AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Narrator & Perspective

Guest post by Susan Barber

Enduring Understanding: A speaker’s or narrator’s perspective controls the details and emphases that affect how readers experience and interpret a text.

Below are a variety of clips to get students thinking about a narrator’s perspective and how we as the audience are influenced by that particular perspective. While watching any or all of these clips, students should note the narrator’s perspective as well as think about the evidence that leads them to their conclusions. Encourage students to think about the narrator’s background and how this may shape the tone, descriptive words – especially adjective and adverbs – convey a speaker’s attitude. The same three questions can be asked for each clip to illicit their response (see below).

The narration skills are where students had the most trouble on the 2021 exam. Initially, students are asked to identify and describe the narrator or speaker (4.A) then explain the function of the point of view(4.B). In this lesson, students will Identify and describe details, diction, or syntax in a text that reveal a narrator’s or speaker’s perspective (4C). Grasping this skill is essential as it will be the base for the final skill in the category: explain how a narrator’s reliability affects a narrative (4D). 

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Examining Narrators Through Movie Clips

Clip 1 – A Christmas Story

Movie Legends Revealed | There Was No Decoder Ring in 'A Christmas Story'?

The narrator in this scene is an older version of Ralph looking back on a scene in his childhood.

  1. How would you characterize the narrator’s perspective?
  2. What specifically led you to this conclusion?
  3. How might this influence you? 

Clip 2 – The Shawshank Redemption

The narrator in this scene is Red, a fellow inmate of Andy’s.

  1. How would you characterize the narrator’s perspective?
  2. What specifically led you to this conclusion?
  3. How might this influence you? 

Clip 3 – The Martian

How realistic is 'The Martian'? Husker experts weigh in | Nebraska Today |  University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Mark Watley is the narrator and main character in this scene.

  1. How would you characterize the narrator’s perspective?
  2. What specifically led you to this conclusion?
  3. How might this influence you? 

Clip 4 – The Great Gatsby

In this prequel to 'The Great Gatsby,' Nick Carraway finally gets his  chance to shine. | America Magazine

Nick is the narrator in this beginning scene of Gatsby; he is the next door neighbor of Gatsby.

  1. How would you characterize the narrator’s perspective?
  2. What specifically led you to this conclusion?
  3. How might this influence you? 

Focus Text: “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

The focus text for this lesson is “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, a popular text in AP Lit circles. Allow your students a chance to read and annotate the text paying close attention to the narrator’s perspective. A review of the following terms may be helpful before reading and annotating: 

  • Diction – specific word choice – high brow or casual? Arrogant or humble? Detached or warm?
  • Syntax – word and phrase arrangement – short or long sentences? Orderly or inverted? Frantic or smooth?
  • Selection of Detail – pay attention to adjectives and adverbs as well as information that may be omitted

After working with the text, have students discuss the following questions in small groups before exploring as a class. 

  1. What is a narrator’s or speaker’s tone toward a particular subject, and which diction, imagery, details, and syntax in the text contribute to that tone?
  2. What is the relationship between a narrator’s or speaker’s tone toward a particular subject and their perspective, more generally?
  3. How does a narrator’s or speaker’s background and perspective shape a tone toward a particular subject?
  4. How do the diction, imagery, details, and syntax in a text support multiple tones
  5. Let’s return to the tone. How might a change in tone toward a particular subject over the course of a text indicate a narrator’s or speaker’s change?

Teacher’s Guide

Here are some thoughts and answers to help guide your discussion.

  1. While Sonny is the title character, we learn of his character through his brother. Not only do we learn about Sonny through the narrator, we also learn about the Harlem community. While much of the story is divided into the good and the bad or those who act morally and those who don’t, the narrator’s feelings are complicated and don’t easily fit into one side or another. 
  2. We learn a lot about the narrator – he is a family man, a school teacher, and even back stories from his childhood. We never, however, learn his name which is interesting and worth discussing. 
  3. The narrator has difficulty expressing his emotions which can cloud our feelings and emotions about Sonny. The death of the narrator’s parents and the death of his daughter cause his detachment from feelings. Exploring these specific scenes can help the reader understand his response to Sonny.
  4. The narrator’s tone about Sonny’s music changes through the text indicating a shift in his feelings about his brother. Compare adjective and adverbs use throughout the text describing music and what these reveal about the narrator’s feelings. 
  5. The factual diction and straight-forward syntax reinforce the narrator’s detachment from his feelings but does not necessarily offer the reader a non-biased view of Sonny (or the narrator). 

Additional Text Suggestions for Narrator’s Perspective

Here is a list of additional short stories and novels that you can use to help students study the perspective of a narrator. To work for Short Fiction units, I suggest limiting the novels to excerpts of 1-10 pages. Thank you to the AP Lit Facebook community for help in culminating this list. We got more suggestions than we could keep up with!

  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  •  “Sticks” by George Saunders
  • “Marriage is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Eveline” by James Joyce 
  • “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” by Neil Gaiman
  • “Land Enough for a Man” by Leo Tolstoy
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
  • “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” excerpts by Gail Honeyman 
  • “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Chekhov
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Looking for more practice with Narration skills? These graphic organizers will help your students unpack each of the Narration skills and can be paired with any text!
  • Frankenstein (especially with the epistolary look) by Mary Shelley
  • “Hills like White Elephants” by Earnest Hemingway
  • “XIV” by Derek Walcott
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe
  • “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
  • “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “A and P” by John Updike
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • “Charles” by Shirley Jackson
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Muzza” by Paul Horgan
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
  • “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Looking for more skill-based lessons? Check out my other free Skill Spotlight lessons here!

Susan Barber  teaches AP English Literature at Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia and serves English teachers on the NCTE Secondary Steering Committee. She is the editor and frequent contributor on APLitHelp.com and has been an AP Reader for the past six years. Susan, along with Carlos Escobar, instructed thousands of students (and teachers) after schools went remote during the spring of 2020 through College Board’s AP Live videos and was also an instructor for AP Daily in the fall of 2020. She has offered training at NCTE, GCTE, and the Folger Shakespeare Library and frequently leads ELA workshops across the country. She has been featured in the New York TimesThe Washington Post, Edutopia, and is currently co-authoring an AP Literature instructional guide for Norton. Susan, however, is most proud of the work she does on a daily basis in E225 and never tires of the beauty and chaos of the classroom.

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