Dear Mrs Dunkley by Helen Garner

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Text Type: Discursive

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The key themes we see explored include Garner’s maturation and growth, characteristic of a bildungsroman theme. Additionally, we see the idea of death and loss play out, whereby Garner wishes she could thank Mrs Dunkley for the lessons she learnt which helped her succeed in life. Therefore, conjuring up ideas of forgiveness and gratitude. Furthermore, themes of loneliness are created, partly spurred on by Mrs Dunkley’s demeanour mismatching her true identity. Exploring another theme of appearances vs reality.

  • Coming of age
  • Death
  • Forgiveness
  • Gratitude
  • Identity
  • Loneliness
  • Appearance vs reality

There are two main character arcs, Mrs Dunkley going from this flawless character with high expectations for those around her to a struggling alcoholic. Meanwhile, Garner goes from a child who is eager to please Mrs Dunkley to an accomplished woman – interestingly wishing she could share her achievements with Mrs Dunkley.

Range of Language forms and features 


  • She worked hard to try to impress her teacher
  • Hopelessly scratched-out and blotted exercise books
  • Her hard work was rewarded by one smile and then ‘your face snapped shut’ 

Extended metaphor

  • Garner uses extended metaphor and descriptive language to communicate a dream she had about her teacher — ‘You were dressed in a jacket made of some wondrously tender and flexible material, like suede or buckskin, in soft, unstable colours that streamed off you into the air in wavy bands and ribbons and garlands, so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail’. 


  • Imagery of Mrs Dunkley’s hands is memorable, capturing her fear when she was younger and awareness (when Helen is older) that this is a woman suffering — ‘I recall them as thin and sinewy and fierce looking, with purplish skin that seemed fragile’ 


  • Primary characterisation is that of Mrs Dunkley. The perspective of her changes through the text. 
    • From child Helen — ‘You were very thing, with short black hair, and hands that trembled. You wore heels, a black calf length skirt and a black jacket with a nipped in waist’ 
    • To adult Helen — ‘She has short, dark, wavy hair combed back off her forehead. Her brows are dark and level, her nose thin, her lips firmly closed in an expression of bitter constraint’ 

Truncated sentence

  • The shift in characterisation is captured succinctly — ‘An intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman’ 


  • Changes throughout the essay as she captures the emotions and thoughts she had as a child and those she has as an adult. 
  • She tells how she ‘became such a blusher’ from being humiliated in class – However, as an adult she confesses ‘I wish you weren’t dead’. Obviously referring to Dunkley 
  • As an adult, Helen’s voice is appreciative and mature: ‘I’ve got something I want to say. I would like to say Thank you’ – This voice of admiration is seen again in the final line ‘Please accept the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen”

Video Summary

Short Answer Questions.

1) What influence has Mrs Dunkley had on Garner’s life choices?

2) How does Garner’s tone change throughout the letter?

3) What is the symbolic significance of hands throughout the text?

4) What changes Garner’s perception of Mrs Dunkley, how does it change?

HSC Style Questions

Question 1.

“The story of who we are and the story we tell of our lives rarely match up.”

Use this sentence as a stimulus for the opening of an imaginative, discursive or persuasive piece of writing that expresses the sentiments of the quote

a) In your response, you must include at least ONE literary device or stylistic feature that you have explored during your study of a prescribed text in Module C. [10 marks]

b) Explain how at least ONE of your prescribed texts from Module C has influenced your writing style in part (a). In your response, focus on ONE literary device or stylistic feature that you have used in part (a). [10 marks]


Answers available here.

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