5 Steps to a 5: Writing the AP English Essay (2016)
Step 5. Build Your Test-taking Confidence
Chapter 12. Practice with Sample AP English Literature Exam Essays
IN THIS CHAPTER
Summary: Apply what you’ve learned to sample AP English Literature prompts and essays
Pull it all together
Consider the rubrics as guidelines
Read and assess actual student essays
“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those move easiest, who have learned to dance.”
By now we hope you’re exercising up a storm! The training you’ve undertaken guarantees that you’re not leaving your essays to chance, but applying what you’ve learned to write easily and artfully. What better opportunity to flex and strengthen those writing muscles than by answering an AP Literature prompt? Before you write, review the following pointers.
• Read and highlight the prompt. Thoroughly deconstruct it and determine your tasks (Chapter 5).
• Read and annotate the text(s) using our previous samples as models (Chapter 6).
• Connect the task and the texts by organizing, mapping, outlining, etc. (Chapter 6).
• Develop your thesis statement (Chapter 6).
• Strive for an introduction that will capture the reader (Chapter 7).
• Write your essay, addressing the demands of the prompt and referring specifically to the text(s).
• Cite references clearly (Chapter 8).
• Connect textual citations to the meaning of your essay (Chapter 8).
• Draw conclusions based on your information, the text, and the prompt.
• Pay attention to topic adherence.
• Use transitions, echo words, and other connectors to create unity in the essay.
• For the free response question, try for unique and original insights, as opposed to more common references.
• Validate your interpretations by anchoring and supporting the ideas with textual substantiation.
• Proofread. Pay attention to words you may have left out. Have you said what you intended to say? Add or delete information neatly (Chapter 9).
Sample AP English Literature Essay Prompt 1
Just as Catherine is introduced to Mr. Townsend in this episode from Washington Square, by Henry James, so, too, is the reader introduced to Catherine. In a well-written essay, discuss what we learn about Catherine and how James reveals her to his readers. Include various techniques of characterization in your essay.
Excerpt From Washington Square by Henry James
Mrs. Penniman, with more buckles and bangles than ever, came, of course, to the entertainment, accompanied by her niece; the Doctor, too, had promised to look in later in the evening. There was to be a good deal of dancing, and before it had gone very far, Marian Almond came up to Catherine, in company with a tall young man. She introduced the young man as a person who had a great desire to make our heroine’s acquaintance, and as a cousin of Arthur Townsend, her own intended.
Marian Almond was a pretty little person of seventeen, with a very small figure and a very big sash, to the elegance of whose manners matrimony had nothing to add. She already had all the airs of a hostess, receiving the company, shaking her fan, saying that with so many people to attend to she should have no time to dance. She made a long speech about Mr. Townsend’s cousin, to whom she administered a tap with her fan before turning away to other cares. Catherine had not understood all that she said; her attention was given to enjoying Marian’s ease of manner and flow of ideas, and to looking at the young man, who was remarkably handsome. She had succeeded, however, as she often failed to do when people were presented to her, in catching his name, which appeared to be the same as that of Marian’s little stockbroker. Catherine was always agitated by an introduction; it seemed a difficult moment, and she wondered that some people—her new acquaintance at this moment, for instance—should mind it so little. She wondered what she ought to say, and what would be the consequences of her saying nothing. The consequences at present were very agreeable. Mr. Townsend, leaving her no time for embarrassment, began to talk with an easy smile, as if he had known her for a year.
“What a delightful party! What a charming house! What an interesting family! What a pretty girl your cousin is!”
These observations, in themselves of no great profundity, Mr. Townsend seemed to offer for what they were worth, and as a contribution to an acquaintance. He looked straight into Catherine’s eyes. She answered nothing; she only listened, and looked at him; and he, as if he expected no particular reply, went on to say many other things in the same comfortable and natural manner. Catherine, though she felt tongue-tied, was conscious of no embarrassment; it seemed proper that he should talk, and that she should simply look at him. What made it natural was that he was so handsome, or rather, as she phrased it to herself, so beautiful. The music had been silent for a while, but it suddenly began again; and then he asked her, with a deeper, intenser smile, if she would do him the honour of dancing with him. Even to this inquiry she gave no audible assent; she simply let him put his arm round her waist—as she did so it occurred to her more vividly than it had ever done before, that this was a singular place for a gentleman’s arm to be—and in a moment he was guiding her round the room in the harmonious rotation of the polka. When they paused she felt that she was red; and then, for some moments, she stopped looking at him. She fanned herself, and looked at the flowers that were painted on her fan. He asked her if she would begin again, and she hesitated to answer, still looking at the flowers.
“Does it make you dizzy?” he asked, in a tone of great kindness.
Then Catherine looked up at him; he was certainly beautiful, and not at all red. “Yes,” she said; she hardly knew why, for dancing had never made her dizzy.
“Ah, well, in that case,” said Mr. Townsend, “we will sit still and talk. I will find a good place to sit.”
He found a good place—a charming place; a little sofa that seemed meant only for two persons. The rooms by this time were very full; the dancers increased in number, and people stood close in front of them, turning their backs, so that Catherine and her companion seemed secluded and unobserved. “We will talk,” the young man had said; but he still did all the talking. Catherine leaned back in her place, with her eyes fixed upon him, smiling and thinking him very clever. He had features like young men in pictures; Catherine had never seen such features—so delicate, so chiseled and finished—among the young New Yorkers whom she passed in the streets and met at parties. He was tall and slim, but he looked extremely strong. Catherine thought he looked like a statue. But a statue would not talk like that, and, above all, would not have eyes of so rare a colour. He had never been at Mrs. Almond’s before; he felt very much like a stranger; and it was very kind of Catherine to take pity on him. He was Arthur Townsend’s cousin—not very near; several times removed—and Arthur had brought him to present him to the family. In fact, he was a great stranger in New York. It was his native place; but he had not been there for many years. He had been knocking about the world, and living in far-away lands; he had only come back a month or two before. New York was very pleasant, only he felt lonely.
“You see, people forget you,” he said, smiling at Catherine with his delightful gaze, while he leaned forward obliquely, turning towards her, with his elbows on his knees.
It seemed to Catherine that no one who had once seen him would ever forget him; but though she made this reflection she kept it to herself, almost as you would keep something precious.
They sat there for some time. He was very amusing. He asked her about the people that were near them; he tried to guess who some of them were, and he made the most laughable mistakes. He criticized them very freely, in a positive, off-hand way. Catherine had never heard any one—especially any young man—talk just like that. It was the way a young man might talk in a novel; or better still, in a play, on the stage, close before the footlights, looking at the audience, and with every one looking at him, so that you wondered at his presence of mind. And yet Mr. Townsend was not like an actor; he seemed so sincere, so natural. This was very interesting; but in the midst of it Marian Almond came pushing through the crowd, with a little ironical cry, when she found these young people still together, which made every one turn round, and cost Catherine a conscious blush. Marian broke up their talk, and told Mr. Townsend—whom she treated as if she were already married, and he had become her cousin—to run away to her mother, who had been wishing for the last half-hour to introduce him to Mr. Almond.
“We shall meet again!” he said to Catherine as he left her, and Catherine thought it a very original speech.
Rubrics for Prompt 1
The following apply to a high-rated essay:
• Indicates complete understanding and support of the prompt
• Uses appropriate literary techniques to illustrate how James reveals the character of Catherine
• Thoroughly explores the methods of characterization
• Fully presents Catherine’s character
• Recognizes the underlying contrasts between Marion and Catherine
• Understands the developing relationship between Catherine and Mr. Townsend
• Understands the uses of narration in the passage
• Addresses the use of dialogue with regard to character
• Recognizes tone and mood and their relation to the prompt
• Responds insightfully to image, diction, and setting
• Presents suitable interpretations of the text and subtext
• Supports the thesis with appropriate details and examples
• Integrates references smoothly
• Catches the subtleties of the passage
• Presents inferences based on the text
• Uses transitions and echo words
• Demonstrates a mature writing style
• Exhibits few, if any, syntactical errors
Sample Student Essays
In this selection from Henry James’s Washington Square, the reader is introduced to a very shy and simple character named Catherine. Although Catherine speaks only once, replying, “yes,” when asked if she felt dizzy, Henry James uses other methods to give the reader an idea about her physical appearance, personality, and emotions. These narrative devices provide a portrait of a young woman, “always agitated by an introduction.”
The third person, or omniscient narration used in this passage gives the reader a picture of the party scene and the characters attending it. Although Catherine’s only dialogue throughout the entire piece is, “yes,” when asked if she felt dizzy, we are able to know what she is feeling and thinking. For example, when she notices how handsome or “beautiful” Mr. Townsend is, she says nothing. “Though she made this reflection, she kept it to herself, almost as you would keep something precious.” We can see from this and from other examples that she is a timid girl, deficient in social skills. She has trouble initially being introduced to Mr. Townsend and anecdotal remarks from the narrator inform us that, she is “always agitated by an introduction.” The narrator also reveals that Catherine is impressed by Mr. Townsend’s clever remarks and smooth conversation, but she says nothing. She also finds him very amusing, but she says nothing. Even at the end of the passage, when Marian Almond tears Mr. Townsend away from Catherine, she does not even reply to his farewell, but just gazes at him. James said she is “tongue-tied” and that, “it seemed proper that he should talk, and she should simply look at him.”
Catherine’s observations, which are revealed by the narrator, tell us a lot about her personality. In her quietness, she is observant and has a strong aesthetic sense. She is instantaneously infatuated with Mr. Townsend because when he spoke to her, “she answered nothing; she only listened, and looked at him.” She thinks he is “beautiful,” rather than simply “handsome,” which makes him seem god-like. This also shows her naïveté; Catherine’s adulation of Mr. Townsend makes it seem as if she has never seen a man before in her life. She compares him to “young men in pictures,” says he “looked like a statue,” and equates his use of language with “the way a young man might talk in a novel; or better still, in a play, on the stage, close before the footlights.” From Catherine’s observations of Mr. Townsend, we can learn two things about her personality: first, that she can appreciate beauty around her, and second, that physical appearance can easily hoodwink her. She knows nothing about Mr. Townsend, other than from his physical appearance and from his banter, yet she feels that he is “so sincere, so natural.” Catherine seems exceedingly eager to trust this “great stranger in New York,” a man she barely knows anything about.
Catherine’s interactions with others in the story also exemplify her simplicity and innocence, as well as her lack of self-esteem and assertiveness. She obviously does not feel good enough for a man as handsome as Mr. Townsend. “She wondered that some people—her new acquaintance at this moment, for instance—should mind it [her inability to interact or converse] so little.” She is well aware of her own social anxiety in the party setting and has very low self-esteem. This is evident in her interaction with Marian Almond. She admires Marian and wonders at her social skills and confidence, “she already had all the airs of a hostess, receiving the company . . .” At the end of the story, when Marian breaks up the conversation between Mr. Townsend and Catherine, Catherine says nothing; she sits back and allows Marian to escort Mr. Townsend away. This shows that she does not know how to stand up for herself and perhaps has a fear of people who are more aggressive and more confident than she is. She feels incapable of saying anything intelligent (or anything at all for that matter), which is possibly why she does not speak and admires Mr. Townsend’s “cleverness.” Catherine is the type of woman whose low self-confidence would enable others to trample all over her.
Catherine’s character is certainly developed by the contrast between her and the character of Marian Almond. There is also an obvious distinction between her and Mr. Townsend, as well. Marian is perhaps the type of girl Catherine would like to be, but would never have the self-confidence to become. Catherine admires her “small figure” and her “elegance.” From her admiration of Mr. Townsend’s “beauty,” it is further intimated that Catherine may not be the most elegant or stunning woman in the room. From Catherine’s extreme appreciation of the attractiveness of the other characters, the reader is given the basis to imagine that she, herself, is very plain. Catherine also admires Marian’s and Mr. Townsend’s cleverness. She is very impressed with the flow of words and ideas in Marian’s welcoming speech: “Catherine had not understood all that she said; her attention was given to enjoying Marian’s ease of manner and flow of ideas.” Even Mr. Townsend’s farewell, “We shall meet again!” awed Catherine. Catherine’s admiration of the usage of simple conventions of language shows the reader that she was not very worldly.
Henry James allows the reader to learn about an introverted, passive, and naïve woman without directly saying so in this selection from Washington Square. Instead of telling the reader about Catherine, he allows us to envision her for ourselves through the use of omniscient narration, Catherine’s observations, her interactions with others, and by contrasting her with other characters. Through clues and cues placed throughout the story, the reader can develop a picture of Catherine’s physical appearance, her intelligence, and her personality. From James’s keen characterization, the reader can deduce that Catherine is a simple woman whose ingenuousness will lead her into trouble as the rest of the story unfolds.
First impressions often leave an indelible mark on a person and future meetings often harken back to the original rendezvous. Henry James, author of Washington Square, understands this and emphasizes this point to the reader. It is from this point on that the reader sees Catherine’s true self and the weakness that is present in her character. The reader, not only is introduced to Catherine through her statements, but also through James’s structural and contextual selections. Moreover, Catherine’s overall nature is exemplified by James’s use of characterization, word choice, punctuation, and imagery.
Foremost, Catherine is a submissive girl who dutifully follows orders given to her, a trait characteristic of young women of that time period. This is emphasized by her dearth of communication. Mr. Townsend thoroughly dominates the conversation between Catherine and himself barely allowing her to speak, as is evidenced in the statements, “She answered nothing; she only listened” and “she felt tongue-tied.” This notion of submissiveness is underscored by Catherine’s usage of the sole word, “yes.” There are abundant illustrations that further illustrate her compliant nature, specifically, Catherine’s hesitation to answer questions: “She gave no audible assent,” Mr. Townsend’s speaking for both of them, “We will sit and talk.,” and Mr. Townsend’s control of the actions between the two “I will find a good place . . .” all serve to reinforce her submissive role.
James portrays Catherine as an inept girl who is unable to manage social situations and must rely on the help of others for guidance. The author utilizes dashes throughout the passage as a representation of the break in continuity that new introductions cause in Catherine’s mind. The dashes also precede Marian Almond’s interruption of Catherine’s conversation which further demonstrates the interruptive power of the dash with regard to Catherine’s personality.
Catherine is enamored with Mr. Townsend, yet lacks self-confidence and belief in her own capabilities. She is cognizant of her own awkwardness in social situations and introductions. Nonetheless, she praises the abilities of others, Mr. Townsend in particular, for their ability to remain calm during introductions. Thereafter, Mr. Townsend remarks “You see, people forget you.” Rather than respond to his comment, Catherine muses that no individual could forget Mr. Townsend.
This section of Washington Square is teeming with color imagery which further establishes Catherine’s character traits. The use of red, which can typify the color of a face flushed with embarrassment, solidifies the portrayal of Catherine’s awkwardness. However, red is also the color of passion and love, and in the final paragraph, James writes how Catherine blushes and turns red. Finally, the image of flowers is a recurring motif. Reinforcing the color imagery, flowers are often red. Catherine is analogous to a flower for she is a soft and delicate creature. Flowers are utilized as decorations and do not necessarily add anything of substance. Likewise, Catherine is solely meant to be gazed upon and is incapable of contributing anything of importance in her conversations with Mr. Townsend.
Throughout the passage Catherine is led by Mr. Townsend, and although she fails to speak her mind or respond in her conversations with Mr. Townsend, the reader, nevertheless, gains an in-depth understanding of her disposition. Catherine’s lack of self-confidence and desire to be loved is patent. Her insecurities and meek nature are readily apparent with even the most cursory of glances.
Rating the Student Essays
This high-ranking essay presents a solid, mature, and insightful discussion and analysis of Catherine’s character and how James reveals it. This student writer:
• Indicates complete understanding of the prompt;
• Cites appropriate details to support the thesis:
• Has a definite, clear progression of thought and a strong writer’s voice;
• Presents unique insights into the underlying theme;
• Demonstrates good topic adherence, transitions and, connective tissue;
• Uses inferences rather than plot to address the task.
This is a very effective essay because of its very unique stance and observations. This writer:
• Demonstrates a complete understanding of the prompt and the given text;
• Fully understands various methods of characterization;
• Correctly analyzes Catherine’s character and how she is revealed to the reader;
• Utilizes references to support sophisticated insights;
• Responds to the subtleties of the subtext;
• Effectively analyzes Mr. Townsend and his role in the scene;
• Responds to the uses of language and punctuation in the text;
• Demonstrates mature syntax and vocabulary.
Sample AP English Literature Essay Prompt 2
The following is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Morituri Salutamus,” written and presented by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation of the class of 1825 in Bowdoin College.
In a well-written essay, discuss the various perceptions of aging the poet presents and analyze the literary techniques and devices he employs to develop his ideas. Refer to such elements of the poet’s craft as imagery, metaphor, contrast, and symbol.
“Morituri Salutamus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Rubrics for Prompt 2
The following apply to a high-range essay:
• Indicates complete understanding of the requirements of the prompt
• Refers accurately to the thesis involving the contrast between the extremes of youth and age
• Understands the title and its appropriateness
• Recognizes and identifies the various perceptions of aging presented
• Utilizes appropriate references and details to present a coherent distinction between youth and age
• Is sensitive to the complex allusions, conceits, and diction
• Perceives Longfellow’s tone and intent
• Identifies the basis of Longfellow’s argument
• Identifies the poetic devices presented
• Interprets metaphors, images, symbols, etc.
• Responds to the imagery in the final stanza
• Uses smooth transitions and clear connective tissue
• Demonstrates a mature writing style
Sample Student Essays
In an address to his former classmates at the 50-year reunion of Bowdoin College’s class of 1825, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set out to invigorate and restore purpose to the lives of his elderly former classmates. Regardless of age, Longfellow asserts, human beings have the capacity for greatness. “Morituri Salutamus,” takes a great philosophic leap. Old age is not a time for withering away, claims the septuagenarian poet, but a time for new explorations, new adventures, and new discoveries. Longfellow’s poem itself proves great deeds can be accomplished toward the end of a lifetime. Vivid imagery, classic metaphors, relevant symbols, and deliberate structure contribute to making “Morituri Salutamus” an inspirational poem regarding a normally taboo subject—death.
The excerpt begins with a grand and powerful symbol, an allusion to the great gladiators of Rome. These courageous men stared death in the face, says Longfellow, even as their youths were in full bloom. The message is clear: If young men can face death so valiantly, the elderly can, too. In the ensuing lines, Longfellow acknowledges missing youth, utilizing images such as, “Book of Beginnings, Story without End, Aladdin’s Lamp, and Fortunatus’ Purse,” to describe the beauty of early life. In this part of the poem words like “flowers, aspirations, dreams, and treasures” help create a light and airy mood. The simple ABABAB rhyme scheme is almost childish, harkening back to the good old days of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The first 25 lines do not state a message, but set the stage for Longfellow’s upcoming advice.
The rhetorical question, “But why you ask me, should this tale be told/To men grown old, or who are growing old?” signals a transition in the poem. Now, Longfellow will discuss why his previous words are relevant to the group of elderly men assembled before him. Almost spontaneously, he shoots off a list of men who have accomplished great feats in the twilight of their lives. Cato, Sophocles, Simonides, Theophrastus, Chaucer, and Goethe are mentioned with their works. Longfellow’s method is simple and effective; by providing concrete examples, he adds weight to his claim that old age is not a burden.
After the intensity of the previous dozen lines, Longfellow steps back and reflects upon the realities of old age. “These are indeed exceptions,” he admits, “but they show/How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow/Into the arctic regions of our lives.” The water metaphors are certainly evocative; youth is filled with the heat and passion of the gulf-stream, while old age seems to descend into the frigidness and desolation of the arctic. Still, the arctic has a beauty all its own, and Longfellow believes this unique beauty can be tapped for creative pursuits. In almost mournful fashion, the poem continues to focus on the symbolic difference between hot and cold. Old age is the “waning, not the crescent moon/The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon . . . Not the fierce heat of fire/The burning and consuming element/But that of ashes and embers spent.” The tone of this portion is dark and resigned, in stark contrast to the rest of the poem. Here, Longfellow almost seems to give up hope; the isolated successes are a farce, and the elderly should just shut themselves up to die.
The moment of decision comes in lines 62 and 63. “What then? Shall we sit idly down and say/The night hath come; it is no longer day?” Longfellow follows this rhetorical question with a call to action. With an avalanche of metaphors and symbols, Longfellow asserts that the elderly can accomplish something. “The night hath not yet come,” therefore, go out and do something! He finishes the poem with the lines, “And as the evening twilight fades away/The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.” In essence, Longfellow says the wisdom of years can create opportunities that did not exist during youth. Finally, disappearing light creates a sense of urgency. Before long, the sky will be black forever, so expand your mind while you have the chance. Instead of fading quietly into the distance, Longfellow advises, leave the earth with a flourish of activity and determination.
The nearing of the cold winter, the falling of night, the dying fire—these have always been a poet’s best metaphors for aging and death. However, in Longfellow’s poem, “Morituri Salutamus,” he sees in aging not the end of what used to be the peak of one’s life. Instead he perceives aging as the last few opportunities for greatness that must be seized.
In the first 25 lines of his poem, Longfellow reveres the drama and glory of youth. In his youth, man can “stand face to face with death.” Addressing death directly allows Longfellow to demonstrate youth’s fearlessness and invincible disposition. Longfellow’s constant use of exclamation points enhances the soaring, invulnerable qualities of youth. In addition, he uses words such as “illusions, aspirations, dreams,” in succession, again to emphasize how incredible life can be when one is young.
Longfellow introduces a new segment of the poem with a rhetorical question. If this poem is directed toward, or, as the title suggests, written by dying people, why would Longfellow write about the splendors of youth? He explains that it is not too late for old men to be reminded of stories of young acts of heroism. It is not too late until one is officially pronounced dead. He then goes on to give examples of men in their old age that still managed to accomplish astonishing intellectual achievements. Indeed, the examples that Longfellow provides of the accomplishments of the older men are of an academic and theoretical nature, while the examples for men in their youth are mainly acts of bravery in conflict. By doing so he asserts that while the young have their strength, the elders are far nobler because they have wit and experience.
With a compassionate tone, Longfellow remarks that he understands that the men he had provided as examples were indeed exceptional. However, he uses them only to prove that humans, even in the “arctic regions” of their lives, can continue to exist and achieve great deeds.
Following his statement of honesty, Longfellow uses imagery to portray how most people perceive aging and its inevitable outcome. As he describes the “tell-tale blood” that “sinks from its higher levels in the brain,” it seems as though Longfellow has given up on his optimistic view of aging. After all, he proclaims, “old age is still old age.” He even uses the commonplace metaphors of a “waning moon,” and the “dusk of evening.”
However, the poem takes a turn yet again when Longfellow remarks that there are some “sparks left in a dead fire which can still glow.” Again, Longfellow uses a rhetorical question to ask how we should respond to nature’s warnings. In this final section, Longfellow reminds us that age provides every opportunity that youth does. In his final sentence he reminds us that even as dusk turns into night, the stars, our legacy, still burn at night. They remind us of what we are able to accomplish even as night begins to fall.
Rating the Student Essays
With great facility, this writer analyzes the essence of Longfellow’s poem, capturing the various tones and moods of the work. This essay:
• Presents perceptive insights regarding aging and death;
• Provides strong textual support for the analytical points;
• Includes unique interpretations of imagery;
• Thoroughly analyzes the progression of ideas presented in the poem;
• Demonstrates a facility with poetic language and devices;
• Uses vivid diction with a smooth, mature writing style.
This writer effectively utilizes textual references to support his insightful analysis. The sensitivity to the contrast of youth and age raises the quality of the essay as a whole. This student is also not afraid to be critical of the poet’s craft, revealing a mature sense of literary style. This student:
• Accurately addresses the prompt;
• Understands the poet’s position on aging;
• Refers to suitable textual material to support the thesis;
• Demonstrates an ability to handle poetic analysis;
• Stays on topic;
• Covers the scope of the passage;
• Identifies the tone accurately;
• Draws appropriate connections and inferences;
• Uses transitions and connective tissue.
Sample AP English Literature Essay Prompt 3
A secret is a double-edged sword. It is a burden to be kept, and it is a temptation to be revealed. Each decision brings with it consequences that can affect and alter the direction and meaning of a work of literature.
From the full-length works you have studied, choose one in which a secret revealed or a secret withheld contributes to the development of theme, character, or conflict. Discuss the nature of the secret, its consequences, and the effects it has on meaning in the work.
You may choose from the following list or another full-length novel or play of literary merit.
Rubrics for Question 3
The following apply to a high-range essay:
• Effectively and coherently addresses the prompt
• Clearly delineates the nature of the secret and its consequences
• Chooses an appropriate novel or play
• Includes insightful references to support and illustrate the effects of the secret and their relation to meaning
• Thoroughly discusses the character’s nature and its relation to the theme
• Clearly adheres to the topic
• Develops the thesis with substantial evidence
• Demonstrates a mature writing style
Sample Student Essays
“Secrets, secrets are no fun/Secrets, secrets hurt someone,” goes an old childhood rhyme. Though a mere, childlike poem, it contains a good deal of truth. A secret can be as burdensome to keep as Christian’s load in the novel, A Pilgrim’s Progress, or as tempting to reveal as the serpent’s apple in the Garden of Eden. In literature, a secret kept or a secret withheld affects the themes, characters, and conflicts within the story. Specifically, in the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the protagonists, Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, two members of seventeenth century Puritan society, possess a secret that deeply influences the novel’s themes, characters, conflicts, and symbols.
Between Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale exists a secret of a forbidden love and passion, a secret of adultery, manifested by Pearl their illegitimate child. Since their meetings often take place in the forest, the covert sin emphasizes the importance of physical settings within the novel, evoking a motif of civilization versus wilderness. Symbolically, the forest becomes a place where witches gather, souls sign themselves to the devil, and Dimmesdale can “yield himself with delicate choice . . . to what he knew was deadly sin.” However, it is also a place where Hester can throw away her scarlet letter, the symbolic sign of sin, and where lovers can freely embrace; it is a place of freedom governed by natural laws, as opposed to the artificial, strict community of man-made Puritan law. The woods, a place of possibility and frankness, are in conflict with the Puritan town where order, harsh punishment, and the burden of secrecy reign.
Because Hester admits to committing adultery and Dimmesdale does not, the secret of their love and sin heavily influences the characters’ developments. For Hester, who must stand on the scaffold and wear the scarlet letter “A,” the secret is out in the open, lifting the burden of guilt off her shoulders. Later in the novel, the “A” on her bosom ceases being a sign of infamy and begins to stand for “able.” However, for Dimmesdale the secret remains hidden, and he constantly stands with “his hand over his heart,” a symbol of his “concealed sin.” His continuous refusal to reveal that he is Pearl’s father weighs upon his conscience, and the secret remains hidden deep within his soul, destroying his heart and body, eventually bringing about his demise, standing as a stark contrast to Hester, who has the “embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom.”
Due to this secret surrounding her birth, Pearl is described as an imp, a child incapable of becoming a member of Puritan society. As a living scarlet letter, Pearl urges the Reverend to admit his secret, and only after he admits his sin is she described as a human being.
The clandestine sin creates themes and symbols in the novel. The scaffold, ironically a place of humiliation, is the one place that can grant salvation to Dimmesdale and Hester. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale stands at night with Hester and Pearl, the darkness symbolizing his inner suffering and inability to publicly acknowledge the secret. The three stand “as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, representing the truth and freedom that the scaffold holds.” It is only at the end when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold and publicly admits to the secret that he can be freed.
Hawthorne’s main message and theme in the novel is described in the epilogue as, “Be true! Be true,” vehemently urging all to reveal secrets and sins. Evil is not always within the transgression but may be within the secrecy and concealment of the offense.
Unveiled to the world, a secret may have disastrous effects, yet a secret withheld could also produce dire consequences. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein has a terrible secret hidden away from the world, one that has disastrous effects upon the world he is trying to protect and upon himself.
Originally intended to be a laudable achievement, Victor’s secret was a life-changing mistake. He creates life, an unthinkable accomplishment that, at first, seems to have only good dividends. However, the burden of playing a god is too great for Victor, and he suffers for his actions. As a result of the responsibility and guilt of this secret, Frankenstein suffers both emotionally and physically.
Physically, Victor is distraught and wracked with illness after his monster claims the lives of family members and close friends, including his best friend Clerval. Depressed, Frankenstein has several episodes of sickness where he is too weak to get out of bed.
Emotionally, Victor suffers even more. His friend is framed for the murder of his brother, and although he knows it is his creation that is guilty, he can not bring himself to give up his secret. These resulting bouts of depression contribute to his physical ailments, also.
Although this secret affects him greatly, he is not the only one to suffer. Due to his poor choices, Victor places society-at-large in danger. But, fortunately, the monster wants revenge only on Frankenstein, not the human race in general. The monster’s threat to “be with you [Frankenstein] on your wedding night” could just easily have been a threat to mankind.
Using the narrative about the creation of the monster, Mary Shelley’s novel focuses on the effects that having dangerous secrets can have on the individual and society. If Frankenstein told the authorities about his monster at any point in the novel, something could have been done to ensure everyone’s safety. The secrets that man keeps can change a person, a family, even a world. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor’s secret contributes to personal development that affects his entire world.
Rating the Student Essays
This essay conveys the essence and effects of the secrets in The Scarlet Letter, providing evidence from the novel with regard to effects on character, conflict, and theme. This student:
• Understands and addresses the requirements of the prompt;
• Effectively and thoroughly presents examples and references to defend the thesis;
• Indicates a strong connection between character, theme, and the secret;
• Adeptly utilizes the vocabulary of literary analysis;
• Demonstrates excellent topic adherence;
• Uses good connective tissue;
• Presents mature insights into the theme and character relationships.
Although this essay could have benefited from further development, the material that is presented indicates a successful AP student mind at work. This essay:
• Clearly demonstrates that the writer understands the relationship between task and text;
• Includes appropriate references and interpretations;
• Incorporates unifying elements such as transitions and echo words;
• Has strong topic adherence;
• Utilizes syntax expected of an AP English student.