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Lucas Fink

SAT Reading Comprehension Challenge Questions: Long Fiction

Fiction might sound like a welcome break from the other more academic SAT reading passages, but it’s not necessarily any easier. It can be really dry, in truth.

So let’s see how well you hold up to a demonic reading passage. The excerpt below is long, old, full of characters to keep track of, and very subtle in its story.

Before you dive in, make sure you know how to read SAT fiction

By the way, SAT passages normally have line numbers down the left hand side of the passage for easy reference, but I don’t have that power here, so I’m putting some imaginary line numbers into the text itself. They’re just to make answering the questions easier.

Answers are at the bottom!

 

SAT fiction passage

The following passage is from an Irish short story published in 1914. The unnamed narrator hears about the death of a priest who he had been close with while at dinner with his aunt and uncle, who are raised him, and their guest.

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. (5) If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. (10) Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, but now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. (15) It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. (20) While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

“No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly… but there was something peculiar… there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion….” (25)

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery. (30)

“I have my own theory about it,” he said. “I think it was one of those… peculiar cases…. But it’s hard to say….”

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me: (35)

“Well, so your old friend is gone, you’ll be sorry to hear.”

“Who?” said I.

“Father Flynn.”

“Is he dead?”

“Mr. Cotter here has just told us. (40) He was passing by the house.”

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

“The youngster and he were great friends. (50) The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him.”

“God have mercy on his soul,” said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. (55) I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

“I wouldn’t like children of mine,” he said, “to have too much to say to a man like that.”(60)

“How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?” asked my aunt.

“What I mean is,” said old Cotter, “it’s bad for children. My idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be… Am I right, Jack?”

“That’s my principle, too,” said my uncle. “Let him learn to box his corner. (65) That’s what I’m always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that’s what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large…. (70) Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that leg mutton,” he added to my aunt.

“No, no, not for me,” said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.

“But why do you think it’s not good for children, Mr. Cotter?” she asked. (75)

“It’s bad for children,” said old Cotter, “because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect….”

I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile! (80)

It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter for alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. (85) I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas.

1. What does the narrator believe that “the reflection of candles on the darkened blind(lines 6-7) would signify?

  1. an arrival of a corpse to a funeral home
  2. the end of a vacation period
  3. a prediction having come true
  4. the grief of a close friend
  5. the uncovering of a body

2. In line 9, the word “idle” most nearly means

  1. lazy
  2. disused
  3. superfluous
  4. deceitful
  5. hollow

3. The narrator’s attitude toward paralysis (lines 11–18) could best be described as

  1. absolute horror
  2. morbid curiosity
  3. scientific interest
  4. quiet ambivalence
  5. abnormal concern

4. Old Cotter’s “endless stories about the distillery” (line 29) serve as an example of

  1. his enthusiasm for physical exercise
  2. one of his unspoken theories
  3. his obsessive fascination with an uninteresting topic
  4. a once engaging topic of conversation
  5. a source of the uncle’s disdain

5. In lines 42–43, the narrator most likely feigns disinterest at the news of Father Flynn’s death because he

  1. is wary of how his reactions may be received
  2. feels he must keep quiet to avoid confrontation with Old Cotter
  3. knows his house guest didn’t approve of Father Flynn
  4. is deeply affected and uncomfortable displaying his emotions
  5. believes the topic of conversation will change soon

6. Old Cotter’s states that he wouldn’t like his children “to have too much to say to a man like that” (lines 58–59) primarily to

  1. criticize the parenting style of the narrator’s aunt and uncle
  2. define what he believes is important in a child’s life
  3. express his distaste of children who speak to freely to adults
  4. mask his disgust for Father Flynn’s character
  5. convey disapproval of the narrator’s friendship with the deceased

7. The author uses the word “crammed” (line 78) in order to

  1. offset the otherwise peaceful atmosphere of the dinner
  2. emphasize how quickly the narrator is eating
  3. illustrate the narrator’s increasing frustration
  4. inject a small amount of humor into the story
  5. show the age of the narrator via the relative size of his spoon

8. The word “extract” (line 83) is closest in meaning to

  1. deduce
  2. extort
  3. release
  4. excerpt
  5. refine

9. In line 84, “the paralytic” refers to

  1. Old Cotter
  2. Father Flynn
  3. the unnamed corpse
  4. the narrator’s uncle
  5. the narrator’s aunt

 

RC answers and explanations

Don’t beat yourself up if you got some of them wrong—just make sure you take a good hard look at why you got it wrong.

1. What does the narrator believe that “the reflection of candles on the darkened blind” (lines 6-7) would signify?

  1. an arrival of a corpse to a funeral home
  2. the end of a vacation period
  3. a prediction having come true
  4. the grief of a close friend
  5. the uncovering of a body

The correct answer: (C). The prediction was the “I’m not long for this world” quote in lines 8–9.

The incorrect answers:

(A) There’s no funeral home mentioned in the passage. Nor does any corpse “arrive”—the candles would show that the man died.

(B) The length of vacation is unrelated to the candles.

(D) While the candles might indicate a death, we don’t know whether or not a “close friend” would light them, and they might be more ceremonial than emotional.

(E) The man is expected to die soon, having just suffered a third stroke. His body would not be “uncovered,” which implies it was hidden.

 

2. In line 9, the word “idle” most nearly means

  1. lazy
  2. disused
  3. superfluous
  4. deceitful
  5. hollow

The correct answer: (E). “Hollow” means something like “meaningless” in this context.

The incorrect answers:

(A) People can be lazy. Words can’t.

(B) “Disused” means “no longer used.” Again, that’s not applicable to words.

(C) “Superfluous” means “redundant” or “unnecessarily much.” The statement made is neither.

(D) Although the narrator doesn’t believe the words, that doesn’t mean the man was lying.

 

3. The narrator’s attitude toward paralysis (lines 11–18) could best be described as

  1. absolute horror
  2. morbid curiosity
  3. scientific interest
  4. quiet ambivalence
  5. abnormal concern

The correct answer: (B). “Morbid” things are about death and disease—like paralysis—and the narrator “longed to be nearer to it,” which suggests he was interested.

The incorrect answers:

(A) The word “absolute” is far to strong here, since the narrator says he wants to get closer to the paralysis and see its effects.

(C) There’s no reason to think the narrator has any scientific motivation. He’s interested, but only because of the fear mentioned.

(D) “Ambivalence” is too neutral of a word. He feels very strongly about it.

(E) He may be concerned, but we have no reason to call it “abnormal.” That’s not in the passage.

 

4. Old Cotter’s “endless stories about the distillery” (line 29) serve as an example of

  1. his enthusiasm for physical exercise
  2. one of his unspoken theories
  3. his obsessive fascination with an uninteresting topic
  4. a once engaging topic of conversation
  5. a source of the uncle’s disdain

The correct answer: (D). This is tricky because nobody would realize that “faints and worms” refer to something at the distillery without some Googling. We do know that Old Cotter used to be “rather interesting,” so the general idea seems to fit, but we have to get there by process of elimination anyway.

The incorrect answers:

(A) Although Cotter and the uncle talk about exercise later, the distillery has nothing to do with it.

(B) The “theories” mentioned refer to Cotter’s thoughts on Father Flynn.

(C) “Obsessive” is too strong. We know that he talks a lot about the distillery, but we can’t make this kind of judgment about his character with what we’re given.

(E) There’s no reason to think the uncles disdains anything. Not in the passage.

 

5. In lines 42–43, the narrator most likely feigns disinterest at the news of Father Flynn’s death because he

  1. is wary of how his reactions may be received
  2. feels he must keep quiet to avoid confrontation with Old Cotter
  3. knows his house guest didn’t approve of Father Flynn
  4. is deeply affected and uncomfortable displaying his emotions
  5. believes the topic of conversation will change soon

The correct answer: (A). Since he notes specifically that he’s “under observation,” we can imagine that the author is being careful about what he communicates to the people around him.

The incorrect answers:

(B) This refers to a later part of the story, when he is crams a spoon into his mouth. At this point, there’s no mention of possible confrontation.

(C) It becomes clear pretty soon after that Old Cotter didn’t think highly of the priest, but the narrator hasn’t mentioned that fact at this point in the story. He may not be aware of it.

(D) Even if he’s haunted by the priest’s face later in the passage, we don’t see anything at this point that shows he was “deeply affected.” His quietness seems more strategic than emotional.

(E) There’s no mention of other topics of conversation or the end of this one.

 

6. Old Cotter’s states that he wouldn’t like his children “to have too much to say to a man like that” (lines 58–59) primarily to

  1. criticize the parenting style of the narrator’s aunt and uncle
  2. define what he believes is important in a child’s life
  3. express his distaste of children who speak to freely to adults
  4. mask his disgust for Father Flynn’s character
  5. convey disapproval of the narrator’s friendship with the deceased

The correct answer: (E). The narrator was close with the “deceased” (Father Flynn), as mentioned by the uncle in line 49. Old Cotter is reacting to that fact.

The incorrect answers:

(A) This is too strong. We don’t know enough about his relationship with the aunt and uncle to say that he’s confronting them. Besides, they don’t seem to react as if that were the case.

(B) This may be how Old Cotter covers up his comment when he explains it to the aunt, but the main point of this conversation is the priest.

(C) There’s no mention of children speaking too freely.

(D) the word “mask” is opposite of what this statement does. He’s not covering up anything.

 

7. The author uses the word “crammed” (line 78) in order to

  1. offset the otherwise peaceful atmosphere of the dinner
  2. emphasize how quickly the narrator is eating
  3. illustrate the narrator’s increasing frustration
  4. inject a small amount of humor into the story
  5. show the age of the narrator via the relative size of his spoon

The correct answer: (C) the phrase “for fear I might give utterance to my anger” later in that sentence is key.

The incorrect answers:

(A) The dinner is actually pretty tense—at least from the narrator’s eyes.

(B) There’s no mention of the narrator eating quickly, and no other reason to suspect it.

(D) The word “cram” might be a kind of comically violent in some contexts, but the insult right after that (Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!”) warrants that violence pretty well.

(E) We don’t care about how old he is, and he doesn’t say anything about the spoon being too large for him.

 

8. The word “extract” (line 83) is closest in meaning to

  1. deduce
  2. extort
  3. release
  4. excerpt
  5. refine

The correct answer:  (A). “Deduce” means “figure out.”

The incorrect answers:

(B) “Extort” is kind of like “blackmail,” but by using physical force. That doesn’t make sense here.

(C) The unfinished sentences aren’t holding back their meaning. Release is too physical of a word.

(D) “Excerpt” means “take a piece from.” It’s like “quote.” No good.

(E) “Refine,” meaning make purer, isn’t possible, because there’s almost no meaning in the sentences in the first place. You can’t purify something that you don’t have.

 

9. In line 84, “the paralytic” refers to

  1. Old Cotter
  2. Father Flynn
  3. the unnamed corpse
  4. the narrator’s uncle
  5. the narrator’s aunt

The correct answer: (B) Although it’s been a while since we mentioned paralysis, we can be pretty sure that the man whose house the narrator was walking by in the beginning is the man who died—Father Flynn.

The incorrect answers:

(A) Old Cotter may be the closest name in the passage, but he wasn’t paralyzed.

(C) That corpse didn’t stay unnamed.

(D) &  (E) Neither aunt nor uncle were described as paralyzed.

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About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.


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