After students have been introduced to the "four pillars" of style analysis—diction, imagery, language, and syntax—they are ready to write an AP Passage Analysis essay. When choosing a passage from a novel or play, we use the following 2011 AP Literary Argument prompt (Form B) as a guide:
In The Writing of Fiction (1925), novelist Edith Wharton states the following:
At every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity.
Choose a novel or play that you have studied and write a well-organized essay in which you describe an "illuminating" episode or moment and explain how it functions as a "casement," a window that opens onto the meaning of the work as a whole.
As we prepare our units, we look for passages from the novel or play that serve as an "illuminating incident" that, one could argue, reveals the meaning of the work as a whole. These "magic casements" are then the subject of our AP Passage Analysis essay prompt. For example, when we teach F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, we use the opening paragraphs of Chapter 3 when Nick Carraway describes a typical party at Gatsby's house over the summer for our AP Passage Analysis essay:
When students read the passage for the first time, we have them highlight or underline any examples of diction, imagery, language, or syntax that seem interesting, unusual, or potentially loaded with meaning. To help students with their analysis, we also provide a study guide on the back of the prompt that they complete individually or in small groups:
After annotating the text and completing the study guide, students then begin the process of organizing their argument. Similar to the AP Literary Argument essay and AP Poetry Analysis essay, we encourage students to use Hegel's dialectic to construct their arguments:
When following Hegel's Dialectic, students should first look for tensions within the passage that might serve as the focus of their first two body paragraphs in the essay. In the passage describing Gatsby's party, one tension is the surface energy and excitement of the guests that contrasts with the underlying shallowness and artificiality of their interactions. As soon as students identify a tension, they find textual evidence to support their claims and are ready to craft their thesis and antithesis paragraphs. The final body paragraph, or synthesis, should explore how these competing, yet complementary, tones help reveal the author or playwright's overall theme. In other words, students should consider how the passage might serve as an "illuminating incident" that reveals the meaning of the work as a whole.
Even though students will not have finished the novel or play when they analyze the passage, they should make a prediction on how the passage might serve as one of those "magic casements" that potentially reveals the work's overall theme. In other words, students should consider what larger message or point the author or playwright seems to be making in the passage. What can we learn about human nature or human behavior from this section of the novel or play? In the description of Gatsby's party, for instance, one could argue that living in the present might feel spontaneous and exciting, but it potentially comes at a cost that will need to be paid in the future.
Below is a sample AP Passage Analysis essay for Gatsby's party that follows Hegel's Dialectic. Please note that the introductory paragraph cites the author, title, and argument by reflecting the three topic sentences in the body paragraphs that follow:
Just like every other activity and assignment, the AP Passage Analysis should not be created in isolation; rather, it should clearly connect to the AP Literary Argument prompt, which serves as the focus for the entire unit. For The Great Gatsby, we chose the following 2016 AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay:
Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character's dishonesty may be intended either to help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone's feelings, or to carry out a crime. Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character's deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
When students prepare to write their AP Passage Analysis essay, they should also think about the AP Literary Argument prompt. How might Gatsby's parties be "dishonest" and a "deception"? Even though students do not yet know Gatsby's whole story, they eventually discover that Gatsby uses his parties as a way to impress and reconnect with Daisy. We also find out that the persona of "Jay Gatsby" is a fraud, and when that deception is revealed, his dream dies with it. The tragedy of Gatsby's story is not just that someone with his background could never win the love of someone like Daisy, but that he would pursue someone so unworthy of his love in the first place. In a similar way, the energy and excitement of Gatsby's parties are also an illusion; they might be superficially appealing, but Fitzgerald implies that they lack substance and meaning underneath. A close analysis of Gatsby's party not only reveals the overall theme of Fitzgerald's novel, but it also helps students prepare for the final essay.