The ‘unseen’ is an aspect of literary studies that tests a candidate’s ability to independently approach a text, either poetry or prose, without the aid of a tutor or a textbook. It is usually assumed that the candidate has not ‘seen’ the text or the portion of the text being tested; neither has he or she been formally taught such a text. The implication then is that the candidate has to utilise all the literary resources in his or her arsenal in the interpretation of the text. The richer the candidate’s repertoire of literary tools and concepts, the better and greater the chances the candidate has to successfully attempt the unseen passage being tested. It should then be stated that a candidate should be armed with elements of prose in order to effectively grapple with unseen prose; he or she should also be armed with elements of poetry in order to successfully attempt questions on unseen poetry.

Unseen Prose

Prose is one of the three genres of literature, the others being poetry and drama. Prose is so called because it is written in paragraphs and makes use of everyday conversational style; hence a prosaic style is relaxed and devoid of all the linguistic stringencies that are normally observed in either poetry or drama. Because of this, prose tends to be more easily comprehensible compared to poetry, whose style is usually terse and compact. Although in recent writings, there have been attempts to make poetry more prosaic and prose more poetic, the stylistic lines that divide these two genres are still strictly maintained.

Two types of prose can be delineated in a broad sense. These are fiction and non-fiction. Fictive prose is so called because it is based on creativity and imagination, while non-fiction narrates the direct facts of life without any form of imaginative embellishment. Fictional works are based on make-believe situations while non-fictional works arise from factual events in human life and society. It should be noted that there is a type of prose called faction, which is a work that combines facts and fiction in its rendition or presentation.

Fiction has sub-types such as the novel, the novella or novelette and the short story. The novel is an extended narrative of prose fiction that tells a human story. It is the lengthiest of all fiction and hence accommodates a greater variety of characters, plots and subplots. According to E.M. Forster, a foremost critic of the novel, a novel should have a minimum of 50 thousand words. The novel is also the most recent art form in English literature compared to drama and prose, having effectively begun in the 18th century with works such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and had its precursors in the sentimental novels of the previous century with works such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela alternatively called Virtue Rewarded (1740).

The novel as a subgenre of prose has its own types. These are the picaresque novel, epistolary novel, the historical novel (or the realistic novel), sentimental novel, the Gothic novel, romance novel, the novel of manners, the detective novel, roman á clef (novel with a key), the bildungsroman novel, the proletarian novel, among others.

The picaresque novel has a Spanish origin and was brought into English literature during the Elizabethan period. It is chiefly noted for its episodic plot structure and its central character or hero who is known as a ‘picaro’ in Spanish which means a ‘rogue, a highwayman or a villain’. The picaro is seen moving from place to place getting himself involved in all manner of vices and living by his wit. It is an adventure novel. A good example of a picaresque novel is Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594).

Epistolary novel is written in the form of a letter. A good example is Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. The historical novel is so called because it adapts its materials from events in human history. This tends to make this novel realistic. Realistic novels also aim to be faithful to reality in its depiction of events. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a good example of a historical novel. The sentimental novel, also known as the psychological novel, was popular in the 17th century. It is a novel about human character or virtue such as patience, honesty and chastity. Characters usually find themselves in moral dilemma and it is only their ability to stick to what is right that will salvage and promote them. It promotes feelings and emotions over reason. A good example is Pamela.

The Gothic novel is noted for its quaint locale and surrealistic texture often denoted by the pervasive presence of the supernatural, ghosts and the animation of inanimate objects in a bid to instill in the reader fear, awe and dread. A good example is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The romance novel usually combines love, chivalry and adventure. Its characterisation is dialectical and consists of the relationship between masters and servants (victims), heroes and villains. A good example is Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844). The novel of manners was popular in the 19th century and is chiefly associated with Jane Austen. It focuses on the manners or ways of behaviour of the upper class members of society. A good example is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The bildungsroman has a German origin and it is the novel of growth and of education. Its hero is usually a young person who undertakes a journey of self-discovery. The journey is both physical and psychological. A good example is Camara Laye’s The African Child. The proletarian novel is a novel that depicts the conditions of common people in a capitalist society. A good example is Festus Iyayi’s Violence. The detective novel is noted for its non-linear plot structure, which usually begins at the end of the story when a crime has been committed. The duty of the hero or the detective is to solve the puzzle that surrounds the crime that has been committed. A good example is Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember. Roman á clef is a French novel known for its aim to portray well known people in a fictional way. A good example is Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928).

Though novella and novelette can be used interchangeably, it should be noted that the novella is longer than the novelette. A novella is usually between 17, 500 words and 40, 000 words. The maximum number of words for a novelette is 17, 500 words and the minimum is 7,500 words. Eyoh Etim’s Don’t Marry Angelica is a good example of a novella. A good example of a novelette is Walter M. Miller’s ‘The Darfsteller’. The short story can be read at a sitting and is usually not more than 7.500 words. It has a small set of characters and no subplots. A good example of a short story is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, whose subject matter is revenge.


Non-fictive prose refers to works that not based on literary imagination but are rather based on facts. They include academic articles (journals), textbooks in all disciplines, letters, dictionary, travelogue, essays, reports, diary (journal), biography, autobiography and memoirs.

Elements of Prose Fiction

There are five basic prose elements. These are plot, setting, characterisation, point of view and theme or motif. Some critics include style as a prose element, but it should be noted that style is common to all the genres and not peculiar to prose alone. However, the ‘unseen’ demands that students should pay close attention to the author’s style, which is the sum of every technique or element deployed by the author in the writing of the work.

Subject Matter, Theme and Motif

The subject matter of a work of art is what the work of art is all about. The subject matter should not be confused with theme, which is the idea/message that the works embodies. A work usually has a single subject matter and multiple themes. For instance, the subject matter of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is throne usurpation and its consequences while its many themes include tyranny or dictatorship, parental abuse, horror, war, the intervention of the supernatural in human affairs, gender oppression, chivalry, the triumph of good over evil, among others. The subject matter of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer is marriage and love relationships among the upper class members of the 18th century English society. But this subject is realised through themes such as love, courtship, husband and wife relationship, mischief, mistakes and mistaken identity, friendship, indulgence, deception, humour, among others. Thus, it can be seen that while the subject matter is usually stated in a sentence, the theme expresses those ideas or those messages that can be deduced from the events in a literary work. There are major and minor themes. There also timeless and universal themes.

Motif refers to the recurrent ideas, images and symbols in a literary work. Motif is different from theme and subject matter because motif recurs throughout the work and can even serve as a narrative strategy, whereas themes and subject matter do not constitute sustained or recurrent tropes in the work. Blood, sacrifice, death and uncertainty are motifs in Dele Charley’s The Blood of a Stranger.

Setting is the time and place in which a work of art is set. Plot refers to the sequence in which the events in a work of art are arranged. There are linear and non-linear plots. Point of view refers to the vantage point from which the author tells the story. There are first, second and third person narrative points of view. There is also stream of consciousness as a narrative viewpoint.

Characterisation means the act and art of creating characters in a literary work. Characters are fictional parsonages that inhabit the world created by the author in a work of art. Characters usually come in pairs: heroes/heroines, protagonist/antagonist, dynamic/static, round/flat, major/minor, central/marginal, foil.  


The style of a work is how the writer uses language in the work. Style is vast and all encompassing. It accounts for all the techniques and devices used in the work, including form, structure, prose elements, rhetorical devices, figures of speech, tone and mood. One’s knowledge of literary tropes and concepts usually comes handy when it comes to style.

Approaching an Unseen Prose

The first step in approaching an unseen prose is to carry out a close reading of the excerpt or extract. A close reading means one in which the reader makes keen observations and asks key questions in the course of the reading. This can be done once or twice. The second step is to read all the questions that follow that particular extract. The third step is to skim through the passage to locate where the possible answers are or where the questions point to. Finally, answers are written down.

Let’s take an example of unseen prose tested by NECO in 2017

Read the passage below and answer the Questions on it

The experience of last year led me to resolve and conclude that I won’t have anything to do with them this year. I once had a pretty sucker on whom I showered abundant love. My head and heart were committed into the relationship. Thus, I became bare before her. Of course, she was aware of my immeasurable commitment to the affair as she came to know me to the marrows. I thought I could vouch for her when she whetted my craving with such statement as ‘You are the first among equals’ and the undoubtedly poetic ‘the sky and the sea are high and deep as the horizon where we are always’. I reasoned that love was the ultimate propelling force. But, I was wrong.

  1. The subject matter of the passage is A. betrayal B. loss C. love D. lust
  2. The tone of the passage is that of A. disappointment B. disgust C. harshness D. pity
  3. The mood in the passage is that of A. anger B. gloom C. pity D. regret
  4. The passage uses ——— narrative technique. A. first-person B. second person C. third person D. omniscient
  5. The underlined is an example of A. allusion B. bathos C. cacophony D. simile


Read the passage below and answer the Questions on it

‘The residential area is divided into two parts. The first is the Ilmorog Golden Heights residential area. In the past it used to be called Cape Town, but today it’s known as Golden Heights or simply the Heights. The air there is good and clean, and that’s where anyone who is anyone lives in Ilmorog. It contains the homes of the wealthy and the powerful. But do you call them homes or residences? Homes or sheeer magnificence? The walls are made of stones from Njiru. The roofs are made of red brick. The windows are dark blue glass, like the waters of the lakes or the heavens on a cloudless day. They are decorated with iron bars shaped like different kinds of flower. The doors are made of tick wood, carved into all sorts of wonderful shapes. The floor is lined with wood, so polished, so smooth and shiny, that you can see your own reflection in it, and you can even use it as a mirror to do your hair. The residents of Golden Heights are always competing with each other. If one man builds a twenty-room house with ten chimneys, the next man will build a twenty-room house with twenty-chimneys. If this one imports carpets from India, the other will import his from Iran, and so on . . .

  1. What is the subject matter of the passage?
  2. What evidence is there in the passage to suggest that Golden Heights is mainly for the rich?
  3. Of what literary effect are the rhetorical questions underlined in the passage?
  4. ‘The windows are dark blue glass, like the waters of the lakes or the heavens on a cloudless day’. What figure of speech is this and what purpose does it serve in the passage?
  5. The passage illustrates that the rich are contented. True or false. Cite evidence from the passage to support your answer.
  6. The passage ends with an ellipsis. Why?

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  1. Good blog! I truly love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I could be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS feed which must do the trick! Have a great day!

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