The Prose Fiction Passage
The Prose Fiction Passage
As we’ve stated before, you should not read the ACT Prose Fiction passage as you would a novel that you casually pick up on a Saturday afternoon. Treat the Prose Fiction passage as you would an English homework assignment. In addition to understanding the story behind the passage, you should also strive to understand the passage’s use of style and tone.
The Sample Passage

The following sample is adapted from James Joyce’s short story “Grace” in Dubliners.

         She was an active, practical woman of middle age. Not long
    before she had celebrated her silver wedding and renewed her
    intimacy with her husband by waltzing with him to Mr. Power’s
Line    accompaniment. In her days of courtship, Mr. Kernan had seemed to
(5)    her a not ungallant figure: and she still hurried to the chapel
    door whenever a wedding was reported and, seeing the bridal pair,
    recalled with vivid pleasure how she had passed out of the Star
    of the Sea Church in Sandymount, leaning on the arm of a jovial
    well-fed man, who was dressed smartly in a frock-coat and
(10)    lavender trousers and carried a silk hat gracefully balanced upon
    his other arm. After three weeks she had found a wife’s life
    irksome and, later on, when she was beginning to find it
    unbearable, she had become a mother. The part of mother presented
    to her no insuperable difficulties and for twenty-five years she
(15)    had kept house shrewdly for her husband. Her two eldest sons were
    launched. One was in a draper’s shop in Glasgow and the other was
    clerk to a tea-merchant in Belfast. They were good sons, wrote
    regularly and sometimes sent home money. The other children were
    still at school.
(20)         Mr. Kernan sent a letter to his office next day and remained
    in bed. She made beef-tea for him and scolded him roundly. She
    accepted his frequent intemperance as part of the climate, healed
    him dutifully whenever he was sick and always tried to make him
    eat a breakfast. There were worse husbands. He had never been
(25)    violent since the boys had grown up, and she knew that he would
    walk to the end of Thomas Street and back again to book even a
    small order.
         Two nights after, his friends came to see him. She brought
    them up to his bedroom, the air of which was impregnated with a
(30)    personal odor, and gave them chairs at the fire. Mr. Kernan’s
    tongue, the occasional stinging �pain of which had made him
    somewhat irritable during the day, became more polite. He sat
    propped up in the bed by pillows and the little color in his
    puffy cheeks made them resemble warm cinders. He apologized to
(35)    his guests for the disorder of the room, but at the same time
    looked at them a little proudly, with a veteran’s pride.
         He was quite unconscious that he was the victim of a plot
    which his friends, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. M’Coy and Mr. Power had
    disclosed to Mrs. Kernan in the parlor. The idea had been Mr.
(40)    Power’s, but its development was entrusted to Mr. Cunningham. Mr.
    Kernan came of Protestant stock and, though he had been converted
    to the Catholic faith at the time of his marriage, he had not
    been in the pale of the Church for twenty years. He was fond,
    moreover, of giving side-thrusts at Catholicism.
(45)         Mr. Cunningham was the very man for such a case. He was an
    elder colleague of Mr. Power. His own domestic life was not very
    happy. People had great sympathy with him, for it was known that
    he had married an unpresentable woman who was an incurable
    drunkard. He had set up house for her six times; and each time
(50)    she had pawned the furniture on him.
         Everyone had respect for poor Martin Cunningham. He was a
    thoroughly sensible man, influential and intelligent. His blade
    of human knowledge, natural astuteness particularized by long
    association with cases in the police courts, had been tempered by
(55)    brief immersions in the waters of general philosophy. He was well
    informed. His friends bowed to his opinions and considered that
    his face was like Shakespeare’s.
         When the plot had been disclosed to her, Mrs. Kernan had
(60)         “I leave it all in your hands, Mr. Cunningham.”
         After a quarter of a century of married life, she had very
    few illusions left. Religion for her was a habit, and she
    suspected that a man of her husband’s age would not change
    greatly before death. She was tempted to see a curious
(65)    appropriateness in his accident and, but that she did not wish to
    seem bloody-minded, would have told the gentlemen that Mr.
    Kernan’s tongue would not suffer by being shortened. However, Mr.
    Cunningham was a capable man; and religion was religion. The
    scheme might do good and, at least, it could do no harm. Her
(70)    beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred
    Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and
    approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen,
    but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee
    and in the Holy Ghost.
The Questions
Below, we’ll give you a rundown of the questions you’re most likely to find on the Prose Fiction passage and how to answer them. All of the examples below pertain to the above passage.
Identify Specific Details and Facts
Specific detail questions are perhaps the most straightforward questions you’ll encounter anywhere on the test. As the name suggests, these questions ask you to find specific details within the passage. They are very common on the Prose Fiction passage and throughout the rest of the test. You’ll probably see three or four specific detail questions accompanying the Prose Fiction passage.
Here’s an example of a relatively easy specific detail question:
According to his friends, Mr. Cunningham resembles:
A. Mr. Kernan.
B. a policeman.
C. Shakespeare.
D. Mr. Power.
If you know the answer to this question, you’re all set. If you don’t, you probably remember there was a section near the end of the passage that discussed Mr. Cunningham and his background. To answer this question, you should first look in that section because the answer is probably there. Have you looked yet? Well, the answer is there, on line 49 (“his face was like Shakespeare’s”). The correct answer is C.
That question was fairly simple, partly because it had a one-word answer, but specific detail questions can be more confusing when the answers are longer. Try another question about Mr. Cunningham:
According to the passage, people feel sorry for Mr. Cunningham because:
A. he is sensible, influential, and intelligent.
B. he was the victim of a plot by his friends.
C. he has a long association with police courts.
D. he is married to a drunkard.
While this question is not too difficult, it is slightly more confusing than the previous one simply because the answers are longer. If you’ve read the passage reasonably carefully and you’ve quickly double-checked the answer in the passage, you can correctly identify D as the answer. Choices A and C are actually given as reasons why Mr. Cunningham is respected by his acquaintances, and choice B applies not to Mr. Cunningham but to Mr. Kernan.
While specific-detail questions are generally straightforward, they can try to trick you by leading you to give an answer that seems correct if you read one sentence, but is revealed as incorrect by another. For example,
How many children do the Kernans have?
A. None
B. One
C. Two
D. More than two
If you remembered that the Kernans’ children were mentioned in the first paragraph, you’d look there, and perhaps your eye would fall on the sentence, “Her two eldest sons were launched.” A quick glance at this sentence may miss the word “eldest,” which indicates that there are younger children, so you may decide that there are only two children in the Kernan family and the answer is C. But the word “eldest” and the last sentence of the paragraph, “The other children were still at school,” indicate that there are other children in the family and that the correct answer is D.
Draw Inferences
Inference questions ask for implied information. They want you to take a piece of information given in the passage and use it to figure out something else. Because the answers are not given explicitly within the passage, these questions are often significantly more difficult than specific detail questions. But they are just as common, so you need to get a handle on them.
You can usually spot an inference question from a mile away. Inference questions frequently use verbs such as “suggest,” “infer,” “imply,” and “indicate.”
As with specific detail questions, some inference questions are easier than others. Sometimes, the ACT writers will feel extra nice and refer you to a specific portion of the passage. For example,
The second paragraph (lines 20-27) suggests that the Kernans’ marriage is characterized primarily by:
A. Mr. Kernan’s violent behavior toward his wife.
B. Mrs. Kernan’s patience with her husband.
C. Mr. Kernan’s fondness for his wife’s beef-tea.
D. Mr. Kernan’s willingness to go to the store for his wife.
In some ways, this inference question resembles a specific detail question. Elements of all the answer choices are mentioned in the paragraph. Your job is to figure out which answer choice best answers the question. Perhaps choice A characterized the marriage at one point in time, but the narrator notes that Mr. Kernan “had never been violent since the boys had grown up,” so A is wrong. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mention that Mr. Kernan likes the beef-tea his wife makes for him, so you can rule out C. Choice D seems to be a true statement, since the last sentence of the paragraph states, “she knew that he would walk to the end of Thomas Street and back again to book even a small order.” But does this willingness adequately characterize their marriage? Not really. The specificity of the act makes it an unlikely candidate to be a characteristic. If choice D had said, “Mr. Kernan’s courtesy to his wife” or “Mr. Kernan’s consideration for his wife,” the choice would have a little more promise as a characteristic (but then its validity would come into question). That leaves us with Choice B. Although we eliminated the other answer choices, it doesn’t hurt to make sure that B fits the bill. The key sentence in the paragraph that suggests B is the correct answer is the third one (lines 18–20): “She accepted his frequent intemperance as part of the climate, healed him dutifully whenever he was sick and always tried to make him eat a breakfast.” Words such as “accepted” and “dutifully” don’t suggest that Mrs. Kernan takes care of her husband because she thinks it’s fun; rather, these words suggest a patient resignation to her life and duties. So you can safely choose B as the correct answer.
Less direct inference questions will ask you to draw out character or plot details from the information given in the passage. These inference questions can be more difficult to answer than the one given above. Here’s an example of a character inference question:
It can be reasonably inferred from this passage that Mrs. Kernan’s attitude toward religion is:
A. fervently pious.
B. practical but faithful.
C. skeptical.
D. nonexistent.
If you read effectively, you’ll remember that the last paragraph contains a description of Mrs. Kernan’s brand of religious faith. There are several key phrases in this passage that should help you choose the correct answer: “Religion for her was a habit”; “Her beliefs were not extravagant”; “She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions”; “Her faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.” We can’t provide you with a strategy for interpreting this information. You must be able to comprehend the writing in order to get this question right. No matter what your understanding is, you’ll probably realize that D is wrong because the existence of the phrases indicates that Mrs. Kernan has some kind of attitude toward religion. If you understand what’s being said in the phrases above, you can eliminate choice A (because “Her beliefs were not extravagant”) and choice C (because “she could also believe in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost”). So the correct answer is B, “practical but faithful,” which is exactly what those phrases imply.
Now try this plot inference question:
One can reasonably infer from this passage that the goal of the friends’ plan, mentioned in line 37, is to:
A. make Mr. Kernan a good, practicing Catholic.
B. cure Mr. Kernan of his alcohol abuse.
C. turn Mr. Kernan into a better husband.
D. go to Thomas Street for Mrs. Kernan while her husband recovers.
The nice thing about inference questions is that they do the inferring for you. If you have no idea what the friends are plotting for Mr. Kernan, don’t worry: the ACT writers have given you the right answer already—along with three wrong answers. The best way to approach this question, and any like it, is to read the sentences around the provided section (line 37, in this case). For this question, the information following line 37 will help you decide on the correct answer. The rest of the paragraph is devoted primarily to Mr. Kernan’s religious background and his attitude toward Catholicism, and it should give you a good clue that the answer is probably A. If you’ve gotten to this point but feel uncomfortable committing yourself to the answer, consider the other answer choices and how well they work. Choice B suggests that the friends want Mr. Kernan to stop drinking; however, there is no mention of his drinking habit after line 19 (in fact, there is only one reference to it in this passage), so it is most likely not the answer. Choice C suggests the vague goal of turning Mr. Kernan into a better husband. While this may be a consequence of the desired change in his behavior, it doesn’t seem to be the right answer because there is no mention of it in the passage; in fact, Mrs. Kernan seems reasonably content with their relationship. Choice D, which offers Thomas Street as an answer, tries to lure you off track by mentioning an unrelated but specific piece of information from the passage. So choice A is the best answer to this question. Remember that, although choices B and C may be true desires of Mr. Kernan’s friends, they are not the best answer to the question. Choice A is the best answer because religion is specifically discussed in relation to the plot.
Understanding Character
Character generalization questions appear only with the Prose Fiction passage. They ask you to reduce a lot of information about a character into a simple, digestible statement. For instance, if you have a character who hates children, kicks dogs, takes candy from babies, and steals his neighbors’ mail, you could make the generalization that he is mean-spirited and cruel.
Let’s take a look at a character generalization problem dealing with the sample passage:
Mrs. Kernan would most likely agree with which of the following characterizations of her husband:
A. He is foolish and excessive.
B. He is sensible and intelligent.
C. He is irreverent but generally considerate.
D. He is proud of his accomplishments.
As you can see, this question is similar to the inference questions discussed above, in that it asks you to draw a conclusion from the information provided by the passage. You should note that the question doesn’t ask you how you would characterize Mr. Kernan or how the narrator or any other character would, but how Mrs. Kernan would characterize him. Because this question is specific in its point of view, it helps you pinpoint the sections you must examine—the ones that give Mrs. Kernan’s opinion of her husband. If you do that, you can figure out that nothing suggests choice A is true. Choice B is also incorrect according to the passage; the words “sensible” and “intelligent” are actually used to describe Mr. Cunningham. Choice D is not correct, although Mr. Kernan appears proud of his injury (line 36). Choice C is the correct answer. You can arrive at this answer through process of elimination, but you can also get to it through understanding the passage. The last paragraph reveals that Mrs. Kernan apparently thinks her husband’s “tongue would not suffer by being shortened.” Earlier in the passage, the narrator also describes Mr. Kernan’s verbal lack of respect for Catholicism, so “irreverence” seems to describe him accurately in Mrs. Kernan’s eyes. The second part of the answer, his consideration, is implied in the second paragraph, which describes Mr. Kernan’s willingness to run errands for his wife.
When answering inference and character generalization questions, you should remember that right answers are not necessarily perfect answers; they must simply be the best answer out of the four provided. For that reason, when answering these questions, you should read through all the answer choices and ask yourself which one best answers the question.
Point of View
Point of view questions accompanying the Prose Fiction passage will generally ask you to describe the narrator’s point of view. Questions that deal with other characters’ points of view usually fall under the heading of inference or character generalization. Point of view questions are fairly rare on the Prose Fiction passage, but you may encounter one of them on the test.
These questions tend to be pretty obvious when they’re asked because they usually look like this:
The narrator’s point of view is that of:
A. a detached observer.
B. Mr. Kernan.
C. a biased observer.
D. the Kernans’ child.
Again, answering this question is a matter of understanding the material, not of tricks and strategies. You can eliminate choices B and D immediately if you recognize that the passage is not written in the first person. Then ask yourself whether the narrator expresses any biases (does he obviously prefer one character to another, for instance?). In this passage, the narrator is fairly bias-free, so the best answer to this question is A, a detached observer.
These questions ask you to identify either the cause or the effect of a situation. These questions are fairly rare on the Prose Fiction passage, but you should still be prepared to answer one. You will generally recognize these questions from cue words in the question, such as “resulted in” and “led to” for effect questions, and “caused by” and “because” for cause questions.
On the Prose Fiction passage, cause-effect questions will generally ask you to identify how one character’s actions affected another’s. For example,
According to the passage, the visit paid by Mr. Kernan’s friends resulted in:
A. his unpleasant behavior toward them.
B. a completely healed tongue.
C. his boasting of weathering two days of sickness.
D. his politeness.
As in the example above, cause-effect questions will not make you draw inferences (only inference questions will). Cause-effect questions are interested in the facts of the passage. Both the cause (the visit paid by Mr. Kernan’s friends) and the effect (one of the answer choices) should be clearly stated in the passage. You should not choose an answer choice that requires you to make an inference. After you eliminate choices A and B, which are contrary to facts stated in the third paragraph of the passage, you must choose between choices C and D. You should eliminate choice C, though, because it is an inference and involves guessing on your part rather than referring specifically to the text. Although the last line of the third paragraph states that Mr. Kernan appears to feel “a veteran’s pride,” it is never explicitly stated within the passage that this feeling arises from the visit by his friends. Because you are looking for the best answer choice—not the perfect answer choice—choice D is correct. The passage explicitly states that the visit causes Mr. Kernan to become “more polite” after having been cantankerous.
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