Guiding questions

Before the actual individual oral commentary, there are 20 minutes to prepare the passage that has been selected. Each passage is accompanied by two guiding questions. Answering the guiding questions, however, is not the main goal of the individual oral commentary. The guiding questions are there to do just that: they guide. They serve as a starting point. By answering these, you can unlock more ideas and continue from there. Each of the two guiding questions has a function:

  1. One guiding question focuses on language and style.
  2. The other guiding question focuses on content.

The initial few minutes of the preparation time could be used to read the passage carefully, looking for answers to the guiding questions. It is for this reason that we recommend reading the guiding question before reading the passage. The following activity helps you annotate the passage effectively, looking for answers to the guiding questions immediately.

Highlighting the questions

To find answers to the guiding questions, you may want to start by highlighting the questions with two different colors. Here are two questions that appeared on a passage to Sula by Toni Morrison. They have been highlighted in green and blue to correspond with the answers found in the passage below. With your cursor, go over the highlighted text to see the annotations that accompany the passage.

- How are verbs used to reflect Eva's state of mind?

- How is comparison used in the passage?

Sula
Toni Morrison
1973

"Hey, man. Hey. You holdin' me, Mamma?" His voice was drowsy and amused. He chuckled as though he had heard some private joke. Eva held him closer and began to rock. Back and forth she rocked him, her eyes wandering around his room. There in the corner was a half-eaten store-bought cherry pie. Balled-up candy wrappers and empty pop bottles peeped from under the dresser. On the floor by her foot was a glass of strawberry crush and a Liberty magazine. Rocking rocking, listening to Plum's occasional chuckles. Eva let her memory spin, loop and fall. Plum in the the tub that time as she leaned over him. He reached up and dripped water into her bosom and laughed. She was angry, but not too, and laughed with him.

"Mamma, you so purty. You so purty, Mamma."

Eva lifted her tongue to the edge of her lip to stop the tears from running into her mouth. Rocking, rocking. Later she laid him down and looked at him for a long time. Suddenly she was thirsty and reached for the glass of strawberry crush. She put it to her lips and discovered it was blood-tainted water and threw it to the floor. Plum woke up and said, "Hey, Mamma, whyn't you go on back to bed? I'm all right. Didn't I tell you? I'm all right. Go on, now."

"I'm going, Plum," she said. She shifted the weight and pulled her crutches toward her. Swinging and swooping, she left his room. She dragged herself to the kitchen and made grating noises.

Plum on the rim of a warm light sleep was still chuckling. Mamma. She sure was somethin'. He felt twilight. Now there seemed to be some kind of wet light traveling over his legs and stomach with a deeply attractive smell. It wound itself - this wet light- all about him, splashing and running into his skin. He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him. Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought. Everything is going to be all right, it said. Knowing that it was so he closed his eyes and sank back into the bright hole of sleep.

Eva stepped back from the bed and let the crutches rest under her arms. She rolled a bit of newspaper into a tight stick about six inches long, lit it and threw it onto the bed where the kerosene-soaked Plum lay in snug delight.

Developing the commentary further

Once you have found initial answers to the guiding questions, you can make a bullet-pointed list of ideas that take the commentary further. Here is a list that student made based on this passage. Before you read the student's response, try making a list of ideas that you might include during a commentary on the passage from Sula.

Further ideas on Sula

  • The passage describes a crippled mother killing her heroin addict son in an act of love and mercy.
  • The act is described in a way that forces the reader to see some beauty and sacrifice in what we would normally call murder.
  • Morrison forces us out of our prescriptive, black-and-white view of the world, for a moment at least, in order to illustrate another way of viewing why people do what they do.
  • There is use of free indirect speech from the perspective of both the mother and son ("Mamma. She sure was somethin'").
  • Plum feels he is being baptized when in fact his mother is dousing him with kerosene.
  • We travel back in time to Plum as a young boy through Eva's thoughts, and her sadness and tears are better understood.
  • The final two words also provide an excellent example of contrast ("snug delight").
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