Assaying the English Essay Questions

Monday, November 10, 2008

The f ollowing is a question from the 2008 AP English

literature and composition test, with a suggested completion time of 40 minutes:

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. . . . Do not merely summarize the plot.

(Students are given suggestions of works to examine but are told they can pick anything of high literary quality.)

Here is an assignment from Kevin Howard's AP English class at Langley High School, drawing on Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement":

The Craft of McEwan

In a number of reviews of McEwan's novels, the reviewers will point out the beauty of McEwan's prose on a sentence level.

One reviewer has gone so far as to call McEwan the greatest contemporary writer of English sentences.

What I would like you to do for this exercise is to find four (4) sentences that are astonishing for their complexity, structure, and -- dare I say it -- beauty. Copy the sentence exactly as written. Then, in a tightly crafted three-sentence appreciation, detail the sentence's strengths.

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