SAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Main Idea, Details, Opinions, And Arguments In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

Everyone will readily allow that there is a considerable difference between the perceptions of the mind, when a man feels the pain of excessive heat, or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation, or anticipates it by his imagination. These faculties may mimic or copy the perceptions of the senses, but they never can entirely reach the force and vivacity of the original sentiment. The utmost we say of them, even when they operate with greatest vigor, is, that they represent their object in so lively a manner that we could almost say we feel or see it. But, except the mind be disordered by disease or madness, they never can arrive at such a pitch of vivacity as to render these perceptions altogether undistinguishable. All the colors of poetry, however splendid, can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape. The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation.

We may observe a like distinction to run through all the other perceptions of the mind. A man in a fit of anger is actuated in a very different manner from one who only thinks of that emotion. If you tell me that any person is in love I easily understand your meaning, and form a just conception of his situation, but never can mistake that conception for the real disorders and agitations of the passion. When we reflect on our past sentiments and affections, our thought is a faithful mirror and copies its objects truly, but the colors which it employs are faint and dull in comparison of those in which our original perceptions were clothed. It requires no nice discernment or metaphysical head to mark the distinction between them.

Here, therefore, we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity. The less forcible and lively are commonly denominated "thoughts" or "ideas." The other species want a name in our language, and in most others; I suppose because it was not requisite for any but philosophical purposes to rank them under a general term or appellation. Let us, therefore, use a little freedom, and call them "impressions," employing that word in a sense somewhat different from the usual. By the term "impression," then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned.

One of the main points made in the last paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

impressions are the way we reflect on thoughts

the author wants to define two distinct types of mental conceptualizations

there is no sense in the definition of mental processes

there are two types of perception with a division between the two

the author wants to specialize in mental analysis

Correct answer:

the author wants to define two distinct types of mental conceptualizations

Explanation:

While the potential answer "There are two types of perception with a division between the two" is not wholly incorrect, it negates itself by stating with certainty that there are “two states of mind.” The correct answer, unlike the previously mentioned incorrect answer, is correct in that it states that the author is attempting to define two distinct “states of mind.” The main point is not that there are, but that the author wants to personally define, two states which he perceives.

Example Question #753 : Passage Based Questions

Adapted from Thoughts on Man (1831) by William Godwin

It is, in reality, obvious that man and woman, as they come from the hands of nature, are so much upon a par with each other as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection. In the scenes of vulgar and ordinary society, a permanent connection between persons of opposite sexes is too apt to degenerate into a scene of warfare, where each party is forever engaged in a struggle for superiority, and neither will give way. A penetrating observer, with whom in former days I used intimately to converse, was accustomed to say that there was generally more jarring and ill blood between the two parties in the first year of their marriage than during all the remainder of their lives. It is at length found necessary, as between equally matched belligerents on the theatre of history, that they should come to terms, make a treaty of peace, or at least settle certain laws of warfare that they may not waste their strength in idle hostilities.

There is nothing in which the superiority of modern times over the ancient has been more conspicuous than in our sentiments and practices on this subject. This superiority, as well as several other of our most valuable acquisitions, took its rise in what we call the dark ages. Chivalry was, for the most part, the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honor and grace. The knights (and every gentleman during that period in due time became a knight) were taught, as the main features of their vocation, the "love of God and the ladies." The ladies in return were regarded as the genuine censors of the deeds of knighthood. From these principles arose a thousand lessons of humanity. The ladies regarded it as their glory to assist their champions to arm and to disarm, to perform for them even menial services, to attend to them in sickness, and to dress their wounds. They bestowed on them their colors, and sent them forth to the field hallowed with their benedictions. The knights on the other hand considered any slight toward the fair sex as an indelible stain to their order; they contemplated the graceful patronesses of their valor with a feeling that partook of religious homage and veneration, and esteemed it as perhaps the first duty of their profession to relieve the wrongs and avenge the injuries of the less powerful sex.

This simple outline as to the relative position of the one sex and the other gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society. It is, like those admirable principles in the order of the material universe or those grand discoveries brought to light from time to time by superior genius, so obvious and simple that we wonder the most common understanding could have missed them, yet so pregnant with results that they seem at once to put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all-comprehensive mass.

The passion between the sexes, in its grosser sense, is a momentary impulse merely. There was danger that, when the fit and violence of the passion was over, the whole would subside into inconstancy and a roving disposition, or at least into indifference and almost brutal neglect. But the institutions of chivalry immediately gave a new face to this. Either sex conceived a deep and permanent interest in the other. In the unsettled state of society which characterized the period when these institutions arose, the defenseless were liable to assaults of multiplied kinds and the fair perpetually stood in need of a protector and a champion. The knights, on the other hand, were taught to derive their fame and their honor from the suffrages of the ladies. Each sex stood in need of the other and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.

Based on the passage, the primary purpose for the establishment of a code of chivalry was to __________.

Possible Answers:

empower women who could use the system to censor men's actions

allow men to protect women from the evils of the world

placate both sexes by giving them duties within an imaginary order

pacify women and subjugate them to the will of men

imprison both sexes in gendered roles

Correct answer:

placate both sexes by giving them duties within an imaginary order

Explanation:

At the start of the third paragraph when the author begins talking about the code of chivalry, he comments that “[chivalry's] principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honor and grace.” This giving of importance lead to both sexes being satisfied with their roles, despite them being fanciful.

Example Question #11 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from Thoughts on Man (1831) by William Godwin

It is, in reality, obvious that man and woman, as they come from the hands of nature, are so much upon a par with each other as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection. In the scenes of vulgar and ordinary society, a permanent connection between persons of opposite sexes is too apt to degenerate into a scene of warfare, where each party is forever engaged in a struggle for superiority, and neither will give way. A penetrating observer, with whom in former days I used intimately to converse, was accustomed to say that there was generally more jarring and ill blood between the two parties in the first year of their marriage than during all the remainder of their lives. It is at length found necessary, as between equally matched belligerents on the theatre of history, that they should come to terms, make a treaty of peace, or at least settle certain laws of warfare that they may not waste their strength in idle hostilities.

There is nothing in which the superiority of modern times over the ancient has been more conspicuous than in our sentiments and practices on this subject. This superiority, as well as several other of our most valuable acquisitions, took its rise in what we call the dark ages. Chivalry was, for the most part, the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honor and grace. The knights (and every gentleman during that period in due time became a knight) were taught, as the main features of their vocation, the "love of God and the ladies." The ladies in return were regarded as the genuine censors of the deeds of knighthood. From these principles arose a thousand lessons of humanity. The ladies regarded it as their glory to assist their champions to arm and to disarm, to perform for them even menial services, to attend to them in sickness, and to dress their wounds. They bestowed on them their colors, and sent them forth to the field hallowed with their benedictions. The knights on the other hand considered any slight toward the fair sex as an indelible stain to their order; they contemplated the graceful patronesses of their valor with a feeling that partook of religious homage and veneration, and esteemed it as perhaps the first duty of their profession to relieve the wrongs and avenge the injuries of the less powerful sex.

This simple outline as to the relative position of the one sex and the other gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society. It is, like those admirable principles in the order of the material universe or those grand discoveries brought to light from time to time by superior genius, so obvious and simple that we wonder the most common understanding could have missed them, yet so pregnant with results that they seem at once to put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all-comprehensive mass.

The passion between the sexes, in its grosser sense, is a momentary impulse merely. There was danger that, when the fit and violence of the passion was over, the whole would subside into inconstancy and a roving disposition, or at least into indifference and almost brutal neglect. But the institutions of chivalry immediately gave a new face to this. Either sex conceived a deep and permanent interest in the other. In the unsettled state of society which characterized the period when these institutions arose, the defenseless were liable to assaults of multiplied kinds and the fair perpetually stood in need of a protector and a champion. The knights, on the other hand, were taught to derive their fame and their honor from the suffrages of the ladies. Each sex stood in need of the other and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.

One of the main points made in the first paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

men and women are equals

married couples squabble more in later years of marriage

a declaration of prenuptial rules needs to be drawn up before a union is made

men and women are like heroes and villains on a stage

men and women are easy to unite in affection

Correct answer:

men and women are equals

Explanation:

The author says that men and women are “so much upon a par with each other;” they are therefore equally matched or, more simply, equals. The author does not mention prenuptial agreements and when “belligerents on the theatre of history” is mentioned, the allusion is to past events rather than historical dramas adapted for the stage.

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

Adapted from “A Defense of Slang” in The Romance of the Commonplace by Gelett Burgess (1902)

Could Shakespeare come to Chicago and listen curiously to "the man in the street," he would find himself more at home than in London. In the mouths of messenger boys and clerks he would find the English language used with all the freedom of unexpected metaphor and the plastic, suggestive diction that was the privilege of the Elizabethan dramatists; he would say, no doubt, that he had found a nation of poets. There was hardly any such thing as slang in his day, for no graphic trope was too virile or uncommon for acceptance, if its meaning were patent. His own heroes often spoke what corresponds to the slang of today.

The word, indeed, needs precise definition, before we condemn all unconventional talk with vigor. Slang has been called "poetry in the rough," and it is not all coarse or vulgar. There is a prosaic as well as a poetic license. The man in the street calls a charming girl, for instance, a "daisy." Surely this is not inelegant, and such a reference will be understood a century from now. Slang, to prove adjuvant to our speech, which is growing more and more rigid and conventional, should be terse; it should make for force and clarity, without any sacrifice of beauty.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

refute an argument

honor an accomplishment

establish an argument

explain a situation

predict an outcome

Correct answer:

establish an argument

Explanation:

When approaching questions that ask you to identify the author’s primary purpose, it is important to consider the passage as a whole. There are two useful ways in which this problem could be solved if you did not immediately know the answer. The first is to identify a thesis or topic sentence. In this passage, the topic is laid out in the first two sentences. The author states that had Shakespeare found himself in contemporary Chicago, he would recognize a nation of poets using slang in creative and useful ways. This topic should lead you to believe that this passage is establishing an argument. The second way to solve a “primary purpose” question is to look for key words that provide clues as to the author’s direction. In this passage, the author uses the word “surely” to begin a point and “should” to convey a perceived truth. This is argumentative but affirmative language. If, for example, the passage featured heavy usage of words such as “however” or “nonetheless” it would be more likely that the primary purpose was the refutation of an argument.

Example Question #811 : Sat Critical Reading

Adapted from Manual of Gardening by Liberty Hyde Bailey (ed. 1910)

Having now discussed the most essential elements of gardening, we may give attention to such minor features as the actual way in which a satisfying garden is to be planned and executed.

Speaking broadly, a person will get from a garden what he puts into it; and it is of the first importance, therefore, that a clear conception of the work be formulated at the outset. I do not mean to say that the garden will always turn out what it was desired that it should be; but the failure to turn out properly is usually some fault in the first plan or some neglect in execution.

Sometimes the disappointment in an ornamental garden is a result of confusion of ideas as to what a garden is for. One of my friends was greatly disappointed on returning to his garden early in September to find that it was not so full and floriferous as when he left it in July. He had not learned the simple lesson that even a flower-garden should exhibit the natural progress of the season. If the garden begins to show ragged places and to decline in late August or early September, it is what occurs in all surrounding vegetation. The year is maturing. The garden ought to express the feeling of the different months. The failing leaves and expended plants are therefore to be looked on, to some extent at least, as the natural order and destiny of a good garden.

The main point of the passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to document the essential elements of successful gardening

to explore one of the small ways in which a successful garden can be achieved

to note the progression of a garden through the different seasons of a year

to recommend what types of plants should be used by amateur, intermediate, and advanced gardeners

to explain the benefits of an ornamental garden

Correct answer:

to explore one of the small ways in which a successful garden can be achieved

Explanation:

The entire passage is dedicated to exploring one way that a successful garden can occur: effective planning and executing. The passage doesn’t document all of the elements of a successful garden.

Example Question #41 : Humanities

"Not Just Brains Can Be Smart: Why You Should Educate Your Body Too" by Megan Simon (2013)

Several years ago, a communications professor of mine was discussing the unequal opportunities that are available to African American students in America. Many students, she said, were told by society that the only way they could succeed and go on to a higher education was if they excelled at athletics. Discouraged from the hope of excelling in an intellectual field, they resorted to “selling their bodies.”

This comment, although obviously well-meant and addressed towards an unacceptable situation of racial inequality, disturbed me in a way that I was not able to articulate at the time. Reflecting upon it, however, it becomes obvious why I find this type of attitude deeply concerning. I am a dancer. The primary instrument in my field is the human body. I use my body everyday to gain creative, academic, and professional success. Am I selling myself?

Let’s say that I am. But now think about other professions, like literature or mathematics. Novelists, what do they do? They sell their words. Mathematicians? They sell their reasoning. And this exchange is socially acceptable. We strive to sell our brains, to place them on the open market. When it comes to the body, on the other hand, things become dirty, cheap—comparable to prostitution.

Academia does the best that it can to separate the mind from the body, to keep pure intellectualism free from the superficiality of the physical body. So proud are we of our human ability to think and reflect that we value the abstract world of reason more than corporeal one around us. We think that by doing so we remove physical limitations and supersede physical prejudices. But limitations and prejudices exist just as much in the realm of the mind as that of the body.

How is dance affected by this fierce devotion to the mind/body dichotomy? It has been forced to fight its way into academic institutions, even more so than the other arts. Visual arts and music are clearly products of the creative mind, but dance is tainted by its association with the body. Before gaining academic legitimacy, it has had to prove that it can be notated, theorized, and philosophized.

While I recognize the great value in these more mind-based approaches to dance, it worries me that so few people recognize the existence of a physical intelligence. Dancers know that movement communicates in a way that is not possible to articulate with words and logic. They know that they can train their bodies to be aware and communicate more effectively, that they can discover new approaches to movement and physical being, and that they can create a bodily discourse. I believe that everyone realizes the power of this communication on some level, but it is so often relegated to the role of interesting afterthought—If you are bored by the actual content of the presidential debates, here’s how to analyze the candidates’ gestures! We have an attitude that if we can’t come up with a consensus of how to describe it in words, it must not be worth studying. And with this attitude, we exclude so much of the world from the ivory tower.

I understand what that communications professor was trying to say. No one should think that their mind is not worthy of higher education. No one should be excluded from that type of intellectual endeavor. But focusing on training the body, whether it be athletics or dance or even everyday, physical communication, should not be seen as a less desirable alternative. The mind and the body could not exist without one another. It is past time that we threw away this arbitrary separation and embraced the entire human experience.

The author’s purpose in writing this article is best described as which of the following?

Possible Answers:

To critically evaluate the role of dance in academic institutions

To persuade people that physical pursuits and communication should be valued as highly as intellectual ones in academia

To argue with her communications professor who said that athletics are not important

To provoke people to think about racial inequality in America

To describe the dance scene in America today

Correct answer:

To persuade people that physical pursuits and communication should be valued as highly as intellectual ones in academia

Explanation:

While all of the topics in the options here are parts of the article, the main purpose of the piece is that physical pursuits should be valued more highly. This is a theme that develops throughout the essay, rather than only taking up a paragraph or two. Also, this piece is structured in a way that its purpose is primarily persuasive; it’s not a description or evaluation.

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

"Poetry and Philosophy" by Justin Bailey

As the logical positivism rose to ascendancy, poetic language was increasingly seen as merely emotive. Wittgenstein’s influential Tractatus argued that only language corresponding to observable states of affairs in the world was meaningful, thus ruling out the value of imaginative language in saying anything about the world. Poetry’s contribution was rather that it showed what could not be said, a layer of reality which Wittgenstein called the “mystical.” Despite Wittgenstein’s interest in the mystical value of poetry, his successors abandoned the mystical as a meaningful category, exiling poetry in a sort of no man’s land where its only power to move came through the empathy of shared feeling.

Yet some thinkers, like Martin Heidegger, reacted strongly to the pretensions of an instrumental theory of knowledge to make sense of the world. Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur all gave central value to poetry in their philosophical method; signifying a growing sense among continental thinkers that poetic knowing was an important key to recovering some vital way of talking about and experiencing the world that had been lost.

The author is primarily concerned with __________.

Possible Answers:

enumerating the reasons why Wittgenstein and his successors were misguided in their philosophical approach

explaining various theories of why poetic language has the power to move the human spirit

arguing that given the current trajectory of philosophy, poetry will soon no longer be studied in mainstream society

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

exploring the contribution of philosophy to discussions of poetic method and appreciation

Correct answer:

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

Explanation:

The first paragraph states the main argument, which can be gleaned from the first and last sentence of the paragraph. The second paragraph introduces a contrast with the word "yet" and then proceeds to enumerate three examples of philosophers who made poetry a part of their philosophical method. 

Example Question #1 : Authorial Purpose In Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from a letter by T. Thatcher published in The Publishers Circular on September 27th, 1902

A PLEA FOR A LONG WALK

Sir—In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favor of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long-Walk?

I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten. We live in days of water trips and land trips, excursions by sea, road, and rail—bicycles and tricycles, tram cars and motor cars, hansom cabs and ugly cabs; but in my humble opinion good honest walking exercise for health beats all other kinds of locomotion into a cocked hat. In rapid traveling all the finer nerves, senses, and vessels are "rush" and unduly excited, but in walking every particle of the human frame, and even the moral faculties, are evenly and naturally brought into exercise. It is the best discipline and physical mental tonic in the world. Limbs, body, muscles, lungs, chest, heart, digestion, breathing, are healthily brought into normal operation, while. especially in the long distance walk, the exercise of patience, perseverance, industry, energy, perception, and reflection—and, indeed, all the senses and moral faculties—are elevated and cultivated healthfully and naturally. Many never know the beauty of it because they never go far enough: exercise and hard work should never be relinquished at any age or by either sex. Heart disease, faintness, and sudden death, and even crime, are far more due to the absence of wholesome normal exercise and taste than to anything else, to enervating luxuries rather than to hill climbing.

I usually give myself a holiday on a birthday, and as I lately reached my 63rd I determined to give myself a day with my old friend Mr. Long-Walk, and decided to tramp to the city of Wells and back for my birthday holiday—a distance of about forty-two miles. Fortune favors the brave, and, thanks to a mosquito that pitched on my nose and was just commencing operations, I woke very early in the morning. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good. Mosquitoes are early birds, but I stole a march on them. But to my journey.

I started at about 5 A.M., and proceeding via Dundry and Chow Stoke, reached Wells soon after 10 A.M. After attending the cathedral, I pursued my walk homeward by a different route, via Chewton Mendip, Farrington, Temple Cloud, Clutton, and Pensford.

To make a walk successful, mind and body should be free of burden. I never carry a stick on a long walk, but prefer to be perfectly free, giving Nature’s balancing poles—the pendulum arms—complete swing and absolute liberty. Walking exercises, together with a well-educated palate, are the greatest physicians in the world: no disease can withstand them. I returned from my forty-two miles tramp with birthday honors and reward. I had no headache on the following morning, but was up early in good form, fresh and ready for work. Forty-two miles may be too strong a dose for many, but I cannot too strongly recommend for a day’s companionship the society of my old and well-tried friend, Mr. Long-Walk.

Faithfully yours,

T. Thatcher

44 College Green, Bristol.

The purpose of this letter is mostly likely to __________.

Possible Answers:

dissuade people from visiting doctors

encourage people to slow down and take walks

provide a reference for a friend

discuss famous literary works in which the main characters spend much of their time walking for its health benefits

complain about modern traffic

Correct answer:

encourage people to slow down and take walks

Explanation:

Throughout the letter, he is encouraging people to take walks, rather than take other faster modes of transportation. While he does complain about cabs and say that walks are better than doctors, those are minor points in his letter. The "friend" is a rhetorical device.

Example Question #381 : Ap English Language

Adapted from “Gin-Shops” by Charles Darwin (1836)

We will endeavor to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drury Lane. The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three; fruit manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlors, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a "musician" in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one; filth everywhere, a gutter before the houses and a drain behind, clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and with only white coats to cover them; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. Yet, the gin shop is dazzling in appearances only. Soon it grows late and the throng of men, women, and children, who have been constantly going in and out, dwindles down to two or three occasional stragglers--cold, wretched-looking creatures, in the last stage of emaciation and disease. The knot of Irish laborers at the lower end of the place, who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threatening the life of each other, for the last hour, become furious in their disputes, and finding it impossible to silence one man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference, they resort to the expedient of knocking him down and jumping on him afterwards. The man in the fur cap, and the potboy rush out; a scene of riot and confusion ensues; half the Irishmen get shut out, and the other half get shut in; the potboy is knocked among the tubs in no time; the landlord hits everybody, and everybody hits the landlord; the barmaids scream; the police come in; the rest is a confused mixture of arms, legs, staves, torn coats, shouting, and struggling. Some of the party are borne off to the station-house, and the remainder slink home to beat their wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to be hungry.

Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery gin-shops will increase in number and splendor. If Temperance Societies would suggest an antidote against hunger and filth gin-palaces would vanish. In the meantime, they shall only grow in prominence.

From the context of the whole of this passage, what does the author feel is primarily responsible for the vice of gin-drinking in England?

Possible Answers:

The condition of the poor

The animosity of the wealthy

Temperance Societies

Religion

The government 

Correct answer:

The condition of the poor

Explanation:

The author makes numerous references to the living conditions of the poor throughout the passage. His intention is to ensure the reader is already convinced of the relationship between deplorable living conditions and alcohol abuse (through vivid description) so that when the reader comes to the conclusion he/she will easily agree with the author’s statement: “Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery gin-shops will increase in number and splendor.”

Example Question #13 : Thesis Or Argument

Adapted from Walden by Henry Thoreau (1854)

Still we live meanly, like ants; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.

The author thinks that contemporary life in the United States is too __________.

Possible Answers:

immoral

prejudiced

uninspiring

straightforward

hectic

Correct answer:

hectic

Explanation:

The author is not concerned with morals and never mentions prejudice or inspiration (or a lack of either) in the passage, so we can immediately discard the answer choices “immoral” and “uninspiring,” leaving us with “straightforward,” “hectic,” and “unorganized.” The author wouldn’t likely think that modern life is “straightforward”; he argues in the passage that his contemporary era was unnecessarily complex in its pursuits. This leaves us with the correct answer, “hectic.” This is visible in quotations from the passage such as “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand,” and “[The nation] lives too fast.”

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