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Figurative Language in Toni Morrison's "A Mercy"

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help students interpret figurative language in Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

This lesson introduces a study of the figurative language in Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy by first reviewing different modes of figurative language and then by having students interpret examples of figurative language as they read Morrison's novel. Although this lesson focuses on Morrison's A Mercy, a text best suited for an Advanced Placement English class, its basic structure could be easily altered to examine figurative language in another work of literature.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half (although students are expected to complete the "Figurative Language in Toni Morrison's A Mercy" log sheet over time as they read the novel)

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • understand the terms literal and figurative
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to define different figures of speech
  • interpret and analyze examples of figurative language in the context of Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Figurative Language in Toni Morrison's A Mercy" log sheet [click here to download]


  • a word list of vocabulary from A Mercy
  • a Washington Post article about an Advanced Placement teacher's experiences teaching A Mercy to his "Obama-generation" class of D.C. students


Reviewing the terms literal and figurative:

  • Use the Visual Thesaurus to provide a concrete example of a word that can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. For example, you could display the Visual Thesaurus word map for cloud and ask students to find a good example of its literal use in the word map and then a good example of how it could be used figuratively. For example, students could point to one of cloud's literal meanings "a visible mass of water or ice particles suspended at a considerable altitude" and then to a figure of speech using cloud — "the only cloud on the horizon" ("a cause of worry or gloom").

  • If your students need to review the terms literal and figurative, display the Visual Thesaurus word map for literal on the white board and then point out the definition "limited to the explicit meaning of a word or text." (You could also click on the related word explicit to show students that the explicit meaning of a word is "in accordance with…the primary meaning of a term.") Then, point out that literal's antonym (indicated by the dashed red line) is figurative—a word that indicates use of "figures of speech."


Introduce the work of author Toni Morrison:

  • Explain to students that a large part of an author's craft is the ability to take advantage of words' figurative meanings — to use language in unconventional or non-literal ways to express themselves.

  • Introduce the author Toni Morrison as one such author who has been noted for her skillful use of figurative language in her novels Beloved, Sula, Bluest Eye, etc.

  • If time permits, you could look up Toni Morrison on Visual Thesaurus (under "Morrison"), then right-click on her name to conduct a Google search that would lead students to various sites such as Wikipedia.com or nobelprize.org (Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993).

Introducing A Mercy:

  • Read the first chapter of A Mercy aloud since its first person narration is written in dialect and will be difficult for students to read on their own. Explain to students that they are hearing the story of a 17th century slave in America named Florens who is reflecting back on her life. Warn students that the chapter is full of mysterious references that will eventually be clarified through reading the novel. Focus on what students can figure out about Florens's experiences and then develop a list of questions that they hope to answer by reading the rest of the novel.

  • Have students begin reading the second chapter of A Mercy independently, pausing after reading page 17 for a brief class discussion. Ask students how the language of the second chapter differs from that of the first chapter and why. (Students should recognize that the second chapter is written in third person narration and is concentrating on the experiences of Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader who has traveled to Maryland in order to collect on a debt owed to him by a Portuguese plantation owner named D'Ortega.)

Exploring different figures of speech by using the Visual Thesaurus:

  • Distribute a "Figurative Language in Toni Morrison's A Mercy" log sheet [click here to download] to each student and explain that students will be using this "fill-in-the-blank" log sheet to help them interpret different examples of figurative language as they read A Mercy.

  • Ask students to locate the first quotation on the log sheet in the second chapter of the novel (p. 17) and to figure out the effect of Morrison's description of the boys as "silent as tombs" and the comparison of D'Ortega's wife to a "chattering magpie." Display the Visual Thesaurus word maps for tomb and magpie and ask how these specific words make Morrison's description "come alive" How would the effect differ if Morrison would have simply chosen to describe the boys as silent and the wife as talkative?
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for figure of speech and then click on its meaning "language used in a figurative or nonliteral sense" to display the different examples of "figures of speech" (i.e., personification, simile, oxymoron, metonymy, kenning, metaphor, etc.).

  • If students have individual access to computers, have them explore the display to identify which particular figure of speech best describes "silent as tombs." (Or you could model this process for them by clicking on each type of figure of speech and by thinking aloud whether "silent as tombs" could be categorized as that type.)

  • Establish that "silent as tombs" is a simile because it is a "figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds (usually formed with 'like' or 'as')."


Logging Morrison's use of figurative language in A Mercy:

  • Direct students to write "simile " in the middle column of their figurative language log sheet and explain the effect of the language in the right hand column (e.g., "Morrison is comparing the silence of D'Ortega's sons to "tombs" to point out how quiet they are in contrast to their mother (who talks so incessantly that she is compared to a bird with a chattering call).

  • Have students interpret, analyze, and log Morrison's use of figurative language as they continue to read A Mercy, using the Visual Thesaurus to aid their interpretation and analysis of various figures of speech.

Extending the Lesson:

  • After students finish reading A Mercy and complete the log sheet, have a subsequent lesson where students discuss what they feel are Morrison's most powerful examples of figurative language in the context of the novel's themes and messages. How does Morrison's use of figurative language advance the novel's themes and help readers feel the effects of slavery in pre-Revolutionary America?


  • Assess students' understanding of the terms literal and figurative by having them provide an example of a word or expression with both literal and figurative meanings.

  • Check students' "Figurative Language in Toni Morrison's A Mercy" log sheets to assess if they accurately identified each figure of speech and analyzed its effect.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level IV (Grade: 9-12)

1. Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms

Standard 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Level IV (Grade: 9-12)

7. Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification)

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