Common Core: 12th Grade English Language Arts : Analyze authorial choices in terms of narrative development: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3

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Example Question #1 : Analyze Authorial Choices In Terms Of Narrative Development: Ccss.Ela Literacy.Rl.11 12.3

Adapted from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920)

It invariably happened in the same way.

Mrs. Julius Beaufort, on the night of her annual ball, never failed to appear at the Opera; indeed, she always gave her ball on an Opera night in order to emphasise her complete superiority to household cares, and her possession of a staff of servants competent to organise every detail of the entertainment in her absence.

The Beauforts' house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball–room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott's and the Headly Chiverses'); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought "provincial" to put a "crash" over the drawing–room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball–room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three–hundred–and–sixty–four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

Mrs. Archer, who was fond of coining her social philosophy into axioms, had once said: "We all have our pet common people—" and though the phrase was a daring one, its truth was secretly admitted in many an exclusive bosom. But the Beauforts were not exactly common; some people said they were even worse. Mrs. Beaufort belonged indeed to one of America's most honoured families; she had been the lovely Regina Dallas (of the South Carolina branch), a penniless beauty introduced to New York society by her cousin, the imprudent Medora Manson, who was always doing the wrong thing from the right motive. When one was related to the Mansons and the Rushworths one had a "droit de cite" (as Mr. Sillerton Jackson, who had frequented the Tuileries, called it) in New York society; but did one not forfeit it in marrying Julius Beaufort?

The question was: who was Beaufort? He passed for an Englishman, was agreeable, handsome, ill–tempered, hospitable and witty. He had come to America with letters of recommendation from old Mrs. Manson Mingott's English son–in–law, the banker, and had speedily made himself an important position in the world of affairs; but his habits were dissipated, his tongue was bitter, his antecedents were mysterious; and when Medora Manson announced her cousin's engagement to him it was felt to be one more act of folly in poor Medora's long record of imprudences.

But folly is as often justified of her children as wisdom, and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort's marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort's heavy brown–stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot–house flowers to grow for the dinner–table and the drawing–rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after–dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing–room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: "My wife's gloxinias are a marvel, aren't they? I believe she gets them out from Kew."

Mr. Beaufort's secret, people were agreed, was the way he carried things off. It was all very well to whisper that he had been "helped" to leave England by the international banking–house in which he had been employed; he carried off that rumour as easily as the rest—though New York's business conscience was no less sensitive than its moral standard—he carried everything before him, and all New York into his drawing–rooms, and for over twenty years now people had said they were "going to the Beauforts'" with the same tone of security as if they had said they were going to Mrs. Manson Mingott's, and with the added satisfaction of knowing they would get hot canvas–back ducks and vintage wines, instead of tepid Veuve Clicquot without a year and warmed–up croquettes from Philadelphia.

Mrs. Beaufort, then, had as usual appeared in her box just before the Jewel Song; and when, again as usual, she rose at the end of the third act, drew her opera cloak about her lovely shoulders, and disappeared, New York knew that meant that half an hour later the ball would begin.

What is the narrative impact of the opening sentence of this passage?

Possible Answers:

It begins the passage in media res

It sets up the expositional nature of the passage that follows it

None of these

It sets up the frame narrative used to structure the passage

Correct answer:

It sets up the expositional nature of the passage that follows it


In order to effectively answer this question, you need to not only analyze the highlighted sentence properly, but also be familiar with the literary vocabulary used in the answer choices. In media res refers to the technique of beginning a story in the middle of action, clearly there is not much action in this passage, and we can dismiss this answer choice. Frame narratives feature a fictional setting in which a story is told. One of the most notable examples of a frame narrative is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899). There is no indication of a frame narrative in this passage.

Now that we've eliminated these options, all we have to do is decide whether or not we feel that the highlighted sentence sets up a generally expositional passage. The sentence "it invariably happened the same way," as we can tell from the content following it, describes a recurring event or series of events, and the people involved. The primary purpose of the entire passage is to provide exposition about the Beauforts and their social status; the highlighted sentence, by introducing a customary event, sets the reader up for the exposition to come.

Example Question #1 : Reading: Literature

Passage adapted from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Spring" (1921).

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness 

Of leaves opening stickily.

I know what I know.  5

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death.

But what does that signify?  10

Not only under the ground are the brains of men

Eaten by maggots.

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.  15

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

What is the primary function of the poem's opening question?

Possible Answers:

The question's function is narrative; it sets up the mystery that the reader and speaker are attempting to solve

The question's function is rhetorical; since it is answered in the next line, it helps to make the author's perspective on the topic immediately clear

The question is functioning literally; it fulfills no narrative or aesthetic goal

The question's function is aesthetic; sets the tone of deep philosophical questioning that will follow

Correct answer:

The question's function is rhetorical; since it is answered in the next line, it helps to make the author's perspective on the topic immediately clear


This question asks you to analyze the function of a specific device, and delineate whether that function is narrative (moving the event of the plot forward (and yes, poems do have plots, just like works of fiction), aesthetic (placing the poem in a specific school or tradition, or providing a moment of artistic beauty), or rhetorical (setting up or supporting the ultimate argument of the poem (yes, poems also (often) have arguments, just like essays).

The key to answering this question was to look not only at the question specified but also at the statement that immediately follows. By following this opening question with a flat, blunt statement answering for the addressee (April, the month), the author is clearly not setting up a "mystery" or an interval of "deep philosophical questioning." This is not a straightforward question intended to begin an earnest dialogue with the month of April; it is a rhetorical question. It is not so much that the speaker believes they know the answer, in the sense that s/he knows what April would say in response, but the question is nonetheless rhetorical in that the author holds that April's potential answer is irrelevant, because "beauty is not enough" and death is inevitable.

In essence, this question is asking "what is the point of returning, April?" The answer, the speaker holds is that there is none. Asking the question and then providing flat, declarative statements undercutting any possible justification fulfills a primarily rhetorical function, helping to facilitate the author's claim about the illusory nature of spring's re-birth.

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