AP Literature Examination: Question 3 (40 minutes)

Usually the last (third) question on the AP Literature examination is reasonably broad in scope, and it asks you to discuss one novel or play in detail. By scanning the questions below, you can see that there are some themes which come up again and again in different formulations: (1) going outside the norm; (2) tragedy; (3) comedy; (4) the use of language. Not all years are like this, however; see, for example, 2006! Prepare for the examination by having two different texts at your fingertips: know the plot, the characters, and some extra spice -- little quotations, and detailed plot/character/thematic information which will really set your answer off from the rest of the pack. The question will list texts on the page that you might use, but you can instead choose "another novel or play of similar quality." Most texts we study at Westminster qualify.

 

2008        In a literary work, a minor character, often known as a foil, possesses traits that emphasize, by contrast or comparison, the distinctive characteristics and qualities of the main character. For example, the ideas or behavior of the minor character might be used to highlight the weaknesses or strengths of the main character. Choose a novel or play in which a minor character serves as a foil to a main character. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the relation between the minor character and the major character illuminates the meaning of the work.

 

2007        In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present actions, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character's relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

 

2006        Many writers use a country setting to establish values within a work of literature. For example, the country may be a place of virtue and peace or one of primitivism and ignorance. Choose a novel or play in which such a setting plays a significant role. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the country setting functions in the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

 

2005        In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), protagonist Edna Pontellier is said to possess “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”  In a novel or play that you have studied, identify a character who conforms outwardly while questioning inwardly.  Then write an essay in which you analyze how this tension between outward conformity and inward questioning contributes to the meaning of the work.  Avoid mere plot summary.

 

2004        Critic Roland Barthes has said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.”  Choose a novel or play and, considering Barthes’ observation, write an essay in which you analyze a central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers any answers.  Explain how the author’s treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole.  Avoid mere plot summary.

 

2003        According to critic Northrop Frye, “Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass.  Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning.”  Select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others.  Then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by the figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole.  Avoid mere plot summary.

 

2002        Morally ambiguous characters—characters whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good—are at the heart of many works of literature.  Choose a novel or play in which a morally ambiguous character plays a pivotal role.  Then write an essay in which you explain how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous and why his or her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole.  Avoid mere plot summary. 

 

2001        One definition of madness is “mental delusion or the eccentric behavior arising from it.”  But Emily Dickinson wrote: “Much madness is divinest sense— / To a discerning Eye—”  Novelists and playwrights have often seen madness with a “discerning Eye.”  Select a novel or play in which a character’s apparent madness or irrational behavior plays an important role.  Then write a well-organized essay in which you explain what this delusion or eccentric behavior consists of and how it might be judged reasonable.  Explain the significance of the “madness” to the work as a whole.  Do not merely summarize the plot.

 

2000        Many works of literature are not readily identified with the mystery or detective story genre [but?] nonetheless involve the investigation of a mystery. In these works, the solution to the mystery may be less important than the knowledge gained in the process of its investigation. Choose a novel or play in which one or more of the characters confront a mystery. Then write an essay in which you identify the mystery and explain how the investigation illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

 

1999        The eighteenth-century British novelist Laurence Sterne wrote, "No body, but he who has felt it, can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man's mind torn asunder by two projects of equal strength, both obstinately pulling in a contrary direction at the same time." From a novel or play choose a character (not necessarily the protagonist) whose mind is pulled in conflicting directions by two compelling desires, ambitions, obligations, or influences. Then, in a well-organized essay, identify each of the two conflicting forces and explain how this conflict within one character illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

 

1998        In his essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau offers the following assessment of literature:

In literature it is only the wild that attracts us.

Dullness is but another name for tameness.  It is the

uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and The Iliad,

in all scriptures and mythologies, not learned in schools,

that delights us.  

                From the works you have studied in school, choose a novel, play or epic poem that you may initially have thought was conventional and tame but that you now value for its “uncivilized free and wild thinking.”  Write an essay in which you explain what constitutes its “uncivilized free and wild thinking” and how that thinking is central to the value of the work as a whole.  Support your ideas with specific references to the work you choose.

 

1997        Novels and plays often include scenes of weddings, funerals, parties, and other social occasions.  Such scenes may reveal the values of the characters and the society in which they live.  Select a novel or play that includes such a scene and, in a focused essay, discuss the contribution the scene makes to the meaning of the work as a whole. 

 

1996        The British novelist Fay Weldon offers this observation about happy endings: "The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events--a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death--but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death." Choose a novel or play that has the kind of ending Weldon describes. In a well-written essay, identify the "spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation" evident in the ending and explain its significance in the work as a whole.

 

1995        Writers often highlight the values of a culture or a society by using characters who are alienated from that culture or society because of gender, race, class, or creed. Choose a play or novel in which such a characters plays a significant role and show how that character's alienation reveals the surrounding society's assumptions and moral values.

 

1994        In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant presence.  Choose a novel or play of literary merit and write an essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work.  You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters.  Avoid plot summary.

 

1993        “The true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.”

                                                                                                                                —George Meredith

                Choose a novel, play or long poem in which a scene or character awakens “thoughtful laughter” in the reader.  Write an essay in which you show why this laughter is “thoughtful” and how it contributes to the meaning of the work. 

 

1992                        In a novel or play, a confidant (male) or a confidante (female) is a character, often a friend or relative of the hero or heroine, whose role is to be present when the hero or heroine needs a sympathetic listener to confide in.  Frequently the result is, as Henry James remarked, that the confidant or confidante can be as much “the reader’s friend as the protagonist’s.”  However, the author sometimes uses this character for other purposes as well.

                                Choose a confidant or confidante from a novel or play of recognized literary merit and write an essay in which you discuss the various ways this character functions in the work.                                

 

1991        Many plays and novels use contrasting places (for example, two countries, two cities or towns, two houses, or the land and the sea) to represent opposed forces or ideas that are central to the meaning of the work.  Choose a novel or a play that contrasts two such places.  Write an essay explaining how the places differ, what each place represents, and how their contrast contributes to the meaning of the work. 

 

1990        Choose a novel or play that depicts a conflict between a parent (or a parental figure) and a son or daughter.  Write an essay in which you analyze the sources of the conflict and explain how the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work.

 

1989        In questioning the value of literary realism, Flannery O’Connor has written, “I am interested in making a good case for distortion because I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see.”  Write an essay in which you “make a good case for distortion,” as distinct from literary realism.  Base your essay on a work from the following list or choose another [. . . .]  Analyze how important elements of the work you choose are “distorted” and explain how these distortions contribute to the effectiveness of the work.  Avoid plot summary.

 

1988        Choose a distinguished novel or play in which some of the most significant events are mental or psychological; for example, awakenings, discoveries, changes in consciousness.  In a well-organized essay, describe how the author manages to give these internal events the sense of excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action.  Do not merely summarize the plot.