Passage-based questions

Exam questions for A and AS level are usually either straight essay questions or they are passage-based questions.

Passage-based questions

Style and intention

These questions are based either on a passage printed in the exam paper or, in open book exams, on a passage in your text to which you are referred. These questions are fairly common at AS and A Level.

An example might be:

Remind yourself of the passage from l. 351 ‘Bihoold and se that in the firste table…' to l. 371 ‘Lete youre othes, bothe grete and smale.'

Discuss the significance of this passage in relation to The Pardoner's Tale as a whole.

The key words and phrases are: 

  • discuss
  • significance
  • as a whole.

The question as a whole is concerned with the effects of the writing in the set passage, and ways in which that writing relates to wider aspects of the entire text.

A worked example

Introduce your answer by placing the passage in its context within the text as a whole: 

  • The Pardoner is in full flow, giving the summary of his sample sermon
  • At this stage he returns to the consideration of Christian instruction in an impressive statement (which would be even more impressive if it came from someone who was sincere).

You could then begin to analyse some of the language in the passage: 

  • You could start with the commanding tone of l. 354, dealing with one of the Ten Commandments:
    • Its simple words, largely monosyllabic, are unmistakable in their message
    • The rhythm is simple and almost thumping; you could imagine a preacher rhythmically pounding the desk in front of him as he delivers this line
    • The Pardoner develops this stern tone in l. 358
  • You could comment that lines like l. 351 contain an echo of the rhythms of Wyclif's translation of Bible (on which the more familiar Authorised Version was based):
    • ‘Bihoold and se' uses two verbs for emphasis
    • An example of this repetition appears in the Bible on several occasions and would therefore be a very familiar device to a medieval audience.

Look at the purpose of the passage:

Examine what rhetorical features found here are typical of the Pardoner's techniques:

  • Direct address – ‘Lete your othes'
  • Self reference – ‘I wol thee telle'
  • Emphatic statements - indicated by exclamation marks
  • Building on his argument with additional points – ‘And forther-over, I …'
  • Fluent quoting from the Bible
  • Weaving of other themes into his point - ‘homicyde', gambling
  • Dramatised voices – ‘Seven is my chaunce …'
  • Employment of the vices against which he is preaching – five ‘othes' in seven lines!

There are other things that can be said about the tone and content, and all of them can be related to other parts of the work, where similar or contrasting effects can be seen. 

When you assess the passage as a whole, consider Chaucer's techniques:

  • He demonstrates the talents of the Pardoner as a public speaker
  • He portrays the power of a well-conceived and well-delivered sermon
    • The sermon can be a power for good in people's lives, even though the preacher is a crook
  • He illustrates the Pardoner's own hypocrisy and moral blindness – either intentionally or unintentionally, the preacher undercuts the power of his sermon by engaging in the very activity he condemns.

In conclusion 

  • You might reflect on the fact that the work ends with forgiveness and reconciliation, which includes even the sinful Pardoner.

If you analyse in detail the effects of the language of the passage and relate the contents to other aspects of the whole tale, you will be giving a focused answer to the question.

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