AP English Literature : Interpreting Excerpts

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for AP English Literature

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Example Questions

Example Question #11 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from King Henry V by William Shakespeare (III.i.1092-1125)


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.

Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!

Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,

Have in these parts from morn till even fought

And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:

Dishonour not your mothers; now attest

That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.

Be copy now to men of grosser blood,

And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

The term "terrible aspect" most closely means what?

Possible Answers:

Ugly face

Unpleasant view

Melancholy look

Fearsome expression

Rude demeanor

Correct answer:

Fearsome expression


The "terrible aspect" is meant to intimidate the enemy, therefore "fearsome expression" makes the most sense contextually.

Example Question #4 : Meaning Of Specified Text: Drama

Adapted from Richard III by William Shakespeare, I.i.1-42

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

When he speaks of “dissembling nature,” underlined in the passage, the speaker is referring to __________.

Possible Answers:

tricking nature

a personification of nature

taking apart nature’s features systematically in order to better understand the natural world

the tendency of all people to lie under pressure

his own personality

Correct answer:

a personification of nature


While it may be tempting to pick the answer choice “his own personality” given that the narrator describes himself as “subtle, false and treacherous,” it is important to consider the context of the underlined phrase. “Dissembling nature” appears in the context of the lines, “I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion / Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time / Into this breathing world . . . “ By considering the context, you can see that the narrator is not describing “his own personality,” “tricking nature,” “the tendency of all people to lie under pressure,” or “taking apart nature’s features systematically in order to better understand the natural world”; he is instead referring to “a personification of nature.”

Example Question #12 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in Leaves of Grass (1855)


Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others. 

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams . . .

In line 6, the underlined phrase "The impalpable sustenance of me from all things” most closely refers to which of the following?

Possible Answers:

The speaker's literal hunger

The immaterial nourishment the speaker receives from the world around him

The speaker's fear that others in the world will not accept him

The speaker’s imminent disintegration and subsequent diffusion into the world around him

The speaker's belief that everything around him is being sustained by his own energy

Correct answer:

The immaterial nourishment the speaker receives from the world around him


The speaker's ("of me") "sustenance" is "impalpable" (immaterial), and he receives it "from all things."

Example Question #13 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from "The Mouse’s Petition" in Poems by Anna Letitia Barbauld (1773)

Found in the trap where he had been confined all night by Dr. Priestley, for the sake of making experiments with different kinds of air

“To spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud.” - Virgil


OH! hear a pensive captive's prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner's cries.

For here forlorn and sad I sit,

Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th' approaching morn,

Which brings impending fate.

If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,
And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

Oh! do not stain with guiltless blood
Thy hospitable hearth;
Nor triumph that thy wiles betray'd
A prize so little worth.

The scatter'd gleanings of a feast
My scanty meals supply;
But if thine unrelenting heart
That slender boon deny,

The cheerful light, the vital air,
Are blessings widely given;
Let nature's commoners enjoy
The common gifts of heaven.

The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.

If mind, as ancient sages taught,
A never dying flame,
Still shifts thro' matter's varying forms,
In every form the same,

Beware, lest in the worm you crush
A brother's soul you find;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand
Dislodge a kindred mind.

Or, if this transient gleam of day
Be all of life we share,
Let pity plead within thy breast,
That little all to spare.

So may thy hospitable board
With health and peace be crown'd;
And every charm of heartfelt ease
Beneath thy roof be found.

So when unseen destruction lurks,
Which men like mice may share,
May some kind angel clear thy path,
And break the hidden snare.

In context, "the common gifts of heaven" refers to what?

Possible Answers:

Freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness

Air, sunlight, and food

Freedom, joy, and Christian charity

Health, peace, and freedom

Air, sunlight, and books

Correct answer:

Air, sunlight, and food


In this context, "the common gifts of heaven" most directly refers to "the cheerful light, the vital air" and, as implied by the discussion of "feast[s]" in the stanza prior, food. The fact that sunlight and air are characterized so positively, as "cheerful" and "vital" makes clear that the speaker would consider them gifts. Sunlight and air are also obviously the most common of substances.

The poem is primarily concerned with the concept of freedom, but in this case the exact phrase "common gifts of heaven" refers to the even more elemental commonalities of earth. Charity and ethical consideration are also demanded by the speaker, but are not referred to directly by this specific phrase, these more abstract notions are not necessarily as "common gift of heaven" as air or sunlight. 

Example Question #14 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, III.i.1126-1185 (1623)

Enter Judges, Senators and Tribunes, with MARTIUS and QUINTUS, bound, passing on to the place of execution; TITUS going before, pleading

Titus Andronicus: Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay! 
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent 
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept; 
For all my blood in Rome's great quarrel shed; 
For all the frosty nights that I have watch'd;
And for these bitter tears, which now you see 
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks; 
Be pitiful to my condemned sons, 
Whose souls are not corrupted as 'tis thought. 
For two and twenty sons I never wept, 
Because they died in honor's lofty bed. 
[Lieth down; the Judges, &c., pass by him, and Exeunt] 
For these, these, tribunes, in the dust I write 
My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears: 
Let my tears stanch the earth's dry appetite; 
My sons' sweet blood will make it shame and blush. 
O earth, I will befriend thee more with rain, 
That shall distill from these two ancient urns, 
Than youthful April shall with all his showers: 
In summer's drought I'll drop upon thee still; 
In winter with warm tears I'll melt the snow 
And keep eternal spring-time on thy face, 
So thou refuse to drink my dear sons' blood. 
[Enter LUCIUS, with his sword drawn] 
O reverend tribunes! O gentle, aged men! 
Unbind my sons, reverse the doom of death; 
And let me say, that never wept before, 
My tears are now prevailing orators.

Lucius: O noble father, you lament in vain: 
The tribunes hear you not; no man is by;
And you recount your sorrows to a stone.

Titus Andronicus: Ah, Lucius, for thy brothers let me plead. 
Grave tribunes, once more I entreat of you,—

Lucius: My gracious lord, no tribune hears you speak.

Titus Andronicus: Why, tis no matter, man; if they did hear,

They would not mark me, or if they did mark, 

They would not pity me, yet plead I must; 

And bootless unto them [—] 

Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones; 

Who, though they cannot answer my distress, 

Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes, 

For that they will not intercept my tale: 

When I do weep, they humbly at my feet 

Receive my tears and seem to weep with me; 

And, were they but attired in grave weeds,

Rome could afford no tribune like to these. 

A stone is soft as wax,—tribunes more hard than stones; 

A stone is silent, and offendeth not, 

And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.
But wherefore stand'st thou with thy weapon drawn?

Lucius: To rescue my two brothers from their death: 
For which attempt the judges have pronounced 
My everlasting doom of banishment.

Titus Andronicus: O happy man! they have befriended thee.
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive 
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers? 
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey 
But me and mine: how happy art thou, then, 
From these devourers to be banished!

Which of the following most closely summarizes the bolded and underlined excerpt?

Possible Answers:

Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay attention, and if they did, they would not be sympathetic to him. Titus concludes that it is futile to plead, and agrees to stop.

Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay attention. He concludes by comparing the tribunes to devouring tigers.

Lucius warns his father that the tribunes may be listening. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay attention.

Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay attention, and if they did, they would not be sympathetic to him. Titus concludes that although it is futile he must plead to them, if they are present or not.

Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that he must continue to plead for his sons' lives in case the tribunes can hear him from a distance. 

Correct answer:

Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay attention, and if they did, they would not be sympathetic to him. Titus concludes that although it is futile he must plead to them, if they are present or not.


The most accurate summary of the indicated part of the passage is that Lucius tells his father that the tribunes he is addressing are no longer there. Titus then argues that it would not matter if the tribunes did hear because they would not pay him any attention ("mark me" in this context most closely means "pay heed to"), and if they did, they would not be sympathetic to (or "pity") him. Titus concludes that although it is futile, he must plead to them, whether they are present or not.

Lucius is not concerned that the tribunes may be listening, and Titus compares the tribunes to tigers later in the passage, not in the indicated excerpt.

Example Question #11 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.2199-2280, by William Shakespeare (1600)


PORTIA: It is so. Are there balance here to weigh

    The flesh?

  SHYLOCK: I have them ready.

  PORTIA: Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,

    To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.

  SHYLOCK: Is it so nominated in the bond?

  PORTIA: It is not so express'd, but what of that?

    'Twere good you do so much for charity.

  SHYLOCK: I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond.

  PORTIA. You, merchant, have you anything to say?

  ANTONIO: But little: I am arm'd and well prepar'd.

    Give me your hand, Bassanio; fare you well.

    Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you,

    For herein Fortune shows herself more kind

    Than is her custom. It is still her use

    To let the wretched man outlive his wealth,

    To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow

    An age of poverty; from which ling'ring penance

    Of such misery doth she cut me off.

    Commend me to your honorable wife;

    Tell her the process of Antonio's end;

    Say how I lov'd you; speak me fair in death;

    And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge

    Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

    Repent but you that you shall lose your friend,

    And he repents not that he pays your debt;

    For if the Jew do cut but deep enough,

    I'll pay it instantly with all my heart.

  BASSANIO: Antonio, I am married to a wife

    Which is as dear to me as life itself;

    But life itself, my wife, and all the world,

    Are not with me esteem'd above thy life;

    I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all

    Here to this devil, to deliver you.

  PORTIA: Your wife would give you little thanks for that,

    If she were by to hear you make the offer.

  GRATIANO: I have a wife who I protest I love;

    I would she were in heaven, so she could

    Entreat some power to change this currish Jew.

  NERISSA: 'Tis well you offer it behind her back;

    The wish would make else an unquiet house.

  SHYLOCK:  [Aside]  These be the Christian husbands! I have a


    Would any of the stock of Barrabas

    Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!—

    We trifle time; I pray thee pursue sentence.

  PORTIA: A pound of that same merchant's flesh is thine.

    The court awards it and the law doth give it.

  SHYLOCK: Most rightful judge!

  PORTIA: And you must cut this flesh from off his breast.

    The law allows it and the court awards it.

  SHYLOCK: Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare.

  PORTIA: Tarry a little; there is something else.

    This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood:

    The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.'

    Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;

    But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed

    One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

    Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate

    Unto the state of Venice.

  GRATIANO: O upright judge! Mark, Jew. O learned judge!

  SHYLOCK: Is that the law?

  PORTIA: Thyself shalt see the act;

    For, as thou urgest justice, be assur'd

    Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir'st.

  GRATIANO: O learned judge! Mark, Jew. A learned judge!

  SHYLOCK: I take this offer then: pay the bond thrice,

    And let the Christian go.

  BASSANIO: Here is the money.

  PORTIA: Soft!

    The Jew shall have all justice. Soft! No haste.

    He shall have nothing but the penalty.

  GRATIANO: O Jew! an upright judge, a learned judge!

  PORTIA: Therefore, prepare thee to cut off the flesh.

    Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more

    But just a pound of flesh; if thou tak'st more

    Or less than a just pound—be it but so much

    As makes it light or heavy in the substance,

    Or the division of the twentieth part

    Of one poor scruple; nay, if the scale do turn

    But in the estimation of a hair—

    Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

In the underlined passage, which of the following best describes what Portia indicates she believes Shylock should do?

Possible Answers:

Acknowledge the need for a doctor for the upcoming procedure

Cover the costs of a doctor for the upcoming procedure

Contact his doctor for advice on the upcoming procedure

Open a line of credit to pay for the doctor

Add the charge for the doctor for the upcoming procedure to Antonio's open line of credit

Correct answer:

Cover the costs of a doctor for the upcoming procedure


In this portion of dialogue, the characters are trying to find a way to protect Antonio from dying when he gives Shylock the promised "pound of flesh." Portia is insisting that Shylock should pay for a doctor to protect Antonio from any fatal consequences of this procedure.

Example Question #1 : Meaning Of Specified Text: Prose

Adapted from "The Convalescent" in Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb (1823)

To be sick is to enjoy monarchal prerogatives. Compare the silent tread, and quiet ministry, almost by the eye only, with which he is served—with the careless demeanor, the unceremonious goings in and out (slapping of doors, or leaving them open) of the very same attendants, when he is getting a little better—and you will confess, that from the bed of sickness (throne let me rather call it) to the elbow chair of convalescence, is a fall from dignity, amounting to a deposition.

How convalescence shrinks a man back to his pristine stature! Where is now the space, which he occupied so lately, in his own, in the family's eye? The scene of his regalities, his sick room, which was his presence chamber, where he lay and acted his despotic fancies—how is it reduced to a common bedroom! The trimness of the very bed has something petty and unmeaning about it. It is made every day. How unlike to that wavy, many-furrowed, oceanic surface, which it presented so short a time since, when to make it was a service not to be thought of at oftener than three or four day revolutions, when the patient was with pain and grief to be lifted for a little while out of it, to submit to the encroachments of unwelcome neatness, and decencies which his shaken frame deprecated; then to be lifted into it again, for another three or four days' respite, to flounder it out of shape again, while every fresh furrow was a historical record of some shifting posture, some uneasy turning, some seeking for a little ease; and the shrunken skin scarce told a truer story than the crumpled coverlid

Hushed are those mysterious sighs—those groans—so much more awful, while we knew not from what caverns of vast hidden suffering they proceeded. The Lernean pangs are quenched. The riddle of sickness is solved; and Philoctetes is become an ordinary personage.

Perhaps some relic of the sick man's dream of greatness survives in the still lingering visitations of the medical attendant. But how is he too changed with everything else! Can this be he--this man of news—of chat—of anecdote—of everything but physic—can this be he, who so lately came between the patient and his cruel enemy, as on some solemn embassy from Nature, erecting herself into a high mediating party? Pshaw! 'Tis some old woman.

Farewell with him all that made sickness pompous—the spell that hushed the household—the desert-like stillness, felt throughout its inmost chambers—the mute attendance—the inquiry by looks—the still softer delicacies of self-attention—the sole and single eye of distemper alonely fixed upon itself—world-thoughts excluded—the man a world unto himself—his own theatre—What a speck is he dwindled into!

In context, which of the following is closest in meaning to the underlined and bolded phrase "pristine stature"?

Possible Answers:

Regal power

Realistic self-evaluation

Inflated self-importance

Earlier height

Delusional imagination

Correct answer:

Realistic self-evaluation


Lamb is talking about how illness creates a bubble of self-absorption, which is "popped" by recovery (or "convalescence"). Recovery shrinks us back to pre-sickness levels of self-importance, in which we are forced to stop thinking solely about ourselves and are no longer the recipient of intense care and respectful attention from others.

Example Question #11 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from "The Windhover" in Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918)

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

What does the underlined selection mean?

Possible Answers:

A buckle is a metaphor for the action of the bird in flight.

The windhover's flying unites many qualities into one swift act.

The windhover buckles under the wind, despite its excellent flying abilities. 

The windhover is more beautiful when flying than at rest.

The windhover is brave to face such a big wind and represents the superiority of nature.

Correct answer:

The windhover's flying unites many qualities into one swift act.


Hopkins sees the swoop of the windhover a symbolic act, uniting the most glorious acts and eliciting the highest emotions. He sees it as representing transcendent glory.

Example Question #1 : New Sat Reading

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.”

When the author uses the phrase “unalloyed gratulation,” underlined in the third paragraph, he means __________.

Possible Answers:

suspicious concern

unreserved celebration

absolute frustration

untested ideas

careful cataloguing

Correct answer:

unreserved celebration


The author uses the phrase “unalloyed gratulation” in the following sentence:

“another peddler . . . 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.”

So, what’s going on in this sentence? The author is discussing how the criminals who are the subjects of the books being hawked to the passengers have all been “exterminated” like wolves, “leaving comparatively few successors.” He then says that this “would seem cause for unalloyed gratulation.” Which of the answer choices would make sense as a response by the general public to criminals being captured and killed? “Ideas,” “frustration,” and “concern” don’t make sense, so we can ignore the answer choices “untested ideas,” “absolute frustration,” and “suspicious concern.” This leaves us with “careful cataloguing” and “unreserved celebration.” At this point, we need to focus on the last part of the sentence, where the author says, “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.” So, everyone experiences “unalloyed gratulation” except for the people who think that after the wolves are gone, the foxes increase. Given that the wolves have been compared with criminals in the passage, foxes get a negative connotation as a sneaky animal taking the wolves’ place. The people believing the foxes increase seem to not be as happy about the criminals being captured as those experiencing “unalloyed gratulation,” suggesting that “careful cataloguing” is not the answer, and “unreserved celebration” is. After all, whether or not you thought more criminals would spring up, that would have nothing to do with “careful cataloguing,” but believing more criminals would show up would feasibly stop someone from celebrating unreservedly.

Example Question #18 : Excerpt Meaning In Context

Adapted from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

In the fullness of time the interesting occasion arrived. At eight in the evening the schoolhouse was brilliantly lighted, and adorned with wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers. The master sat throned in his great chair upon a raised platform, with his blackboard behind him. He was looking tolerably mellow. Three rows of benches on each side and six rows in front of him were occupied by the dignitaries of the town and by the parents of the pupils. To his left, back of the rows of citizens, was a spacious temporary platform upon which were seated the scholars who were to take part in the exercises of the evening; rows of small boys, washed and dressed to an intolerable state of discomfort; rows of gawky big boys; snowbanks of girls and young ladies clad in lawn and muslin and conspicuously conscious of their bare arms, their grandmothers' ancient trinkets, their bits of pink and blue ribbon and the flowers in their hair. All the rest of the house was filled with non-participating scholars.

The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly recited, "You'd scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage," etc.—accompanying himself with the painfully exact and spasmodic gestures that a machine might have used—supposing the machine to be a trifle out of order. But he got through safely, though cruelly scared, and got a fine round of applause when he made his manufactured bow and retired.

A little shamefaced girl lisped, "Mary had a little lamb," etc., performed a compassion-inspiring curtsy, got her meed of applause, and sat down flushed and happy.

Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into the unquenchable and indestructible "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the middle of it. A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house, but he had the house's silence, too, which was even worse than its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom struggled a while and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak attempt at applause, but it died early.

"The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" followed; also "The Assyrian Came Down," and other declamatory gems. Then there were reading exercises, and a spelling fight. The meager Latin class recited with honor. The prime feature of the evening was in order, now—original "compositions" by the young ladies. Each in her turn stepped forward to the edge of the platform, cleared her throat, held up her manuscript (tied with dainty ribbon), and proceeded to read, with labored attention to "expression" and punctuation. The themes were the same that had been illuminated upon similar occasions by their mothers before them, their grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the Crusades. "Friendship" was one; "Memories of Other Days"; "Religion in History"; "Dream Land"; "The Advantages of Culture"; "Forms of Political Government Compared and Contrasted"; "Melancholy"; "Filial Love"; "Heart Longings," etc., etc.

A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of "fine language"; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brainracking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient today; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable. 

The underlined phrase "a nursed and petted melancholy" in the last paragraph primarily suggests that the compositions are __________.

Possible Answers:

skillfully delivered 

carefully prepared by the students

exclusively works of tragedy

practiced and artificial 

unintentionally melancholy 

Correct answer:

practiced and artificial 


The correct answer is "practiced and artificial." The author describes the compositions as "nursed" and "petted" to convey to the reader that the melancholy tone of the compositions is imitative and rehearsed.

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