Main Idea

Kristin Fracchia
Lesson by Kristin Fracchia
Magoosh Expert
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The opening scene of the film Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) is set in Austria: a static image of a young Marie Antoinette sleeping in a dark room. The establishing shot that follows shows Schönbrunn Palace in the early, grey morning light, before reverting to a close-up of Marie Antoinette waking up. Completely unaware of what the future has in store for her, Marie Antoinette allows the attendants to dress her just as on any other day. While she waits for them to lace the corset and finish her hair, she appears unconcerned and plays with her little pug. Dressed in a soft, velvety and lavender blue two-pieced dress, she then meets with her mother, before being sent off to France.


The theme of dressing and redressing, which is accentuated in the opening scene, is pursued throughout the film Marie Antoinette, establishing costume as a significant feature for reading the movie. Costumes help in the construction of cinematic identities. Their colors and configurations intervene with the actors’ movements, allowing further characterization on a more associative level. A character’s story is visualized through clothing. At first glance the attire of a filmic character connotes time period, social status, and whether or not the cinematic world refers to fantasy or reality. A closer examination reveals more subtle details: a character’s state of mind, motivations, and how the character wishes to be perceived.


Costume design involves conceptualizing and creating garments that capture and define the personalities of fictional characters and are therefore intended to embody the psychological, social and emotional condition of the character at a particular moment in the screenplay. For instance, one of the scenes in the “I Want Candy” montage in the film shows Marie Antoinette trying on new high-heeled shoes, and next to her on the floor lays a pair of well-worn, light blue Converse boots. The anachronistic feature is a cross-reference to today’s fashion and youth culture, reminding the audience that this is a film about teenagers and not really an 18th century period piece.


Additionally, in Marie Antoinette, color is used in a nuanced way, not only to describe the characters, but also in order to facilitate a specific look for the whole movie. On a conceptual level, the colors are used to tell a story. In this case, a story with an unhappy ending. In this early stage of Marie Antoinette’s time at Versailles, the colors worn and applied are light and icy, more sorbet-like. In the middle of the film—depicting her party years—her gowns become most dessert-like in their choice of color and even in cut, with bright yellow, pink and blue combinations creating a macaroon effect with the ornamentation of petticoats and skirts. Her dresses are modified in configuration as well and become bolder, with more daring garnish. In the final sequences of Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles, the colors grow a bit darker, faded, and become stricter. The fabric seems to change as well, and the dresses look heavier and more formal. The whole mise-en-scène subsequently becomes darkened and the film ends with a frame of her wrecked apartment overlaid with the sound of the guillotine as it slices the air (implying Marie Antoinette’s beheading).


The color palette of the costumes might be translated to a depiction of Marie Antoinette’s inner journey. The range of colors are comparable to those of the seasons, beginning with the light, spring-like pastels for her youth; bright summer colors representing her party years; and the darker, autumn-like shades for the last period at Versailles. As such, the costumes have metaphoric meaning; they are symbols of a stage in life and a state of mind. The costumes for Marie Antoinette are thus understood as being designed in order to communicate the inner experiences of the characters.


Ultimately, costume design in Marie Antoinette allows us to quickly grasp what the characters are all about. The actual changes in French fashion that began in the 1780s are in the film used as a way to visualize Marie Antoinette’s state of mind. The costumes conspire with the other cinematic features, generating a symbolic network for telling a story through dress. 

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This reading lesson is about main idea questions. And it's really important that you study how to approach main idea questions for the test because you are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one of them on each passage. And because knowing the main idea is important, not just for questions that ask explicitly about the main idea but for other questions that refer to the main idea at least in part.

So, let's go ahead and get started talking about strategy for answering main idea questions. The first thing you should do when you have a main idea question is review the first and last sentence of each paragraph in the passage, or of the paragraph or section the question is asking about if it's just asking about the main idea of part of the passage.

And the reason why you should do this is because often the most important information is in the first and last sentence of the paragraph. Now this is definitely not always the case but because the passages on the ACT are generally very structured. You'll often see that the first paragraph or the first sentence of a paragraph is a main idea statement, and the last sentence of a paragraph kinda concludes that idea.

But, at the very least, this gives you something concrete to focus on. You can go back and reread 10 or 15 sentences as opposed to the entire passage and get a good overall gist of it. Then, after you've done that, paraphrase the main idea of the passage in your own words. Ideally, you should be doing this when you've finished reading the passage because there are always going to be questions that have to do with main idea.

But if you have gotten to a main idea question and you haven't done it yet, make sure you go back and do that first before you look at the answer choices, because a lot of them will probably look really tempting but be incorrect. So you wanna have a clear idea of the main idea in your own head before you go forward. And then, work by process of elimination.

Now you might find that one of the answer choices just jumps out at you. It's exactly what you said for the main idea, but because there's so much going on in these questions, it's really important that you also weigh the other answer choices or maybe you were confused, and you didn't know what the main idea was, and you have to work by process of elimination. So here's some things to be looking for when you are eliminating answer choices.

So you wanna make sure you eliminate answer choices that have flaws in them. A word or a phrase that makes an entire answer wrong. Eliminate answer choices that only cover a portion of the passage. This happens quite frequently. They're too narrow, maybe it's just a supporting detail. Maybe its just the topic of one paragraph, but it doesn't encapsulate the entire passage, now you also want to eliminate answer choices that are too vague to best encapsulate the passage, or in other words too broad.

Now, this last one here the too vague answer is often the hardest to eliminate, because, well, it seems to cover the whole passage, but maybe there's another answer choice that's more specific that does a better job of it, so, make sure that you eliminate that one last. Keep it in play, make sure you evaluate all your answer choices. Let's go ahead and jump into a test example here, the main point of the passage is that, and once again, this passage is below the video, you can also find it in the example Passage Video Lesson.

So working under the assumption that you've already had a chance to read it, so if you haven't yet, go ahead and stop this video. Go ahead and read the example passage and come back to it. But we're gonna go ahead and go through the passage and apply the strategy that we're talking about. So, we are looking for the main point of this passage on the film Marie Antoinette.

So we're going to reread the first and last sentence of each paragraph, starting from the beginning. So we have the opening scene of the film. Marie Antoinette is set in Austria. A static image of a young Marie Antoinette sleeping in a dark room. End of the paragraph, dressed in a soft velvety and lavender blue two-pieced dress, she then meets with her mother, before being sent off to France.

So you can stop and make a quick mental note. First paragraph the description of the beginning of the film. Next paragraph, the theme of dressing and redressing, which is accentuated in the opening scene, is pursued throughout the film Marie Antoinette, establishing costume as a significant feature for reading the movie. And the last sentence of that paragraph, a closer examination reveals more subtle details, a character state of mind, motivations, and how the character wishes to be perceived.

All right, in this case the first sentence of this paragraph that's very theme oriented. So now we know the theme of dressing is pursued throughout the film Marie Antoinette and costume is established as a significant feature for reading the movie. The ending is not quite so conclusive of that, but it continues on this theme.

The characters state mind motivations is revealed through the subtle details of the clothing. All right, let's move a little bit more quickly now. Costume design involves conceptualizing and creating garments that capture and define the personalities of fictional characters, and are therefore intended to embody the psychological, social, emotional condition of the characters.

So again, more about how costume reflects the character, and their inner states. And then we have an example here at the bottom of the Converse boots and how this reminds us that this is a film about teenagers and not really about 18th century piece. Next paragraph talks about color being used in a nuanced way to facilitate a specific look and then at the end how the colors become darkened, and it ends with a sound of a guillotine, implying Marie Antoinette's beheading, so it talks about how color is used throughout the film to reflect Marie Antoinette's life.

Color palette of the costumes might be translated to a depiction of her inner journey. Once again, costumes, inner state, costumes, inner experience of the characters. Costume design allows us to quickly grasp what the characters are all about, and the costume conspires with other features, generating a symbolic network for telling a story through dress.

So, I think it's pretty safe to assume that the main point of the passage, remember we want to put in our own words first would be something about how costumes help us understand that the inner state of a character. Let's find what matches up best and let's work by process of elimination here. Marie Antoinette uses the symbolism of costumes more than many other films like it.

Now, symbolism of costumes, that sounds pretty good but here is our flaw. More than many other films like it. It didn't really compare this film to other films. Now, I know you may not have gotten that from just the opening and the closing sentences, so you may have to go back to the passage and review a little bit more to effectively eliminate this one.

Or just rely on memory the fact that there is no other comparisons to other films. B, costume design in Marie Antoinette allows audiences to more easily understand that the psychological state of the main character. That sound a lot like the main idea we paraphrased for ourselves, but let's make sure we read all the answer choices and eliminate them so we can be confident in that choice.

Marie Antoinette's use of anachronous costuming helps audiences today better relate to the movie's time period. Now this is an example of one that is flawed. Because it picks up on a detail. Remember we had those converse boots, but it's not the entire passage. The entire passage is not about anachronous costuming.

So this is one of those ones that's just the detail. And D, costume design in Marie Antoniette allows the audience to more easily distinguish between the personalities of the different characters. Well, all I saw when I went back there was Marie Antoinette, Marie Antoinette, Marie Antoinette. So we're not talking about distinguishing between personalities.

That's a flaw there, so we can be confident in answer choice B. All right, let's go ahead and recap our strategy for main idea questions. First, review the first and last sentence of the paragraph. Again, that's usually enough to help remind yourself of the gist of what this passage was about. Two, paraphrase the main idea in your own words first.

That's really important. Before you look at the answer choices. And then finally, work by process of elimination with the answer choices. On main idea questions particularly, you wanna make sure you look at all the answer choices, so you're not missing something, you weren't too broad or too narrow in your own interpretation of the main idea.

And look for those flaws that make an answer choice wrong. So whether it says something that's not in the passage or whether it's too broad or too narrow. Those are all things that make main idea wrong answer choices, flawed answer choices. So we can hone in on the correct one.

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