SAT II Literature : Context-Based Meaning of a Word: Prose

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT II Literature

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Example Questions

Example Question #171 : Sat Subject Test In Literature

Bubbly Creek" is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards: all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterward gathered it themselves. The banks of "Bubbly Creek" are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean.

(1906)

In the context of the passage, the word "leviathan" most nearly means __________________.

Possible Answers:

huge ship

complex machine

unwary sailors

mythical gods

sea monster

Correct answer:

sea monster

Explanation:

Since Sinclair places the term "leviathan" immediately after a description of "huge fish", it seems clear that he is continuing the extended metaphor with another description of a sea creature.  The word "great" indicates that these are monsters that are large and live under the sea.  Thus, "sea monsters' is the best answer choice.

Passage adapted from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906)

Example Question #65 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

(1890)

In the context of the sentence, what does the word "woodbine" most likely mean?

Possible Answers:

Grass

A statue 

None of these

A plant 

A ram 

Correct answer:

A plant 

Explanation:

A "woodbine" is a type of plant. We can infer that this is a type of plant because "... the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine..." indicates that it's outdoors and is something that bees want to pollinate.

Passage adapted from Oscar Wilde's A Picture of Dorian Grey (1890)

Example Question #172 : Sat Subject Test In Literature

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it ...

(1904)

In the context of the passage, what does the word "travail" most likely mean?

Possible Answers:

Adventure 

Depression

Travel

sadness 

Pain from labor 

Correct answer:

Pain from labor 

Explanation:

French speakers know that "travail" means "work" in French, and this is a close meaning to the word in English. The official English definition means "painful or laborious effort," but is commonly misunderstood because it looks very similar to the word "travel."

Passage adapted from Mark Twain's "War Prayer" (1904).

Example Question #69 : Overall Language Or Specific Words, Phrases, Or Sentences

1. There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring; when, in these bleak upper sides of the planet, nothing is to desire that we have heard of the happiest latitudes, and we bask in the shining hours of Florida and Cuba; when everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction, and the cattle that lie on the ground seem to have great and tranquil thoughts. 2. These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of the Indian Summer.  3. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. 4. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. 5. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. 6. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. 7. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. 8. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. 9. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her. 10. We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom. 11. How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to intrance us. 12. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. 13. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. 14. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. 15. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. 16. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. 17. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.

The word “halcyons” (sentence 2) most nearly means  ___________________.

Possible Answers:

the autumn equinox

days of calm weather

periods of natural harmony

warm days in the tropics

tranquil cattle

Correct answer:

days of calm weather

Explanation:

"Halcyon" means calm or tranquil. (It's usually used as an adjective, but in this instance it's a noun.) "These halcyons" (sentence 2) refers to the days the author has just described, when nature is in harmony and the weather is unusually pleasant.

Passage adapted from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Essay VI, Nature" (1836)

Example Question #31 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring; when, in these bleak upper sides of the planet, nothing is to desire that we have heard of the happiest latitudes, and we bask in the shining hours of Florida and Cuba; when everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction, and the cattle that lie on the ground seem to have great and tranquil thoughts. 2. These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of the Indian Summer.  3. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. 4. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. 5. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. 6. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. 7. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. 8. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. 9. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her. 10. We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom. 11. How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to intrance us. 12. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. 13. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. 14. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. 15. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. 16. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. 17. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.

In the context of the passage, the word “suffer” (sentence 11) most nearly means  __________________.

Possible Answers:

release

grieve

languish

allow

receive

Correct answer:

allow

Explanation:

In this context, "suffer" means "allow." It does not imply pain. The author is exclaiming about how wonderful it would be to stop resisting and let nature take possession of him.

Passage adapted from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Essay VI, Nature" (1836)

Example Question #32 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

I entered the room where the corpse lay, and was led up to the coffin. How can I describe my sensations on beholding it? I feel yet parched with horror, nor can I reflect on that terrible moment without shuddering and agony, that faintly reminds me of the anguish of the recognition. The trial, the presence of the magistrate and witnesses, passed like a dream from my memory, when I saw the lifeless form of Henry Clerval stretched before me. I gasped for breath; and, throwing myself on the body, I exclaimed, ‘Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry of life? Two I have already destroyed; other victims await their destiny: but you, Clerval, my friend, my benefactor' –

The human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room in strong convulsions.
A fever succeeded to this. I lay for two months on the point of death: my ravings, as I afterwards heard, were frightful; I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval. Sometimes I entreated my attendants to assist me in the destruction of the fiend by whom I was tormented; and, at others, I felt the fingers of the monster already grasping my neck, and screamed aloud with agony and terror.

Based on context clues, the word "entreated" means _________________.

Possible Answers:

to beg someone not to do something

to give someone a gift

to force someone to do something

to try and fail to do something

to ask someone anxiously to do something

Correct answer:

to ask someone anxiously to do something

Explanation:

From the context in the passage, it is clear that the narrator is anxiously asking (or begging) his attendants for help. We can tell from the context that "entreat" does not mean to force someone to do something, as there is no description of the attendants actually carrying out the requests. The definitions "to try and fail" and "to give a gift" can be eliminated because they do not make sense in context. The definition "to beg someone not to do something" could accidentally by chosen if students neglect to notice the word "not." It is clear from the context that the narrator is making a positive, not a negative, request.

Passage adapted from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)

Example Question #71 : Overall Language Or Specific Words, Phrases, Or Sentences

The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

 The phrase "imbecile rapacity" is closest in meaning to which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Overwhelming sadness

Doomed love

Idiotic greed

Aggressive strength

Impressive speed 

Correct answer:

Idiotic greed

Explanation:

"Imbecile rapacity" is closest in meaning to "idiotic greed." Students who do not know the meaning of the word rapacity, but know the word imbecile can reach the correct answer through process of elimination. Students who do not know either word can use context clues (such as the fact that greed is often associated with ivory) to reach the correct answer.

Passage adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899).

Example Question #33 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

“Shall I?” I said briefly; and I looked at his features, beautiful in their harmony, but strangely formidable in their still severity; at his brow, commanding, but not open; at his eyes, bright and deep and searching, but never soft; at his tall imposing figure; and fancied myself in idea his wife. Oh! it would never do! As his curate, his comrade, all would be right: I would cross oceans with him in that capacity; toil under Eastern suns, in Asian deserts with him in that office; admire and emulate his courage and devotion and vigour: accommodate quietly to his masterhood; smile undisturbed at his ineradicable ambition. . . . I should suffer often, no doubt, attached to him only in this capacity: my body would be under a rather stringent yoke, but my heart and mind would be free. I should still have my unblighted self to turn to: my natural unenslaved feelings with which to communicate in moments of loneliness. There would be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came; and sentiments growing there, fresh and sheltered, which his austerity could never blight, nor his measured warrior-march trample down: but as his wife—at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital—this would be unendurable.  

(1847)

Based on the context, the phrase "stringent yoke" is closest in meaning to which of the following? 

Possible Answers:

Well-intentioned advice

Strict control

Unrestrained freedom

Light guidance

Underserved punishment

Correct answer:

Strict control

Explanation:

A "yoke" is a device used to attach two animals and control them as they pull a plow or cart. The adjective "stringent" refers to something that is strict, harsh, or precise. Therefore, the author is using the image of a stringent yoke to communicate the idea of being under strict control. In context, this image of the body being under strict control is immediately contrasted with the freedom of heart and mind. The other possible answers do not make sense in context, especially when contrasted to the freedom of heart and mind.

Passage adapted from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847)

Example Question #34 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day's newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister's, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke's plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably "good:" if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers—anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlor, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter. Then there was well-bred economy, which in those days made show in dress the first item to be deducted from, when any margin was required for expenses more distinctive of rank. Such reasons would have been enough to account for plain dress, quite apart from religious feeling; but in Miss Brooke's case, religion alone would have determined it; and Celia mildly acquiesced in all her sister's sentiments, only infusing them with that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation. Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal's Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractations, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection. With all this, she, the elder of the sisters, was not yet twenty, and they had both been educated, since they were about twelve years old and had lost their parents, on plans at once narrow and promiscuous, first in an English family and afterwards in a Swiss family at Lausanne, their bachelor uncle and guardian trying in this way to remedy the disadvantages of their orphaned condition.

(1871) 

In the context, what does the word "relief" mean?  

Possible Answers:

emphasis 

alleviation 

None of these

disparity 

assuagement 

Correct answer:

emphasis 

Explanation:

The first few sentences of this passage are all about how Miss Brooke's beauty is emphasized by its contrast with her plain clothing. "Thrown into relief" means literally to be raised up or exaggerated. 

Passage adapted from Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871) 

Example Question #35 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Passage adapted from Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.

But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit.
The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!

Based on the rest of the passage, what can the word "terrible" best be inferred to mean in this context?

Possible Answers:

High

Beautiful

Rocky

Terrifying

Indoor

Correct answer:

Beautiful

Explanation:

In modern usage, "terrible" usually means horrible, or bad - but in 1897, when Stoker wrote Dracula, "terrible" was often used to describe the sublime. The sublime was usually related to the majesty and power of nature, a kind of awe-inspiring beauty. We see at the start of the second paragraph in this passage that the narrator refers to this "terrible precipice" and the sights around it as "beauty". Thus, "beautiful" is the best answer here.

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