SAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from “The Rise of Pancho Villa” in Insurgent Mexico by John Reed (1913)

The roar began at the back of the crowd and swept like fire in heavy growing crescendo until it seemed to toss thousands of hats above their heads. The band in the courtyard struck up the Mexican national air, and Villa came walking down the street.

He was dressed in an old plain khaki uniform, with several buttons lacking. He hadn't recently shaved, wore no hat, and his hair had not been brushed. He walked a little pigeon-toed, humped over, with his hands in his trousers pockets. As he entered the aisle between the rigid lines of soldiers he seemed slightly embarrassed, and grinned and nodded to a friend here and there in the ranks. At the foot of the grand staircase, Governor Chao and Secretary of State Terrazzas joined him in full-dress uniform. The band threw off all restraint, and, as Villa entered the audience chamber, at a signal from someone in the balcony of the palace, the great throng in the Plaza de Armas uncovered, and all the brilliant crowd of officers in the room saluted stiffly. It was Napoleonic!

Villa hesitated for a minute, pulling his mustache and looking very uncomfortable, finally gravitated toward the throne, which he tested by shaking the arms, and then sat down, with the Governor on his right and the Secretary of State on his left.

Señor Bauche Alcalde stepped forward and pronounced a short discourse, indicting Villa for personal bravery on the field on six counts, which he mentioned in florid detail. He was followed by the Chief of Artillery, who said: "The army adores you. We will follow you wherever you lead. You can be what you desire in Mexico." Then three other officers spoke in the high-flung, extravagant periods necessary to Mexican oratory. They called him "The Friend of the Poor," "The Invincible General," "The Inspirer of Courage and Patriotism," "The Hope of the Indian Republic." And through it all Villa slouched on the throne, his mouth hanging open, his little shrewd eyes playing around the room. Once or twice he yawned, but for the most part he seemed to be speculating, with some intense interior amusement, like a small boy in church, what it was all about. He knew, of course, that it was the proper thing, and perhaps felt a slight vanity that all this conventional ceremonial was addressed to him. But it bored him just the same.

Finally, with an impressive gesture, Colonel Servin stepped forward with the small pasteboard box which held the medal. General Chao nudged Villa, who stood up. The officers applauded violently; the crowd outside cheered; the band in the court burst into a triumphant march.

Villa put out both hands eagerly, like a child for a new toy. He could hardly wait to open the box and see what was inside. An expectant hush fell upon everyone, even the crowd in the square. Villa looked at the medal, scratching his head, and, in a reverent silence, said clearly: "This is a hell of a little thing to give a man for all that heroism you are talking about!" And the bubble of Empire was pricked then and there with a great shout of laughter.

The passage as a whole suggests that Pancho Vila was ­__________ by the Mexican people.

Possible Answers:

embarrassed

impressed

intrigued

disgusted

beloved

Correct answer:

beloved

Explanation:

The passage as a whole emphasizes how much the Mexican people loved Pancho Villa. Everyone who speaks in the passage refers to Villa in beloved or respectful language, as an example, the general says that “The army adores you. We will follow you wherever you lead. You can be what you desire in Mexico." You might have thought that embarrassed was the correct answer because the author references on a couple of occasions that Villa is embarrassed by the occasion. But, it is important to understand that Pancho Villa feels embarrassment at the formality of the ceremony not about the Mexican people themselves. There is no implicit or explicit reference to suggest that Villa was disgusted, intrigued or impressed by the Mexican people.

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

The following excerpt is from Act 2 of a play titled The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

[Enter Gwendolen.]

CECILY: Pray let me introduce myself to you. My name is Cecily Cardew.

GWENDOLEN. Cecily Cardew? [Moving to her and shaking hands.] What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say.

CECILY. How nice of you to like me so much after we have known each other such a comparatively short time.

GWENDOLEN. You are here on a short visit, I suppose.

CECILY. Oh no! I live here.

GWENDOLEN. Really? Your mother, no doubt, or some female relative of advanced years, resides here also?

CECILY. Oh no! I have no mother, nor, in fact, any relations.

GWENDOLEN. Indeed?

CECILY. My dear guardian has the arduous task of looking after me.

GWENDOLEN. Your guardian?

CECILY. Yes, I am Mr. Worthing's ward.

GWENDOLEN. Oh! It is strange he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. I am not sure, however, that the news inspires me with feelings of unmixed delight. I am very fond of you, Cecily; I have liked you ever since I met you! But I am bound to state that now that I know that you are Mr. Worthing's ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were--well, just a little older than you seem to be--and not quite so very alluring in appearance. In fact, if I may speak candidly, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age. Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible moral character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others.

CECILY. I beg your pardon, Gwendolen, did you say Ernest?

Gwendolen. Yes.

CECILY. Oh, but it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother--his elder brother.

GWENDOLEN. Ernest never mentioned to me that he had a brother. Cecily, you have lifted a load from my mind. I was growing almost anxious. It would have been terrible if any cloud had come across a friendship like ours, would it not? Of course you are quite, quite sure that it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is your guardian?

CECILY. Quite sure. [A pause.] In fact, I am going to be his. Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you. Our little county newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.

GWENDOLEN. [Quite politely, rising.] My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.

CECILY. [Very politely, rising.] I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago.

GWENDOLEN. It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. I am so sorry, dear Cecily, if it is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.

CECILY. It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.

 

What is the main conflict that arises in this scene?

Possible Answers:

Gwendolen is late to meet her sister.

Cecily is not as old as Gwendolen had expected.

Cecily has no mother.

Gwendolen and Cecily have never met before.

Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are both engaged to be married to the same man.

Correct answer:

Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are both engaged to be married to the same man.

Explanation:

In the final few lines of the excerpt, Cecily reveals to Gwendolen that "Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married." Gwendolen responds that "there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me." The two then argue over who is actually engaged to Ernest Worthing.

Although Gwendolen and Cecily have never met, and Cecily does not have a mother, these two points do not cause conflict in this scene. 

Example Question #1 : Content Of Literary Fiction Passages

The following passage is adapted from The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, first published in 1920.

I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month's sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though, I had often stayed at Styles, his mother's place in Essex.

We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting me down to Styles to spend my leave there.

"The mater will be delighted to see you again—after all those years," he added.

"Your mother keeps well?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?"

I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John's father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.

Their country-place, Styles Court, had been purchased by Mr. Cavendish early in their married life. He had been completely under his wife's ascendancy, so much so that, on dying, he left the place to her for her lifetime, as well as the larger part of his income; an arrangement that was distinctly unfair to his two sons. Their step-mother, however, had always been most generous to them; indeed, they were so young at the time of their father's remarriage that they always thought of her as their own mother.

Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.

John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down to the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance, which would have enabled him to have a home of his own. Mrs. Cavendish, however, was a lady who liked to make her own plans, and expected other people to fall in with them, and in this case she certainly had the whip hand, namely: the purse strings.

John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother's remarriage and smiled rather ruefully.

"Rotten little bounder too!" he said savagely. "I can tell you, Hastings, it's making life jolly difficult for us."

What is the main reason the Cavendish sons are upset about their stepmother’s remarriage?

Possible Answers:

They no longer are able to spend as much time with their stepmother.

They are worried they will not receive their father’s inheritance.

The new husband likes to control and manipulate people.

The new husband is miserable and unpleasant.

Styles Court was already crowded, and now there is an extra person.

Correct answer:

They are worried they will not receive their father’s inheritance.

Explanation:

The only answers that could be supported by the information in the text are “They are worried they will not receive their father's inheritance" and "The new husband is miserable and unpleasant." However, since the narrator spends almost four paragraphs describing the financial situation of the family, the emphasis is on the inheritence rather than the new husband's personality.

Example Question #4 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from a book by Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) (1909)

In this excerpt from an autobiographical essay, the author describes her experiences as growing up in Victorian England.

When I look back over the years I see myself, a little child of scarcely four years of age, walking in front of my nurse, in a green English lane, and listening to her tell another of her kind that my mother is Chinese. “Oh Lord!” exclaims the informed. She turns around and scans me curiously from head to foot. Then the two women whisper together. Though the word “Chinese” conveys very little meaning to my mind, I feel that they are talking about my father and mother and my heart swells with indignation. When we reach home I rush to my mother and try to tell her what I have heard. I am a young child. I fail to make myself intelligible. My mother does not understand, and when the nurse declares to her, “Little Miss Sui is a story-teller,” my mother slaps me. 

Many a long year has passed over my head since that day—the day on which I first learned I was something different and apart from other children, but though my mother has forgotten it, I have not. I see myself again, a few years older. I am playing with another child in a garden. A girl passes by outside the gate. “Mamie,” she cries to my companion. “I wouldn’t speak to Sui if I were you. Her mamma is Chinese.”

“I don’t care,” answers the little one beside me. And then to me, “Even if your mamma is Chinese, I like you better than I like Annie.”

“But I don’t like you,” I answer, turning my back on her. It is my first conscious lie.

I am at a children’s party, given by the wife of an Indian officer whose children were schoolfellows of mine. I am only six years of age, but have attended a private school for over a year, and have already learned that China is a heathen country, being civilized by England. However, for the time being, I am a merry romping child. There are quite a number of grown people present. One, a white-haired old man, has his attention called to me by the hostess. He adjusts his eyeglasses and surveys me critically. “Ah, indeed!” he exclaims. “Who would have thought it at first glance? Yet now I see the difference between her and other children. What a peculiar coloring! Her mother’s eyes and hair and her father’s features, I presume. Very interesting little creature!”

I had been called from play for the purpose of inspection. I do not return to it. For the rest of the evening I hide myself behind a hall door and refuse to show myself until it is time to go home.

The main purpose of this passage is to illustrate __________.

Possible Answers:

the growth of a writer

multiethnic tensions in the British Empire

the development of cultural awareness

the emotional effects of prejudice

the tactlessness of children

Correct answer:

the emotional effects of prejudice

Explanation:

The passage only briefly touches upon the British Empire, it does not discuss Sui's later career as a writer, and adults are just as tactless towards Sui as children. The passage does show the development of Sui's awareness; however, by the end of the passage, she still doesn't appear to have a strong understanding of English or of Chinese culture. She does gain an awareness that because she is of mixed ethnicity, she is "different and apart from other children," and she is clearly made unhappy by the way others treat her.

Example Question #7 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from a book by Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) (1909)

In this excerpt from an autobiographical essay, the author describes her experiences as growing up in Victorian England.

When I look back over the years I see myself, a little child of scarcely four years of age, walking in front of my nurse, in a green English lane, and listening to her tell another of her kind that my mother is Chinese. “Oh Lord!” exclaims the informed. She turns around and scans me curiously from head to foot. Then the two women whisper together. Though the word “Chinese” conveys very little meaning to my mind, I feel that they are talking about my father and mother and my heart swells with indignation. When we reach home I rush to my mother and try to tell her what I have heard. I am a young child. I fail to make myself intelligible. My mother does not understand, and when the nurse declares to her, “Little Miss Sui is a story-teller,” my mother slaps me. 

Many a long year has passed over my head since that day—the day on which I first learned I was something different and apart from other children, but though my mother has forgotten it, I have not. I see myself again, a few years older. I am playing with another child in a garden. A girl passes by outside the gate. “Mamie,” she cries to my companion. “I wouldn’t speak to Sui if I were you. Her mamma is Chinese.”

“I don’t care,” answers the little one beside me. And then to me, “Even if your mamma is Chinese, I like you better than I like Annie.”

“But I don’t like you,” I answer, turning my back on her. It is my first conscious lie.

I am at a children’s party, given by the wife of an Indian officer whose children were schoolfellows of mine. I am only six years of age, but have attended a private school for over a year, and have already learned that China is a heathen country, being civilized by England. However, for the time being, I am a merry romping child. There are quite a number of grown people present. One, a white-haired old man, has his attention called to me by the hostess. He adjusts his eyeglasses and surveys me critically. “Ah, indeed!” he exclaims. “Who would have thought it at first glance? Yet now I see the difference between her and other children. What a peculiar coloring! Her mother’s eyes and hair and her father’s features, I presume. Very interesting little creature!”

I had been called from play for the purpose of inspection. I do not return to it. For the rest of the evening I hide myself behind a hall door and refuse to show myself until it is time to go home.

The old man's scrutiny of Sui may best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

benevolent

impartial

demeaning

dilatory

appraising

Correct answer:

demeaning

Explanation:

"Dilatory," which means sluggish, makes no sense in this context. Since it's clear he regards Sui more as an object of curiosity than as a person, even refering to her as a "creature," he is certainly not being benevolent, and he is being demeaning. Since his comments show prejudice, he is not "impartial," and since he doesn't attempt to evaluate her worth, he is not "appraising."

Example Question #4 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage 1: Questions 1-7 refer to the following passage, which is adapted from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), 1889, by Jerome K. Jerome.

There were four of us—George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.  We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were—bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it.  Harris said he felt such extraordinary fits of giddiness come over him at times, that he hardly knew what he was doing; and then George said that he had fits of giddiness too, and hardly knew what he was doing.  With me, it was my liver that was out of order.  I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order.  I had them all.

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form.  The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was.  I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally.  I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages.  I came to typhoid fever—read the symptoms—discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it—wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance—found, as I expected, that I had that too,—began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically—read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight.  Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years.  Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with.  I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight.  Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee?  Why this invidious reservation?  After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed.  I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee.  Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood.  There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

The passage primarily describes how the narrator __________.

Possible Answers:

is a medical oddity, simultaneously having every known disease

imagines he has almost every disease whose description of symptoms he reads

often feels nervous and giddy

bonds with his friends by complaining about things

Correct answer:

imagines he has almost every disease whose description of symptoms he reads

Explanation:

The narrator does not actually have every disease he describes. The paragraph 3 line “seems in every case” and words like “evidently” tip the reader off. While he does mention feeling nervous and giddy, and complains about his liver with his friends, these details are not the primary focus of the passage.

Example Question #5 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

The questions for this problem set are all based off the following passage, excerpted from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens:

Miss Havisham beckoned her to come close, and took up a jewel from the table, and tried its effect upon her fair young bosom and against her pretty brown hair. "Your own, one day, my dear, and you will use it well. Let me see you play cards with this boy."

"With this boy? Why, he is a common laboring boy!"

I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer—only it seemed so unlikely—"Well? You can break his heart."

"What do you play, boy?" asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.

"Nothing but beggar my neighbor, miss."

"Beggar him," said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards.

It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust.

"He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!" said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. "And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!"

I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural, when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong; and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy.

"You say nothing of her," remarked Miss Havisham to me, as she looked on. "She says many hard things of you, but you say nothing of her. What do you think of her?"

"I don't like to say," I stammered.

"Tell me in my ear," said Miss Havisham, bending down.

"I think she is very proud," I replied, in a whisper.

"Anything else?"

"I think she is very pretty."

"Anything else?"

"I think she is very insulting." (She was looking at me then with a look of supreme aversion.)

"Anything else?"

"I think I should like to go home."

"And never see her again, though she is so pretty?"

"I am not sure that I shouldn't like to see her again, but I should like to go home now."

"You shall go soon," said Miss Havisham, aloud. "Play the game out."

Saving for the one weird smile at first, I should have felt almost sure that Miss Havisham's face could not smile. It had dropped into a watchful and brooding expression—most likely when all the things about her had become transfixed—and it looked as if nothing could ever lift it up again. Her chest had dropped, so that she stooped; and her voice had dropped, so that she spoke low, and with a dead lull upon her; altogether, she had the appearance of having dropped body and soul, within and without, under the weight of a crushing blow.

I played the game to an end with Estella, and she beggared me. She threw the cards down on the table when she had won them all, as if she despised them for having been won of me.

"When shall I have you here again?" said Miss Havisham. "Let me think."

I was beginning to remind her that to-day was Wednesday, when she checked me with her former impatient movement of the fingers of her right hand.

"There, there! I know nothing of days of the week; I know nothing of weeks of the year. Come again after six days. You hear?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Estella, take him down. Let him have something to eat, and let him roam and look about him while he eats. Go, Pip."

I followed the candle down, as I had followed the candle up, and she stood it in the place where we had found it. Until she opened the side entrance, I had fancied, without thinking about it, that it must necessarily be night-time. The rush of the daylight quite confounded me, and made me feel as if I had been in the candlelight of the strange room many hours.

"You are to wait here, you boy," said Estella; and disappeared and closed the door.

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favorable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

What is the author's purpose in describing his boots and knowledge of playing cards?

Possible Answers:

To illustrate what kind of work he did

To show that they were low-class

The author had a very strong interest in shoes and playing cards

To provide reasons for why he had lost the game with Estella

To provide examples of things which he had been unaware of before but was embarassed of after the day's events

Correct answer:

To provide examples of things which he had been unaware of before but was embarassed of after the day's events

Explanation:

It introduces those things that had never troubled the narrator before his encounter with Estella, but began to afterwards.

Example Question #3 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from "The Sisters" in Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window, and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me, "I am not long for this world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word “paralysis.” It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word “gnomon” in the Euclid and the word “simony” in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion . . ."

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms, but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

"I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases . . . But it's hard to say . . ."

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:

"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation, so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."

"God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me, but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

How does the narrator react to the news of Father Flynn’s death?

Possible Answers:

The narrator hides his emotions about the death of Father Flynn.

He is openly shocked.

He fears for his own life.

He is both afraid and intrigued.

He weeps openly.

Correct answer:

The narrator hides his emotions about the death of Father Flynn.

Explanation:

When the narrator is first told of Father Flynn's death, he withholds his reaction: "I knew that I was under observation, so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me," he says in paragraph twelve. In the passage's last paragraph, he writes, "Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me, but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate." Based on these quotations, we can tell that the narrator hides his emotions about the death of Father Flynn. None of the other answer choices are supported by the passage; "He is both afraid and intrigued" could describe the narrator's reaction to the dying man's paralysis, but not his reaction to hearing the news of Father Flynn's death.

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from "The Sisters" in Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window, and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me, "I am not long for this world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word “paralysis.” It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word “gnomon” in the Euclid and the word “simony” in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion . . ."

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms, but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

"I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases . . . But it's hard to say . . ."

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:

"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation, so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."

"God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me, but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

The relationship between Old Cotter and the narrator can best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

openly caustic

cordial and playful

competitive

one of mutual admiration

polite but strained

Correct answer:

polite but strained

Explanation:

What does the passage tell us about how the narrator interacts with Old Cotter? We know that the narrator gets frustrated with Old Cotter when he doesn't finish his sentences in paragraphs two through five: "Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms, but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery." We also know that the narrator purposely doesn't react to the news of Father Flynn's death, which Old Cotter has brought, as in paragraph twelve, he says, "I knew that I was under observation, so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me." We see how Old Cotter reacts to the narrator's lack of reaction in the passage's last paragraph: "Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me, but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate." 

Old Cotter and the narrator are clearly not friendly towards each other, so we can eliminate the answer choices "one of mutual admiration" and "cordial and playful." This leaves us with three potential answer choices: "competitive," "openly caustic," and "polite but strained." Nothing in the passage suggests that the two characters are competitive, so we can eliminate that answer. As for choosing between "openly caustic" and "polite but strained," the narrator never verbally insults Old Cotter—he reports to readers that Old Cotter is a "tiresome old fool," but he doesn't say anything while Old Cotter is speaking. Similarly, Old Cotter's most antagonistic action is "[spitting] rudely into the grate"; he never openly antagonizes the narrator. The tension between these two characters is present beneath the surface of the scene's actions, so the best answer choice is "polite but strained."

Example Question #7 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from "The Sisters" in Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window, and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me, "I am not long for this world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word “paralysis.” It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word “gnomon” in the Euclid and the word “simony” in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion . . ."

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms, but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

"I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases . . . But it's hard to say . . ."

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:

"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation, so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."

"God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me, but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

What effect has the third stroke had on the dying man described in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

It has resulted in him being partially or completely unable to move.

It has made him unable to keep food down without being sick.

It has made him deaf.

It has given him amnesia.

It has blinded him.

Correct answer:

It has resulted in him being partially or completely unable to move.

Explanation:

We can infer that the dying man is paralyzed because of the narrator's discussion of paralysis at the end of the first paragraph. Since paralysis is defined as the condition in which one is partially or completely unable to move, "It has resulted in him being partially or completely unable to move" is the correct answer. None of the other answer choices are mentioned in the passage.

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