How to Read Fiction and Poetry for Standardized Testing

If you are reading a fiction or poetry passage, your goal is to think about the type of mood the author is creating, which is similar to the tone, and how the details are used to help you understand the mood the author is trying to create. Pay special attention to symbolism and imagery throughout the piece.

Read the following passage, and think carefully about the details that are being used. Notice the use of colors, the descriptive adjectives, and the specific verb choices that the author uses. As you are reading, try to think about why the author chooses each individual word and what its purpose is in the passage as a whole.

From An Egyptian Princess, Complete
By Georg Ebers

The Nile had overflowed its bed. The luxuriant corn-fields and blooming gardens on its shores were lost beneath a boundless waste of waters; and only the gigantic temples and palaces of its cities, and the tops of the tall palm-trees and acacias could be seen above its surface. The branches of the sycamores and plane-trees drooped and floated on the waves, but the boughs of the tall silver poplars strained upward, as if anxious to avoid the watery world beneath.

The full-moon had risen; her soft light fell on the Libyan range of mountains vanishing on the western horizon, and in the north the shimmer of the Mediterranean could faintly be discerned. Blue and white lotus-flowers floated on the clear water, bats of all kinds darted softly through the still air, heavy with the scent of acacia-blossom and jasmine.

The wild pigeons and other birds were at roost in the tops of the trees, while the pelicans, storks and cranes squatted in groups on the shore under the shelter of the papyrus-reeds and Nile-beans. The pelicans and storks remained motionless, their long bills hidden beneath their wings, but the cranes were startled by the mere beat of an oar, stretching their necks, and peering anxiously into the distance, if they heard but the song of the boatmen.

The air was perfectly motionless, and the unbroken reflection of the moon, lying like a silver shield on the surface of the water, proved that, wildly as the Nile leaps over the cataracts, and rushes past the gigantic temples of Upper Egypt, yet on approaching the sea by different arms, he can abandon his impetuous course, and flow along in sober tranquility.

What was the author trying to get you to understand? The first sentence tells us what is happening: The Nile River is overflowing. But what is the mood? Is it aggressive, or more calm? What are some of the details that would help you understand that?

The overall descriptions are calming: “Her soft light fell…” “Flowers floated on the clear water…” “The air was perfectly motionless…” The passage wants to lull you into a hazy, soothing mood using the descriptive language. This is the tone.

What is each paragraph about? The first paragraph tells us that the Nile is overflowing, and that the plants and buildings in the distance are reacting to the higher water levels, but nothing feels too aggressive.

The second paragraph tells us that it’s nighttime and continues the mood of a calm and soothing setting.

The third paragraph tells us that the birds are calmly waiting, until they hear a boat in the distance. The mood is still quiet, as if all the birds are under a spell.

The fourth paragraph truly emphasizes the comparison between the calmness of the scenery and the fact that the Nile River could be aggressive if it wanted to, but in this case chooses not to be.

This leads us to the idea of personification, that the river itself acts like a person and can choose its behavior. The Nile feels alive here, and the author uses other details that also show personification, such as, “boughs of the tall silver poplars strained upward, as if anxious to avoid the watery world beneath.” The author wants us to understand that everything in this story is connected, including the plants and animals, as well as the moon and the river. We get a sense that everything is waiting patiently to see what the river will do, and there is a gentle push and pull between everything in the world that we see in this passage.

In a fiction piece, there is not exactly a main idea, or thesis, but rather an overall tone, and this is really the purpose of the passage. The purpose of the above passage is to make you, the reader, feel the energy of the Nile and the atmosphere that is created with the descriptive language and details in the passage. The questions you will be asked will all relate back to this; you will see other types of questions as well, but you will find the most success when the overall tone is understood.  

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