Academic English 12

We are going to continue to work on literary analysis. Today’s lesson will focus on characterization by analyzing an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Sula. Please follow the link to join and participate in today’s discussion.

Background and Purpose

Toni Morrison’s fiction has won her the Noble Prize in Literature and her work often adorns the best-seller list.  This passage from Sula,  published in 1973, is an example of Morrison’s skill with indirect characterization.  We must make inferences about Helene based largely on diction, but also on more subtle means, such as the viewpoints of the narrator, the woman on the train, and the men at the station. How the experience changes Helen is also indirectly revealed. In the passage, Helene and her young daughter are traveling by train from Ohio to New Orleans to visit her dying grandmother. The setting is the early 1940s, a generation before the Civil Rights act enforced integration in the American South.

The Story – Excerpt from Sula

For two days they rode; two days of watching sleet turn to rain, turn to purple sunsets, and one night knotted on the wooden seats (their heads on folded coats), trying not to hear the snoring soldiers. When they changed trains in Birmingham for the last leg of the trip, they discovered what luxury they had been in through Kentucky and Tennessee, where the rest stops had all had colored toilets. After Birmingham there were none. Helene’s face was drawn with the need to relieve herself, and so intense was her distress she finally brought herself to speak about her problem to a black woman with four children who had got on in Tuscaloosa.

“Is there somewhere we can go to use the restroom?”

The woman looked up at her and seemed not to understand. “Ma’am?” Her eyes fastened on the thick velvet collar, the fair skin, the high-tone voice.

“The restroom,” Helene repeated. Then, in a whisper, “The toilet.”

The woman pointed out the window and said, “Yes, ma’am. Yonder.”

Helene looked out of the window halfway expecting to see a comfort station in the distance; instead she saw gray-green trees leaning over tangled grass. “Where?”

“Yonder,” the woman said. “Meridian. We be pullin’ in direc’lin.” Then she smiled sympathetically and asked, “Kin you make it?”

Helene nodded and went back to her seat trying to think of other things—for the surest way to have an accident would be to remember her full bladder.

At Meridian the women got out with their children. While Helene looked about the tiny stationhouse for a door that said COLORED WOMEN, the other woman stalked off to a field of high grass on the far side of the track. Some white men were leaning on the railing in front of the stationhouse. It was not only their tongues curling around toothpicks that kept Helene from asking information of them. She looked around for the other woman and, seeing just the top of her head rag in the grass, slowly realized where “yonder” was. All of them, the fat woman and her four children, three boys and a girl, Helene and her daughter, squatted there in the four o’clock Meridian sun. They did it again in Ellisville, again in Hattiesburg, and by the time they reached Slidell, not too far from Lake Pontchartrain, Helene could not only fold leaves as well as the fat woman, she never felt a stir as she passed the muddy eyes of the men who stood like wrecked Dorics under the station roofs of those towns.

Using Skills to Understand the Passage


1.  What do we discover about Helene from her surprise about the realities of the segregated South, from her behavior on the train, from her confusion at the station, and from her diction?

2.  What does the woman with four children add to the characterization of Helene? Consider what she sees when she looks at Helene, what she says, and what she does.

3.  The woman can be considered a foil to Helene. What details create this role?

4. What does the narrator add to the characterization of Helene? Consider the selection of details as well as the diction of the narrative voice.

Short Writing Prompt

Analyze the devices of plot and characterization within the short scene: identify the protagonist, antagonist, and foil, and consider the motivations of the characters. Then explain the conflict(s) and resolution.

Peer Response

Please comment on at least one of your classmate’s responses.

Task Review

  1. Read and analyze the excerpt.
  2. Respond to guided questions.
  3. Complete short writing.
  4. Comment on at least 1 classmate’s responses.

Join Class Discussion

Join Class Discussion

Join Class Discussion


AP Eng Lit. & Comp. 12

For today’s class, we are going to continue to work in the AP Classroom. Please login as usual and complete the work. Remember, after the video lesson, there is a short AP Quiz attached. If you have any questions or problems with the AP Classroom, please contact me and I’ll help you.


Multimedia Design

Watch the following tutorial. It is a long video, but it is a review of how all the Photoshop tools work. There are still a lot of students who are not aware of how these tools work. Please review so we don’t have to keep stopping during class to review.