Modern American Dream Character Development
This video provides a short character sketch of Lutie Johnson. After watching the video and reading all or part of The Street, fill out the Character Sketch Guide in the Student Handout section for Lutie.
Then, have students create their own modern American dream stories. Consider the fictional and factual American dream accounts they have studied so far. Have a class discussion to recap their understanding of the American dream. Consider:
- Characteristics of people who work toward the American dream
- Paths toward achieving the American dream
- Obstacles people face when working toward the American dream
- Emotions people experience when working toward the American dream
- Does everyone who aspires to achieve the American dream achieve it? What happens when it does not work out?
Have students think about a new fictional American-dream-seeking character set in the current time. Then have them fill out the Character Sketch Guide and eventually write a monologue for this character. When writing, have students consider the setting, language, emotion, and audience. Perform the monologues.
Lutie’s life circumstances and challenges uncover many of the devastating effects of racism and sexism. Throughout the novel, she realizes the inequalities of these systems, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that she considers the negative influence of poverty. Have students write an essay where they choose which system – racism, sexism, or poverty – is most debilitating for Lutie. Instruct them to provide evidence and examples from the text to support their responses.
The American Dream: Destined or Doomed?
After finishing the book, hold a class discussion or debate in which you explore whether or not Lutie ever really had a chance to achieve her dream or whether she was doomed for failure from the start. Divide the class into two groups: one that believes the American dream was attainable for her and another that does not. Have students conduct research, compile evidence, and prepare opening and closing statements and rebuttals. Encourage students to think about the racial, class, and gender challenges that she faced. Have students organize their evidence and prepare their statements in the Destined or Doomed graphic organizer in Student Handout section below.
In her novel, Petry uses personification in the interest of establishing a relationship between the setting and Lutie Johnson. At the end of the third paragraph, the wind is described ‘assaulting’ people on the street, “the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies.” (Lines 31-34) Personifying the wind as having “fingers” is enough to create a tense and eerie tone. The wind is described negatively by its actions towards pedestrians further, as driving people off the streets and doing “everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street.” (Lines 21-22) By giving the setting human-like qualities, it makes it easier for the reader compare it with Lutie, and find the relationship between the two.
In The Street, Petry uses imagery as a tool to establish a relationship between the setting and Lutie. Most of the imagery included in the novel, such as, “the dirt got into their noses, making it hard to breathe,” reveals more about the hostile and nearly uninhabitable environment. (Line 24) While some imagery, “she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly on the back of her neck,” gives us hints about how Lutie feels in this new setting. (Lines 36-38) Each piece of imagery that Petry chooses to include in her novel reveals a little bit more about the relationship between Lutie and the setting.
Petry descriptively characterizes in her novel, in order to establish a relationship between the setting and the main character, Lutie. The first 34 lines of the novel are mainly focused on describing the environment. Throughout these lines, Petry uses words like “dirt and dust and grime,” to negatively characterize the setting and make it seem unappealing to the reader. (Lines 22-23) Along with this, the setting is also characterized as “cold” and harsh, by the actions of the wind, “violent assault.” (Line 9) However, juxtaposed, is Lutie Johnson, whom when first introduced, is characterized by words like “softly and warmly.” (Line 37) The characterization and contrast of the setting and Lutie shows the reader a lot about their relationship.
In order to establish this complex relationship between Lutie and the urban setting, Petry employs personification, imagery and characterization. Through the combined use of these devices and others, Petry is able to make the reader relate to Lutie in this new, harsh and confusing environment.