PSAT Critical Reading : Style Choices in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #82 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Read the passage and then answer the questions that follow.

 

1          His eyes fell on the still, upright, and rigid form of the “Indian runner,” who

2 had borne to the camp the unwelcome tidings of the preceding evening. Although

3 in a state of perfect repose, and apparently disregarding, with characteristic

4 stoicism, the excitement and bustle around him, there was a sullen fierceness

5 mingled with the quiet of the savage that was likely to arrest the attention of

6 much more experienced eyes than those which now scanned him in unconcealed

7 amazement. The native bore both the tomahawk and knife of his tribe; and yet,

8 his appearance was not altogether that of a warrior. On the contrary, there was

9 an air of neglect about his person, like that which might have proceeded from

10 great and recent exertion, which he had not yet found leisure to repair. The

11 colors of the war paint had blended in dark confusion about his fierce

12 countenance, and rendered his swarthy lineaments still more savage and

13 repulsive than if art had attempted an effect which had been thus produced

14 by chance. His eye, alone, which glistened like a fiery star amid lowering clouds,

15 was to be seen in its state of native wildness. For a single instant, his searching

16 and yet wary glance met the wondering look of the other, and then changing its

17 direction, partly in cunning and partly in disdain, it remain fixed, as if

18 penetrating the air.

In the passage, darkness is symbolic of what (Lines 11–12)?

Possible Answers:

Volatile emotions

Wildness and unrestraint

Unbridled evil

The outdoors 

Correct answer:

Wildness and unrestraint

Explanation:

Darkness is equated with wildness. Consider the phrases “dark confusion about his fierce countenance (face)” and “his swarthy (tanned) lineaments still more savage.” 

Example Question #3 : Analyzing Tone, Style, And Figurative Language In Literature Passages

Adapted from A Room With a View by E.M. Forster (1908)

"The Signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, "no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!"

"And a Cockney, besides!" said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora's unexpected accent. "It might be London." She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed; at the notice of the English church (Rev. Cuthbert Eager, M. A. Oxon.), that was the only other decoration of the wall. "Charlotte, don't you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other things are just outside. I suppose it is one's being so tired."

"This meat has surely been used for soup," said Miss Bartlett, laying down her fork.

"I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!"

"Any nook does for me," Miss Bartlett continued, "but it does seem hard that you shouldn't have a view."

Lucy felt that she had been selfish. "Charlotte, you mustn't spoil me; of course, you must look over the Arno, too. I meant that. The first vacant room in the front—" "You must have it," said Miss Bartlett, part of whose traveling expenses were paid by Lucy's mother—a piece of generosity to which she made many a tactful allusion.

"No, no. You must have it."

"I insist on it. Your mother would never forgive me, Lucy."

"She would never forgive me."

The ladies' voices grew animated, and—if the sad truth be owned—a little peevish. They were tired, and under the guise of unselfishness they wrangled. Some of their neighbors interchanged glances, and one of them—one of the ill-bred people whom one does meet abroad—leant forward over the table and actually intruded into their argument. He said:

"I have a view, I have a view."

Miss Bartlett was startled. Generally at a pension people looked them over for a day or two before speaking, and often did not find out that they would "do" till they had gone. She knew that the intruder was ill-bred, even before she glanced at him. He was an old man, of heavy build, with a fair, shaven face and large eyes. There was something childish in those eyes, though it was not the childishness of senility. What exactly it was Miss Bartlett did not stop to consider, for her glance passed on to his clothes. These did not attract her. He was probably trying to become acquainted with them before they got into the swim. So she assumed a dazed expression when he spoke to her, and then said: "A view? Oh, a view! How delightful a view is!”

The author’s repetition of the word “English” in the second paragraph emphasizes __________.

Possible Answers:

the fact that the pension is one that caters specifically to English guests

the unexpected presence of so many familiar details in country foreign to the women

the fact that the country in which the women are staying is an English colony

the new and unexpected details of the women's surroundings

the fact that the Signora supports the English in the ongoing war

Correct answer:

the unexpected presence of so many familiar details in country foreign to the women

Explanation:

The word "English" appears four times in the second paragraph, and numerous other details about the pension and its inhabitants are portrayed as distinctly British. This repetition and portrayal comes immediately after Lucy expresses her sadness that the Signora has a Cockney accent. From this set-up, we can infer that the author is repeating the word "English" in order to emphasize how familiar the pension's qualities are to the women when they were expecting something quite different from what they were used to. Nothing about English colonies or wars is mentioned, and while "the fact that the pension is one that caters specifically to English guests" may seem like a likely answer, we are not specifically told this, and the repetition of the word "English" is emphasizing the disparity between the women's expectations and reality more so than the fact that there are numerous English guests at the pension.

Example Question #28 : Interpreting The Passage

Adapted from The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857)

At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared suddenly a man in cream-colors at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.

His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.

In the same moment with his advent, he stepped aboard the favorite steamer Fidèle, on the point of starting for New Orleans. Stared at, but unsaluted, with the air of one neither courting nor shunning regard, but evenly pursuing the path of duty, lead it through solitudes or cities, he held on his way along the lower deck until he chanced to come to a placard nigh the captain's office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given; but what purported to be a careful description of his person followed.

As if it had been a theatre-bill, crowds were gathered about the announcement, and among them certain chevaliers, whose eyes, it was plain, were on the capitals, or, at least, earnestly seeking sight of them from behind intervening coats; but as for their fingers, they were enveloped in some myth; though, during a chance interval, one of these chevaliers somewhat showed his hand in purchasing from another chevalier, ex-officio a peddler of money-belts, one of his popular safe-guards, while another peddler, who was still another versatile chevalier, hawked, in the thick of the throng, the lives of Measan, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, and the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky—creatures, with others of the sort, one and all exterminated at the time, and for the most part, like the hunted generations of wolves in the same regions, leaving comparatively few successors; which would seem cause for unalloyed gratulation, and is such to all except those who think that in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase.

Pausing at this spot, the stranger so far succeeded in threading his way, as at last to plant himself just beside the placard, when, producing a small slate and tracing some words upon if, he held it up before him on a level with the placard, so that they who read the one might read the other. The words were these:—

"Charity thinketh no evil.”

One can best characterize the author’s style as ___________.

Possible Answers:

objective and scientific

didactic and informative

ornate and wordy

concise and blunt

enraged and ranting

Correct answer:

ornate and wordy

Explanation:

The author maintains a relatively neutral tone throughout the passage, so we cannot call his style “enraged and ranting.” While we might call his style “objective,” we cannot call it “scientific,” and while it does impart information, it is not attempting to teach us anything, but instead to tell a story, so “didactic and informative” is out as well. This leaves us with “concise and blunt” and “ornate and wordy.” The author uses notably long sentences—the entirety of the second paragraph is a single sentence. Based on this, we can choose “ornate and wordy” as the correct answer.

Example Question #3 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash, 'till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said "Bother!" and "O blow!" and also "Hang spring cleaning!" and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, "Up we go! Up we go!" 'till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

"This is fine!" he said to himself. "This is better than whitewashing!" The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long, the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow 'till he reached the hedge on the further side.

"Hold up!" said an elderly rabbit at the gap. "Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!" He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about. "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!" he remarked jeeringly, and was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply. Then they all started grumbling at each other. "How STUPID you are! Why didn't you tell him—" "Well, why didn't YOU say—" "You might have reminded him—" and so on, in the usual way; but, of course, it was then much too late, as is always the case.

What effect does the author's use of repetition have in the lines underlined in the passage?

Possible Answers:

The repetition emphasizes how busily the mole worked while spring cleaning his home.

The repetition doesn't affect the reader's perception of the story at all; the author is just having fun with language.

The repetition is meant to confuse the reader, just as the mole is confused on his way to the surface.

The repetition suggests that the mole gets lost on his way from his home to the surface.

The repetition emphasizes how long and how much energy it takes the mole to burrow to the surface.

Correct answer:

The repetition emphasizes how long and how much energy it takes the mole to burrow to the surface.

Explanation:

The author's repetition of the words "scraped," "scratched," "scrabbled," and "scrooged" emphasize the amount of work that the mole has to do to burrow to the surface. If the author only used one of these words, it would seem as if it didn't take the mole that much time or energy to burrow to the surface. Repetition draws out and highlights this moment in the text.

Example Question #83 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from “The Tell-Tale Heart” in The Pioneer by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work, for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me, for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who's there?"

The narrator’s frequent use of repetition and dashes serve to __________.

Possible Answers:

suggest that the events of the story never really happened

emphasize the narrator’s argument

make the narrator appear more reasonable

convey the terror felt by the old man

increase the suspense and tension in the story

Correct answer:

increase the suspense and tension in the story

Explanation:

The passage and the entire story the passage is taken from make frequent use of dashes and repetitive language, as in this excerpt: “And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.” In figuring out what effect this has on the reader, it may help to narrow down the possible answer choices. It doesn’t “convey the terror of the old man”—in the excerpt above, the old man is asleep, and he is asleep for most of the events conveyed in the passage, only waking up at the end. The use of dashes and repetition doesn’t “emphasize the narrator’s argument,” as the narrator’s argument, if anything, is that he is sane, and the repetition and dashes don’t encourage the reader to draw that conclusion; the narrator asks the reader to “observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story,” and the dashes and repetition definitely don’t convey a sense of “calm.” For the same reasons, the repetition and dashes don’t “make the narrator appear more reasonable.” Nothing about the repetition and dashes specifically suggests that the events of the story never really happened. This leaves us with one answer, the correct one: the repetition and dashes “increase the suspense and tension in the story.” By drawing out the time it takes to describe events, the dashes and repetition make the events seem to slow down, increasing the suspense of what will happen next and the tension of knowing that the old man is about to be murdered.

Example Question #84 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843).

TRUE! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses -- not destroyed -- not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing accute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees -- very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded --with what caution --with what foresight --with what dissumlation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it --oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! --would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously --oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights --every night just at midnight --but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

What is the purpose of the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The first paragraph provides the reader with important background information about the main characters.

The first paragraph provides foreshadowing for the third paragraph.

The first paragraph makes the reader trust the narrator.

The first paragraph establishes the tone of the piece by giving the reader reasons to believe the narrator is insane.

Correct answer:

The first paragraph establishes the tone of the piece by giving the reader reasons to believe the narrator is insane.

Explanation:

In the very first sentence, Poe sets the tone of the piece; it is disjointed, random and defensive. When the narrator discusses his exceptional hearing and states that he "...heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell." These are not the statements of a rational person. It is important for the reader to realize that, in spite of his protests to the contrary, the narrator is not sane as the story unfolds.

Example Question #85 : Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from HG Wells's "The Inexperienced Ghost" (1902).

The scene amidst which Clayton told his last story comes back very vividly to my mind. There he sat, for the greater part of the time, in the corner of the authentic settle by the spacious open fire, and Sanderson sat beside him smoking the Broseley clay that bore his name. There was Evans, and that marvel among actors, Wish, who is also a modest man. We had all come down to the Mermaid Club that Saturday morning, except Clayton, who had slept there overnight--which indeed gave him the opening of his story. We had golfed until golfing was invisible; we had dined, and we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying. It may be that indeed he was lying--of that the reader will speedily be able to judge as well as I. He began, it is true, with an air of matter-of-fact anecdote, but that we thought was only the incurable artifice of the man.

"I say!" he remarked, after a long consideration of the upward rain of sparks from the log that Sanderson had thumped, "you know I was alone here last night?"

"Except for the domestics," said Wish.

"Who sleep in the other wing," said Clayton. "Yes. Well--" He pulled at his cigar for some little time as though he still hesitated about his confidence. Then he said, quite quietly, "I caught a ghost!"

The author's description of Clayton in the first paragraph __________.

Possible Answers:

describes the narrator's circle of friends.

points out that Clayton is disliked by the other characters.

casts doubt upon Clayton's claim that he had caught a ghost.

acquaints the reader with the main character.

Correct answer:

casts doubt upon Clayton's claim that he had caught a ghost.

Explanation:

Throughout this opening paragraph, the author describes a friendly atmosphere at a gentleman's club where a group of friends are relaxing after a day of activities. Near the end of the paragraph, the author states: "...we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying." This statement by itself should cast doubt on Clayton's story. The final sentence of the first paragraph makes it clear that the narrator is not sure whether or not to believe Clayton. The "air of matter-of-fact anecdote" makes it appear that Clayton is merely telling his friends about something that happened to him. The "incurable artifice of the man" indicates that Clayton was a skilled storyteller and his friends believe he is about to launch into a made-up story.

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