SAT Literature Subject Test
Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test
This chapter covers characters, tense, and point of view. These are important components within the prose section of the SAT Literature Subject Test. By the end of this chapter, you should understand genre, character, and voice.
WHAT IS PROSE?
Prose is often described as everything that is not poetry. But this definition does not give prose enough credit. Prose is writing that does not have strict metrical rhythm. It’s how people speak; it’s the stuff of novels and speeches and essays and chronicles, comic books, pamphlets, tracts, newspaper articles, letters, dissertation—you get the point.
Prose is generally comprised of two categories: fiction and nonfiction. For the purposes of this test, it’s useless to distinguish between the two, as you’ll never have to decide if something is invented (fiction) or factual (nonfiction).
We’re going to take the basic approach to questions and discuss how that affects your approach to prose passages.
1. Look at the date. Older isn’t necessarily more challenging, but more modern prose will usually employ language that is more familiar. Think about what other works from that era you’ve read. While it’s unlikely that you’ve encountered that specific passage, it is likely that you’ve read something with similar themes, plot and tone.
2. Read the passage. Your first pass should really be to get a sense of what’s going on: The plot, the characters, and the narrative point of view (voice).
Plot, as you may already know, is what happens in the story. It’s what happens to the characters. It’s what we usually answer when people ask, “What’s that book about?” (“Well, it’s about this boy who discovers that he can flawlessly and convincingly imitate other people’s speech. He goes to school and …”) Plots, when they are at their best, reveal something to the reader about the characters. It is almost always more effective and enjoyable to show something about a character through a story line than just to tell the reader.
Plot is the story
Probably one of the main reasons people read is to meet new and interesting characters. Characters work in a story in many different ways. The protagonist, as you remember from the definition in the previous chapter, is the main character,
usually the hero or heroine of the story. Most of the time, the protagonist is a sympathetic character. In other words, he or she is someone you can relate to, someone whose problems you can understand. If a character is not sympathetic at all, the book may not be compelling enough. Think back on some of the books you have read throughout the years; how much could you sympathize with the plights of the protagonist?
It’s a Bird…
The protagonist, or hero,
is usually a sympathetic
Prose can be written in several different voices. The main voices are:
In first-person prose, the narrator is the main character in the story. The first person voice is easy to recognize because it uses the pronoun I in the narrative (not just in dialogue). For example, you might read, “I decided to speak up, so I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ ”
First-person voice is personal. Consider the first-person voice in the following passage, which immediately sets up a dialogue between the reader and the narrator. This is going to be his story. It is an intensely personal narrative, revealing much about the main character. It draws in the reader.
One limitation of the first-person voice is that the reader hears only one side of the story. Sometimes narrators don’t tell the truth. Sometimes they don’t notice everything that’s happening. First-person voice can be very subjective.
Third-person narratives use the third-person pronouns him, her, he, she, them, and they.
Third-person narration allows the author to maintain his or her own voice separate from the voices of the characters. It gives the author more freedom in that he or she is free to swoop down inside the characters’ heads and tell the reader things that the characters themselves don’t know. The third person can be restricted to one character’s point of view, or the author may choose to show a “bird’s-eye” view of the story from multiple points of view.
The third person allows for distance and objectivity. The writer is separate from the characters and can comment freely on them. He/she can remain objective and judge the characters or cast a critical eye on the proceedings. Pay attention to the interaction or relationship between the narrator/writer and the characters. Sometimes on the SAT Literature Subject Test you may be asked to identify what effect a certain word or description has on your perception of the character. You may need to identify what the author’s intentions are, or if he or she is objective or subjective in tone.
Other Points of View
You will rarely see other points of view in published works, although some recent modern novels have used them quite successfully. We mention them here in case you encounter them on future tests.
In second-person narration the author speaks using the pronoun “you,” like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story (“You walk into a class. You choose the same desk you always do. You sigh wearily.”). The second-person voice is often used to create a special relationship between the reader and the work. By using “you,” the author in effect makes the reader a character in the book, rather than just an observer. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is an example of a book written in the second person.
Another rarely used point of view is the first-person plural. This is when the narrator is a collection of first-person narrators. The book is narrated by a “we.” (“We looked into the crystal ball. What we saw there scared the bejesus out of every one of us.”) This technique forces the reader to concentrate more on what the story is about than on who is telling it. Jeffrey Eugenides, in his novel The Virgin Suicides, effectively employs this technique.
Try the following third-person passage and answer the questions that follow.
Now use your answers to the questions above to answer the following questions:
1. The structure of the passage is best described as
(A) two characters are compared and then contrasted
(B) each character is introduced and described
(C) two characters are compared to each other and then each is compared to an animal
(D) two characters’ physical characteristics are described, followed by their clothing
(E) characters’ outward appearances are stated, followed by their inner thoughts
2. The tone of the passage can best be described as
(A) barely hidden contempt
(B) dispassionate description
(C) unforgiving scrutiny
(D) supernatural invention
(E) focused inquiry
This passage is from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Answers can be found on this page.
Read the following first-person passage and answer the questions that follow.
1. The passage is best described as
(A) allegorical drama
(B) character introduction
(C) historical commentary
(D) interior monologue
(E) political satire
2. By the end of the passage, Ishmael emerges as
(A) ambitious gut generous
(B) crude and inconsiderate
(C) insecure and self-centered
(D) sensitive but self-confident
(E) temperamental but self-aware
All About Me
A first-person narrative
uses the pronoun I. This
voice is very personal
and revealing about a
3. In line 5, the word “spleen” most nearly means
4. Lines 5-15 (“Whenever I find … as soon as I can.”) contain which of the following?
III. parallel structure
(A) none of the above
(B) I only
(C) II only
(D) I & III only
(E) All of the above
This passage is from the opening lines of one of the great classics, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Answers can be found on this page.
Now try applying what you’ve learned so far to the opening of this short story.
1. The narrator’s tone can best be described as
(B) harshly critical
(C) wholly frustrated
(D) mildly emotional
(E) excessively casual
2. The effect of the repetition of the phrase “nobody was” is to
(A) introduce theme
(B) underscore a point
(C) instill a sense of loneliness
(D) refute a commonly held assumption
(E) present three contradictory elements
3. In the first paragraph, the author employs which of the following?
(A) Internal rhymes
(B) Mimicry of the speech of the lower class
(C) General comparison
(D) Parallel construction
(E) Introduction of the protagonist
This passage is from “Harrison Bergeron,” a short story in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection
of short stories Welcome to the Monkey House. Answers can be found on this page.
Take a look at the following passage and questions that follow.
1. From the passage, it is reasonable to infer that
(A) The audience was more interested in Marguerite’s graduation than she was
(B) Marguerite was surprised that her name was called
(C) The experience of graduating was more overwhelming than Marguerite had imagined
(D) Marguerite was unable to get her diploma
(E) Marguerite had tried to make a painting of the scene before it happened
2. The sentence “I neither marched up to the stage like a conquering Amazon, nor did I look in the audience for Bailey’s nod of approval” (lines 3-5) contains an example of
(A) authorial intrusion
(B) startling anachronism
(C) complicated syntax
(E) classical allusion
This selection is from the autobiography of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Answers are on this page.
Now put it all together with this excerpt and accompanying drill questions.
1. The passage as a whole can be said to be a contrast of
(A) center and periphery
(B) corruption and honesty
(C) intellect and physicality
(D) heaven and earth
(E) secular and divine
2. Lin’s attitude could best be described as
3. It is reasonable to infer that
(A) Lin is a professor in the city
(B) Lin is returning home after a long time away
(C) Lin is on vacation
(D) Lin is not used to the country
(E) Lin is blind to the beauty of the country
4. Which of the following is an example of personification?
(A) “Long cucumbers hung on trellises” (lines 15)
(B) “Chickens were strutting and geese waddling” (lines 11-12)
(C) “The air reeked of distillers’ grains mixed in the pig feed (lines 26-27)
(D) “From the kitchen, where Shuyu was cooking, came the coughing of the bellows” (lines 28-30)
(E) “Their sow was oinking from the pigpen” (lines 19-20)
5. The lines “Sure thing, he thought, Shuyu doesn’t know how to take care of books. Maybe I should give them to my nephews. These books are of no use to me anymore” (lines 7-10)
I. are an example of indirect dialogue
II. signify a shift in the narrator’s focus
III. represent a relinquishing of Lin’s pastoral life
(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) III only
(D) I, II, and III
(E) I and II
6. The “sour smell” (line 27) refers to
(A) Shuyu’s cooking
(B) the manure near the pigpen
(C) the pig feed
(D) the mildewed books
(E) the nearby field
7. The passage as a whole is best described as
(A) a paean to rural life
(B) an elegy for a lost time
(C) a detailed description of a place
(D) an epiphanic moment in a young man’s life
(E) an allegory of a homeward journey
The excerpt above is from Ha Jin’s Waiting. Answers can be found on this page.
Now test your skill on this passage.
1. The word “overlooking” (line 22) is meant to suggest that Mrs. Penniman does which of the following?
(A) Ignores Catherine’s talent
(B) Teaches Catherine how to play the piano
(C) Supervises Catherine’s piano playing
(D) Discourages Catherine
(E) Hires Catherine’s tutors
2. Which of the following does Mrs. Penniman use metaphorically to talk about her influence on Catherine?
(A) Addled eggs
(E) A fool
3. What does the author imply by the terms “it must be confessed that she made but a modest figure” (lines 25-26)?
(A) Catherine was trim and fit.
(B) Catherine was unaware of her talent.
(C) Catherine was unlikely to brag.
(D) Catherine was a talented dancer.
(E) Catherine was just an average dancer.
4. The narrative tone in the above piece can best be described as
5. The narrative point of view in the above passage is that of a
(A) third person
(C) second person
(D) sarcastic first person
(E) detached first person
6. In this context, “addled” (line 34) most nearly means
This passage is from Henry James’s Washington Square. Answers can be found on this page.
Did you get all that?
Before you move on, make sure you understand
• point of view