PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Cause and Effect in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Question #291 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)

The haggling business, which had mainly depended on the horse, became disorganized forthwith. Distress, if not penury, loomed in the distance. Durbeyfield was what was locally called a slack-twisted fellow; he had good strength to work at times; but the times could not be relied on to coincide with the hours of requirement; and, having been unaccustomed to the regular toil of the day-labourer, he was not particularly persistent when they did so coincide.

Tess, meanwhile, as the one who had dragged her parents into this quagmire, was silently wondering what she could do to help them out of it; and then her mother broached her scheme.

"We must take the ups wi' the downs, Tess," said she; "and never could your high blood have been found out at a more called-for moment. You must try your friends. Do ye know that there is a very rich Mrs d'Urberville living on the outskirts o' The Chase, who must be our relation? You must go to her and claim kin, and ask for some help in our trouble."

"I shouldn't care to do that," says Tess. "If there is such a lady, 'twould be enough for us if she were friendly—not to expect her to give us help."

"You could win her round to do anything, my dear. Besides, perhaps there's more in it than you know of. I've heard what I've heard, good-now."

The oppressive sense of the harm she had done led Tess to be more deferential than she might otherwise have been to the maternal wish; but she could not understand why her mother should find such satisfaction in contemplating an enterprise of, to her, such doubtful profit. Her mother might have made inquiries, and have discovered that this Mrs d'Urberville was a lady of unequalled virtues and charity. But Tess's pride made the part of poor relation one of particular distaste to her.

"I'd rather try to get work," she murmured.

"Durbeyfield, you can settle it," said his wife, turning to where he sat in the background. "If you say she ought to go, she will go."

"I don't like my children going and making themselves beholden to strange kin," murmured he. "I'm the head of the noblest branch o' the family, and I ought to live up to it."

His reasons for staying away were worse to Tess than her own objections to going. "Well, as I killed the horse, mother," she said mournfully, "I suppose I ought to do something. I don't mind going and seeing her, but you must leave it to me about asking for help. And don't go thinking about her making a match for me—it is silly."

"Very well said, Tess!" observed her father sententiously.

"Who said I had such a thought?" asked Joan.

"I fancy it is in your mind, mother. But I'll go."

 Rising early next day she walked to the hill-town called Shaston, and there took advantage of a van which twice in the week ran from Shaston eastward to Chaseborough, passing near Trantridge, the parish in which the vague and mysterious Mrs d'Urberville had her residence.

Why does Tess choose to follow her mother's directions to visit Mrs. d'Urberville even though her father agrees with her own desire not to go?

Possible Answers:

She secretly wants to go and was just pretending to be hesitant. 

She hopes that her mother is right and does not want to disappoint her.

She hates her father and always does anything possible to spite him.

She dislikes that her father's decision comes from a sense of misplaced pride rather than discretion.

Correct answer:

She dislikes that her father's decision comes from a sense of misplaced pride rather than discretion.

Explanation:

One can find the following quotation spanning the ninth and tenth paragraphs of the passage:

"'I don't like my children going and making themselves beholden to strange kin,' murmured [Mr. Durbeyfield, Tess's father]. 'I'm the head of the noblest branch o' the family, and I ought to live up to it.'

His reasons for staying away were worse to Tess than her own objections to going."

This quote from the passage shows that Tess firmly disagrees with her father's reasons for her not going.

Example Question #41 : Understanding Causes And Effects In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898)

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

The planet Mars revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence. 

Since Mars is older than our earth, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time's beginning but nearer its end. The cooling that must someday overtake our planet has already gone far indeed with our neighbor. In its equatorial region, the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours; its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface. That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon itself. The Tasmanians were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

According to the author, what would be the primary reason for the Martians to attack Earth?

Possible Answers:

To wipe out humanity before we can evolve to become a threat

To destroy the Earth

To kidnap human scientists

To colonize a habitable planet

To bring the Earth’s resources back to Mars

Correct answer:

To colonize a habitable planet

Explanation:

In the third paragraph, the author discusses the Martian’s possible reasons for attacking Earth. He discusses how Mars, by being an older planet, has begun to become unlivable for the Martians: “That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars.” He then describes the Martians looking across the galaxy at Earth. In the fourth paragraph, the author adds, “Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.” Based on this evidence, we can tell that the primary reason for the Martians to attack Earth would be to colonize a habitable planet.

Example Question #112 : Content Of Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Volume 16: Anna Karenina (1877; 1917 ed., trans. Garnett)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household were painfully conscious of it. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner-time; the kitchen maid and the coachman had given warning.

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky—Stiva, as he was called in the fashionable world—woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o clock in the morning, not in his wife's bedroom, but on the leather-covered sofa in his study. He turned over his stout, well-cared-for person on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

“Yes, yes, how was it now?” he thought, going over his dream. “Alabin was giving a dinner at Darmstadt; no, not Darmstadt, but something American. Yes, but then, Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang, II mio tesoro—not II mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women too,” he remembered. 

Noticing a gleam of light peeping in beside one of the serge curtains, he cheerfully dropped his feet over the edge of the sofa, and felt about with them for his slippers, a present on his last birthday, worked for him by his wife on gold-colored morocco. And, as he had done every day for the last nine years, he stretched out his hand, without getting up, towards the place where his dressing-gown always hung in his bedroom. And thereupon he suddenly remembered that he was not sleeping in his wife’s room, but in his study, and why: the smile vanished from his face, he knitted his brows. 

Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theatre, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing-room, to his surprise had not found her in the study either, and saw her at last in her bedroom with the unlucky letter that revealed everything in her hand. She, his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying over household details, and limited in her ideas, as he considered, was sitting perfectly still with the letter in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and indignation.

“What’s this? This?” she asked, pointing to the letter.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevitch, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had met his wife’s words.

There happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in adapting his face to the position in which he was placed towards his wife by the discovery of his fault. Instead of being hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent even—anything would have been better than what he did do—his face utterly involuntarily (reflex spinal action, reflected Stepan Arkadyevitch, who was fond of physiology)—utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile.

This idiotic smile he could not forgive himself. Catching sight of that smile, Dolly shuddered as though at physical pain, broke out with her characteristic heat into a flood of cruel words, and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.

“It’s that idiotic simile that’s to blame for it all,” thought Stepan Arkadyevitch.

Why does Stiva bring his wife a pear when he returns from the theatre?

Possible Answers:

He knows she has found out about his affair, he wants to apologize, and pears are her favorite food.

It is a romantic gesture since they shared a pear on their first date.

The passage doesn’t provide a clear reason why Stiva brings home a pear to his wife.

He recalls that she once said she had never eaten a pear before.

He intended to eat it on the way home from the theatre, but forgot he had it in his pocket.

Correct answer:

The passage doesn’t provide a clear reason why Stiva brings home a pear to his wife.

Explanation:

The only time that the pear is mentioned in the passage is in the first line in the seventh paragraph: “Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theatre, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing-room . . .” The passage does not provide readers with a clear reason as to why Stiva brings his wife a pear when he returns from the theatre, so this is the correct answer.

Example Question #225 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Volume 16: Anna Karenina (1877; 1917 ed., trans. Garnett)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household were painfully conscious of it. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner-time; the kitchen maid and the coachman had given warning.

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky—Stiva, as he was called in the fashionable world—woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o clock in the morning, not in his wife's bedroom, but on the leather-covered sofa in his study. He turned over his stout, well-cared-for person on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

“Yes, yes, how was it now?” he thought, going over his dream. “Alabin was giving a dinner at Darmstadt; no, not Darmstadt, but something American. Yes, but then, Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang, II mio tesoro—not II mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women too,” he remembered. 

Noticing a gleam of light peeping in beside one of the serge curtains, he cheerfully dropped his feet over the edge of the sofa, and felt about with them for his slippers, a present on his last birthday, worked for him by his wife on gold-colored morocco. And, as he had done every day for the last nine years, he stretched out his hand, without getting up, towards the place where his dressing-gown always hung in his bedroom. And thereupon he suddenly remembered that he was not sleeping in his wife’s room, but in his study, and why: the smile vanished from his face, he knitted his brows. 

Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theatre, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing-room, to his surprise had not found her in the study either, and saw her at last in her bedroom with the unlucky letter that revealed everything in her hand. She, his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying over household details, and limited in her ideas, as he considered, was sitting perfectly still with the letter in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and indignation.

“What’s this? This?” she asked, pointing to the letter.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevitch, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had met his wife’s words.

There happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in adapting his face to the position in which he was placed towards his wife by the discovery of his fault. Instead of being hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent even—anything would have been better than what he did do—his face utterly involuntarily (reflex spinal action, reflected Stepan Arkadyevitch, who was fond of physiology)—utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile.

This idiotic smile he could not forgive himself. Catching sight of that smile, Dolly shuddered as though at physical pain, broke out with her characteristic heat into a flood of cruel words, and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.

“It’s that idiotic simile that’s to blame for it all,” thought Stepan Arkadyevitch.

Which of the following is NOT an effect of Stiva’s wife finding the letter?

Possible Answers:

The cook eats all of the expensive food in the house himself.

No one gets the children to behave well.

The English governess begins looking for a new household in which to work.

The coachman and the kitchen-maid formally say that they will be quitting their jobs.

Stiva sleeps on the sofa in his study.

Correct answer:

The cook eats all of the expensive food in the house himself.

Explanation:

The cook does not eat all of the expensive food himself in the passage; we are told that “the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner-time.” So, he simply doesn’t do his job. All of the other answer choices are consequences of Stiva’s wife finding the incriminating letter and discovering Stiva has been having an affair with the French governess.

Example Question #41 : Understanding Causes And Effects In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from “The Tell-Tale Heart” in The Pioneer by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work, for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me, for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who's there?"

The narrator says that he killed the old man __________.

Possible Answers:

because the old man insulted him

out of jealousy

because of his eye

for a purpose he refuses to reveal

for his money

Correct answer:

because of his eye

Explanation:

In the second paragraph, the narrator states that he killed the old man because of his eye: “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” In the preceding sentences of the paragraph, he specifically states that he did not kill the old man for his money, because the old man insulted him, or out of jealousy: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.” Since the narrator clearly declares that he killed the old man because of his eye, “for a purpose he refuses to reveal” cannot be the correct answer.

Example Question #851 : Passage Based Questions

Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843).

TRUE! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses -- not destroyed -- not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing accute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees -- very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded --with what caution --with what foresight --with what dissumlation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it --oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! --would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously --oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights --every night just at midnight --but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

What reason does the narrator give for his decision to kill the old man?

Possible Answers:

The narrator wants the old man's gold.

The old man has always treated the narrator poorly.

The old man has a pale blue eye that reminds the narrator of a vulture.

The narrator hates the old man.

Correct answer:

The old man has a pale blue eye that reminds the narrator of a vulture.

Explanation:

In the second paragraph, the narrator states that the old man's pale blue eye makes his "blood run cold." He actually lists many compelling reasons for NOT killing the old man, but is fairly spare in his detailing of reasons to do what he, in fact, ended up doing.

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