Can You Pass This High School English Literature Test?


By: Zoe Samuel

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

The canon of English literature is one of the greatest legacies in our culture. It reaches back 1,500 years to the birth of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, and it draws on a multicultural, enormously diverse array of influences. English literature has borrowed content from Greek, Roman, Chinese, Norse, Germanic, French, Italian, Arabic, and other backgrounds, re-purposing the tales of the ancients for its own culture. It has also borrowed languages from around the world, though primarily Europe, blending together all sorts of sounds, suffixes, prefixes, and vocabulary to create one of the most versatile tongues ever spoken.

A good English teacher will give students a sense of the broader sweep of all this cultural heritage, while also teaching them how to analyze the great works to see how their authors achieved their goals. They will use some of the finest pieces of writing ever set to paper to illustrate how an author conveys a theme, how they deploy imagery, how they create characters, and which rules of structure they prefer. All of this not only trains the human mind to think better in all fields, it makes a person an incredibly good reader, able to parse out meaning and communicate ideas more effectively. Being extremely literate is thus arguably the single most important skill you gain in school. Let's see if you remember the building blocks.

Who wrote Wuthering Heights?

This novel about doomed love was written by the most doomed of the three Brontë sisters, all of which lived rather tragic and short lives.


Which of the works below was not written by James Joyce?

Joyce was an Irish Catholic author noted for his modernist approach. His most notable novel is the 1922 work, Ulysses.


If an essay asks "how does the author...", what will the primary focus be?

Any "how" question is usually asking about the tools the author used to convey something, that is, their choice of words. "What" questions are about their choice of themes or stories.


Which seminal political speculative fiction novel published in 1949 gave us the term "Big Brother is watching you"?

George Orwell's dystopia came out in 1949 and is one of the most important books of all time, examining how democracy can fall into absolute tyranny aided by technology. It's also a cracking good read.


Which of the choices below is not a defining rule of a Petrarchan sonnet?

While sonnets can play with a cheeky spondee or trochee here and there, they should be 14 lines (an octave of 8 plus a sextet of 6) with a specific rhyme scheme, typically ABBAABBA for the octave and CDCDEE or CDCDCD for the sextet. The sextet will often start with a "but" or "yet" to mark a thematic shift, but that's not compulsory.


With what movement in poetry is John Donne associated?

Donne was one of the foremost Metaphysical poets and mostly wrote about love - of ladies and of God. These poems are usually very thorny and complex, with highly complex imagery, arcane conceits. Breaking them down to understand them takes a while in high school but it's worth every bit of it to learn how to read them, as they are often beautiful and sometimes very funny and satirical.


What was John Milton's goal when he first conceived of Paradise Lost?

Milton thought it unfortunate that the great epic poems, like The Iliad and Gilgamesh, were not in English - so he wrote Paradise Lost so we'd have our own. He was blind by the time he wrote it so he recited it to his daughters, who were his scribes. Milton was also a key figure in the English Civil War, and his anti-monarchist tendencies appear in Paradise Lost and doubly so in Paradise Regain'd in the (then very shocking) sympathetic, and, frankly, pretty darn sexy depiction of Satan.


How many plays and sonnets did Shakespeare write?

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and 37 plays that we know of.


Which of the Bronte sisters wrote Jane Eyre?

Charlotte was the oldest sister but no more tragic than the others. She produced more writing, and was the leader in their youthful writing about Gondal and Angria, magical lands they created together.


What's the difference between dramatic and thematic?

Thematic is about what a piece means or might be commenting on. For instance, in "To Kill A Mockingbird," themes include racism, bigotry, the nature of family, and growing up/loss of innocence. Dramatic means the actual story, so dramatically, "Mockingbird" is the story of a young girl whose hometown is rocked by a criminal trial in which her father defends a black man against an unjust accusation.


What was George Eliot's real name?

Mary Anne Evans was one of many authors who published under a male name, simply to get people to consider her work. We think we are more enlightened now, but J.K. Rowling still had to hide her gender only 25 years ago to be taken seriously in the swords and sorcery genre!


When were the Romantic poets active?

The Romantics were a response to the Industrial Revolution, which kicked off in 1750. They not only eulogized the natural world that was being threatened by the new industrial world, they essentially invented childhood as a time of innocence.


Which Middle English poem in the courtly love tradition is about women's right to self-determination?

This story is about saving King Arthur's life from a deadly knight by successfully answering what a woman most desires. A hideous crone offers to tell Sir Gawain if he will marry her. She says women most want "sovereignty", that is, the right to choose for themselves. Arthur is saved, Gawain marries hideous Lady Ragnelle, but on his wedding night she is transformed into a beautiful lady. She says to him that she is under a curse and he can choose whether she will be beautiful by night (in bed with him) or by day (in public at court). He remembers the lesson of sovereignty and says she is the only one who can choose. That breaks the spell and Ragnelle remains beautiful all the time. It's feminism, 350 years before the word was even coined.


Who said "fools rush in where angels fear to tread"?

Pope said this and a lot of other quotes you know, such as "a little learning is a dangerous thing" and "hope springs eternal." Pope was a very successful poet whose shortest and arguably most charming poem was written to be embroidered onto the collar of the King's dog, which lived at the palace at Kew. It read "I am his Highness' dog at Kew. Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?"


What was the most notable work by Christopher Marlowe?

Dr. Faustus is the original story about a deal with the devil. Marlowe didn't think of the story but wrote it especially well.


What English writer created the genre of science fiction?

Mary Shelley, born Wollstoncraft, was the wife of Percy Shelley, but she is more famous for being the mother of science fiction.


What is generally considered to be the first novel writtne in English?

Robinson Crusoe is technically the first novel, by modern definition. It was written by Daniel Defoe. His most fun work, though, is probably Moll Flanders.


What is the literal meaning of the title "Utopia," and who wrote the book?

Utopia's title led people to think that perhaps Sir Thomas More meant it as a joke or to suggest it could never be real. It inspired a great many books of similar type.


What situation prompted Shakespeare's decision to write Richard III?

Censorship was a big deal in the Elizabethan age. A play about a corrupt Yorkist king was thus a very good idea to please a queen from the winning Lancastrian side, if you wanted permission to put something on.


Who are the French and Italian authors generally thought to be the primary influences behind Thomas Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur"?

Mallory got the stories mostly from Boccaccio and de Troyes, who also influenced Chaucer and Shakespeare.


How many lines are there in a villanelle?

Five tercets of three lines then a quatrain of four make up a villanelle. Probably the most famous villanelle is "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas. Probably the worst is the intentionally terrible one Joyce wrote for his hero, Stephen Daedalus, in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," to prove what a pretentious twit the character is meant to be.


For whom did Alfred, Lord Tennyson, write "In Memoriam"?

Tennyson's dear friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly and prematurely of a stroke. Tennyson wrote this beautiful elegy about him and about the nature of death and friendship. He also named his son for Hallam.


Why is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" the length that it is, and not longer?

Coleridge took a load of opium and dreamed up the entire poem in one go. He sobered up and began to write it down. The postman arrived, however, and distracted him from his writing. By the time he sat down to work again, he couldn't remember the rest of the poem, so he just wrapped it up with four rather weird lines that don't quite fit, and called it a day. (Note: opium is orders of magnitude weaker than today's related drugs, so while neither should be recommended as a way to get one's artistic juices going, one should not consider Coleridge's use of it in the same light as a writer today taking heroin or another opioid.)


What natural disaster helped inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein?

Tambora threw up so much ash, it was called the "year without a summer" as the planet cooled. Millions starved and the ice on the Hudson was so thick you could roll a cannon across it. Shelley and her friends went to Geneva for the summer where they had a lake house but the awful weather meant they could barely go out. They stayed in and wrote ghost and monster stories instead.


Which New York-based writer of high society novels, including "Ethan Frome," is considered one of the greatest social commenters of their day?

Wharton, along with Henry James, was the leading writer of novels about rich people fending off the malaise and corruption of wealth, and struggling to stay rich!


What is poetry that doesn't rhyme or scan called?

Free verse is when poetry doesn't rhyme or scan. Blank verse scans but doesn't rhyme.


What is it called when a writer uses similar sounds in adjacent words, whether at the beginning or elsewhere, but excluding vowel sounds?

Consonance is when the sounds made by the consonants are similar.


Which of the authors below is not a member of the Algonquin Round Table?

This group of writers worked and played together constantly, meeting daily for lunch at the Algonquin. O'Neil wasn't a member but his agent was.


How many novels did Jane Austen write?

They are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan is her other notable work, but it is novella-sized.


What is a poem called where the words are laid out on the page in a shape that depicts the subject being described?

This is when the words help tell the story by how they are printed. It's one of the most instinctively easy forms of poetry to grasp.


Which science fiction author wrote "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"?

Jules Verne is one of the most adapted writers even today, inspiring many people with his tales of sci-fi adventure. Many of his ideas turned out to be surprisingly prescient.


What is the correct term for the use of the same letter at the beginning of two or more consecutive words, as in, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers"?

Alliteration is one of the most fun devices to use when reading aloud and is common in tongue twisters. Try saying "She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore" aloud, quickly, five times!


Which author noted for their very long books commenting on Victorian society originally published many of them as serials in magazines?

Dickens' novels were often serialized, with cliffhangers at the end of chapters, like many of today's episodic TV shows. He was paid per word, which is one reason why his books are such doorstops. He was one of the most financially successful writers of all time and his work still produces millions in revenue through adaptations.


Which war poet wrote "Dulce et decorum est"?

Owen was one of the great poets of World War I, and along with Sassoon, is considered to be one of its most evocative writers. Dulce Et Decorum Est describes a gas attack. The full phrase is "dule et decorum est pro patria mori," first coined by Horace in The Odes. It means "it is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland." Owen calls this The Old Lie.


Which Canadian writer created a much-adapted dystopia in "The Handmaid's Tale"?

Atwood is one of the most successful writers of all time, and The Handmaid's Tale - a feminist dystopia - is one of her most noted works. A very good adaptation of it (most recent of many) is currently on American TV.


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