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So you’re thinking about taking the Analyzing and Interpreting Literature CLEP exam? Fantastic! Let me share what you’ll need to know.

The 100 question exam is designed to be the equivalent of a freshman single semester course.  You’ll cover the basics, like understanding poetry and prose, before diving into a few trickier topics, like actually analyzing selected texts.

Quick Analyzing and Interpreting
Literature Study Guide

This exam will test your abilities in three primary areas: analyzing prose, analyzing poetry, and analyzing drama.

Let’s jump into all three:

Reading Prose

Unlike poetry, prose often features longer sentences, and is organized in long paragraphs. Reading prose requires a good grasp of the context of the text, and an appreciation of how the writer is able to use words to create effects in terms of character or plot, or to describe something or convince us of an argument being made.

1) Read the prose piece once carefully and make an educated guess at what the themes or main ideas are.

Is the prose an extract from a narrative (story), with characters and a plot? Is it a piece of descriptive writing that paints a picture of an object or event? Is it a piece of non-fiction, giving an exposition of a concept or making an argument?

  • Narrative texts

    You will need to figure out who the characters are and what the plot is (i.e., what is going on in the story). Many narratives will have some sort of conflict in the story, and will create tension. You will need to examine how the writer uses literary devices to tell the story and analyse what effects.

  • Descriptive texts

    You will have to find out what is being described here. You must explain how the writer uses literary devices to describe the event or object and analyse what effects those devices have.

  • Non-fiction texts

    These generally fall into two categories: they could be expository, describing and explaining objects, concepts, or events. They could be argumentative, trying to convince the reader of a certain point of view. You must examine how the writer uses language to create effects in the text.

2) How is it being narrated?

1st person narratives are told from the point of view of the “I” in the story. 2nd person narratives are rare, and “you” are the main character (think about how recipes and instruction manuals are written). 3rd person narratives feature an omniscient narrator, who knows everything in the story, or a limited narrator, who does not know everything and may also be involved in the story.

3) How are the characters portrayed?

Think about entering a room with several strangers inside. A voice from the ceiling tells you more about each person, describing what they look like, what they’re thinking and what they’re doing. You may not agree with that voice, but it sounds like a professional, and you decide to make note of how it is describing all these people and evaluate how these people are being portrayed.

A protagonist is the main character of the story. There might also be an antagonist who is pitted against the protagonist. Look carefully at how the characters behave and how it contrasts with their inner thoughts. Consider how the narrator is portraying all the characters, where the narrator’s sympathies lie, and how the narrator uses humour or other literary devices to describe the characters. To what extent is the narrator reliable; is the narrator hiding something from the reader?

4) What is the plot of the narrative?

Plot is the sequence of events in the story. Make notes on what the characters are doing. Conflict refers to the struggle that one or more characters undergo in a story, either against nature or against other characters. Make notes on how the writes structures the story and uses literary devices to create tension, making the reader feel excited about what might happen. For example, how does the writer make a lovers’ quarrel exciting?

Analyzing a Text

"Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelves years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the tich below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial."
- From "Silas Marner" by George Eliot

Analyzing a Text

The writer elicits sympathy for Silas by making him affectionate for his belongings. He still had the "sap of affection"; this image that he had something natural and nourishing inside him. The personification of the cup in "lending its handle" and "willing helpfulness", make his cup seem like a living friend. That Silas derives "satisfaction" from it just having his thirst quenched shows how nourishing this relationship is for Silas. The final image of Silas piecing together the remains of his broken friend makes us feel sympathetic for this lonely, sentimental man.

Reading Poetry

Poetry is a very compressed form of writing featuring a limited number of words arranged in certain forms to affect the listener or reader. It is meant to be read out loud, so make notes as you read the poem several times and develop your interpretation. You will have to find out what is being described or what is going on.

1) Read the poem once carefully and try to figure out what is happening or what is being described.

How does the poem make you feel after the first reading? You will have to examine what is literally going on in the poem. This will require several readings from the title to the very last word. Mark out where the sentences begin and end. Is there a narrative (story)? Are there characters? Or is the poem more descriptive? Compare your evaluations with your initial feelings. What have the successive readings revealed about the poem?

2) What imagery is used in the poem?

Unlike prose, poetry is more about the imagery than the story. Poets use a range of literary devices to make the listener or reader feel a certain way about what they are talking about. Your task is to determine what literary devices are used and what they say about the objects, characters, or ideas of the poem.

Literary devices

Similes compare one object to another: “As bright as the sun”
Metaphors imply one object has the properties of another: “He had the heart of a lion.”
Personification gives a non-human object human or animal characteristics: “The flowers sighed”
Hyperbole is an exaggeration: “My mother’s going to kill me”
An oxymoron or paradox uses a contradiction to create an image: “The moving stillness of the baby’s cradle”
Poems may also use allegory where objects or characters may represent abstract concepts: Light and darkness in a poem could represent good and evil.

Analyzing a Text

"There was a Young Lady whose chin
Resembled the point of a pin:
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin."
- A limerick by Edward Lear

Analyzing a Text

The image of the lady's sharp chin is emphasized by simile and end-rhyme. Comparing it to a "pin" not only connects the two through rhyme but the stressed "-in" sound is high and metallic. That she was able to sharpen her chin is pure comic exaggeration, and the image of her playing the harp with her chin is another surreal image that lets us know just how sharp her chin is.

3) How does the form of the poem contribute to its effects?

Form refers to the way the poem looks on a page, or how it sounds when it is read out loud. Form can divide the poem into sections, such as stanzas (a group of lines) to separate ideas or slow down the reader. Poems can also take on unique shapes to create a visual effect. Acrostic poems can contain a secret message. For example, all the initial letters in each line could spell something vertically. Poetry in the 19th century and earlier may feature stricter forms where a regular meter is essential.

Sound devices
Meter is the stress pattern of the lines: Pentameter simply means 5 stresses in a line, while Tetrameter means 4 stresses.
Iambic meter has the stress on the second syllable (da DUM): “If at FIRST you DON’T sucCEED, TRY and TRY and TRY aGAIN.”
Trochaic meter stresses the first syllable (DA dum): “BUBble, BUBble, TOIL and TROUble.”

Analyzing a Text

"1 JANE, Jane,
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again;
Comb your cockscomb-ragged hair,
5 Jane, Jane, come down the stair.
Each dull blunt wooden stalactite
Of rain creaks, hardened by the light,
Sounding like an overtone
From some lonely world unknown.
10 But the creaking empty light
Will never harden into sight,
Will never penetrate your brain
With overtones like the blunt rain.
The light would show (if it could harden)
15 Eternities of kitchen garden,
Cockscomb flowers that none will pluck,
And wooden flowers that 'gin to click.
In the kitchen you must light
Flames as staring, red and white,
20 As carrots or as turnips shining
Where the cold dawn light lies whining.
Cockscomb hair on the cold wind
Hangs limp, turns the milk's weak mind...
Jane, Jane
25 Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again!"
- "Aubade" by Edith Sitwell

Analyzing a Text

The poem features the use of rhyming couplets and repetition to create a chant-like effect. The rhyme and steady rhythm of "Jane, Jane... crane...creaks down again" makes it sound like a nursery rhyme or chant. Perhaps Jane is a child.
The poem uses many negative phrases, such as "Cockscomb flowers that none will pluck" (Line 16). The association with Jane's "cockscomb-ragged hair" suggests that Jane is no longer here to pluck the flowers.
The sudden change marked with "But" (Line 10) and the repetition of "Will never" suggests that there might be something darker behind this poem. It is as if the beauty of the light could never reach Jane, because Jane is no longer here in this place where the poet has memories of her.
The poet makes use of sound to create a picture of the morning scene. Most of the end rhymes are hard consonant sounds, as if to echo the "rain creaks, hardened by the light" (Line 7). There is synesthesia, or the mixing of sensory descriptions, as the visual aspect fo light is given a particular quality of sound here. It is as if the morning light may look the same to the poet, but no longer feels the same without Jane.

Reading Drama

Drama is meant to be performed on a stage, not read in a book. A play is a common dramatic form featuring characters and a story. Analyzing drama requires a good grasp of what is happening onstage, and an appreciation of how the playwright creates dramatic effects with words, sounds, and the interaction of characters.

1) Read the extract piece once carefully and make an educated guess at what is happening.

Take note of who the characters are. Although there may not be stage directions, you will need to imagine what the characters are doing. Drawing a diagram or making notes will help. As you analyze the extract, you can guess what the setting is (where and when the scene takes place), what the main conflict in the extract is, and what the themes (big ideas) are.

2) Read the text out loud. Try stressing certain words to see if there is a relatively regular rhythm in the lines.

Many of the most famous works of drama were created and staged during the Renaissance. They often featured “blank verse”, or un-rhymed lines with iambic pentameter. These lines may have been intended to emphasize the poetic delivery of the speaker or to indicate the authority of the character. At other times, characters could speak in a manner that is closer to how we speak English in everyday life.

Analyzing a Text

Prithee, peace.
I DARE do ALL that MAY beCOME a MAN;
What beast was't then
That MADE you BREAK this ENterprise to ME?
When YOU durst DO it, THEN you WHERE a MAN."
- From "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

Analyzing a Text

This dialogue has been made more dramatic by the use of iambic pentameter. Although Macbeth sounds authoritative when he declares in iambs, "I dare do all that may become a man," his wife undermines his declaration by adopting that same, authoritative, meter, saying, "When you durst do it, then you were a man." She is saying that he is not a man now that he does not go ahead with the conspiracy. The overall effect is to show that she has a stronger will than he.

3) How are the characters portrayed?

As the characters speak to each other and interact, we have to ask ourselves if the playwright wants us to sympathise with any of them. Are any of them behaving in especially admirable or cruel ways? Sometimes, especially in humorous situations, we may find ourselves sympathising with a character who is playing tricks on other characters. How does the playwright achieve this?

Drama is all about conflict and tension. It may be a tragic situation that is serious and grave, or it may be a humorous situation where characters are fumbling, with all sorts of unintended consequences. Sometimes, the playwright creates tension through dramatic irony, a situation in which the audience knows what is happening, but not all the characters onstage may be aware of it.

Stage actor: “Sometimes I can speak to the audience directly without the other characters hearing me. This is called an ‘aside’. I could let you know my real opinion about the other characters or my secret plans, or sometimes I just want to let you know my innermost thoughts.” 

Analyzing a Text

FRANCES: Human nature turns against self-defence.
TREBELL: And my own human-nature!
FRANCES: [Shocked into great pity, by his half-articulate pain.] must have loved her, some odd way. I'm sorry for you both.
TREBELL: I'm hating her a man can only hate his own silliest vices.
FRANCES: [Flashing into defence.] That's wrong of you. If you thought of her only as a pretty little fool..Bearing your child..all her womanly life belonged to you..and for that time there was no other sort of life in her. So she became what you thought her.
TREBELL: That's not true.
FRANCES: It's true's true of men towards women. You can't think of them through generations as one thing and then suddenly find them another.
TREBELL: [Hammering at his fixed idea.] She should have brought that child into the world.
FRANCES: You didn't love her enough!
TREBELL: I didn't love her at all.
FRANCES: The why should she value your gift?
TREBELL: For its own sake.
FRANCES: [Turning away.] It's don't understand.
TREBELL: [Helpless; almost like a deserted child.] I've been trying to..all through the night.
FRANCES: [Turning back enlightened a little.] That's more the trouble then than the Cabinet question?
He shakes himself to his feet and begins to pace the room; his keenness coming back to him now, his brow knitting again with the delight of thought.
- From "Waste" by Harley Granville Barker

Analyzing a Text

Our sympathy towards Trebell shifts through the extract. At first, his "half-articulate pain" is expressed through exclamations like "my own human nature!" It almost seems as if he feels guilty about what he has done, and we identify with Frances's sympathy for him.
However there is an abrupt switch with his outburst of anger. He "hates her now" as if she was a "vice" or a silly mistake of his, and the way he dehumanises her elicits Frances eloquent "defense" of the girl. Her rational deconstruction of his hatred for women is in stark contrast to his selfish, petulant, inarticulate exclamation that "She should have brought that child into the world." Furthermore, he admits that he never loved her. Even Frances admits defeat in trying to reason with him. The stage directions show Trebell rising, as if "shak[ing]" off his pain and returning to "the delight of thought". Although we began by sympathising with his pain, his cold-hearted inability to appreciate a woman's pain and his refusal to admit his guilt ensure that we see him as an unsympathetic character.

Analyzing and Interpreting Literature Practice Quiz

Ready to give it a shot?  Dive into the 10 question quiz below to get a feel for how prepared you are! Once you’ve written down your answers, hover over (or tap on a phone) the question to see the answers and explanations.

Please do keep in mind that we can’t guarantee the accuracy of this quiz, so we do recommend you also run through a full-length practice exam.  The CollegeBoard offers a good one that we’ll share in the resources section below.

Refer to the following text for questions 1 to 3:
1 And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.
To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes,
I see the elder-hand pressing receiving supporting,
I recline by the sills of the exquisite flexible doors,
5 And mark the outlet, and mark the relief and escape.
And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.
And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
10 (No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns — O grass of graves — O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?
Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
15 Of the moon that descends the steeps of the soughing twilight,
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk — toss on the black stems that decay in the muck,
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.
I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
20 And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.

Question 1: In which lines does the poet use personification?

a) Lines 1, 6, 9, 11, 12, 18 and 19
b) Lines 11, 12 and 13
c) Lines 1, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13 and 17
d) Lines 18 and 19
e) Personification is not used in this extract

Answer: c) 
Personification means giving non-human objects human qualities.

Question 2: When was the poem composed?

a) 1800 to 1830
b) 1830 to 1870
c) 1870 to 1910
d) 1910 to 1945
e) 1945 to the present day

Answer: b)

Walt Whitman’s poem ”Song of Myself”, experiments with a verse form that is not as rigid as those of the early 19th century.

Question 3: Who is the poet?

a) James Fenimore Cooper
b) Langston Hughes
c) Emily Dickinson
d) T. S. Eliot
e) Walt Whitman

Answer: e)

Walt Whitman’s poem ”Song of Myself”

Refer to the following text for questions 4 to 6:
1 Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had now no friends to
welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses
or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor…savage barbarians…were readier to
fill their sides with arrows than otherwise. And for the reason it was winter, and they
5 that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to
cruel and fierce storms…all stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole
country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.

Question 4: What is the theme of this extract?

a) The poverty in the cities
b) The rights of the native peoples of America
c) The difficulty of settling in America
d) The wonders of nature in America
e) How the settlers had to overthrow the British

Answer: c)

The settlers found challenges as they had ”no friends” and encountered ”savage barbarians” and the weather was not hospitable.

Question 5: What do you think is the writer’s attitude towards nature here?

a) The writer praises the beauty of nature
b) Nature could be effectively managed with the efforts of the settlers
c) Nature both gives and takes away from the settlers
d) The poet portrays nature as a brutal entity
e) None of the Above

Answer: d)

Nature is brutal as it was ”sharp and violent”, and ”cruel and fierce”.

Question 6: In this extract, how does the writer view the native inhabitants of America?

a) They were violent and uncivilised
b) They could be easily converted to the religion of the settlers
c) Their inns were not suitable for housing the settlers
d) They were economically and militarily powerful
e) They were not a major concern of the settlers

Answer: a)

The writer refers to them as ”savage barbarians”.

Refer to the following extract for questions 7 to 10.
1 WILLY: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the
beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for
him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years
now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!
5 LINDA: He’s finding himself, Willy.
WILLY: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!
WILLY: The trouble is he’s lazy, goddammit!
LINDA: Willy, please!
10 WILLY: Biff is a lazy bum!
LINDA: They’re sleeping. Get something to eat. Go on down.
WILLY: Why did he come home? I would like to know what brought him home.
LINDA: I don’t know. I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost.
WILLY: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with
15 such — personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s
one thing about Biff — he’s not lazy.
LINDA: Never.
WILLY (with pity and resolve): I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with
him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time. My God!
20 Remember how they used to follow him around in high school? When he
smiled at one of them their faces lit up. When he walked down the street…
(He loses himself in reminiscences.)

Question 7: Which of the following statements best applies to Willy?

a) He is afraid for Biff’s future prospects.
b) He lashes out at Biff’s inability to fend for himself.
c) He admires Biff’s natural talents.
d) All of the above
e) None of the above

Question 8: How does the playwright increase tension in this extract?

a) Stage directions
b) Linda’s constant reminders that Willy should be more quiet
c) Linda’s sympathy for the members of her family
d) Hyperbole
e) All of the above

Answer: b)

The boys are sleeping.

Question 9: Which of the following pairs is NOT appropriate for describing this extract?

a) Father vs. Son
b) Maternal vs. Paternal
c) Talent vs. Work
d) Nature vs. Man
e) Past vs. Future

Answer: d)

Nature is not present.

Question 10: Which of the following statements is an appropriate evaluation of the play as a whole?

a) It is about man’s rejection of nature
b) It is an about the crisis of male identity
c) It is about mothers
d) It is about the criminal underworld
e) It is about race relations

Answer: b)

The young men are unable to find work.

More CLEP Study Resources

Looking for a study guide to fill a couple gaps, or just want a full length practice exam? You can find a few of my favorite resources below.  Note that some of the links are affiliate – meaning I’ll make a few dollars if you purchase, but I’m only sharing those resources that were genuinely helpful during my own CLEP journey.

Official CLEP Study Guide: It’s quite short on the study side of things, but this is the go-to practice test bank.  I don’t think I’ve done a single CLEP test without taking the practice test in this book first.

REA CLEP Analyzing and Interpreting Literature: I’m not huge on reading, but this book series is fantastic if you’re into that kind of thing. It also includes some nifty online practice tests, though I always found the official practice tests more reassuring.

InstantCert Academy: The website looks like it was made before the internet, but it’s legitimately the single most useful study guide I’ve found. Basically it’s a series of flashcards that help you learn about Analyzing and Interpreting Literature in a fast paced and fun way.

Plenty of other resources exist – just do a quick internet search – but these are the three that I’ve personally found the most helpful back when I did CLEP.

Congrats on starting your CLEP study journey! Study hard, earn credit, and most of all remember to have fun.