ACT Reading : Analyzing Sequence in Prose Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ACT Reading

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Example Question #21 : Analyzing Sequence In Prose Fiction Passages

The passage is adapted from the first chapter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Rodney Stone (1896).

 On this, the first of January of the year 1851, the nineteenth century has reached its midway term, and many of us who shared its youth have already warnings which tell us that it has outworn us. We put our grizzled heads together, we older ones, and we talk of the great days that we have known; but we find that when it is with our children that we talk it is a hard matter to make them understand. We and our fathers before us lived much the same life, but they with their railway trains and their steamboats belong to a different age. It is true that we can put history-books into their hands, and they can read from them of our weary struggle of two and twenty years with that great and evil man. They can learn how Freedom fled from the whole broad continent, and how Nelson’s blood was shed, and Pitt’s noble heart was broken in striving that she should not pass us for ever to take refuge with our brothers across the Atlantic. All this they can read, with the date of this treaty or that battle, but I do not know where they are to read of ourselves, of the folk we were, and the lives we led, and how the world seemed to our eyes when they were young as theirs are now.

If I take up my pen to tell you about this, you must not look for any story at my hands, for I was only in my earliest manhood when these things befell; and although I saw something of the stories of other lives, I could scarce claim one of my own. It is the love of a woman that makes the story of a man, and many a year was to pass before I first looked into the eyes of the mother of my children. To us it seems but an affair of yesterday, and yet those children can now reach the plums in the garden whilst we are seeking for a ladder, and where we once walked with their little hands in ours, we are glad now to lean upon their arms. But I shall speak of a time when the love of a mother was the only love I knew, and if you seek for something more, then it is not for you that I write. But if you would come out with me into that forgotten world; if you would know Boy Jim and Champion Harrison; if you would meet my father, one of Nelson’s own men; if you would catch a glimpse of that great seaman himself, and of George, afterwards the unworthy King of England; if, above all, you would see my famous uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis, the King of the Bucks, and the great fighting men whose names are still household words amongst you, then give me your hand and let us start.

But I must warn you also that, if you think you will find much that is of interest in your guide, you are destined to disappointment. When I look over my bookshelves, I can see that it is only the wise and witty and valiant who have ventured to write down their experiences. For my own part, if I were only assured that I was as clever and brave as the average man about me, I should be well satisfied. Men of their hands have thought well of my brains, and men of brains of my hands, and that is the best that I can say of myself. Save in the one matter of having an inborn readiness for music, so that the mastery of any instrument comes very easily and naturally to me, I cannot recall any single advantage which I can boast over my fellows. In all things I have been a half-way man, for I am of middle height, my eyes are neither blue nor grey, and my hair, before Nature dusted it with her powder, was betwixt flaxen and brown. I may, perhaps, claim this: that through life I have never felt a touch of jealousy as I have admired a better man than myself, and that I have always seen all things as they are, myself included, which should count in my favour now that I sit down in my mature age to write my memories. With your permission, then, we will push my own personality as far as possible out of the picture. If you can conceive me as a thin and colourless cord upon which my would-be pearls are strung, you will be accepting me upon the terms which I should wish.

The narrator claims that all of the following happened within his lifetime EXCEPT __________.

Possible Answers:

a decades-long war

becoming estranged from his father's generation

a King of England being crowned

the popularization of the railway system

his children growing to adulthood

Correct answer:

becoming estranged from his father's generation


In the first paragraph, the narrator states that "We and our fathers before us lived much the same life," suggesting that the narrator's mode of life was similar to that of his father. He specifically did NOT claim estrangement from his father's generation, though he does state that he feels his own children's generation have a wildly different way of life than his own.

Example Question #251 : Prose Fiction

Passage adapted from Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1899). 

He was the only man of us who still "followed the sea." The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.

In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.

For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

Within the passage, the main purpose of the third paragraph is to __________.

Possible Answers:

Provide a background of the narrator's journey 

Cast aspersions on working class people for being unintelligent 

Bely the narrator's distrust of the seamen 

Explain how sailing legends originated 

Introduce a contrast between the simplicty of the seamen and Marlow's complex worldview suggested by the way he tells stories 

Correct answer:

Introduce a contrast between the simplicty of the seamen and Marlow's complex worldview suggested by the way he tells stories 


The narrator is not being overly negative towards other seamen, but in the third paragraph he introduces the idea that most sailor's are simplistic, which he contrasts to Marlow's deep understanding of events in the following paragraph. There is no content in the paragraph referencing the narrator's background, or even his personality.

Example Question #251 : Prose Fiction

Passage adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891)

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature. He was still, as ever, deeply attracted by the study of crime, and occupied his immense faculties and extraordinary powers of observation in following out those clues, and clearing up those mysteries which had been abandoned as hopeless by the official police. From time to time I heard some vague account of his doings: of his summons to Odessa in the case of the Trepoff murder, of his clearing up of the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee, and finally of the mission which he had accomplished so delicately and successfully for the reigning family of Holland. Beyond these signs of his activity, however, which I merely shared with all the readers of the daily press, I knew little of my former friend and companion.

One night—it was on the twentieth of March, 1888—I was returning from a journey to a patient (for I had now returned to civil practice), when my way led me through Baker Street. As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the Study in Scarlet, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers. His rooms were brilliantly lit, and, even as I looked up, I saw his tall, spare figure pass twice in a dark silhouette against the blind. He was pacing the room swiftly, eagerly, with his head sunk upon his chest and his hands clasped behind him. To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story. He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem. I rang the bell and was shown up to the chamber which had formerly been in part my own.

His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion.

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

“Seven!” I answered.

“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?”

“My dear Holmes,” said I, “this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can’t imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out.”

Which of the following puts events decribed in the passage in chronological order?

Possible Answers:

The narrator marries his current wife, the narrator walks down Baker Street, the narrator and Sherlock work on The Study in Scarlet, the narrator speaks with Sherlock about married life 

None of these answers are correct

The narrator speaks with Sherlock about married life, the narrator marries his current wife, the narrator walks down Baker Street, the narrator and Sherlock work on The Study in Scarlet

The narrator and Sherlock work on The Study in Scarlet, the narrator marries his current wife, the narrator walks down Baker Street, the narrator speaks with Sherlock about married life 

The narrator marries his current wife, the narrator walks down Baker Street, the narrator speaks with Sherlock about married life, the narrator and Sherlock work on The Study in Scarlet

Correct answer:

The narrator and Sherlock work on The Study in Scarlet, the narrator marries his current wife, the narrator walks down Baker Street, the narrator speaks with Sherlock about married life 


The only event in the sequence without a clear relation is The Study in Scarlet. Yet, we can infer that this occurred before the narrator's marriage, since he hasn't spent much time with Sherlock since then. 

Example Question #22 : Analyzing Sequence In Prose Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland (1911). 

Elizabeth's long braids had been always attractive to the masculine eye; they had suggested jokes about pigtails, and much of that peculiar humor so pleasing to the young male; but the summer that she "put up her hair," the puppies, so to speak, got their eyes open. When the boys saw those soft plaits, no longer hanging within easy reach of a rude and teasing hand, but folded around her head behind her little ears; when they saw the small curls breaking over and through the brown braids that were flecked with gilt, and the stray locks, like feathers of spun silk, clustering in the nape of her neck; when David and Blair saw these things—it was about the time their voices were showing amazing and ludicrous register—something below the artless brutalities of the boys' sense of humor was touched. They took abruptly their first perilous step out of boyhood. Of course they did not know it…. The significant moment came one afternoon when they all  (10)went out to the toll-house for ice-cream.

There was a little delay at the gate, while the boys wrangled as to who should stand treat. "I'll pull straws with you," said Blair; Blair's pleasant, indolent mind found the appeal to chance the easiest way to settle things, but he was always good-natured when, as now, the verdict was against him. "Come on," he commanded, gayly, "I'll shell out!" Mrs. Todd, who had begun to dispense pink and brown ice-cream, for them when they were very little children, winked and nodded as they all came in together, and made a jocose remark about "handsome couples"; then she trundled off to get the ice-cream, leaving them in the saloon. This "saloon" was an ell of the toll-house; it opened on a little garden, from which a flight of rickety steps led down to a float where half a dozen skiffs were tied up, waiting to be hired. In warm weather, when the garden was blazing with fragrant color, Mrs. Todd would permit favored patrons to put their small tables out among the  (20)marigolds and zinnias and sit and eat and talk.

The saloon itself had Nottingham-lace window-curtains, and crewel texts enjoining remembrance of the Creator, and calling upon Him to "bless our home." The tables, with marble tops translucent from years of spilled ice cream, had each a worsted mat, on which was a glass vase full of blue paper roses; on the ceiling there was a wonderful star of scalloped blue tissue-paper—ostensibly to allure flies, but hanging there winter and summer, year in and year out. Between the windows that looked out on the river stood a piano, draped with a festooning scarf of bandanna handkerchiefs. These things seemed to Blair, at this stage of his esthetic development, very satisfying, and part of his pleasure in "treating" came from his surroundings; he used to look about him enviously, thinking of the terrible dining-room at home; and on sunny days he used to look, with even keener pleasure, at the reflected ripple of light, striking up from the river below, and moving  (30)endlessly across the fly-specked ceiling.

Watching the play of moving light, he would put his tin spoon into his tumbler of ice-cream and taste the snowy mixture with a slow prolongation of pleasure, while the two girls chattered like sparrows, and David listened, saying very little and always ready to let Elizabeth finish his ice-cream after she had devoured her own.

Within the passage, paragraph 2 serves to _________.

Possible Answers:

introduce the setting and suggest familiarity 

divert the reader's attention from an important plot point

resolve unanswered questions about the story's location

give the reader additional information about Mrs. Todd

heighten ongoing tension throughout the narrative 

Correct answer:

introduce the setting and suggest familiarity 


The second paragraph gives us an introduction to the ice cream parlor and suggests that the boys have visited quite often. There is little description of plot or characters, meaning it is likely included primarily to introduce a setting. 

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