AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Character Change

The AP® English Lit CED has five skills focusing on characterization. The second one, CHR 1.B, discusses the effect of character change. It’s important to remember that this skill asks students to analyze the effect of a character remaining unchanged as well as changing. Sometimes, especially in short texts, a character’s lack of change is just as telling as a major change in character.

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Warm-Up Activity: Scenes from Mad Men

AMC’s television series Mad Men ran from 2007-2015 and followed the life of Don Draper and other employees at Sterling Campbell, an advertising firm in New York. The 60s was the golden age of advertising and ad men were often referred to as Mad Men. This was partly because of their grueling schedule and also because most of their firms were located on Madison Avenue. The protagonist of Mad Men is Don Draper. Throughout the series we watch him cheat on his wife, drink at all hours in the office, and lean on his secretary, Peggy, through it all.

As I watched the show’s run, however, I became more interested in Peggy’s character arc than Don’s. Don isn’t quite a static character, but I find his changes lie in the fact that he is reliably unreliable. Peggy, however, evolves from a quiet, submissive secretary to a creative powerhouse who proves she’s more than capable of competing with the men in the office.

In this clip from the pilot, Peggy is introduced to the office and her new job. Joan, her supervisor, gives Peggy the scoop on her job, both the written job description and the unwritten one.

Crucial21DbW: Mad Men – S4E7 – “The Suitcase” directed by Jennifer  Getzinger – Directed by Women

In this next clip a few seasons later, Peggy has shown her powerful mind enough to move out of the secretarial pool and is now working as a creative employee in the firm. Don Draper is a partner and her direct boss, and their dynamic has changed since she worked as his secretary. In this scene, she shows her humanity and her nerve, speaking to him as an equal for the first time.

In this scene from later in the show’s run, another partner, Roger Sterling, is trying to bribe Peggy into doing a pitch that he forgot to assign. Peggy identifies Sterling’s weakness and exploits it for her own gain.

Show these three scenes and ask your students, how has Peggy changed from beginning to end? How does her change indicate a progress in her character? Finally, how can this change in her character relate to greater significance or themes?

Focus Text: “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

You can find Kate Chopin’s classic short story “The Story of an Hour” online here. Ask your students to read it and then ask the following questions:

  1. What provokes Mrs. Mallard’s change?
  2. Using inferences, what do you think Mrs. Mallard’s life was like before she was told her husband died? What does she dream about once she believes him to be dead?
  3. To what degree does the text convey empathy for Mrs. Mallard? Explain your answer.
  4. Mr. Mallard doesn’t change. How does his lack of change affect the story’s plot?
  5. How does Mrs. Mallard’s change contribute to the meaning or significance of the text?  

Teacher’s Guide

  1. Mrs. Mallard’s change comes from the news of her husband’s sudden death in a rail accident.
  2. We can only make assumptions about her life before the crash, since the story doesn’t tell us directly and the text is so short. However, Mrs. Mallard’s sudden proclamation that she is “free, free, free!” shows us that she feels trapped in her current life. While she feels sadness at the loss of her husband, she also dreams of “years to come that would belong to her absolutely.” Therefore, we can assume she’s looking forward to a life with more independence. “The Story of an Hour” was published in 1894, when a woman’s life revolved around her husband. The absence of Mr. Mallard allows Mrs. Mallard to step out of his shadow for the very first time.
  3. This is a subjective question, so students may take both sides on it. Those who find it empathetic may explain that Chopin establishes Mrs. Mallard grieves for her husband, but that is outweighed by her desire for her own individuality and freedom. Those that do not find empathy may find evidence in Mrs. Mallard’s ironic death at the end, even saying that her own heartlessness contributed to her demise. Personally, I favor the first opinion.
  4. Mr. Mallard is completely unchanged and his arrival at home is unlike any other day. He didn’t even know about the railway crash, leaving him unprepared for the shock his arrival would bring and how it could hurt his wife. His appearance leads to Mrs. Mallard’s fatal heart attack and the irony of the ending.
  5. Mrs. Mallard’s change is in how she hopes for the future. In her life before, every day was likely very much like the first. However, with Mr. Mallard dead, her life is suddenly full of possibility. The way she looks out the window and envisions the seasons changing in her future represent the new hope she has in her life. She exits the room triumphant, “like a goddess of victory.” However, her hopes are doubly dashed in the story’s tragic ending. Not only is her life changing, since Mr. Mallard is not dead, but it ends instantly with his arrival.

Additional Text Suggestions for Character Change

Students can analyze virtually any text for this skill, since it asks them to analyze characters who do and do not change. However, here are a few favorites and recommendations from the AP Lit Facebook community.

Looking for more practice with character skills? Check out these graphic organizers, which can be paired with any text!

Short Texts:

Longer Works:

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • Raymond’s Run by Toni Cade Bambara
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Basically any coming-of-age story!
Looking for more skill-based lessons? Check out my other free Skill Spotlight lessons here!

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