SSAT Middle Level Reading : Determining Authorial Attitude in Narrative Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Middle Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Humanities Passages

Adapted from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)

 I am told that while I was still in long dresses I showed many signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition. Everything that I saw other people do I insisted upon imitating. At six months I could pipe out "How d'ye," and one day I attracted every one's attention by saying "Tea, tea, tea" quite plainly. Even after my illness I remembered one of the words I had learned in these early months. It was the word "water," and I continued to make some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I ceased making the sound "wah-wah" only when I learned to spell the word.

They tell me I walked the day I was a year old. My mother had just taken me out of the bathtub and was holding me in her lap, when I was suddenly attracted by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor. I slipped from my mother's lap and almost ran toward them. The impulse gone, I fell down and cried for her to take me up in her arms.

These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mockingbird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness that closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a newborn baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.

I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my wailing hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free. But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown."

Based on the narrator's description of herself in the first two paragraphs, which of the following adjectives best describes the narrator?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



In the first paragraph, the narrator describes how she "showed many signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition" while she was young. "Everything that I saw other people do I insisted upon imitating," she continues. In the second paragraph, the narrator says, "They tell me I walked the day I was a year old" and then goes on to describe this scene. Based on this description, the narrator is best described as "precocious," an adjective that when used to describe young children means having developed or learned to do certain things at an earlier age than is typical for most children. None of the other answer choices would be apt descriptions of the narrator based on the way she describes herself in the passage's first paragraph: "obtuse," when used to describe people, means not easily understanding things; "petulant" means peevishirritable, or cranky; "belligerent" means eager and willing to fight; and "obstinate" means refusing to change one's opinion or plan of action despite other people wanting one to do so.

Example Question #1 : Ssat Middle Level Reading Comprehension

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

Athens and Sparta were both Greek cities and their people spoke a common language. In every other respect they were different. Athens rose high from the plain. It was a city exposed to the fresh breezes from the sea, willing to look at the world with the eyes of a happy child. Sparta, on the other hand, was built at the bottom of a deep valley, and used the surrounding mountains as a barrier against foreign thought. Athens was a city of busy trade. Sparta was an armed camp where people were soldiers for the sake of being soldiers. The people of Athens loved to sit in the sun and discuss poetry or listen to the wise words of a philosopher. The Spartans, on the other hand, never wrote much that was considered literature, but they knew how to fight, they liked to fight, and they sacrificed all human emotions to their ideal of military preparedness.

No wonder that these sombre Spartans viewed the success of Athens with malicious hate. The energy which the defense of the common home had developed in Athens was now used for purposes of a more peaceful nature. The Acropolis was rebuilt and was made into a marble shrine to the goddess Athena. Pericles, the leader of the Athenian democracy, sent far and wide to find famous sculptors and painters and scientists to make the city more beautiful and the young Athenians more worthy of their home. At the same time he kept a watchful eye on Sparta and built high walls that connected Athens with the sea and made her the strongest fortress of that day.

An insignificant quarrel between two little Greek cities led to the final conflict. For thirty years, the war between Athens and Sparta continued. It ended in a terrible disaster for Athens.

During the third year of the war the plague had entered the city. More than half of the people and Pericles, the great leader, had been killed. The plague was followed by a period of bad and untrustworthy leadership. A brilliant young fellow by the name of Alcibiades had gained the favor of the popular assembly. He suggested a raid upon the Spartan colony of Syracuse in Sicily. An expedition was equipped and everything was ready. But Alcibiades got mixed up in a street brawl and was forced to flee. First he lost his ships and then he lost his army, and the few surviving Athenians were thrown into the stone-quarries of Syracuse, where they died from hunger and thirst.

The expedition had killed all the young men of Athens. The city was doomed. After a long siege, the town surrendered in April of the year 404. The high walls were demolished. The navy was taken away by the Spartans. Athens ceased to exist as the center of the great colonial empire that it had conquered during the days of its prosperity. But that wonderful desire to learn and to know and to investigate that had distinguished her free citizens during the days of greatness and prosperity did not perish with the walls and the ships. It continued to live. It became even more brilliant.

Athens no longer shaped the destinies of the land of Greece. But now, as the home of a great university, the city began to influence the minds of people far beyond the narrow frontiers of Hellas.

The author’s attitude towards Athens is primarily one of __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The author adopts a “respectful” attitude towards Athens throughout the whole passage. This can be seen in the opening paragraph in the manner in which he characterizes the Athenian state, but is most clearly seen in the concluding paragraphs in excerpts such as “But that wonderful desire to learn and to know and to investigate which had distinguished her free citizens during the days of greatness and prosperity did not perish with the walls and the ships. It continued to live. It became even more brilliant.” “Disdain” means scorn, so this is clearly not correct; “love” is too extreme of an answer, and “interest” is too mild.

Example Question #21 : Language In Literature Passages

Adapted from "The Loon" by Henry David Thoreau in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before.

He maneuvered so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the wildest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.

He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the plash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a waterfowl, but occasionally when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird, as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.

In this passage, the loon is primarily characterized as __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



This passage tells the story of the author’s attempts to track down a loon (a type of bird that swims in water like a duck) that he encounters on the lake near where he lives. The author characterizes the loon primarily as a cunning and wily animal that knows how to evade human capture and makes a mockery of human beings. You could reasonably say that the loon is characterized as “sneaky,” but from the use of language it is clear that “crafty” is the better option. This is most clearly seen in excerpts such as “He maneuvered so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him" ("cunning" being a synonym of "crafty") and “ . . . occasionally when he had balked me most successfully."

Example Question #1 : Analyzing The Text In History Passages

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

During the first twenty years of his life, young Napoleon was a professional Corsican patriot—a Corsican Sinn Feiner, who hoped to deliver his beloved country from the yoke of the bitterly hated French enemy. But the French revolution had unexpectedly recognised the claims of the Corsicans and gradually Napoleon, who had received a good training at the military school of Brienne, drifted into the service of his adopted country. Although he never learned to spell French correctly or to speak it without a broad Italian accent, he became a Frenchman. In due time he came to stand as the highest expression of all French virtues. At present he is regarded as the symbol of the Gallic genius.

Napoleon was what is called a fast worker. His career does not cover more than twenty years. In that short span of time he fought more wars and gained more victories and marched more miles and conquered more square kilometers and killed more people and brought about more reforms and generally upset Europe to a greater extent than anybody (including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan) had ever managed to do.

He was a little fellow and during the first years of his life his health was not very good. He never impressed anybody by his good looks and he remained to the end of his days very clumsy whenever he was obliged to appear at a social function. He did not enjoy a single advantage of breeding or birth or riches. For the greater part of his youth he was desperately poor and often he had to go without a meal or was obliged to make a few extra pennies in curious ways.

He gave little promise as a literary genius. When he competed for a prize offered by the Academy of Lyons, his essay was found to be next to the last and he was number 15 out of 16 candidates. But he overcame all these difficulties through his absolute and unshakable belief in his own destiny, and in his own glorious future. Ambition was the main-spring of his life. The thought of self, the worship of that capital letter "N" with which he signed all his letters, and which recurred forever in the ornaments of his hastily constructed palaces, the absolute will to make the name Napoleon the most important thing in the world next to the name of God, these desires carried Napoleon to a pinnacle of fame which no other man has ever reached.

The author’s attitude towards Napoleon is primarily one of __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



It is clear that the author has great respect (“reverence”) for Napoleon from excerpts such as “In due time he came to stand as the highest expression of all French virtues," as well as the author’s belief that Napoleon had no advantages of birth and yet raised himself up to one of the most powerful and influential men in history. Certainly the author’s attitude could not be described as “anger” or “confusion.” “Forgiveness” might make sense in the context of Napoleon’s life, but does not fit with the tone of this text. Finally, “commiseration” only makes up a small part of this text. To “commiserate” means to share in someone’s suffering and offer comfort. The author does this when he talks about Napoleon’s disadvantages of birth, but it is not the primary attitude in this text.

Example Question #1 : How To Determine And Analyze Theme In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from "The Dartmoor Ponies, or the Wandering of the Horse Tribe" by Arabella B. Buckley in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

It was a calm misty morning one day last week, giving promise of a bright and sunny day, when I started off for a long walk across the moor to visit the famous stone-circles, many of which are to be found not far off the track called Abbot’s Way, leading from Buckfast Abbey to the Abbey of Tavistock.

My mind was full of the olden times as I pictured to myself how, seven hundred years or more ago, some Benedictine monk from Tavistock Abbey paced this narrow path on his way to his Cistercian brothers at Buckfast, meeting some of them on his road as they wandered over the desolate moor in search of stray sheep. For the Cistercians were shepherds and wool-weavers, while the Benedictines devoted themselves to learning, and the track of about twenty-five miles from one abbey to the other, which still remains, was worn by the members of the two communities, the only variety in whose lives consisted probably in these occasional visits to each other.

Yet even these monks belonged to modern times compared to the ancient Britons who raised the stone-circles over the moor; and my mind drifted back to the days when, long before that pathway was worn, men clad in the skins of beasts hunted wild animals over the ground on which I was treading, and lived in caves and holes of the ground.

I wondered, as I thought of them, whether the monks and the ancient Britons delighted as much in the rugged scenery of the moor as I did that morning. For many miles in front of me the moor stretched out wild and treeless, while the early mist was rising off the hill-tops. It was a pleasure, there on the open moor, with the lark soaring overhead, and the butterflies and bees hovering among the sweet-smelling furze blossoms, to see horses free and joyous, with no thought of bit or bridle, harness or saddle, whose hooves had never been handled by the shoeing-smith, nor their coats touched with the singeing iron. Those little colts, with their thick heads, shaggy coats, and flowing tails, will have at least two years more liberty before they know what it is to be driven. Only once a year are they gathered together, claimed by their owners and branded with an initial, and then left again to wander where they will.

The horses in the last paragraph are primarily characterized by their __________.

Possible Answers:

ancient lineage


fear of people



Correct answer:



The passage in general is an expression of the author’s love of the wilderness and the freedom of nature. This, combined with the language in the final paragraph, tells you that the horses are primarily characterized by their “freedom.” This can be seen in excerpts such as "horses free and joyous, with no thought of bit or bridle, harness or saddle, whose hooves had never been handled by the shoeing-smith" and “Those little colts, with their thick heads, shaggy coats, and flowing tails, will have at least two years more liberty before they know what it is to be driven.”

Example Question #4 : Analyzing Tone, Style, And Figurative Language In Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from "Wild Animals in Captivity" by W. A. Atkinson in Chatterbox Periodical (1906, ed. J. Erskine Clark)

Notwithstanding all the care which is now bestowed upon wild animals in our zoological gardens and menageries, nearly all of them suffer a little in some way or other by confinement. When we think of the great difference which exists between the surroundings natural to a free wild animal, and those of even the best zoological gardens, we cannot but be surprised that so many animals from all parts of the world can be kept alive and in good condition in a climate so changeable as ours. Every effort is made by the keepers to copy as far as possible the natural conditions to which each animal is accustomed.

It was usual, for instance, to deprive all the flesh-eating animals of one of the greatest traveling menageries of food during one day in each week. It was found by experience that the animals were healthier when they suffered periods of fasting like this, than they were when they were fed regularly every day without a break. The explanation of this was very simple. These animals, when they were living wild in the jungles, forests, deserts, or ice-fields, obtained all their food by hunting. When game was scarce or difficult to catch, they were compelled to go hungry; and this occurred so often as to be a natural condition to which they were well accustomed. When, therefore, they were placed in cages, and were fed as regularly, though not as frequently as human beings, their health was more or less impaired.

Animals in confinement often undergo slight changes even when no alteration in their appearance or falling-off in health is noticeable. Many of them, for instance, rarely have young ones, and even when they have, the young are seldom as healthy and robust as if born in a wild state. The keepers have frequently the utmost difficulty in rearing animals which are born in menageries and zoological gardens. Yet if these animals were born in their own countries and under natural conditions, they would grow up healthy and strong, without receiving any more care than a kitten receives from its mother.

An incident which occurred in the Zoo not long ago affords a striking illustration of these facts. A wolf had an ordinary family of eight young ones. The keepers, probably thinking that these were too many for the captive wolf to bring up alone, divided the family. Four of them were left with their mother, and four of them were placed in charge of a collie. The dog took kindly to her foster-children, and reared them successfully with her own. This was only what the keepers expected. But when they placed the young ones together again, and compared the collie's family with the wolf's family, they were surprised to find that the four which had been nurtured by the collie were stronger and better animals than their four brothers and sisters. The best explanation of this result is that the collie was living a healthy natural life, while the wolf, though to all appearance quite well, was not enjoying the full vigor which results from a free and active life.

Which of these best captures the author’s attitude towards the success of zoological gardens?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The author’s attitude towards the success of zoological gardens is one of surprise. This can be gleaned from an analysis of the types of words the author often employs, like “striking,” “astonishing,” or “surprise.” Or, it can be determined in the following excerpt: “When we think of the great difference which exists between the surroundings natural to a free wild animal, and those of even the best zoological gardens, we cannot but be surprised that so many animals from all parts of the world can be kept alive and in good condition in a climate so changeable as ours.” Finally, it could be inferred from an understanding of the overall argument of the passage and what that might suggest the author would expect of zoological gardens. 

Example Question #1 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "A Very Narrow Shave" by John Lang in Adventures in Many Lands (1912)

It was a cold, clear, frosty morning when we started, the stars throbbing and winking as they seem to do only during frost, and we toiled, not particularly gaily, up the bed of a creek, stumbling in the darkness and barking our shins over more boulders and big stones than one would have believed existed in all creation. Just before dawn, when the grey light was beginning to show us more clearly where we were going, we saw in the sand of the creek fresh tracks of a large bear, the water only then beginning to ooze into the prints left by his great feet, and I can hardly say that I gazed on them with the amount of enthusiasm that Halley professed to feel.

The author primarily characterizes the expedition as __________.

Possible Answers:


a waste of time

very challenging

cold and dreary


Correct answer:

very challenging


Although the author does mention that it was “cold,” this is not the primary characterization of the expedition. Instead, it is much more reasonable to say that the author is characterizing it as “very challenging.” The author says “we toiled" and, "stumbling in the darkness . . . over more boulders and big stones than one would have believed existed in all creation.” The general tone and attitude is one of great irritation at the challenges of the journey.

Example Question #11 : Ssat Middle Level Reading Comprehension

Passage adapted from the Preface to The Woman in White (1859) by Wilkie Collins

One word more, before I conclude, in acknowledgment of the heavy debt of gratitude which I owe to the reading public. It is no affectation on my part to say that the success of this book has been especially welcome to me, because it implied the recognition of a literary principle which has guided me since I first addressed my readers in the character of a novelist.

I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art, was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character — for this plain reason, that the effect produced by any narrative of events is essentially dependent, not on the events themselves, but on the human interest which is directly connected with them. It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters; their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women — for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.

Which statement best describes the author's attitude towards characters in stories?

Possible Answers:

Readers aren't interested in characters.

Characters are unnecessary to storytelling.

It's easy to tell a story without characters.

Characters are essential to storytelling.

Correct answer:

Characters are essential to storytelling.


The key to this question lies in this sentence: "it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters." We can eliminate the possibility that the author thinks characters are either unnecessary to or difficult to include in storytelling. Finally, we can eliminate the option "Readers aren't interested in characters" by referring to the final sentence of the passage: "The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women," meaning a narrative about characters. "Characters are essential to storytelling" is our best answer choice. 

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