How to Study for a Test on a Literary Work

When being tested on a literary work, you are demonstrating your understanding of a text. What your teacher or professor looks for in a literary examination is your comprehension of various literary elements. When studying for a test on a literary work, focus on the details and devices employed by the author rather than rereading the whole work again. Before you start, gather any notes, activities, or guides that may be useful to review.

Let’s look at 11 tips designed to help you prepare for a test on a literary work.

1. Read the entire work

Do not wait until the last minute to read what you’re being tested on. You probably won’t have time to reread all the material you will be expected to know. Therefore, allow yourself enough time to process what you have read and ask your teachers any questions before you start studying. By the time you’re ready to study, you want to have a basic understanding of the text  so that you can spend more time reviewing specific details and literary devices that may appear on the test.

2. Create an outline

Create an outline of the plot that highlights the rising action, the climax, and falling action of the story. This will be a handy reference while you study so that you can keep track of the series of events and what characters are involved.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the rising action is the meeting of the young lovers, the climax is their mutual deaths, and the falling action is the realization by all involved that they too were responsible for the lovers’ tragedy.

3. Note the characters’ roles

Start by identifying the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) of the story. The protagonist is the leading character in a literary work. She is the advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea. The antagonist is the main character’s chief opponent. Both of these characters will have different objectives and it’s important to know who they are and what they want.

For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is the protagonist and Roger Chillingworth is the antagonist. Chillingworth is the main impediment to Hester Prynne’s happiness. He represents the stern moral values of Puritanism, whereas Hester relies on her own internal moral compass and her personal relationship with God.

Once you’ve identified the protagonist and antagonist, you should make a note of any other major or minor characters that influence the plot. In literary works with a bunch of characters, like Shakespeare’s plays, there’s often a character list at the beginning of the text. It may be useful to create a character map or list that showcases the characters’ relationship throughout the text.

4. Identify major conflicts

Most plots center around a conflict that is internal or external. Conflict can enhance the readers’ understanding of specific characters and what drives the storyline. There is often more than one type of conflict taking place at the same time.

The four major types of conflict include:

  • Person versus Person – One character against another
  • Person versus Nature – Character(s) against the forces of nature
  • Person versus Society – Values and customs of the majority being challenged by an individual
  • Person versus Self – A character with an internal conflict

For example, in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, we have several different conflicts happening at the same time. Ralph and Jack continually engage in conflict throughout the novel. Ralph is initially elected as the leader of the boys and attempts to establish a civil society on the island; Jack, on the other hand, opposes Ralph and gains support from other boys on the island who want to hunt and rest rather than completing necessary tasks. Although these characters may oppose each other, both of these boys are also in conflict with nature. Trapped on an uninhabited island, all of the boys are forced to build shelters and find food in order to survive.

5. Detect what actions develop from conflict

Most plots center around conflict; therefore, it’s important to understand the motivation behind the action and how it influences the rest of the story.
For example, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a good example of conflict that propels action. When a group of young girls is caught doing improper things in the woods, they try to cover their tracks by accusing people of witchcraft. Their conflict leads to the witch trials depicted in the play.

6. Determine if the characters achieve their goals

You need to know what the major characters set out to do in the beginning of the text and if they achieved their goals by the resolution. However, this may not always be obvious. Hamlet, for example, does achieve the mission given to him by the ghost of his father, but determining his overall success is a more contentious matter. Yes, his mother and uncle pay with their lives, but so too do Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet himself.

7. Take note of the structure

Revisit your initial outline of the text. The structure of the text may not always be in chronological order because many works will purposely present events out of sequence or work backwards.

One example of events taken out of sequence is William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily,” which begins with her funeral, jumps to her early life, her later life, and then the discovery of her deed and death. The structure of the plot is a deliberate choice made by the author, therefore you should always consider why a story is told in the format that it is.

8. Identify patterns within the text

Patterns often lead to a critical climax or resolution of the plot. For instance, one symbol might give you an idea of where the plot is going, but repeated events and symbols, or motifs, can foreshadow and add thematic depth to the plot.

For example, the character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman constantly repeats that he wanted more than anything to be “well-liked.” Because he mentions this so often, readers gain insight into Willy’s extreme lack of self-confidence.

9. Make note of symbols

Symbolism is a person, place, or object which has a meaning in itself but suggests other meanings. Things, characters, and actions can be symbols. Note here that symbols are deliberately open to a reader’s interpretation, so carefully consider the context in which they appear.

For example, if a color is repeated or particularly associated with a character, think about what it might mean. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” yellow can be viewed as symbolic of the narrator’s sickness, like jaundice. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Faith’s pink ribbon can be interpreted as representing her innocence.

10. Consider the work’s historical and cultural context

You should always put the character’s actions and thoughts in context and refrain from making contemporary judgments about the past. For example, if you are reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it would be helpful to know something about the realities of poverty in London in the 1800s. What’s more, it’s also helpful to know that telling ghost stories around Christmas time used to be a popular tradition in 19th-century England. Seeking an understanding of the historical context will help you determine if the author is criticizing society through the depiction of its values and characters. In addition, many authors use allusion, a literary device, in their words to provide references and hints to their cultures and historical contexts.

11. Review your study materials

At this point, you have revisited all major aspects of the text and hopefully feel like you have grasped its overall meaning. Whether you choose to make notecards, take a practice test, or swap questions with your classmates, it’s a good idea to actively engage with your study materials until you feel confident enough to address it on the test. If there are still some points that seem unclear, focus your attention on finding those answers rather than spending your time on material you already know. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the day before to review for your test. Allow yourself enough time to rest and relax before your test so that you can perform to your greatest potential. If you’ve read the literary work and reviewed your study materials, you’ll do just fine!


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