“Well-Behaved Women”: Feminism and Self-Respect in Sula

Students examine what it means to have true self-respect and what it means to be a feminist in a society that associates a women’s role with wife, mother, and dependence on men through their reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula and supplemental texts. During their reading of the novel, students will explore how Morrison’s complex and literary style develops characters and themes.

Unit Summary

“She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be - for a woman. And that no one would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand. There was only her own mood and whim, and if that was all there was, she decided to turn the naked hand toward it, discover it and let others become as intimate with their own selves as she was.” -Toni Morrison in Sula

In Unit 3, students examine what it means to have true self-respect and what it means to be feminist in a society that associates a woman’s role with wife, mother, and a dependence on men through their reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula and supplemental texts. Throughout this unit, students will analyze the development of arguments and explain how stylistic choices contribute to the purpose of an argument in nonfiction; explore how an author’s literary style develops characters, character relationships, and central ideas in fiction; and explain how the arrangement of text and other structural choices contribute to a text’s meaning in poetry.   

This unit starts with a Close Reading of Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect” so that students can establish a common definition of self-respect including ways women struggle to develop self-respect and the obstacles that get in the way of them developing true self-respect. In the remainder of the first arc of the unit, students read various articles, essays, letters, and book excerpts evaluating the extent to which the female characters and speakers have self-respect. Texts include “Lust” by Susan Minot, “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy, “There Is No Unmarked Woman” by Deborah Tannen, and excerpts from Feminism Is for Everybody, The Women of Brewster Place, and Their Eyes Were Watching God

The second arc of the unit is a novel study of Toni Morrison’s Sula, an influential novel written in 1973 that many would call the first Black feminist novel in the United States. In Sula, Morrison develops multidimensional female characters, and through them, explores issues of friendship, love, gender, and race. Morrison’s writing style is both distinctive and complex, and as a result, students will analyze the writer’s complex language as well as the stylistic techniques she employs to develop the novel’s characters and themes. 

In the third and final arc of the unit, students will engage in a Summative Unit Seminar on Morrison’s Sula and prepare for the unit performance task that asks students to create a fictional dinner conversation between Sula, the persona in Beyonce’s Lemonade, and two other literary black female characters. 

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Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

Supporting Materials

Assessment

This assessment accompanies Unit 3 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Key Knowledge

Essential Questions

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Thematic

  • What is self-respect? How does one develop true self-respect?
  • What are the implications of a woman’s escape from male rule on female friendship? What is friendship between women when unmediated by men?
  • To what extent are people innately good or evil? Who or what defines what is purely good and what is purely evil?

Skill

  • How does an author use multiple characters and characterizations to develop central ideas in a text? 
  • How does a reader use a feminist critical lens to analyze texts?

Vocabulary

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Text-based

aberration abated acquiesce agony avert bequeath contrive delirium euphoria fastidious feeble idiosyncrasy insouciant indifference lithe malevolence mellowed naiveté occult relinquish rueful solicitous temperament trivial

Literary Term

characterization diction figurative language foil imagery irony juxtaposition narrator and point of view setting symbolism theme

To see all the vocabulary for this course, view our 10th Grade Vocabulary Glossary.

Themes

In order to successfully teach this unit, you must be intellectually prepared at the highest level, which means reading and analyzing all unit texts before launching the unit and understanding the major themes the authors communicate through their texts. By the time your students finish reading this text, they should be able to articulate and explain the major themes the authors communicate through their texts related to the following thematic topics as they uncover them organically through reading, writing, and discourse. While there is no one correct thematic statement for each major topic discussed in the unit texts, there are accurate (evidence-based) and inaccurate (non–evidence-based) interpretations of what the authors are arguing. Below are some exemplar thematic statements:

  • Self-Respect: An individual gains not only power but self-respect through struggle. Struggle is the root from which self-respect springs. Attempting to validate others, maintain perfection, or ignore one’s flaws gets in the way of developing self-respect. 
  • Feminism: Succumbing to societal expectations that dictate how a woman should do, act, and behave often involves taking on passive roles of daughter, mother, and wife without resistance, ultimately preventing women from being independent. Morrison warns us of the dangers of doing so and highlights that subverting traditional roles allows women to be truly independent and free. 
  • Evil: Through Nel and Sula’s characters and the relationship that the community in the Bottom has with evil, Morrison highlights that humans are complex beings, neither completely good nor completely evil. What appears to be completely evil or good on the outside, may just be misunderstood.

Lesson Map

Standards

Core Standards

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L.9-10.5

LO 1.2A

LO 1.2B

LO 1.3A

LO 1.3B

LO 1.4B

LO 2.1A

LO 2.1B

LO 2.3A

LO 2.3B

LO 2.3C

LO 2.3D

LO 2.4B

LO 2.4C

LO 3.2B

LO 3.2B

LO 3.3C

LO 5.1A

LO 5.1B

RI.9-10.2

RI.9-10.3

RI.9-10.5

RL.9-10.2

RL.9-10.3

RL.9-10.4

SL.9-10.1

SL.9-10.2

W.9-10.2

W.9-10.3

W.9-10.4

W.9-10.5

W.9-10.9

Supporting Standards

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LO 1.4A

LO 2.2A

LO 2.2B

LO 2.2C

RI.9-10.1

RL.9-10.1