AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Character Relationships

If you’re studying CHR 1.D of the AP® Lit CED, and you’re studying them in the order suggested in that document, you’ve likely already gotten through many other skills. By now, you and your students should also understand that the concept of “complexity” just means two separate or contrasting things are happening simultaneously. However, CHR 1.D complicates that a bit more, asking students to analyze nuances and complexity in character relationships.

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Examining Character Relationships with Little Women

AP Lit and More - Still of Little Women
This clip from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a great clip for analyzing two different characters. Study their contrasting desires to analyze their complex relationship.

In this scene after Meg’s wedding, Jo considers how her sister and Teddy Laurence, her childhood best friend, are all off on new adventures. She wonders what’s next for her, then turns to Teddy who spills out his undying love for her. Jo protests, knowing this is coming but dreading it all the same. This argument between the two of them shows these two characters’ conflicting desires and attitudes, which contribute to their complex character relationship.

As you show the clip, ask your students to consider the following questions, taken from the CED:

Which particular images, character speech, and textual details are relevant for examining each character?

After viewing, it becomes evident that the two characters are propelled by two differing motivations. Let’s examine them one at a time.

AP Lit and More - Still of Teddy Laurence

When Teddy brings up the conversation, he begins by saying, “We have to have it out!” He acknowledges their tension but blurts out his enduring love for her since they were children. When she rejects him immediately, Teddy tries a new tactic. He explains that they should be together because everyone expects it to happen. He pushes further, saying “Say yes, and let’s be happy together!”

Teddy’s motivations are out of love, but also desperation for companionship. His lines are pleading and pitiful, even to the point of begging.

AP Lit and More - Still of Jo March

Jo’s behavior is also telling of her motivation. She is looking for opportunities for using her ambition, so marriage is the last thing on her mind (“I love my liberty too well to give it up”). She doesn’t rise to the occasion to hurt Teddy or join in his deprecating nature, but instead uses logic to explain why they would be a poor match. Jo says, “I’d hate elegant society, you’d hate my scribbling, and we would be unhappy and we’d wish we hadn’t done it and everything would be horrid.”

Now, pose these two questions to your students:

Which particular images, character speech, and textual details are relevant for examining characters’ relationships?

How do images, character speech, and other details reveal how characters interact?

The study of this character relationship is highly complex. Their speech and movement in this scene show how there is a healthy mix of love and hate. She pushes, he pulls. Both desire to have the other as their companion, but Teddy mistakes it for romantic love. Up until this point, their relationship is so close that it seems almost like that of brother and sister, which may contribute to Jo’s knee-jerk rejection at even the thought of their marriage. In the end, Jo’s instincts prove right. Teddy marries Jo’s sister, Amy, and the two really do become members of the same family.

Focus Text: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

AP Lit and More - Still of 2008 production of A Raisin in the Sun

For this skill, I’ve selected Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun as the focus text. I lost this title to American Lit at my school, but I love this play more than almost any other. There are several scenes you could use to study character relationships, but I selected one from the first half of the play.

In this excerpt, Mama presses her son, Walter Jr., on why he always seems so dissatisfied. She also reveals that Walter’s wife, Ruth, is considering an abortion because they are having money problems. She doesn’t want to stop her but expects that Walter will put his foot down and welcome their second child. You can read the excerpt here.

With your students. Pose the following questions to guide them in analysis of character relationships:

  1. Which words, phrases, and details contribute to Mama’s characterization? To Walter Jr.’s?
  2. What drives each character to think, feel, and/or act in the matter he or she does?
  3. Conflict between characters often arise because of a difference in value systems. What is the conflict of values in this scene?
  4. How do diction and the details that the author includes convey nuances and complexities in Walter Jr. and Mama’s relationship?
  5. How would you describe this relationship between Walter Jr. and Mama? What makes it complex?

Teacher’s Guide

AP Lit and More - Still of 1961 movie of A Raisin in the Sun
  1. Mama’s speech is a mixture of gentleness and judgment. She feels strong enough to question her son directly, but you can tell she does so because she loves him. When she asks if he’s having an affair, saying, “You done found it in some other house?”, she doesn’t skirt around the issue but asks directly. Walter’s language is described as impatient and pleading. His desire to leave the house, which brings him a sense of frustration and impotence, drives the whole scene until he finally runs out at the end.
  2. Mama’s drive is to understand and to be understood. She doesn’t understand why he wants to spend their money on a liquor store, a venture she disapproves of. However, she asks questions to try to understand why he is always leaving and dreaming. Walter’s drive is to be understood, for his mother and his wife to know that he wants to be his family’s leader. However, both Mama and Ruth emasculate him here. Mama rejects his business venture and Ruth reveals she made the decision to destroy their child on her own.
  3. The difference in value systems is very evident. Mama values comfort, security, and family. Her decision to buy a new house with the insurance money (which she does immediately after this scene) would ensure all of these things, at least in her mind. She also doesn’t understand her children’s ambitious desires. She says, “Now here come you and Beneatha— talking ’bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done.” Walter values money, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t also value his family. He just sees money as the best way to ensure a happy and secure family. When Mama says that freedom used to be life, Walter says, “No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.”
  4. Each character has nuanced references to time. Mama remembers her life with her late husband, their time raising Walter Jr. and Beneatha, and even the lessons her ancestors taught her after the abolition of slavery. These memories of the past drive her decision to buy a new house (a vast improvement over their current cramped apartment) for their family. Walter’s lines focus on the future rather than the past. He says, “Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me.”
  5. There are several ways you could study the complexity of this relationship. It juxtaposes Mama’s femininity, represented by her gentle but strong nurturing, with Walter Jr.’s masculinity, represented in his drive and desire for responsibility. You could also analyze the mix of past and present, represented by the references to time. There is also a mix of gratitude (Mama) and yearning (Walter Jr.). There are many different contrasting feelings represented in this relationship. And although this is a conflict, the two remain devoted and respectful of each other. It is a great portrait of a strong mother-son relationship, filled with honesty and respect.

Additional Text Suggestions for Character Relationships

Here is a list of additional short stories and novels that you can use to help students study character relationships. 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!

AP Lit and More - Essential Skill tests
Looking for more practice with Character skills? These graphic organizers will help your students unpack each of the characterization skills and can be paired with any text!
  • “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
  • Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • “A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • “The Gilded Six Bits” by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “A Warn Path” by Eudora Welty
  • “Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
  • “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Looking for more skill-based lessons? Check out my other free Skill Spotlight lessons here!

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