Test | Study Guide

Theodore Thomas

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Test | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


The Crash

Robert Proctor is a young man driving down the highway on a beautiful May morning with his mother in the passenger seat. He moves into the left lane to pass a convertible that is following a large truck. The convertible swerves into his lane and hits the front corner of his car. Robert reacts as calmly as possible, doing everything in his power to prevent his car from crashing. Then the tire blows and his mother starts screaming. The car spins into traffic on the other side of the highway. Robert finds himself face to face with a wide-eyed man and a sleeping girl as their cars collide in a head-on crash.

The Test

Robert wakes groggily, as if from a deep sleep, with a uniformed man reassuring him that everything is fine. The man tells Robert that the crash was not real. Robert had been hypnotized for the last part of his driver's test, and a simulated accident was intended to make him a more careful driver. If Robert still wants a driver's license, the man says, he only needs to sign the application.

The Result

Robert signs the application. Two men in long, white coats flank him, and then the uniformed man informs Robert that he has failed the driver's license test. The uniformed man says that the accident Robert endured should have made him hesitant to drive for years. People like Robert are not allowed to obtain driver's licenses. The uniformed man tells Robert that he will be sent for treatment. As the two men in white coats begin to take him out of the room, Robert is surprised and asks whether this is still part of the test. The doctor says no, but Robert can try again later. The two men in white coats haul Robert from the room as his feet drag in the grooves made by the many test-takers who failed before him.


What Is Real?

Thomas writes the first part of the story with close attention to detail, placing clues that increase the illusion of reality for the reader. Thomas activates the senses for the reader, writing about the sight of the road, the smell of the air, the feel of the air in Robert's lungs, the sound of the engine, and the brightness of the sun. He uses similes to express the emotions of Robert's mother: "Her voice was as cool as the morning." Thomas entices the reader into the illusion, and the reader becomes immersed in the world of the short story. When Thomas reveals that Robert's world is a hypnotic simulation designed as a test, the reader's perception of the story's reality is shattered as well. Then, as the uniformed man tells Robert that he has failed, Robert asks if the test is still going. The hyperreal atmosphere of the world he inhabited while he was hypnotized is so convincing that he is no longer certain what is real and what is simulated.

Thomas's exploration of reality is continued through Robert's perception of the crash. Robert hears his mother's scream go on for so long that he wonders how it could be possible. For Robert, the crash seems to last a very long time; Thomas writes the crash scene with detailed sentences that read slowly, even calmly. Logically Robert knows that his mother's scream must have been only the length of a breath. The disjunction between Robert's perception of reality and his knowledge of reality is significant. With it, and with the differentiation between hypnosis and reality, Thomas asks his reader to question what reality is and how one can be certain that their reality is reality.

What Power Should Government Have?

The uniformed man says that the purpose of the test is to make people into better drivers, but the test's method is problematic. Robert is a skilled driver, which he proves by making every choice correctly during the simulated crash. He is deeply affected by the simulation, still seeing the face of the sleeping girl and feeling especially guilty about the hypothetical death of his mother. Still Robert fails the test. To the reader Robert is an excellent candidate for a driver's license, but the government—represented by the uniformed man—disagrees.

The contrast between the reader's expectations and the government's actions encourages the reader to question governmental authority. More than simply question whether the government should have given Robert the driver's license, the reader should question the ethics of the process by which Robert was tested. Should a government be able to exercise complete control over a person's perceived reality? Should the government be able to make decisions based on that simulated reality? If not, to what extent is it ethical for the government to test psychological reactions and use those reactions to make decisions about its citizens?

Test Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Robert drives down the turnpike with his mother.

Rising Action

2 A multiple car crash kills Robert, his mother, and others.

3 The uniformed man wakes Robert from the test hypnosis.

4 Robert signs his name to finish applying for a license.


5 The uniformed man tells Robert he is sick and needs help.

Falling Action

6 Two men in white coats carry Robert away for treatment.


7 The uniformed man tells Robert he can repeat the test later.

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