How do I analyse an unseen prose passage

Students sometimes feel less prepared to analyse unseen prose than unseen poetry, and there are pros and cons to both, but it’s not as difficult as you might think! On the one hand, you can understand the basic meaning of prose more easily, because writers of prose fiction generally don't use the strange grammar (with lots of inversions and ungrammatical phrases) that poets often use. On the other hand, there does seem to be less you can say about prose, since you can't talk about features of poetic form such as metre and rhyme. When approaching unseen prose, you should first read through the passage quite slowly, making sure that you have understood what happens in it and what all the sentences/words mean individually. Next, you should read the passage carefully for a second time, paying attention to all the 'literary techniques' you spot; did a writer use metaphor, simile, assonance (repetition of the same vowel sound in close proximity), hyperbaton (inverting the normal order in which you say words), a vivid image, etc.? If so, note these down and (this is the part most students forget to do) think about why they are important in the context of the whole passage: do they help to illuminate its central themes, or reveal something telling about the characters, etc.? It is also very important that you notice what kind of narrative voice the passage uses. Is the person speaking a first-person narrator, a third-person narrator who can tell you what all/most of the characters are thinking (omniscient), a third-person narrator who can only tell you what one character is thinking (limited)? Is there dialogue? Each of these possibilities changes how the reader perceives the events and characters of the passage. If the question asks you to analyse a particular theme in a prose passage, you should look for how the writer explores this theme on your second reading; it's okay to bear the theme in mind as you read the passage for the first time, but don't let it distract you from understanding what the passage actually means! Finally, you can think about what kinds of sentences the writer is using. Are they using lots of long, multi-clausal sentences, or shorter, staccato sentences - or combining different kinds of sentence? This is called the 'structure' of the prose, and has a strong effect on the tone of a passage (e.g. short, quick sentences can often feel punchy and confrontational - or indicate a writer jumping quickly from thought to thought). Above all, always ask why a writer has used a particular technique. Consistently saying why you think a writer did something is what will set you apart from your peers.

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