fair enough but not exactly breathtaking analysis. The student should have taken the points further. Given that they are insufficiently interpreted it might even have been better to not mention them. (2) ‘anymore, and that she is’. The argument in this sentence is somewhat farfetched. (4) Poor paragraph construction. This sentence should begin the next paragraph.
Paragraph 10. In nine and ten paragraph construction is in a critical state and has ceased to function properly.. This two sentence paragraph floats around unhinged in the essay. (2) ‘reproaches her for being fat’ ‘reproaches her for look[ing] skinny’. Note the convention for adapting quotation content.
Paragraph 11. There is some insight here but the points need to be made more fully. (1) ‘daughter’s attitude’. Is ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ the best way to describe her? (2) This is a weak sentence. ‘she does not want to displease her and takes care not to upset her’. This is repetitive. (3) There is potential here but the point is lost by not being fully developed. (4) This says nothing. ‘dramatic’ is too vague, too general. (5) A weak sentence. Important to whom? To attract attention to herself?
Paragraph 12. This is pretty good but more could have been done with the theme of watching, seeing and surveillance, and the extent to which the two women’s personalities are fused in some way. (3) ‘and refuses the injections’ ‘and tries to refuse the injections’ (4) Unclear. Colloquially, to be mad for something – or to be mad about something – is to be very enthusiastic about something. Does the student mean that the family think she is mad (insane, mentally unstable)? Either way this sentence should not be here, as it has little in connection with the main points of the paragraph.
Paragraph 13. A flaw here is that there is too much retelling of the story at the expense of analysis. Also the story makes it clear that the girl will die so the final sentence of the paragraph is misleading and reveals some misunderstanding on the part of the student. Another explanation of why the girl’s moaning stops is required. Is there some trace of victory here? Mutual understanding? (3) This is fair but ‘significant effects’ is better.
Paragraph 14. As a concluding paragraph this is too moralistic and treats the story, unfairly, as a simple morality tale or fable. It should really say something about the treatment of eating disorders, for one thing, and about the psychological battle taking place for another. (1) ‘of understanding between’ (2) This sentence is unclear, and also very misleading. ‘Hecq’s use of shifting perspective allows us to view the spiral into psychological decline from both the mother’s and the daughter’s points of view’. (3) Article. ‘Parents’, not ‘the parents. (4) Article. ‘teenagers’, not ‘the teenagers’. (4) ‘encouraged to develop their own personalities’ (5) ‘help us to avoid making’. One ‘makes’ mistakes; one does not ‘do’ mistakes. (6) This sentence is empty and tells us nothing about how salt is used symbolically in the short story.
Second essay: coming soon