All The Years Of Her Life Essay Questions

  • 1

    How does Churchill’s play explore the tensions between work and private life?

    Top Girls critically examines the relationship between work and marriage through its depictions of the sacrifices made by successful women at the London employment agency. Win, Nell, and especially Marlene have made great strides in their careers, they have all done done so by making sacrifices in their private lives in order to focus on their work. Marlene is the central character, and her career ambitions have depended upon her leaving her daughter, Angie, to be raised by her sister Joyce. The play suggests that the price that Marlene has paid for her success is extreme, and that women being forced to chose between having a successful career and a fulfilling private life is a form of social injustice.

  • 2

    Marlene and Joyce seem to represent different ideas of what modern women can and ought to do with their lives. Discuss the key differences between these characters and what they mean for Churchill’s play.

    Marlene and Joyce are sisters who serve as foils as the play unfolds. We first see Marlene celebrating her promotion to a managerial position, and later we observe her hyper- professional, no nonsense demeanor while she is at work. She has no time for personal issues, and her character represents the choice that many women in 1970s Britain were struggling with - should they have to sacrifice a private life in order to succeed in their careers? Meanwhile, Joyce is the archetypal bitter housewife - confined to the drudgery and difficulties of caring for family. However, despite her efforts, Joyce's family is still unhappy - her husband has left her and her adopted daughter hates her. In Top Girls, Caryl Churchill uses these characters to elucidate important contradictions in the social and professional demands placed upon women in contemporary British society.

  • 3

    What is the role of travel in the play, and in the lives of the various women who discuss their experiences of it?

    Several of the independently minded women in Act 1 are avid travelers. Isabella Bird speaks constantly of her travels across the globe and attaches great value to those experiences, whereas she associates the demands of societal life in England with disappointment and a frustrating obligation to her husband. Lady Nijo likewise speaks about the second half of her life as a Buddhist nun, traveling Japan on foot as a way of healing after her time as the Emperor's concubine. Later, Marlene and Win both speak of having spent time abroad as part of their journeys towards fulfilling careers. The play suggests that travel allows women to develop independent ways of thinking and experiencing the world that social duties and familial obligations often prevent. Travel opens their eyes and imaginations to new possibilities.

  • 4

    How does Churchill use language to establish a particular character’s identity, class, or social status? Choose and discuss some key examples.

    There are numerous examples of a link between identity and language in Top Girls. Dull Gret, for instance, hardly speaks. Her lack of linguistic prowess contrasts sharply with the rest of the women at the dinner table, and situates her as a peasant woman of the Middle Ages. Yet when Gret does eventually decide to join the conversation, the brutish simplicity of her narrative is striking, and helps to convey the raw emotion that she and her fellow village women experienced while watching Spanish soldiers murder their families. Meanwhile, the three women working at tTop Girls – Nell, Win, and Marlene – exemplify an essential link between language and identity that is both personal and collective. When they first arrive, Nell and Win banter about “Coffee coffee coffee” and poke fun at their inadequate male colleague, Howard – “Howard can just hang onto himself” and “Howard’s really cut up.” When Marlene enters, she falls easily into this style of conversation, telling Win “Pass the sugar and shut your face, pet.” All three women use slang, shared associations and phrases, and a quick delivery of caustic speech in ways that reinforce shared membership in an elite circle of professional females.

  • 5

    Why are there no men physically present in Top Girls? What does this say about the play and Churchill's message?

    Although the women in the play speak often and critically about men, there are never any male characters onstage in the play. The settings of each Act reinforce this fact – a group of women have taken over a restaurant and dinner table in Act, women have taken over the traditionally male-dominated space of an office in Act 2, and we see conversations in Joyce’s kitchen and living room, which are typically feminine domestic spaces, in Act 3. Many of the roles and professions of the women in the play are linked to men (courtesan, wives and daughters, Pope, modern professional), but the fact that men are absent helps to create a conceptual space in which Churchill examines female relationships and interactions outside of a male presence. This tactic allows Churchill to critically acknowledge the extent to which her characters' lives are shaped directly or indirectly by men and patriarchal power. Because the women in the play display aggression, conflict, and competition alongside their friendship and support for each other, Churchill also implies the far-reaching consequences of patriarchal oppression and capitalist exploitation.

  • 6

    Top Girls moves backward in time over the course of Act 3, from Angie’s visit to London to Marlene’s visit to Joyce’s house. Discuss this flashback technique and its effect on our perception of the relationship between Joyce, Angie, and Marlene.

    Although Marlene appears overly harsh and dismissive of Angie when she visits her at the agency in London, the play makes room for some sympathy in later scenes. Angie arrives entirely unannounced and interrupts Marlene at her place of work. Moreover, in an earlier scene, we have witnessed Angie’s violent feelings against her mother, Joyce, and her friend, Kit, - painting her as a difficult and rowdy teen. However, by moving back in time in the following scene, Churchill forces her audience to examine our initial impressions of these characters. We learn that Marlene is Angie’s biological mother, and that she left Angie to be raised by Joyce because she wanted to escape her working class background. This creates sympathy for Joyce and her frustrations with Angie, but also creates sympathy for Angie’s character and her intense desire to identify with Marlene. The narrative structure allows Churchill to create a dramatic reversal based on the delivery of knowledge previously hidden.

  • 7

    Top Girls is widely acknowledged as a piece of feminist socialist drama. Explain this categorization and why it is an appropriate description of Churchill’s play.

    On one hand, Act 1 of Top Girls investigates feminism as a concept: did feminism exist in some form before it was given that name during the social justice movements of the 20th century? Is feminism simply the resistance to patriarchy by women? Can there be feminist identifications across historical periods? In the first Act, Churchill suggests that shared struggle against male oppression and patriarchy can connect women and empower them. However, within the modern era, as we see in Acts 2 and 3, feminism must battle against the unique challenges of capitalist exploitation and the drive to isolate and elevate the role of the private individual over collective life. Churchill layers her narrative with economical, political, and historical context. By doing this, she presents critiques of capitalism and the innate patriarchy that has existed throughout history - which allows us to categorize Top Girls as a feminist socialist drama.

  • 8

    How does Churchill’s play represent the power and status of the individual in the 1970s and 80s capitalist society?

    Top Girls examines and implicitly critiques the elevated status of the private individual in late capitalist society. Marlene’s character represents the fulfillment of capitalist values – she seems to have been successful because her individual resolve has allowed her to escape the poverty into which she was born. Yet we learn at the end of the play that Marlene was able leave Ipswich because she abandoned her daughter, Angie, and essentially cut her family out of her life. Marlene regards Angie as a weak and unmotivated girl with no future, and this perspective helps her to justify a conservative view that class doesn’t truly exist, and all individuals have the power to elevate themselves financially through determination and hard work. The play suggests this perspective (parallel to Thatcherism) is flawed, showing that financial autonomy and success is built on socially oppressive relationships and structures of exploitation. The self-determining power of the individual is a myth, Churchill suggests, even if that myth shapes the dominant view of modern capitalist life.

  • 9

    The historical figures of Act 1 tell stories about their lives that are strikingly different. At the same time, the play suggests that these women all share something important. Discuss this idea and explain its centrality to the play.

    As the different guests arrive and tell their life stories over the course of Act 1, it becomes clear that there are radical differences among these women. These differences are due to their respective upbringings, historical periods, religious and philosophical values, and materially embodied conditions. However, the interwoven narratives also suggest that these women have experienced something common: they all found ways to thrive in worlds controlled largely by men. Each woman has endured significant forms of hardship and labor demanded by husbands, lords, or patriarchal institutions, but each woman’s story also tells of unique achievements and a refusal to inhabit their expected roles quietly, which shows their collective spirit of opposition to injustice against women. The idea of a shared struggle and empowering action that cuts across historical periods is a key theme in Churchill’s play. Also, Marlene shares something in common with each one of these characters - showing that her conservative views - however flawed they may be - are borne out of years and years of patriarchy and oppression. While Marlene thinks she has it all figured out, the unhappy ending of the play shows that Marlene, like all of the women at her dinner party in Act 1, has made major sacrifices in order to succeed and that the feminist movement is still evolving.

  • 10

    The staging and production of Top Girls challenges its audience, especially in Act 1. How do such formal features of the play relate to its conceptual and thematic focus on the lives of women?

    The initial setting of Act 1, at a dinner table, evokes the domestic space of the kitchen and the privacy of life at home. The surreal aspects of the staging, however, dislocate the typical expectations of security and comfort associated with private life. The women constantly interrupt each other and their narratives only emerge in fragmented form, which requires the audience to pay close attention and piece together each thread. This fragmentation is jarring, and provokes us to abandon our expectations of a linear dramatic narrative in favor of new possibilities for exploring the connections between these women. Churchill’s technique therefore complements the implication that women in the modern era must seek out new and unexpected solutions to conquer their political and economic struggles.

  • Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions

    by Terry Heick

    Essential questions are, ask Grant Wiggins defines, ‘essential’ in the sense of signaling genuine, important and necessarily-ongoing inquiries.” These are grapple-worthy, substantive questions that not only require wrestling with, but are worth wrestling with–that could lead students to some critical insight in a 40/40/40-rule sense of the term.

    I collected the following set of questions through the course of creating units of study, most of them from the Greece Central School District in New York. In revisiting them recently, I noticed that quite a few of them were closed/yes or no questions, so I went back and revised some of them, and added a few new ones, something I’ll try to do from time to time.

    Or maybe I’ll make a separate page for them entirely. Or, who knows. Nonetheless, below are many, many examples of essential questions. Most are arts & humanities, but if this post proves useful, we can add some STEM inquiry to the mix as well. Let me know in the comments.

    Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions

    Decisions, Actions, and Consequences

    1. What is the relationship between decisions and consequences?
    2. How do we know how to make good decisions?
    3. How can a person’s decisions and actions change his/her life?
    4. How do the decisions and actions of characters reveal their personalities?
    5. How do decisions, actions, and consequences vary depending on the different perspectives of the people involved?

    Social Justice

    1. What is social justice?
    2. To what extent does power or the lack of power affect individuals?
    3. What is oppression and what are the root causes?
    4. How are prejudice and bias created? How do we overcome them?
    5. What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
    6. How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change?
    7. When should an individual take a stand against what he/she believes to be an injustice? What are the most effective ways to do this?
    8. What are the factors that create an imbalance of power within a culture?
    9. What does power have to do with fairness and justice?
    10. When is it necessary to question the status quo? Who decides?
    11. What are the benefits and consequences of questioning / challenging social order?
    12. How do stereotypes influence how we look at and understand the world?
    13. What does it mean to be invisible? (context: minorities)
    14. In what ways can a minority keep their issues on the larger culture’s “radar screen?”
    15. What creates prejudice, and what can an individual overcome it?
    16. What are the causes and consequences of prejudice and injustice, and how does an individual’s response to them reveal his/her true character?
    17. What allows some individuals to take a stand against prejudice/oppression while others choose to participate in it?
    18. What are the causes and consequences of prejudice and how does an individual’s response to it reveal his/her morals, ethics, and values?

    Culture: Values, Beliefs & Rituals

    1. How do individuals develop values and beliefs?
    2. What factors shape our values and beliefs?
    3. How do values and beliefs change over time?
    4. How does family play a role in shaping our values and beliefs?
    5. Why do we need beliefs and values?
    6. What happens when belief systems of societies and individuals come into conflict?
    7. When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?
    8. When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
    9. To what extent do belief systems shape and/or reflect culture and society?
    10. How are belief systems represented and reproduced through history, literature, art, and music?
    11. How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
    12. How do individuals reconcile competing belief systems within a given society (e.g., moral beliefs conflicting with legal codes)?
    13. When a person’s individual choices are in direct conflict with his/her society, what are the consequences?
    14. What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on the development of our morality?
    15. What role or purpose does religion / spirituality serve in a culture?
    16. What purpose or function do ethics / philosophy have in governing technological advances?
    17. How do our values and beliefs shape who we are as individuals and influence our behavior?

    Adversity, Conflict, and Change 

    1. How does conflict lead to change?
    2. What problem-solving strategies can individuals use to manage conflict and change?
    3. How does an individual’s point of view affect the way they deal with conflict?
    4. What personal qualities have helped you to deal with conflict and change?
    5. How might if feel to live through a conflict that disrupts your way of life?
    6. How does conflict influence an individual’s decisions and actions?
    7. How are people transformed through their relationships with others?
    8. What is community and what are the individual’s responsibility to the community as well as the community’s responsibility to the individual?

    Utopia and Dystopia

    1. How would we define a utopian society?
    2. How has the concept of utopia changed over time and/or across cultures or societies?
    3. What are the ideals (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, etc.) that should be honored in a utopian society?
    4. Why do people continue to pursue the concept of a utopian society?
    5. How do competing notions of what a utopian society should look like lead to conflict?
    6. What are the purposes and/or consequence of creating and/or maintaining a dystopian society?
    7. What is the relationship between differences and utopia?

    Chaos and Order

    1. What is the importance of civilization and what factors support or destroy its fabric?
    2. What are the positive and negative aspects of both chaos and order?
    3. What are the responsibilities and consequences of this new world order described as “global”?
    4. What role does chaos play in the creative process?
    5. What are the politics and consequences of war, and how do these vary based on an individual or cultural perspective?

    Constructing Identities

    1. How do we form and shape our identities?
    2. In a culture where we are bombarded with ideas and images of “what we should be,”
    3. How does one form an identity that remains true and authentic for her/himself?
    4. What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?
    5. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?


    1. What is creativity and what is its importance for the individual / the culture?
    2. What is art and its function in our lives?
    3. What are the limits, if any, of freedom of speech?

    Freedom and Responsibility

    1. What is freedom?
    2. What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?
    3. What are the essential liberties?
    4. What is the relationship between privacy, freedom, and security?
    5. When does government have the right to restrict the freedoms of people?
    6. When is the restriction of freedom a good thing?

    Good and Evil in the World

    1. Is humankind inherently good or evil?
    2. Have the forces of good and evil changed over time and if so, how?
    3. How do different cultures shape the definitions of good and evil?

    Heroes and “She-roes”

    1. Do the attributes of a hero remain the same over time?
    2. When does a positive personality trait become a tragic flaw?
    3. What is the role of a hero or “she-roe” (coined by Maya Angelou) in a culture?
    4. How do various cultures reward / recognize their heroes and “she-roes”?
    5. Why is it important for people and cultures to construct narratives about their experience?
    6. What is the relevance of studying multicultural texts?
    7. How does the media shape our view of the world and ourselves?
    8. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?

    The Human Condition / Spirit

    1. In the face of adversity, what causes some individuals to prevail while others fail?
    2. What is the meaning of life, and does that shape our beliefs regarding death?

    Illusion vs. Reality

    1. What is reality and how is it constructed?
    2. What tools can the individual use to judge the difference, or draw a line between, illusion and reality?

    Language & Literature

    1. How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by language?
    2. How can language be powerful?
    3. How can you use language to empower yourself?
    4. How is language used to manipulate us?
    5. In what ways are language and power inseparable?
    6. What is the relationship between thinking and language? How close or far are they apart?
    7. How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world?
    8. How do authors use the resources of language to impact an audience?
    9. How is literature like life?
    10. What is literature supposed to do?
    11. What influences a writer to create?
    12. What is the purpose and function of art in our culture?
    13. How does literature reveal the values of a given culture or time period?
    14. How does the study of fiction and nonfiction texts help individuals construct their understanding of reality?
    15. In what ways are all narratives influenced by bias and perspective?
    16. Where does the meaning of a text reside? Within the text, within the reader, or in the transaction that occurs between them?
    17. What can a reader know about an author’s intentions based only on a reading of the text?
    18. What are enduring questions and conflicts that writers (and their cultures) grappled with hundreds of years ago and are still relevant today?
    19. How do we gauge the optimism or pessimism of a particular time period or particular group of writers?
    20. Why are there universal themes in literature–that is, themes that are of interest or concern to all cultures and societies?
    21. What are the characteristics or elements that cause a piece of literature to endure?
    22. What distinguishes a good read from great literature?
    23. Who decides the criteria for judging whether or not a book is any good?
    24. What is the purpose of: science fiction? satire? historical novels, etc.?

    Love & Sacrifice

    1. If any, what are the boundaries of love and sacrifice, and where does one draw the line between them?
    2. What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?

    Nature in the Balance

    1. What are the responsibilities of the individual / society / superpowers in regard to the health of the environment?  (local, regional, national or international context can be used)
    2. What are the consequences of being unconcerned with nature’s balance/harmony?

    Our View of the World and Ourselves

    1. How do we know what we know?
    2. What is changeable within ourselves?
    3. How does what we know about the world shape the way we view ourselves?
    4. How do our personal experiences shape our view of others?
    5. What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider?
    6. What does it mean to “grow up”?
    7. Where do our definitions of good and evil come from?
    8. What is the relevance of studying multicultural texts?
    9. How does the media shape our view of the world and ourselves?
    10. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people trying to define us, how do we make decisions for ourselves?
    11. What turning points determine our individual pathways to adulthood?

    Past, Present, and Future

    1. Why do we bother to study/examine the past, present or future?
    2. What are the recurrent motifs of history and in what ways have they changed or remained the same?

    The Pursuit of Happiness

    1. What is happiness, and what is the degree of importance in one’s life?
    2. To what extent does a culture / society / subculture shape an individual’s understanding or concept of happiness?

    Relationships and Community

    1. What are the elements that build a strong friendship?
    2. How do friendships change over time?
    3. What impact does family have during different stages of our lives?
    4. What can we learn from different generations?
    5. How is conflict an inevitable part of relationships?
    6. How do you know if a relationship is healthy or hurtful?
    7. What personal qualities help or hinder the formation of relationships?
    8. How are people transformed through their relationships with others?
    9. What is community and what are the individual’s responsibilities to the community as well as the community’s responsibilities to the individual?

    Shades of Truth

    1. Who defines “truth”?
    2. How does perspective shape or alter truth?


    My brain; Grant’s; L. Beltchenko 2007-2008 and the Greece Central School District, New York; Many, Many Examples Of Essential Questions


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