SAT II Literature : Context-Based Meaning of a Word: Prose

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT II Literature

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Example Question #1 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.

Based on context, what is a “laburnum” (paragraph 2)?

Possible Answers:

A weed

A trellis

A dressing gown

A potion

A tree

Correct answer:

A tree

Explanation:

In paragraph 2, we see that the laburnum has “honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms” and “tremulous branches,” so we can conclude that it’s a small tree.

Passage adapted from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Example Question #2 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.

In context, what does “fantastic” most nearly mean (paragraph 2)?

Possible Answers:

Unbelievable

Magic

Phantasmagoric

Excellent

Unearthly

Correct answer:

Unearthly

Explanation:

While all of these words are synonyms for “fantastic,” only one fits the context. It doesn’t make sense that the narrator would describe the birds as unbelievable, since the garden and outside world clearly exists. It also doesn’t make sense that they would be described as phantasmagoric, which means ghostlike, or excellent, since there is nothing particularly ghoulish or great about them. Although magic isn’t a terrible choice, the birds aren’t technically endowed with supernatural powers. That leaves the best choice: unearthly.

Passage adapted from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Example Question #3 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Based on context, what is “spleen” (paragraph 1)?

Possible Answers:

Irritability

Winter weather

Vomit

Glee

Critics

Correct answer:

Irritability

Explanation:

“Spleen” is an old-fashioned term for anger or irritation. Elsewhere in the passage, we learn that the narrator takes to the sea in order to regulate various negative emotions, so it makes the most sense that spleen would be another of these emotions.

Passage adapted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Example Question #4 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Based on context, what does “insular” (paragraph 2) mean?

Possible Answers:

Commercial

Crowded

Isolated

Island-like

Foreign

Correct answer:

Island-like

Explanation:

We know that the city is “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs,” which implies that it is surrounded by water (“wharves” are docks or piers). Based on this fact and on the observation that Melville is discussing Manhattan, one can deduce that “insular” in this context means “having the characteristics of an island.”

Passage adapted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Example Question #5 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Based on context, what is a “ball” (paragraph 1)?

Possible Answers:

Manacle

Sport

Gala

Bullet

Weapon

Correct answer:

Bullet

Explanation:

We know that the “ball” in question goes with a pistol, and we know that the protagonist goes to sea to avoid having to use it with a pistol. Although one could guess generally that the “ball” has something to do with a weapon, surmising that it’s a bullet or other form of ammunition is more precise and correct.

Passage adapted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Example Question #6 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Based on context, what word would be the best synonym for “hypos” (paragraph 2)?

Possible Answers:

Fear of the ocean

Low self-esteem

Foul moods

Debtors

Intravenous medications

Correct answer:

Foul moods

Explanation:

While the prefix “hypo-” does mean low, it’s not the narrator’s self-esteem but rather his spirits that are low. Debtors, fear of the ocean, and medications aren’t alluded to in this passage. Therefore, the best choice for this question is foul moods.

Passage adapted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Example Question #7 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.

Based on context, what is “incredulity”?

Possible Answers:

Inquisitiveness

Skepticism

Astonishment

Faithlessness

Fright

Correct answer:

Skepticism

Explanation:

If we consider the parallel and opposite structure that Dickens is establishing in this first sentence, we can immediately guess that “incredulity” is the opposite of belief: in other words, skepticism.

Passage adapted from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Example Question #8 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.

Based on context, who are the “lords” in paragraph 2?

Possible Answers:

Ministers

Deposed monarchs

Farmers

Minor royalty

Peasants

Correct answer:

Ministers

Explanation:

We know that these “lords” are in charge of the “State preserves of loaves and fishes”; in other words, they are in charge of the country’s stockpiles of food. They likely don’t grow this food themselves, and they aren’t exactly royalty, so it stands to reason that they are ministers.

Passage adapted from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Example Question #9 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. …Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, nor so like barriers of separation from the living world; but yet quiet and lonely hills enough, and seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find existent so near the stirring locality of Millcote. A little hamlet, whose roofs were blent with trees, straggled up the side of one of these hills; the church of the district stood nearer Thornfield: its old tower-top looked over a knoll between the house and gates.

I was yet enjoying the calm prospect and pleasant fresh air, yet listening with delight to the cawing of the rooks, yet surveying the wide, hoary front of the hall, and thinking what a great place it was for one lonely little dame like Mrs. Fairfax to inhabit, when that lady appeared at the door.

“What! out already?” said she.  “I see you are an early riser.”  I went up to her, and was received with an affable kiss and shake of the hand.

(1847)

Based on context, what is a “rook” (paragraph 2)?

Possible Answers:

Breeze

Chess piece

Gossips

Bird

Battlements

Correct answer:

Bird

Explanation:

This inference is easy to make if you notice that the rooks are “cawing” (paragraph 2), something that only birds do. A rook is indeed a type of bird; specifically, it is a black crow. (However, it is also a chess piece in other contexts.)

Passage adapted from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. (1847)

Example Question #10 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. …Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, nor so like barriers of separation from the living world; but yet quiet and lonely hills enough, and seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find existent so near the stirring locality of Millcote. A little hamlet, whose roofs were blent with trees, straggled up the side of one of these hills; the church of the district stood nearer Thornfield: its old tower-top looked over a knoll between the house and gates.

I was yet enjoying the calm prospect and pleasant fresh air, yet listening with delight to the cawing of the rooks, yet surveying the wide, hoary front of the hall, and thinking what a great place it was for one lonely little dame like Mrs. Fairfax to inhabit, when that lady appeared at the door.

“What! out already?” said she.  “I see you are an early riser.”  I went up to her, and was received with an affable kiss and shake of the hand.

(1847)

Based on context, what does “affable” (paragraph 3) mean?

Possible Answers:

Mournful

Confrontational

Accusatory

Insipid

Congenial

Correct answer:

Congenial

Explanation:

Since Mrs. Fairfax greets the narrator with a kiss and shake of the hand, and since there is no other evidence to the contrary, we can presume that the greeting is a welcome one. The only choice that makes sense in this context is “congenial,” which is in fact a synonym for “affable.” Confrontational and accusatory are too aggressive choices, and insipid and mournful don’t have any contextual support.

Passage adapted from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. (1847)

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