PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #71 : Content Of Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.

Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse's family, less as a governess than a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Sorrow came—a gentle sorrow—but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness. Miss Taylor married. It was Miss Taylor's loss which first brought grief. It was on the wedding-day of this beloved friend that Emma first sat in mournful thought of any continuance. The wedding over, and the bride-people gone, her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening. Her father composed himself to sleep after dinner, as usual, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost.

The event had every promise of happiness for her friend. Mr. Weston was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age, and pleasant manners; and there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match; but it was a black morning's work for her. 

How was she to bear the change?—It was true that her friend was going only half a mile from them; but Emma was aware that great must be the difference between a Mrs. Weston, only half a mile from them, and a Miss Taylor in the house; and with all her advantages, natural and domestic, she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude. She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.

Which of the following best summarizes this passage?

Possible Answers:

Mr. Weston marries Miss Taylor, but wishes he could marry Emma Woodhouse instead.

Emma Woodhouse helps arrange for Miss Taylor to marry Mr. Weston.

Emma Woodhouse leads a carefree life until her governess, Miss Taylor, gets married.

Emma leads a hard life until she is adopted by Mr. Woodhouse and begins working with Miss Taylor, a governess.

Emma Woodhouse experiences her first sorrow when her sister gets married, leaving her wanting for friends.

Correct answer:

Emma Woodhouse leads a carefree life until her governess, Miss Taylor, gets married.

Explanation:

When answering questions that ask you to summarize a passage, it’s important to select one that is narrow enough not to admit ideas that aren’t stated in the passage, but broad enough to relate to each paragraph. Some of the answer choices listed for this question aren’t true, so we can ignore those: “Emma leads a hard life until she is adopted by Mr. Woodhouse and begins working with Miss Taylor, a governess” is not true as nothing suggests that Emma is adopted; “Emma experiences her first sorrow when her sister gets married, leaving her wanting for friends” is not true because Miss Taylor is Emma’s governess, not her sister; and “Mr. Weston marries Miss Taylor, but wishes he could marry Emma instead” is not correct because nothing in the passage suggests that this is the case. This leaves us with “Emma helps arrange for Miss Taylor to marry Mr. Weston” and “Emma Woodhouse leads a carefree life until her governess, Miss Taylor, gets married” It is true that Emma helps arrange for Miss Taylor to marry Mr. Weston; we are told so in the sixth paragraph when it says, “there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match.” However, this only relates to the sixth paragraph, whereas the other answer choice summarizes the events that take place in each paragraph. This means that the best answer choice is “Emma Woodhouse leads a carefree life until her governess, Miss Taylor, gets married.”

Example Question #51 : Prose Fiction

Adapted from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash, 'till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said "Bother!" and "O blow!" and also "Hang spring cleaning!" and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gaveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, "Up we go! Up we go!" 'till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

"This is fine!" he said to himself. "This is better than whitewashing!" The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long, the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow 'till he reached the hedge on the further side.

"Hold up!" said an elderly rabbit at the gap. "Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!" He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about. "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!" he remarked jeeringly, and was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply. Then they all started grumbling at each other. "How STUPID you are! Why didn't you tell him—" "Well, why didn't YOU say—" "You might have reminded him—" and so on, in the usual way; but, of course, it was then much too late, as is always the case.

What is the mole excited to do in this passage?

Possible Answers:

Sleep

See his friends, the rabbits

Be outside

Spring clean his home

Prepare for a party

Correct answer:

Be outside

Explanation:

In the first paragraph, we are told that the mole spring cleans his house, but he is not excited about this; on the contrary, he gets sick of it and goes outside. The mole is clearly happy and excited to be outside, however, as we can tell from the following lines, found at the end of the passage's second paragraph: "The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long, the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow 'till he reached the hedge on the further side."

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Literature Passages

Adapted from "The Three Musketeers" in Volume Sixteen of The Romances of Alexandre Dumas (1844; 1893 ed.)

As they rode along, the duke endeavored to draw from d'Artagnan not all that had happened, but what d'Artagnan himself knew. By adding all that he heard from the mouth of the young man to his own remembrances, he was enabled to form a pretty exact idea of a position of the seriousness of which, for the rest, the queen's letter, short but explicit, gave him the clue. But that which astonished him most was that the cardinal, so deeply interested in preventing this young man from setting his foot in England, had not succeeded in arresting him on the road. It was then, upon the manifestation of this astonishment, that d'Artagnan related to him the precaution taken, and how, thanks to the devotion of his three friends, whom he had left scattered and bleeding on the road, he had succeeded in coming off with a single sword thrust, which had pierced the queen's letter and for which he had repaid Monsieur de Wardes with such terrible coin. While he was listening to this recital, delivered with the greatest simplicity, the duke looked from time to time at the young man with astonishment, as if he could not comprehend how so much prudence, courage, and devotedness could be allied with a countenance which indicated not more than twenty years.

The horses went like the wind, and in a few minutes they were at the gates of London. D'Artagnan imagined that on arriving in town the duke would slacken his pace, but it was not so. He kept on his way at the same rate, heedless about upsetting those whom he met on the road. In fact, in crossing the city two or three accidents of this kind happened; but Buckingham did not even turn his head to see what became of those he had knocked down. D'Artagnan followed him amid cries which strongly resembled curses.

On entering the court of his hotel, Buckingham sprang from his horse, and without thinking what became of the animal, threw the bridle on his neck, and sprang toward the vestibule. D'Artagnan did the same, with a little more concern, however, for the noble creatures, whose merits he fully appreciated; but he had the satisfaction of seeing three or four grooms run from the kitchens and the stables, and busy themselves with the steeds.

Which of the following best summarizes the passage?

Possible Answers:

The duke meets d'Artagnan. 

D'Artagnan and his friends get into a fight on the road.

The duke speaks with d'Artagnan about previous events and his experiences on the road, and then the two of them rush to the duke's hotel in London.

D'Artagnan manages to travel to London despite the cardinal attempting to stop him.

By speaking with d'Artagnan, the duke learns more details about the situation described in the queen's letter.

Correct answer:

The duke speaks with d'Artagnan about previous events and his experiences on the road, and then the two of them rush to the duke's hotel in London.

Explanation:

Picking out the best summary of a passage requires you to have a sense for which ideas in the passage are most important and which are simply details, as well as an appropriate level of specificity in the summary. "The duke meets d'Artagnan" is far too general and only describes actions that take place in the first paragraph, so it cannot be the correct answer. "D'Artagnan and his friends get into a fight on the road" describes not events that occur in the passage, but events which are discussed in the passage, and it also only describes part of the passage's first paragraph; it can't be the correct answer either. "By speaking with d'Artagnan, the duke learns more details about the situation described in the queen's letter" is a good description of the first paragraph, but other significant events happen later in the passage which aren't mentioned in the summary sentence, so it can't be the correct answer. Two answer choices remain: "D'Artagnan manages to travel to London despite the cardinal attempting to stop him" and "The duke speaks with d'Artagnan about previous events and his experiences on the road, and then the two of them rush to the duke's hotel in London." The latter of these two is the better answer because Buckingham, the Duke, plays a major role in the passage, and the former answer choice doesn't mention Buckingham at all, while the latter does. So, the correct answer is "The duke speaks with d'Artagnan about previous events and his experiences on the road, and then the two of them rush to the duke's hotel in London." This answer choice describes events that take place in each of the passage's paragraphs at an appropriate level of detail.

Example Question #11 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)

For a moment or two she could say no more; but when this emotion had passed away, she added, in a firmer tone, "Elinor, I have been cruelly used; but not by Willoughby."

"Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?"

"By all the world, rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty. This woman of whom he writes—whoever she be—or any one, in short, but your own dear self, mama, and Edward, may have been so barbarous to bely me. Beyond you three, is there a creature in the world whom I would not rather suspect of evil than Willoughby, whose heart I know so well?"

Elinor would not contend, and only replied, "Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence."

"No, no," cried Marianne, "misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like—may resist insult, or return mortification—but I cannot. I must feel—I must be wretched—and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can."

"But for my mother's sake and mine—"

"I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable—Oh! who can require it?"

Again they were both silent. 

Which of the following emotions best describes Marianne's current feelings toward Willoughby?

Possible Answers:

Pride

Disbelief

Embarrassment

Joy

Hatred

Correct answer:

Disbelief

Explanation:

Despite the pain she feels, Marianne refuses to believe that Willoughby is capable of behaving cruelly toward her. We can see this most clearly when Marianne claims, "I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe [Willoughby's] nature capable of such cruelty."

Example Question #21 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)

For a moment or two she could say no more; but when this emotion had passed away, she added, in a firmer tone, "Elinor, I have been cruelly used; but not by Willoughby."

"Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?"

"By all the world, rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty. This woman of whom he writes—whoever she be—or any one, in short, but your own dear self, mama, and Edward, may have been so barbarous to bely me. Beyond you three, is there a creature in the world whom I would not rather suspect of evil than Willoughby, whose heart I know so well?"

Elinor would not contend, and only replied, "Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence."

"No, no," cried Marianne, "misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like—may resist insult, or return mortification—but I cannot. I must feel—I must be wretched—and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can."

"But for my mother's sake and mine—"

"I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable—Oh! who can require it?"

Again they were both silent. 

It can be reasonably inferred from the passage that which of the following occurred between Marianne and Willoughby?

Possible Answers:

He left her to be with another woman.

Elinor stole him from her.

The two just got married.

They just became happily engaged.

Her mother refused to let them get married.

Correct answer:

He left her to be with another woman.

Explanation:

In this passage, Elinor is commiserating with Marianne over Willoughby's betrayal. It is apparent that she didn't play a role in it. Since Marianne admits that she has been "cruelly used", it is unlikely that she is happily engaged. The trust she expresses in her mother makes it unlikely that her mother was the source of their split. Marianne mentions "this woman of whom he writes," so it is plausible that Willoughby left Marianne for her.

Example Question #61 : Prose Fiction

Adapted from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

She was suddenly roused by the sound of the doorbell, and her spirits were a little fluttered by the idea of its being Colonel Fitzwilliam himself, who had once before called late in the evening, and might now come to inquire particularly after her. But this idea was soon banished, and her spirits were very differently affected, when, to her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In an hurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:

"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, colored, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth that was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man's affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience. 

He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment that, in spite of all his endeavors, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and, when he ceased, the color rose into her cheeks, and she said:

"In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation."

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth's feelings dreadful. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, he said:

"And this is all the reply which I am to have the honor of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavor at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."

"I might as well inquire," replied she, "why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favorable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed color; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued.

Given that the novel this passage is taken from is called Pride and Prejudice, the most likely interpretation of this passage is that __________.

Possible Answers:

Elizabeth's prejudice against Darcy has made her blind to the possibility that he could be in love with her

Elizabeth's pride over her sister's pain will prevent her from marrying Darcy

Darcy's prejudice against Elizabeth's family will keep him from wanting to marry her

Darcy's pride has made him blind to the effects of his actions on Elizabeth and her family

Both characters experience pride and prejudice against each other

Correct answer:

Darcy's pride has made him blind to the effects of his actions on Elizabeth and her family

Explanation:

Elizabeth's feelings over her sister's pain cannot be categorized as "pride," and if Darcy has been willing to overlook her family to propose marriage on this occasion, it seems unlikely that it will prevent it in the future. Elizabeth does not question in this passage whether Darcy could truly love her, and the idea that both characters experience the titular pride and prejudice is somewhat too broad. The most likely interpretation is that Darcy has been too blinded by his pride to see the effects of his actions on Elizabeth's family.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Literature Passages

Adapted from Once on a Time by A. A. Milne (1922)

The Princess was still puzzled. "But I'm grown up," she said. "I don't want a mother so much now."

The King turned his flagon round and studied the other side of it.

"A mother's—er—tender hand," he said, "is—er—never——" and then the outrageous thing happened.

It was all because of a birthday present to the King of Barodia, and the present was nothing less than a pair of seven-league boots. The King being a busy man, it was a week or more before he had an opportunity of trying those boots. Meanwhile he used to talk about them at meals, and he would polish them up every night before he went to bed. When the great day came for the first trial of them to be made, he took a patronizing farewell of his wife and family, ignored the many eager noses pressed against the upper windows of the palace, and sailed off. The motion, as perhaps you know, is a little disquieting at first, but one soon gets used to it. After that it is fascinating. He had gone some two thousand miles before he realized that there might be a difficulty about finding his way back. The difficulty proved at least as great as he had anticipated. For the rest of that day he toured backwards and forwards across the country, and it was by the merest accident that a very angry King shot in through an open pantry window in the early hours of the morning. He removed his boots and went softly to bed.

It was, of course, a lesson to him. He decided that in the future he must proceed by a recognized route, sailing lightly from landmark to landmark. Such a route his geographers prepared for him—an early morning constitutional, of three hundred miles or so, to be taken ten times before breakfast. He gave himself a week in which to recover his nerve and then started out on the first of them.

What is the main idea of the first five lines?

Possible Answers:

The Princess does not feel the need for another mother, so she causes a diversion to stop the conversation.

The King is struggling to tell his daughter something when he is abruptly stopped. 

The Princess wants her father to remarry.

Just as something outrageous happens, the King announces his remarriage.

The King is having difficulty in expressing himself, so he ends the conversation.

Correct answer:

The King is struggling to tell his daughter something when he is abruptly stopped. 

Explanation:

We can tell that the King is trying to tell his daughter something but is uncertain of how to do it due to his daughter's opinions. He is struggling to change her mind when something unrelated to the conversation stops the conversation. So, the only points you need in a possible answer are a combination of any of the following: that the Princess does not want a mother; that the King is struggling to express himself; that the King wants his daughter to be open to the idea of having a mother; and that the King is stopped in his speech by an unrelated, outrageous occurrence or event. Any other points are incorrect.

Example Question #21 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In 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.

It can be reasonably inferred from the passage that Tess feels guilty because she __________.

Possible Answers:

chose to marry somebody her parents disapprove of

is leaving home to go away to school

has been arguing with her siblings

caused the death of the family horse

embarrassed her father at the market

Correct answer:

caused the death of the family horse

Explanation:

One can infer that Tess feels guilty about killing the family horse when the passage states, "'Well, as I killed the horse, mother,' [Tess] said mournfully, 'I suppose I ought to do something.'"

Example Question #21 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Literary 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 tells this story in order to demonstrate __________.

Possible Answers:

that the old man was evil

that he killed the old man in self-defense

that he did not commit the crime of which he has been accused

that he knows an important secret

that he is sane

Correct answer:

that he is sane

Explanation:

The first line establishes that the narrator is addressing a reader who he thinks deems him mad: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?” At the end of the first paragraph, after describing his condition, he asks, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” From this, we can tell that the narrator is telling the story that follows in order to demonstrate that he is sane.

Example Question #22 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Literary 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 is __________ of the “evil eye.”

Possible Answers:

disdainful

respectful

desirous

afraid

unaware

Correct answer:

afraid

Explanation:

You can answer this question by narrowing down your answer choices until you have one remaining answer, or you can figure it out using evidence in the passage. The narrator is clearly aware of the evil eye, as it’s his stated reason why he killed the old man, so “unaware” can’t be correct. In the second paragraph, when discussing the reason why he killed the old man, the narrator says, “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.” From this evidence, we can tell that the narrator is in no way “desirous” or the eye, or “disdainful” (scornful and disparaging) of it. The narrator says that “[his] blood ran cold” when “[the eye] fell upon [him],” so we can tell that he is “afraid,” not “respectful,” of the old man’s “evil eye.”

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