AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Contrasts in Prose

The AP Lit* CED includes the function of contrasts as an essential skill. Specifically, it says, that contrasts can affect a text’s “focus; tone; point of view; character, narrator, or speaker perspective; dramatic situation or moment; settings or time; or imagery.” Another word you can use in studying contrasts is juxtaposition, one I overuse in my class (according to my AP® Lit kids). However, if you ask me, juxtaposition just sounds fancier!

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Introducing Contrasts with Song Covers

Before I explain this, I want to give a big shout out to Regan Peterson from the AP® Lit Facebook group for this outstanding idea! She suggested introducing contrasts by asking students to listen to two different versions of the same song. The setup for this is simple, either play them yourself or send your students to YouTube or Spotify to compare two covers of the same song.

Once they’ve heard both versions, ask students to examine this Essential Knowledge standard in the CED: “The differences highlighted by a contrast emphasize the particular traits, aspects, or characteristics important for comparison of the things being contrasted.” Ask them, what differences are highlighted? How do they emphasize traits, aspects, or characteristics of the song, its images, or its message?

Here’s a list of suggested song pairings you can use (and again, thanks to the Facebook group for some of the ideas):

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana vs. Tori Amos
  • “Shock the Monkey” – Peter Gabriel vs. Joseph Arthur
  • “Landslide” – Fleetwood Mac vs. The Chicks
  • “Heroes” – David Bowie vs. Peter Gabriel
  • “We Can Work It Out” – The Beatles vs. Stevie Wonder
  • “Tiny Dancer” – Elton John vs. Florence + The Machine
  • “Changes” – Black Sabbath vs. Charles Bradley
  • “Sugar Sugar” – The Archies vs. Bob Marley and the Wailers
  • “Last Kiss” – J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers vs. Pearl Jam
  • “Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones vs. Soft Cell
  • “Solitary Man” – Neil Diamond vs. Johnny Cash

Focus Text: “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell

Click here to access this free graphic organizer to use with “A Jury of Her Peers.”

I’ve been trying to get “A Jury of Her Peers” in my classroom for a several months but haven’t had quite the right focus for it until now. I recently listened to a podcast on the story Close Reads, which helped me zero in on the many examples of contrasts in the text.

Use this graphic organizer with your students and ask them to take note of any contrasts they find in the text. I suggest asking them to use the left column just for notations and ideas, as not every contrast will yield a deep significance or connect to a meaning.

When they finish, the text, ask them to consider how some of the text’s contrasts contribute to a deeper significance or thematic meaning. Most will notice the difference between men and women, but the list can include (but is not limited to the following):

  • “Her bread all ready for mixing, half the flower sifted and half unsifted.”
  • “She hated to see things half done.”
  • The sheriff vs. the sheriff’s wife (in appearance and voice)
  • Mrs. Hale vs. Mr. Hale in manner of speaking (“Mrs. Hale…had that sinking feeling of the mother whose child is about to speak a piece. Lewis often wandered along and got things mixed up in a story.”)
  • Upstairs vs. downstairs (and the actions in both areas)
  • Men vs. women (this includes MANY subcategories, including the way they speak, reason, judge, and behave throughout the whole text)
  • The cupboard (“half closet and half cupboard, the upper part of it being built in the wall, and the lower part just the old-fashioned kitchen cupboard”).
  • Minnie Foster vs. Minnie Wright
  • Mrs. Peters’ outward behavior vs. inner thoughts (“She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things.”)
  • The kitchen table (“One half of it was wiped clean, the other half messy.”)
  • The sugar bowl (“Things half begun–and not finished.”)
  • quilt it vs. knot it
  • “little things” vs. “awful important things”
  • neat squares vs. messy squares on the quilt
  • Minnie Wright vs. the bird (treatment as a symbol)
  • music and noise vs. stillness (in relation to Minnie’s bird and Mrs. Peters’ lost baby)
  • proximity of neighbors (“We live close together, and we live far part. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing!”)
  • truth vs. justice (Mrs. Peters is “married to the law,” and yet she helps to hide the probably motive in an effort to give Minnie justice)

Teacher’s Guide

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Most of these small contrasts contribute to the overwhelming conflict between men and women and their separate domains, in the home vs. out of the home. Glaspell emphasizes these contrasts with “trifles” herself, such changing character’s identifiers (ex: Mrs. Peters vs. the sheriff’s wife) to shift the emphasis as needed. Ultimately, the women find themselves in the struggle to hide evidence in order to save Minnie Foster or expose what they’ve found to the men and, thus, condemn her.

However, when one examines it closely you can see there is a second conflict at play, where the women must wonder if the men would even recognize their evidence beyond simple “trifles” that only a woman would notice. Is it even worth it to expose what they’ve discovered? And would the men admit its importance? Ultimately, these contrasts expose the women’s values. In the end, they value justice over truth, concepts that the men consider synonymous.

Suggested Texts for Studying Contrasts

Here is a list of suggested short stories or novels to excerpt for studying contrasts. Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions!

  • “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst
  • “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl
  • “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
  • “The Body” by Stephen King
  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bombara
  • A Tale of Two Cities (2 opening paragraphs) by Charles Dickens
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty
  • “Puppy” by George Saunders
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Milkman vs. Guitar)
  • “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” J. D. Salinger
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