IMMEDIATE ASSIGNMENTS: For M, 12/9: Group #1: Alexie: "Indian Education" (285-293); Group #3: Alexie: "Salt" (312-329) (rest of us: read the stories!) (N.B. re presentations: need copy of script or outline[s] for me at beginning of class)
For W, 12/11: Group #2: Alexie: "Breaking and Entering" (250-263); Group #4: O'Connor: "Good Country People" (177-205) (rest of us: read the stories!)
For F, 12/13: Group #6: O'Connor: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1-23) (rest of us: read ~!); course evals. (bring "device")
FR, 12/13, 11:59 pm: Essay #2 (upload to Canvas)
My old Alexie meme, retitling his 1st short story collection (the real title, as you know, is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven):
N OTE: I am intentionally brief, even abbreviatory, in the following NOTES because I mean them to function as reminders & sources of review rather than to serve in lieu of coming to class: they DON'T. However, this page has a further usefulness: by "Commentary," I mean that some points in these class notes are expanded upon (and re-organized) in ways that our limited class time—and my rather manic teaching style—disallowed. . . .
= = = = Permanent/Presentation Small Groups = = = =
Group #3—Alexie: "Salt" De Hanson Casey Surma Noah Unverzagt Hanna Varilek Regina Wees
Group #4—O'Connor: "Good Country People" Connor Ernst Jamie Foote Sara Hasan Chenoa Nichols Sarah Sweeney
Group #2—Alexie: "Breaking and Entering" Sierra Center Emily Fehr Jacob Polk Vanessa Tym Cullen Wiley
Group #5—Alexie's "Because My Father Always Said . . ." Miren Chacon Xincan Li Madeline Mohatt Jesse Turos Colby Woodson
Group #1—Alexie: "Indian Education" Meagan Barger Jennica Boardman Jeremiah Brown Heidi Manchame-Bonilla Delaney Springer
Group #6—O'Connor: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Blake Krenk Ashtyn Livingston Dana Vehle Joshua Warren Rose Wehrman James White
Note: For various reasons (above all, sheer logistics), I let Canvas devise random groups for this course; from Canvas, you can email your fellow group members at any time (helpful for the group presentation).
F, Aug. 30th:: "The Art (& Times) of The Short Story" (PowerPoint)—continued!
"The Art of the Short Story" (G&G 3-6)
G&G's breakdown of three (revolutionary in terms of literature) "features" of the short story (3) is well-conceived:
a condensing of "the action of the tale";
a "deeper characterization of the protagonist" (leading to greater "realism");
a(n often) "poetic" style, leading to a "more unified" effect
[My quibble:] G&G's appeal to "truth" (or even "truths") (4) smacks of a rather old-fashioned didacticism—i.e., a story should "instruct" the reader regarding these "truths"?!—in a postmodern age in which all such "truths" have been put to question. Thus the later reference to a story's "remaining true in some essential sense to life" (6) is Greek to me.
"The short story is fiction's sharpest axe, its most intense imaginative tool for breaking up the frozen seas of our individual isolation" (5). I have already pointed out in class how this quot. is both wonderful in its rhetoric but deeply problematic in its implications.
Note the references to both Poe's "unified effect" (implied on p. 5) and Joyce's notion of "epiphany" (explicit on pp. 5-6).
Edgar Allan Poe: "The Tale and Its Effect" (G&G 725)
Note that this is from a review of probably the first English-language collection of short stories, Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1837).
Not only is the new genre of the short story (or "tale") defined as a work of fiction that can "be read in a singe sitting," but its unified effect is emphasized ("a certain unique or single effect"). And the story should be thus one (organic) whole: "In the whole composition there should be no word written" that doesn't support "the one pre-established design."
James Joyce: "Epiphanies" (G&G 464)
Joyce's "explication" of what he means by epiphany isn't the clearest here, in part because this is really an excerpt from an early draft of his first novel (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). The gist is that even the most mundane of objects or events can act as "a sudden spiritual manifestation," creating in certain (sensitive & artistic?!) individuals "the most delicate and evanescent of moments." (This seems to be a more aesthetic/Romantic conception of "epiphany" than its later, more general, meaning in Joyce studies.)
"The Elements of Short Fiction" (G&G 849-862)
G&G's distinction between "unified plots" and "episodic plots" (850) is just another way of saying that some short stories consist of but one episode (scene), while others are a combination of several episodes/scenes broken up by narrative summaries (e.g.: "Five years passed, and nothing much happened to our main character").
The paragraph of various examples of (mostly postmodern) stories with "no real plot or chronology" (851) deserves careful reading. . . . Related is the distinction between "closed" and "open" endings or dénouements (854). The former is the traditional "clear & satisfactory resolution" type of ending; with the latter, the reader is left in (postmodern) doubt.
Oh, yeah: one famous (& detailed) version of the traditional plot line is known as "Freytag's pyramid" (852).
Note again that the "complication or conflict" that develops in the "rising action" can be either "external or internal" (852). The former usually leads to a more plot-event-driven story, the latter, to a usually "quieter"/epiphany-based resolution. Joyce's "epiphany" is treated on the very next page: "Many modern writers have followed James Joyce's lead in building not to a[n external] physical confrontation but to a moment of spiritual [i.e., internal] insight or revelation . . . . There is very little dramatic action . . . in Joyce's famous story 'The Dead,'" for instance (853).
As noted on my PowerPoint, "While many stories of the nineteenth century hinged on surprising plot developments . . . modern writers have tended to see characterization as an element of fiction that is equal to plot or even more important than it" (854).
At least implicit in G&G's discussion of "dynamic" vs. "static" characters is the perhaps surprising fact that even major characters/protagonists can be "static" (856). (My own example, again: Dostoevsky's Underground Man.)
—POINT OF VIEW—
First-person POV: "In general, first-person stories may seem more immediate than third-person stories, but they are limited by the simple fact that the narrator must be present at all times and must also have some knowledge of what is going on" (857). This largely explains why the 1st-person POV is more common, percentage-wise, in short stories than in novels: it's easier to pull off in a limited time-frame/story length.
The "editorial" or "authorial intrusive" (aka "Olympian") 3rd-person POV is an outdated fashion largely limited to 19th-c. novels (858). (Think Thackeray, if you've read Vanity Fair—or even Dickens beginning a novel, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"—that is, beginning with political commentary on the era of the French Revolution!)
The "dramatic" or "objective" POV (858) is also known as the "fly on the wall" or "camera-eye" POV. In sum, the narrator is not inside the heads of ANY of the characters.
G&G do a good job noting that setting really gets interesting when it acts as a metaphor/trope. G&G's examples: Poe's House of Usher and Hawthorne's "dead of night" in "Young Goodman Brown" (859); another good example: Emily G.'s death-rattle of a house in "A Rose for Emily."
G&G at least intimate that they share my concern about this term (or at least its overuse & abuse). "Theme" is most obvious is older didactic literature; more "[l]iterary fiction, however, is usually much more subtle in revealing its theme, the overall meaning the reader derives from the story. . . . [M]any readers . . . want to avoid" such a "search for 'hidden meanings'" (860)—me, too! Most significantly: there are inevitably "multiple interpretations of meaning. No single statement of theme is likely to be the only correct one" (860-861). "Still, some interpretations seem more likely than others." (So true! [And see my cartoon below.] But the term "theme" need not even be part of any such valid interpretation.) . . . Moreover, "[m]odern stories can seem[!] extremely reticent in revealing their themes" (861). I might express this differently: most modern & especially postmodern authors have little or no desire to do so, & find the whole concept (as I do) rather laughable.
Nikolai Gogol: "The Overcoat" [1842; in Russian] (G&G 311-331)
This story is usually deemed the first salvo of Russian realism, and it influenced later Russian-realist luminaries such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.
BUREAUCRACY & SATIRE:
19th-c. Czarist Russian's civil service was (along with the military) the main venue for a decent middle-class job (usually an office job), the main means of bourgeois economic survival & advancement. Later Russian fiction followed Gogol by frequently satirizing this dehumanizing system of class rank & privilege, of superiors & lackeys: see, for instance, Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.
Russian fiction often employs a (formal) first & "middle" name for its characters, the second (or "middle") name being derived from the father's first name (and thus called a patronymic). In this story, the main character's first name + patronymic is Akaky Akakievich. Translation: his dad's name was also Akaky. In the Tolstoy story we'll read later, Ivan Ilych's father was—Ilya. His wife's name is Praskovya Fëdorovna, so her father's name was presumably Fëdor or Fyodor. (The most common patronymic endings for men are "-yich" or "-yevich"; for women, "-ovna" or "yevna." Finally, don't confuse the patronymic with the characters' family or last names, which are actually seldom mentioned in both stories.)
Akaky Akakievich's job, titular councilor, as fancy as it sounds, is only a fair-to-middlin' civil service position. A peignoir is a woman's dressing gown/housecoat; for the others to refer to AA's overcoat as such is thus an emasculating insult. Finally, regarding the protagonist's name (& patronym!), "kaka" means "shit" in Russian (as it does in several other languages, apparently).
—POINT OF VIEW—
The POV is third-person omniscient; WHY?! Note that we're not only privy to Akaky Akakievich's thoughts, but to those of a younger clerk who has a moment of great empathy for AA (312) and of the "Very Important Person" (325, etc.). There are even some interesting editorial-intrusive moments by the "narrator," including the social commentary of the very 1st paragraph (311). There is even a gentle mocking of Gogol's own literary school of Realism in the following aside: "as it is nowadays expected that the personality of every character in a story be clearly sketched out, there is nothing to do but describe him [the tailor Petrovich, who is indeed quite a character]" (315).
Gogol, however, also plays with the POV, by pretending that the narrator at times is NOT omniscient. Why? Well, remarks such as "if memory serves" (311) actually lend the story a greater sense of realism, as if the narrator were actually fallible, when—in reality—Gogol could make up any detail he wanted to: it is a piece of fiction, after all. Similarly, later: "Unfortunately we cannot recall where his host [the Assistant Chief Clerk] lived; memory fails us" (321)! (The "we" might tempt one to label the POV as the very unusual "1st-person plural," but it doesn't occur often enough to really "count," if you will, and in the 19th century, such isolated "breaking" of the POV "rules" was not uncommon.) . . . And later: "But possibly he [AA] did not think that at all. For who can read a man's mind and know everything that he thinks?" (322). On his deathbed, did Akaky "lament the misery of his life? We cannot say, for he continued to rave on in his terrible fever" (327).
Immediately characterized as a quite ordinary (& even laughable) fellow (311, etc.), Akaky Akakievich is one of the first great anti-heroes of the short story genre. (And then there's his name, as if he's something of a piece of human excrement.)
Is the main character dynamic? That is, does AA undergo a personality change, for better or worse? His dreams & plans for acquiring the new overcoat certainly seem to change him for the better, initially: "his life seemed to become in many ways fuller . . . as if some other man lived inside him[!]—as if he were no longer alone [oh!] . . . . He became livelier" and more self-confident, now that he had "some goal" (319). Conversely, one might argue that this new quest becomes an unhealthy obsession for him; at least it includes a new concern for appearances, for fashion & pretension: "why not, after all, have marten fur on the collar?" (319)! Once he has the new coat, he is flattered enough by his co-workers' praise to look forward to "wear[ing] his new overcoat in the evening as well" (321; see also 322). ("Oh, oh! Don't go, Akaky!") One might claim that the fundamental cause of the subsequent tragic turn of events was this new yearning for fashionable "society."
Not only can the "Very Important Person" be "considered the cause of the fantastic turn of events that this true story has taken" (329)—which I discuss under "PLOT," below—he can also be considered the protagonist of this story-tagged-on-to-the-story. He experiences a character change himself, for the better, although the change is couched in Gogol's humor: "This incident [the encounter with AA's ghost] made a deep impression on him. Afterwards he even began to say less frequently to the clerks, 'How dare you?'"! Thus this (second) story rather follows the formula of the old morality tales—à la Dickens' Scrooge—as this old pompous ass learns a lesson (of sorts). AA's last words—as a ghost—in the story emphasize this moral retribution: "Now I need your overcoat. You made no effort to find mine and screamed at me as well. Now give me yours!" (330).
After a rather long development section, the rising action really begins with a complication or conflict: Petersburg is freaking cold in the winter, and AA's coat is old & threadbare (314). Also, this "peignoir" has become "an object of ridicule" among his co-workers (315), so he has both weather & peer pressure calling for a new coat. (This dual motive is reinforced when, later, the new overcoat is described as both "warm" and "beautiful" .) The social issue of class (& socio-economic inequities) is thus central to the story, and AA's poverty is emphasized by detail after detail (e.g., 313, 314, 315, 318, 319, 324, 327, 328), and contrasted w/ the much more luxurious lifestyles of the Assistant Chief Clerk (321-322) and the V.I.P. (329-330).
The main EVENT or action in the plot line: ROBBED (323)! Bereft of a decent coat now, it's a pretty quick step to being "pummeled" by the wind & "snowstorm" and developing a "violent fever" (327). (And dying.)
There seem to be actually two separate storylines here, and I'm not sure I like that?! My initial reaction, anyway, was that the "ghost story" after AA's death (328-331) is one heck of a swerve—it seems really "tagged on," and out of character with the rest of the short story. The narrator even admits, "our story unexpectedly concludes with a fantastic flourish" (328). Would it be better if it ended after the first full paragraph on p. 328—thus ending with "slanted and misaligned"? For one thing, if the main story is fine REALIST fiction, the tagged-on supernatural(?) tale smacks much more of "fantastic" ROMANTICISM, as if the story had been taken over by Washington Irving. Two explanations then occur to me: 1) Romanticism died a hard, slow death and, hey, everybody loves a ghost story? Is this G.'s toss-off gift to a popular audience still in the throes of Romanticism, and the gothic, and—ghost stories?! Or—2) Is the ending really a satire on such audience propensities and on the "ghost story" sub-genre? The evidence for the ghost(s) is provided mostly by "nervous and fearful people," after all (330), and one suspects G. is having some fun here. Either way, I think the coda rather disrupts the "organic whole"/the "unified effect."
Finally, as if to make a further mockery of this tagged-on ending, the very last paragraph/episode is really just a dangling red herring. This last ghostly appearance isn't even AA—since it "was much too tall and had a huge mustache" (331)!
Gogol's sarcasm (verbal irony) is scattered throughout the tale, perhaps most deliciously when the narrator says, "Thanks to the generous assistance of our Petersburg weather, his illness progressed more rapidly than anyone might have expected" (327).
—"THEME" (and TONE! [author's attitude])—
Gogol's "tribute" to AA after his death—as an ordinary everyman who yet deserves to have his story told—is really powerful, I think. I'm reminded of Linda Loman's great defense of her (similarly anti-hero) husband Willie in Death of a Salesman, with the great sentence, "Attention must be paid to such a person!": "Petersburg went on without him exactly as though he had never been there at all. A human being had come and departed, one who had been protected by no one, who was cared for by no one, who had been of interest to no one . . . . in short, a human being who had meekly borne the ridicule of his whole department and had gone to his grave without having done one remarkable deed, but to whom, nevertheless, at the end of his life, had appeared a great vision in the form of an overcoat which for a brief moment had cheered his miserable life" (328).
Gogol's realism includes unsavory details such as AA's "hemorrhoids" and his diet: "cabbage soup" and "a bit of beef with onions" (313)—that is, the food of the poor. The tailor Petrovich's staircase includes such sensory appeals as "dishwater and garbage and . . . ammonia"; and his "big toe" that "had a deformed nail as thick and strong as a turtle's shell" is a wonderful little addition (315).
For whatever reason, the Germans are often subjects of scorn in 19th-c. Russian fiction (315, 317). In contrast, the French were much more admired—or at least imitated, and Parisian culture & fashions were the envy of most Russian aristocrats, and (especially?) of those who had pretensions of aristocracy (e.g., 322)! Thus when the V.I.P.'s daughter greets him daily with "Bonjour, Papa" (329), it's a sure sign that upper-class airs & aspirations are at work. . . . Class pretensions, indeed, are one of the chief objects of Gogol's satire in this story (and in 19th-c. Russian fiction in general), evidenced in several of G's "editorial intrusions": "In holy Russia, everything is contaminated by this curse of imitation—each man trails behind his superior and mimics his every move" (325).
—see also the running commentary on this story in the course-intro PowerPoint—
—OPENING PARAGRAPHS (348)—
Note the initial setting—"sunset"—and the immediate allegorical motif of faith, purity, & innocence: his wife "Faith," with her "pink ribbons." The sinister night setting is soon combined with a rather frightful geography: "a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest"; worse yet, "'[t]here may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,' said Goodman Brown to himself" (see "The Others of Nature & Native," below).
Then some immediate foreshadowing, as Faith asks YGB to "put off" his "journey until sunrise"; not only does Faith have a " melancholy air," but YGB thinks, "'What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight.'" (Note, too, that YGB is conscious of "his present evil purpose" from the beginning, making his later protestations & "scruples"  rather pathetic & ironic.)
Also introduced early is the contrast between FAITH—and DOUBT (note YGB's eventual psychological state): "'What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married?'" The almost too-heavy-handed punning on his wife's name continues throughout, as when YGB replies to his sinister co-traveler at one point, "'Faith kept me back a while'" (349). (See also "Faith vs. Doubt/Illusion vs. Reality," below.)
Already discussed under "Opening Paragraphs"; by the second page: "It was now deep dusk in the forest" (349)—obviously tied in metaphorically with the plot's "journey," YGB's characterization, and the general tone of "gloom."
—SETTING: TIME PERIOD—
The reference to "King Williams' court" (349)—and the more general references to witchcraft and thus the Salem trials—places the story in the 1690's.
—POINT OF VIEW—
Third-person limited—since we are very soon privy to (only) YGB's thoughts (348), and he remains the "central intelligence" for almost the entire story. The POV has a few "breaks," perhaps: problematic, for instance, is the strange sentence beginning "Some affirm that the lady of the governor," during the actual Black Mass (354). Then there is the seemingly radical change of tone at story's end, especially in the last paragraph, where a more omniscient narrator (i.e., Hawthorne!) seems to intervene from on high, passing some final "judgment" on the story & YGB's life, as it were. However, none of these really alters the fact that a 3rd-person-limited POV dominates the story.
The major plot (or situational) irony is the "surprise"/twist that (apparently) most of the good Puritan townspeople are hypocrites who are really of the Devil's party, in sin & damnation. This is intimated early on when the fellow "traveler" (presumably Satan) tells YGB, to his amazement, "'I have been as well acquainted with your family as with" most of "the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say'" (349-350). Dramatic irony is at work, too, if my conjecture is right that (most) readers catch on more quickly than the rather na•ve YGB does to the reality of the situation. Even early on, when YGB says, "Being a stranger to you [the Devil], she [Goody Cloyse] might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going"—and then Goody Cloyse, "meanwhile, was making the best of her way, with singular speed for so aged a woman, and mumbling some indistinct words, a prayer[?!], doubtless, as she went"—I'm guessing that most readers are less surprised than our protagonist when Satan says to her, "Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend [i.e., the Devil]?" (351). [I now acknowledge that this reading may be off base, resulting from having read the story too many times?!]
His strongest moment of protest comes when at least this reader (me) has given him up for lost, and so I read the whole passage as ironic: he says to Devil, "'my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. . . . why [should] I should quit my dear Faith . . . ?'" Left to his own thoughts by the Dark One, he momentarily thinks to have triumphed over temptation: "And what calm sleep would be his that very night," to spend it "so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith!" But how sweetly pure could they be, still "conscious" as he was "of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither" (352)?
Verbal ironies abound in the descriptions of the Black Mass, which is an inverted (& thus ironic, one might say) version of Christian ceremonialism. The various ostensibly positive religious terms all work ironically, then: nearing the site of revelry, YGB "heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance" (later it's a "dreadful anthem" [355; see also 357]); a bare "rock" serves as "an altar or a pulpit," and it is "surrounded by four blazing pines, their tops aflame . . . like candles at an evening meeting" (354); and the "proselytes" or "converts" into this circle of evil are welcomed "to the communion of" their "race" (355; see also 351, 352). The final initiation ritual, moreover, involves a "mark of baptism" (356).
"'Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion'" (352). Is there much doubt in the reader's mind who this might be?
—(CHARACTERIZATION & "THEME":) FAITH vs. DOUBT/ILLUSION vs. REALITY—
If the New Critical "main paradox" might be said be "Faith"/"Doubt" and/or the related "Illusion/Reality," the character's progression (or regression) is apparently from "Faith" to "Doubt"—or at least a loss of faith in positive Christian morality. YGB's transformation into disillusionment—or is it enlightenment?!—seems to begin when he realizes that Goody Cloyse knows the Man Downstairs: "'That old woman taught me my catechism,' said the young man; and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment" (351). Midway through the tale, YGB "looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him. . . . With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!' cried Goodman Brown. . . . But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon." His conclusion: "'My Faith is gone!' cried he, after one stupefied moment. 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given'" (353).
As for doubt & disillusionment, Hawthorne's presentation of the "evil" seemingly inherent in humankind is justly famous: "The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man" (354). Towards the story's climax: "'Welcome, my children,'" said the dark figure, 'to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny'" (355). The climax of the story is probably when we are just about to find out whether the woman is Faith or not. When the reader discovers that both have apparently become fallen souls, the Dark One continues: "'Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race'" (356). This is some heady disillusionment. But is it true?! (See next.)
The binary of ILLUSION vs. REALITY is even more problematic due to the story's unclear dénouement. YGB's final words at the Black Mass are to Faith: "'Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked one!'" However—the greatest PLOT twist, now: "Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude. . . . The next morning, young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man" (356). Doubt is now YGB's middle name, and he even wonders, when seeing the Deacon, "What God doth the wizard pray to?" And then the main conundrum: "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" The 3rd-person narrator's answer is not entirely helpful: "Be it so, if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream." And so, his whole (long) life, "for his dying hour was gloom" (357). The narrator rather sucks the reader into the "dream" hypothesis, but isn't the whole riddle still contingent upon the "if you will"? Also, even if it was a dream—does that change the "truths" he "learned" in it?; is his disillusionment any less real?! (Of course, there may even be a question of mental illness involved.) But finally, "what is truth" doesn't seem to ever be answered in Hawthorne's story—and that may be part of its great power. . . . By the way, in terms of literary history, the dream was a common motif in ROMANTICISM, both as a plot device in fiction and as source of/explanation for the Romantics' inspiration & creativity. (Recall Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," for starters.)
Satan & the serpent: "his staff . . . bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent" (349).
—PSYCHOLOGICAL (INTRAPSYCHIC) READING?—
His travel is immediately described as "'[m]y journey'" (348). Could it be an "inner," psychological one?
Satan has some characteristics of an intrapsychic figure, as a doppelgänger or Jungian shadow (cf. Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde): "the second traveller was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him" (349). A second piece of evidence: "They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself."
Not only is "Faith" an obvious allegory for YGB's own (soon to be blighted) religious beliefs, his wife is also inevitably spoken of in belittling, infantilizing terms: "'Poor little Faith!' thought he" (348). Later, he balks at the journey because it "'would break her [Faith's] dear little heart'" (350).
Feminists have also long pointed out that the wholesale persecution of "witches" was in good part based on misogyny and a fear of women. (For one thing, does "warlock" carry nearly as many negative connotations?!) One woman in the story, "who had received the devil's promise to be queen of hell," is condemned by the simple epithet, "rampant hag" (355).
Note the footnote on p. 350 that "Goody" refers to "a married woman of ordinary station" (that is, not upper-class); "Goodman" is the comparable term for "ordinary" married men.
—THE OTHERS OF NATURE & NATIVE—
The contemporary ecocritic would certainly lament the portrayal of "Nature" and the "wild" as some dark void and demonic abode. Eco-scholars have pointed out that the early Euro-colonizers commonly perceived—and thus portrayed—the American "wild" as a frightening, demonic place. The "forest," indeed, is apparently a habitat in need of some Christian civilization (and tree-chopping?!), a place "where no church had ever been gathered or solitary Christian prayed. Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying so deep into the heathen wilderness?" (353). From an eco-point of view, that's a pretty sad ideology. Later, YGB hears "all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together" (354). For the "wilderness," at last, is alien & "evil": YGB is finally in the very "heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians" (353; see next bullet point for the "Indians"!). Later, "there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconverted wilderness, were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man" (355). Humans are pretty good at projecting their guilt and "evil" upon the non-human.
Joining the Black Mass that night would be "'several of the Indian powows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us'" (352; see also 348, 354). From a contemporary postcolonialist/critical race theory point of view, to assume that the non-Christian religious practices of other cultures are "satanic" is a quite reprehensible projection. Later, "the Indian priests, or powows . . . had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft" (355). (As they say on Facebook: just wow.)
Note the footnote on p. 350 that "Hawthorne's great-grandfather, John Hathorne," was "a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials" and "had condemned" at least three women "to be hanged" as witches. (How ambivalently Hawthorne felt about his ancestors & these trials would be a good research question.)
Deacon "Goodkin" on p. 357 is a typo for "Gookin," as the name appears several times previously in the story. The typo is understandable, at least, since "Gookin" is a contraction of "good kin" (& more verbal irony!). (Thanks to a student for pointing out the typo!)
Gustave Flaubert: "A Simple Heart" [1877; in French] (G&G 265-285)
—see also my PDF on Blackboard of several excerpts from the novel Flaubert's Parrot—
Pont-l'Évêque (265) is in the northern French region of Normandy, Flaubert's own place of origin. The various dates given in the story (e.g., 1809 ) place the story pretty much in the first half of the 19th century—or more precisely, the 1st two-thirds of the century, since after Mme. Aubain's death in 1853 (283), "Many years went by" (284)!
The "July Revolution" of 1830 (278) involved the overthrow of Charles X (for another monarchy)—interesting, plot-wise, in that it indirectly leads to Félicité's acquisition of Loulou.
—POINT OF VIEW—
The very first sentence (265) establishes the point of view as 3rd-person omniscient, although Félicité is obviously the focus, the "central intelligence," of the story.
Flaubert also employs the fairly modern technique of free indirect discourse, in which the 3rd-person narration switches almost imperceptibly into the often naïve "first-person" thoughts & words of Félicité; e.g.: "It was Loulou! Where in the devil had he been? Maybe he's just been taking a stroll around the neighborhood!" (280). (Note that there is no "she thought" or quot. marks around these words, which would be the more traditional way of getting into her head.)
—STYLE & TONE—
Flaubert has long been praised as a master stylist, as a "writer's writer." What strikes me about this story is how well he maintains such a consistent tone throughout. How would you characterize this tone—specifically, his attitude towards the main character, Félicité? Detached? Flat? Distanced? Given Flaubert's own "bourgeois" (professional/middle-class) origins and his imposing intellect, it's surprising that there is almost no trace of condescension regarding this "simple" servant-class woman who superstitiously develops a weird "parrot idolatry"?! (The one exception is jarring in its exceptionalism, however, when her nephew's parents make "no effort to contact her" about the nephew's death, "from the callousness of the poor" . Ouch.) It's also telling, I think, that "Critics have debated whether" the story "critiques or endorses French Catholicism" (264): that one could argue either way is a tribute again, I think, to Flaubert's tone.
[The Hemingway style before Hemingway?!:] The "flat" tone is especially evident when combined with short sentences, such as in the following: "This resistance exasperated Theodore. Either to get his way (or perhaps out of na•veté), he proposed to her. She found it difficult to believe him. He swore that he was sincere" (267).
The shipyard scene has a wonderful sentence: "Chickens clucked, the captain swore, and a cabin boy leaned over the bow, indifferent to everything" (274).
"Félicité" means "happiness" in French. Given her life, the name can obviously be seen as ironic; or is it doubly so, in that perhaps F. was ultimately happy, despite it all?!
Félicité is quickly & deftly characterized in the last three paragraphs of section I with a few telling details—the rosary, her frugal ways, her clothing—and then this great concision: "Her face was thin, her voice sharp. At twenty-five she looked forty" (266).
The tutor Guyot is characterized in one skillful sentence: "He was well known for his beautiful penmanship and his habit of sharpening his knife on his boot" (268).
Section II begins, "Like anyone, she [Félicité] had once known love" (266). The rest of the plot involves her losing these various loves, each one a painful loss: father, mother, boyfriend (of sorts), her nephew Victor, Virginie, Loulou, and Madame Aubain. The story is pretty much a litany of loss. Her suitor Théodore's jilting is described as "a staggering blow" (267). And the blows keep coming. The nephew Victor awakens her maternal instinct—she takes him to church "with a mother's pride" (273)—but it seems that everyone she gets attached to has to die. After the deaths of Virginie and Victor, she seems to move through a whole string of surrogate objects, trying to fill the void, including the old man Colmiche, who soon dies (279), and of course Loulou. (Who dies .) . . . After being cruelly whipped by a mail coach driver, and on her way to get Loulou stuffed, it all seems to hit her at once: "Weakness overcame her, and her unhappy childhood, her false first love, the loss of her nephew, the death of Virginie, crashed down upon her like the waves of the sea, rising in her throat, suffocating her" (281).
Foreshadowing of the "worst" sort occurs, close to what I call the "little did they know" device: "Both children [Virginie & Victor] were equally dear. They were bound up together in her heart and would share the same fate" (275).
—FIGURES OF SPEECH—
For a "master stylist," Flaubert's figures of speech in this story seem quite pedestrian and ordinary (one might even say, bourgeois!?). Maybe it's intentional, as being in keeping with his "flat" tone. It is effective, I think, when Félicité is said to have "resembled a woman of wood, functioning like clockwork" (266). But others seem so—well, ordinary: "a mist floated like a scarf over the winding river" (269); the "open sea . . . . glittered in the sunlight, smooth as a mirror" (270); "the heavy tread of feet, muffled by the flowers, sounded like a flock of sheep[?!] making its way over the grass" (285).
One trope is powerful in its poignancy, certainly, coming as it does right after F. hears of Victor's death: "Long weeds swayed in the deep reaches like the hair of the drowned" (275).
Félicité's mute acceptance of her lower-class position and her fawning respect for her "betters" is really pretty hard to take. Virginie, at age four, for instance, "seemed to her to have been made of some precious substance" (267).
Madame Aubain has already lost most of her wealth, but her attitude of class privilege never changes: she "didn't care for" F.'s poor "nephew's manners—he addressed her son as an equal" (271). With Virginie away, Mme. Aubain "walked in the park, read a little, and so filled up the empty hours" (273). The Marxist might well ask, what kind of economic system allows for a class of people like this, who have nothing to do but "fill up their empty hours"?! When F. later laments that she hasn't heard from Victor in months, Mme. Aubain simply shrugs her shoulders: "'I don't care about him, In fact, I couldn't care less. A cabin boy, a brat—so what! But my daughter. . . . Just imagine" if anything were to happen to her (274)! F.'s mourning for Virginie's death in the funeral procession is complicated by this classism: "She thought of her nephew. She had never been able to pay him such honors" (277). When F. & Mme. Aubain later hug "each other, acknowledging their sorrow in a kiss that made them equals" (ugh!), F. is sycophantically "grateful, as if she had been granted a boon, and from then on cherished her with a doglike devotion and a religious fervor. Her heart grew kinder" (278). . . . Upon Mme. A.'s death, F. "mourned for her with a depth of feeling that servants never feel for their masters. It troubled her that Madame should have died before her" (283; sheesh!).
It may even be pathetically symptomatic that one of the phrases she teaches Loulou is "At your service, sir!" (279).
Félicité's religious feeling evolves idiosyncratically, into an odd hybrid of Christianity & "animal/parrot worship"?!: "she loved the lambs all the more because of the Lamb, and the doves because of the Holy Spirit. She could scarcely imagine what He looked like. He was not only a bird, but a flame as well, and at times a breath." Her faith was truly "simple": "As for dogma, she understood none of it" (272).
F.'s selflessness (& suffering through loss) is stunning, even "saintly." She identifies with Virginie during the latter's first communion with "the imagination of true emotion," deriving more "rapture" from this vicarious experience than from her own communion (272). When Mme. Aubain pooh-poohs F.'s concern for her nephew, F. becomes "angry." However: "Later she forgot her anger. She understood how someone could lose her head over" Virginie's health (274-275). (In fact, sometimes I as a reader want to smack her a little and tell her to grow a spine.)
F.'s "reverence" for Virginie smacks a bit of psychopathological obsessiveness: "For two nights running, Félicité did not leave the dead girl." F. kisses V. on the eyes "several times, and she would not have been very surprised if Virginie had opened them. For souls such as hers, the miraculous is part of nature" (277). (Again, what is Flaubert's tone/attitude here?!)
Loulou becomes conflated (or "confused") in F.'s mind with the Holy Ghost—one might say humorously and/or even sacrilegiously, if not for Flaubert's tone: "In church she kept her eyes fixed on the Holy Ghost and noticed that there was something parrot-like about him. This resemblance" was even "more obvious in a color print": "With its purple wings and emerald body, this was really the image of Loulou." She buys the print and hangs it in her room: "That way she could take in at a glance both [stuffed] parrot and God. The two in her mind became nearly as one; the parrot being sanctified by his link with the Holy Ghost, which for His part became more real and more understandable to her. The Father, revealing Himself to mankind, wouldn't have chosen the form of a dove, a bird lacking the power of speech, but rather that of Loulou's ancestor. And gazing at the picture, Félicité would say her prayers, glancing every so often at the bird" (282). Her final "devotion," indeed, is to this stuffed parrot. Her main concern about losing her room is that it is "so comfortable for poor Loulou[!]. Looking up at him in anguish, she prayed to the Holy Ghost. She had fallen into the idolatrous habit of saying her prayers while kneeling before the parrot. Sometimes the sunlight . . . would strike his glass eye, and a long gleaming ray would shine from it, sending her into ecstasy" (283). Later on her deathbed, the bird's "blue head" still shown "like a piece of lapis lazuli" (a deep blue gemstone). And the story's finale: "when she breathed her last, she believed she saw, in the opening heavens, an immense parrot, hovering over her head" (285). . . . (My 2015 class ad-lib: "Was she, then, a—POLLY-theist?!")
—THE COLONIES & "CANNIBALS"—
European colonialism is referred to in several places, though Flaubert seems blithely unconcerned about how much French capitalism derived much of its wealth from the exploration of third-world places & peoples. Félicité's own consciousness thereof is "simply" non-existent: "America, the colonies, the islands—these were unknown lands on the far side of the world." The indigenous peoples themselves are demonized and conflated with apes, when F. fears that her nephew "was being devoured by cannibals, or carried into the jungle by apes" (274). And later: "It was the cigars that made her imagine that Havana was a country where all anyone did was smoke, with Victor walking among negroes in a tobacco haze" (275)!
Loulou is also one of the colonized: "The parrot had bulked large in Félicité's imagination, since he came from America—a word she associated with Victor" (279). It's pretty sad & touching, even, when the rain would make him "cry out, perhaps remembering the rainstorms of his native forests" (281).
—[More on] THE PARROT—
Félicité's last love of her life, Loulou, involves yet another obsessive passion on her part: "They talked to each other . . . . Loulou was almost a son to her, or a lover. . . . she would bend over him, rocking her head as wet nurses do, and the great wings of her bonnet and the wings of the bird would tremble as one" (281)!
Loulou dies in 1837, relatively late in the story, page-wise (281). So it's rather amazing to realize that Mme. Aubain doesn't die until 1853, and that F. lives for "[m]any years" after that (283, 284).
In his 1984 novel Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes has his narrator (who is obsessed with Flaubert's life) point out a connection between Flaubert & Félicité: "Throughout his life, he [Flaubert] is constantly bruised by the deaths of those close to him" (28).
From a (former) student's quiz: "In 'A Simple Heart,' Flaubert writes from a third-person omniscient point of view. He knows everything about every single character, but does not seem to be that interested in any of them." Ha! (I can't think of a much better description of Flaubert's TONE?!)
A Flaubert tribute (my Great Horned Owl photo, 2019):
Herman Melville: "Bartleby, the Scrivener"  (G&G 600-626)
—My Initial Impression upon Rereading the Tale—
First of all, I forgot what a weird & peculiar story "Bartleby" is, standing as it does as a centerpiece of the American short story tradition.
The "rather elderly man" who narrates the tale characterizes himself early on as quite a staid, conservative fellow who takes few chances: he's "unambitious," prudent, and "eminently safe" (600). Why? As a foil to Bartleby's incredibly idiosyncratic nature? As a contrast to the imprudent acts of "passions" he engages in after becoming infatuated w/ B.?!
Melville's literary school is at least hinted at immediately with the references to "sentimental souls who [might] weep" and to the novelty & weirdness of his subject matter (B. is "the strangest [scrivener] I ever saw or heard of") (600).
B. in some ways is the prototypical Romantic melancholic character, described in the 1st paragraph he appears in as "incurably forlorn!" (604). Later, he embodies a "morbid moodiness" (612); he is indeed "the forlornest of mankind" (613). Interestingly, the narrator later "catches" B.'s Romantic disease, as a "stinging melancholy seized" him (611).
The characterization of the three minor characters—B.'s co-workers Turley, Nipper, & Ginger Nut—strikes this modern reader, at least, as overly long (601-604). But the section does serve as something of a comic interlude before the main tragic tale, and of course they will interact with B. later to move the plot along. They also provide support to the narrative's impressions of the narrator: when asked about B., Ginger Nut simply says, "'I think, sir, he's a little luny'" (607)!
—ECOCRITICISM ("It's the Environment, Stupid!")—
An ecocritic might argue that an environment of urban brick & blight might well be a major player in Bartleby's melancholy (and maybe the whole absurd set of human interactions in this 19th-century "Wall Street"?!). Even B.'s desk/"office" is a narrow, claustrophobic place with a view of—"no view at all" (605)—anticipating the modern office cubicle. (Against this critique, however, is the fact that B. was apparently a chronic melancholic before taking this job.) The narrator later also philosophizes about the dangers of "being alone in a solitary office" (618).
—The Human Condition: ALIENATION—
Besides being a Romantic melancholic par excellence, Bartleby can also easily be read, I think, as an early great emblem of individual alienation, which would become a much greater theme in 20th-century literature. Even his work habits smack of a certain automatism: "he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically" (605). Symptomatically, he turns his little workplace into his home: "he never went any where" (607; see also 611). The narrator is at times inordinately conscious of this great alienation: "what miserable friendliness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!" (611). (One senses in such places Melville's own eloquent sentiments coming to the fore.) Most poignant perhaps: "but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach" (613). And again: "he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe" (615; and again, this sounds more like the author than the narrator?!). Moving his business elsewhere, the narrator leaves B. as an epitome of stark aloneness, "the motionless occupant of an empty room" (620).
B.'s one actual character change—when he decides to do "no more writing" (614)— serves to only further remove him from human intercourse. And yet he "remained as ever, a fixture in" the narrator's office (615)—like Poe's raven, or something!? For at last B. is truly a static character: "'No; I would prefer not to make any change. . . . I would prefer not to make any change at all'" (622; for this general refrain, see next heading).
Interestingly, the narrator also becomes quite isolated himself when he flees B. and his old office: "In fact I almost lived in my rockaway [carriage] at the time" (623).
—THE REFRAIN & THE ENIGMA: Tell Us Who You Are! "I Would Prefer Not To"—
—(2019 reading: I counted 24 times!)
"I would prefer not to" appears in B.'s vocabulary 1st on p. 605 and recurs throughout the rest of the story, in some form or other (e.g. 606, 607, 608, 609, 610, 613, 614, 615, 618, 621, 622, 624). (Sometimes—as a variation of this reply—he simply says nothing.) His famous response is the big gap or aporia in the text, the barrier before B.'s character & background that neither the narrator or reader can breach. When his employer asks him, "'Why do you refuse'" to tell us?—he replies again: "'I would prefer not to'" (606; later, likewise: "'Will you tell me any thing about yourself?' 'I would prefer not to'" ). In sum, with such obfuscatory replies, we never do find out why. Ultimately B. is a cipher: "he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world" (612).
Especially since Eve Sedgwick helped initiate Queer Theory in part through a reading of the homoerotic undertones of Melville's Billy Budd, I'm surely not the first to perceive a similar element in the narrator's obsession with Bartleby. The latter figure is so infuriating, and yet the narrator continually feels "strangely disarmed" by B.; indeed, B. "in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted" him (606; see also 615: "I was touched"). Later: "I could not, for the very soul of me, avoid falling into spasmodic passions with him" (610). And again: "it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me but unmanned me" (611). Above all, B. becomes an at least neurotic obsession: the narrator's "sad fancyings—chimera, doubtless of a sick and silly brain—led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby" (612; "sick and silly brain" also might make one question the reliability of the narrator?). Again: B.'s eccentricities "positively awed me into my tame compliance with his" whims (612). More potential evidence: "Somehow, of late, I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word 'prefer' upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce?" When Turkey uses the word, too, the narrator gets "slightly excited." And so B. "has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks" (614). The obsession continues when the narrator hears a heated discussion in the street—about "election day"!—and he assumes they're talking about Bartleby (616-617). When he finds B. in his office yet again, after another futile attempt at firing him, the narrator still finds himself "obeying that wondrous ascendancy which the inscrutable scrivener had over me, and from which ascendancy, for all my chafing, I could not completely escape" (617; just wow). Oh, and did I say he was obsessed?: "Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain"—for indeed, "I never feel so private as when I know you are here" (619). The only reason he finally gets rid of Bartleby (sort of, by moving his business ) is peer pressure, the fear of "scandalizing" his "professional reputation" (619; hmmm). Fleeing the building for good himself, the narrator has to "tear" himself "from him." It then pains him to "deny" him, as it were, when others inquire, and he has to say, "I know nothing about him" (literally true!?). But he still has "charitable" feelings for B.; however, "a certain squeamishness of I know not what, withheld me" from going to see him (621).
A no doubt simpler explanation for the narrator's behavior is plain pity for the "[p]oor fellow" (608)—and later: "Poor fellow, poor fellow! thought I, he don't mean anything, and besides, he has seen hard times, and ought to be indulged" (618); and also, "the poor, pale, passive mortal" (620). Indeed, the narrator's several self-analyses regarding charity and pity, etc., make up a good part of his characterization & (claims of) motivation (e.g., 608, 612, 613, 618, 619, 620)—so much so, in fact, that a more psychoanalytically inclined critic might easily view all this mental/verbal drivel as rationalizations for his—true feelings. The plot itself grows rather tiring, too, as resolve after resolve to get rid of Bartleby ends with the narrator "running back to him," as it were, even to his dying moment. Exhausting all other outlets, the narrator finally asks B., "will you go home with me now[?]" (622).
—FIGURES of SPEECH—
The dominant trope that runs through the story as a motif is the comparison of Bartleby to a ghost or a corpse—very much in line with his character, of course! Examples: "Like a very ghost" (609); "the apparition of Bartleby" (610); "his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance" (611); "the pallid copyist," "the scrivener's pale form" (612); his "air" of "pallid haughtiness" (612); "his mildly cadaverous reply" (614); "his cadaverous triumph" (617); "this intolerable incubus," "this man, or rather ghost," "his innocent pallor" (620); "he now persists in haunting[!] the building generally" (621).
Somewhat different than the general motif above is this wonderful simile: "like the last column of some ruined temple," Bartleby "remained standing mute and solitary" (616).
THE DEATH: The (author/)narrator is careful to clarify that it wasn't he who had Bartleby taken away to the "Tombs," or prison (623). Of course this only further highlights B.'s alienation: "I found him . . . standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall" (623)! Here the narrator finally makes his boldest diagnosis of B.: "'I think he is a little deranged'" (624). The foreshadowing is pretty cool: first, a famous criminal is discussed, who "'died of consumption at Sing-Sing'"; then B. is pointed out: "'Yonder he lies—sleeping in the yard there.'" It's not a pretty death: "Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred." The grub-man's question is—interesting: "'does he live without dining?' 'Lives without dining,'" echoes the narrator (625), perhaps wondering whether B. ever found any true "nourishment" in life!(I'm reminded here of Kafka's short story, "The Hunger Artist," where this metaphor is more explicit.)
THE RUMOR: (As with several other stories we've already read,) it's entirely unclear whether the final rumor regarding Bartleby about formerly having worked in a Dead Letter Office is true or not, but it is, as the narrator says, interesting, to say the least (625). Not only does it fit a life & character of such "pallid hopelessness," but it perhaps explains that life & character, as perhaps caused by "handling these dead letters" (and thus dealing with the thought of death on an hourly/daily basis). "On grand errands of life, these letters speed to death." This plot turn also allows Melville-&-narrator to turn to the "grand" theme that we are all mortal (and maybe—alone?!): "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" (626).
What do you make of the following statement, by one of the great contemporary purveyors of French theory, Gilles Deleuze?: "Bartleby is not the patient, but the doctor of a sick America, the Medicine-Man, the new Christ or the brother to us all."
My (very predictable) Melville meme:
RESPONSE #1 (2 pages or more)—Due FR, 9/13—CHOOSE ONE (and specify which):
Note: For all prompt choices, please avoid mere plot summaries or merely rehashing points that I made in class or expanded upon on this "NOTES" page. (DO feel free to disagree with them, however.)
a) [Always an option for these responses:] A do-your-own-thing "reader's journal" that addresses a "goodly" number of our assigned readings (that is, the 1st 5 stories: Gogol thru Poe); but please avoid simple plot summaries or (again) a simple rehashing of ideas brought up in class or on the course web notes.
b) [A version of option "a," really:] A (more) focused response to a specific issue, "theme," technical (formalist) device, etc., evident in a "goodly" number of the stories at hand.
c) C/C any TWO of the stories, arguing that one is superior to the other because of its "art" (form/style) and/or its "politics" (in the most general sense).
d) As a variation of option "c," write a one-act play in which two or three of our authors argue about the relative merits of their stories.
e) Write a parody of the Poe story in which the 1st-person-psychotic narrator bumps off (or, for the more squeamish & moral, at least plans to bump off) one or two of our other four authors for "crimes against the art of fiction."
Edgar Allan Poe: "The Tell-Tale Heart"  (G&G 721-725)
Point of View & Dramatic Irony:
The very first sentences reveal a first-person narrator who is not only unreliable, but psychotic, making his claims to mental health deliciously ironic: "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story" (721). Because of his audile hallucinations, one might diagnose him as paranoid schizophrenic. Also, the 2nd-person "you" in the story is called the narratee—not the reader, but rather some non-speaking auditor who is within the plot. (I imagine him speaking to some attendant in a mental hospital, or to a father-confessor before his execution.)
The act of murder seems to be motiveless, but for the fact that the elderly victim had—a cataract? "I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it" (721). This does tempt one to look for psychoanalytical motives, and an Oedipal complex—and consequent guilt before the father figure—does rather work: "Whenever it [the eye] fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man . . . ." Later, the narrator revels in spying on the old man without the latter being able "even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts" (722; ooh). See Daniel Hoffman's "The Father-Figure in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'" (G&G 888-889) for more such Oedipal speculation.
The Irony Continues:
The irony of the narrator's delusions continue: "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded . . . . Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it [my head] in [the room]! . . . Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? . . . Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity" (722). (Along with the frequent ha!'s, the plentiful use of italics is another stylistic feature appropriate to an emphatic psychopath.) After the murder: "If still you think me mad[!], you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. . . . I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly" (724).
As we know, Poe is a master of suspense. My favorite here is that seemingly eternal/timeless wait at the door before the murder: "For a whole hour I did not move a muscle" (722).
The characteristics of literary Romanticism include some usually heavy emotionalism, and this American Romantic doesn't disappoint: "Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe" (722).
Stylistically, one of the more "eerie" sentences?: "So I opened it [a crevice in the lantern]—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye" (723). . . . Later, the murder completed, there is the horrifically short & matter-of-fact statement, "[h]is eye would trouble me no more" (723).
Characterization-wise, he is for a while caught up in a good deal of hubris, or ego-pride after the murder: "I smiled,—for what had I to fear? . . . I bade them search—search well . . . . while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim" (724).
"I'm Hearing Things Again":
But then more auditory hallucinations, of the "beating heart": "I fancied a ringing in my ears . . . . until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears. . . . the noise steadily increased. . . . Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! . . . but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think" (724). In terms of irony created by the point of view, this is the coolest part of the story, I think: of course only he hears—er, imagines—these sounds.
Climax & Dénouement:
The climax—the height of tension—occurs when the reader most wonders whether he will be discovered by giving himself away, or not. (Hardly much of a question here?!) The dénouement occurs very quickly: "'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!'" (725).
A Poe meme (my Black Vulture photo, 2018):
Avian mini-editorial: Both vulture species that Poe may have been familiar with in the eastern U.S. (Turkey and Black) have dark brown eyes, hardly a match for the "pale blue" & film-covered eye described in the story. The ecocritic might well wonder whether Poe based his description on a painting of some Old World (African?) vulture he'd seen in a book?—or merely indulged his "poetic" fancy. In the latter case, his demonization of the vulture is merely following Western cultural (stereotypical) convention, with no basis in reality.
Take two!: Boy, was I wrong. Of course, like many "birds of prey," the Turkey and Black Vultures also have a "third eyelid," or nictitating membrane, that can be closed at will for protection (or moisturization of the eye). Moreover, this "third eyelid" has both a filmy and (often) tranlucent blueish appearance. For instance, here is my photo of a Bald Eagle (2017, @ Holmes Lake), w/ nictitating membrane at work::::
Leo Tolstoy: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" [1886; in Russian] (G&G 758-797)
Noteworthy is the fact that the story starts at the "end," w/ Ivan's death—"'Ivan Ilych has died!'" (758). Thus the rest of the story is a series of flashbacks (roughly chronological).
The bridge to the flashbacks is the first sentence of part II, a wonderfully stark summary statement: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (764). Part III ends w/ a similar narrative summary, more upbeat in tone (but therefore all the more suggestive of imminent trouble & conflict?!): "So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly" (774).
One might complain of the plot that it has such a painfully repetitive, unbearably long ending to the story—that is, Ivan's terminal illness that, well, never seems to terminate. Certain sentences even encapsulate this never-ending sameness: "Always the same. Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages, and always pain; always pain, always despair, and always the same" (787); and again: "The same room, the same pictures, curtains, wallpaper, medicine bottles, were all there, and the same aching suffering body" (789). But I would defend Tolstoy here by pointing out that this is great realism—in that the reader is forced into a little "unbearable" suffering, too?!
—POINT of VIEW—
A 3rd-person omniscient POV is established fairly early: "the first thought of each of the gentlemen" (758).
Most of the minor characters in the tale (and by extension "genteel" society at large) are supremely characterized by Tolstoy as incredibly self-centered & hypocritical. And so the point of view choice allows the reader to perceive this throughout: upon learning of Ivan's death, "the first thought of each" of his professional colleagues "was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances" (758). When Peter Ivanovich visits Ivan's widow, her words are also telling: "'Oh, what I have suffered!'" (762)! And of course her main reason for wanting to speak with Peter is to inquire whether she can obtain "a grant of money from the government on the occasion of her husband's death" (763). Once Ivan is terminally ill, "She began to wish he would die; yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease" (774)!
This self-centeredness often includes a heavy denial/repression of their own mortality: "the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that 'it is he who is dead and not I'" (759). Peter Ivanovich, forced to think of Ivan's death, "felt afraid for himself" for a moment; but then "the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Ivan Ilych and not to him, and that it should not and could not happen to him" (762).
Ivan's character, through most of his adulthood, is above all based upon "duty" & social propriety/correctness—as established & modeled by his superiors: "he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority" (764)—or as the French say, "comme il faut" (365). Tolstoy even employs a set of refrains to describe this smug bourgeois happiness: Ivan went through life amusing himself "pleasantly and decorously" (765); ditto a few pages later: "he looked for [a life of] lighthearted pleasure and propriety" (768); and again: life should "flow . . . pleasantly and properly" (769); and yet more: his life's "natural character of pleasant lightheartedness and decorum" (770). His very marriage seems motivated largely by social convention: "when the girl fell in love with him he said to himself: 'Really, why shouldn't I marry?'" (767). But he did hope that "marriage would not impair the easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous character of his life, approved of by society" (767). Once his spousal relationship goes downhill, "his life" became "centered in the official world" (768)—a world defined by propriety & conventions. Even after his fateful fall, "on the whole his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly, and decorously" (772). In his final job, too: "he did it all easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically" (772-773).
Ivan's daughter is another example of selfishness incarnate: "Their daughter came in in full evening dress, her fresh young flesh exposed . . . strong, healthy, evidently in love, and impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness" (789). Later she asks her mother, regarding the inconvenience of her father dying, "'Is it our fault? . . . It's as if we were to blame! I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?'" (794)!
In the first visitation scene, the "universal" nature of death & ritual mourning is expressed in Tolstoy's generalizing words and phrases: "Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else"; "as dead men always lie"; "as is always the case with the dead" (360). Of course, these repeated "genericisms" also make Ivan's death come across as very, very ordinary.
—GERASIM [pronounced "juh-RAH-seem"]—
Gerasim is introduced fairly early in the story as merely the "butler's assistant"; at first, we learn only that "Ivan Ilych had been particularly fond of him and he was performing the duty of a sick nurse" (760). Towards the end of that first scene, he gets more "interesting": "'It's God will. We shall all come to it some day,'" he says about Ivan's death, "displaying his teeth—the even, white teeth of a healthy peasant" (763). In contrast to the other (middle/upper class) characters, 1) G. is an earnest Christian (though we aren't sure of this yet, just from one utterance); 2) G. is open about the sheer reality of death; and 3) he comes from a "healthy" stock of plain ol' poor folk who are themselves (in Tolstoy's view) a stark contrast to the "diseased," corrupt, & hypocritical upper classes.
In fact, Gerasim's later role—besides helping Ivan through his last days—is to distinguish himself as a model of Christian charity & selflessness. Just when Ivan enters his darkest days, he unexpectedly "obtained comfort. Gerasim, the butler's young assistant, always came in to carry the things [containers of Ivan's excrement] out. Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright" (783). (See below for Tolstoy's privileging of the Russian peasantry.) Gerasim would politely refrain "from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings . . . restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face . . . ." Ivan's attachment grows: "Gerasim smiled again and turned to leave the room. But Ivan Ilych felt his presence such a comfort that he did not want to let him go" (784). Finally Ivan discovers Gerasim's greatest value—as leg-raiser: "After that Ivan Ilych would sometimes call Gerasim and get him to hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking to him. Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych" (785).
Part of Ivan's overriding sense of social propriety boils down simply to money & social class. When he makes his occupational "comeback," if you will, his main goal isn't any specific life-fulfilling job, but rather, "a salary of five thousand rubles"; when he attains that?: "Ivan Ilych" is "completely happy" (770)—though this happiness is fleeting and likely already strikes most readers as ironic.
As in many a 19th-c. work of Russian fiction, class pretensions & social striving are satirized, especially when Ivan moves into his new house: "He had been particularly successful in finding, and buying cheaply, antiques which gave a particularly aristocratic character to the whole place." However: "In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people with moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves" (771)!
Part of Ivan's final "seeing through" the hypocrisy of his life includes realizing the particular moral bankruptcy of the higher classes. As he runs through his life's truly good memories—"in the upper classes there had already been fewer of such good moments" (792).
Repeating a "theme" in this course so far, French shows up in 19th-c. Russian literature as a signifier of the Russian aristocracy and wanna-be's. Thus the narrator's attitude towards Ivan's widow Praskovya Fëdorovna is clear from her first appearance: "She stopped weeping and, looking at Peter Ivanovich with the air of a victim, remarked in French that it was very hard for her" (761; oh, please!). Ivan's wife also uses the French version of his name—Jean (781, 795). For more "uppity" French, see also 765, 780 (Zola!), 789, 790.
—THE FALL OF IVAN ILYCH—
One can easily argue that social pretensions are the reason for Ivan's fall, disease, & eventual death: "He was so interested in" giving his new home a "classy" appearance "that he often did things himself, rearranging the furniture, or rehanging the curtains. Once when mounting a step ladder to show the upholsterer . . . how he wanted the hangings draped, he made a false step and slipped, but being a strong and agile man he clung on and only knocked his side against the knob of the window frame. The bruised place was painful but the pain soon passed, and he felt particularly bright and well just then[!]" (771).
Later, severely ill, Ivan himself becomes conscious of the absurdity: "In these latter days he would go into the drawing room he had arranged—that drawing room where he had fallen and for the sake of which (how bitterly ridiculous it seemed) he had sacrificed his life—for he knew that his illness originated with that knock. . . . 'It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid. It can't be true! It can't, but it is'" (782-783).
The characterization of the various professionals in general, and of Ivan in particular, allows Tolstoy to slam the absurdities of the Russian bureaucracy, especially the legal system: "In all this [legal process,] the thing was to exclude everything fresh and vital, which always disturbs the regular course of official business, and to admit only official relations with people, and then only on official grounds" (772).
Medical doctors & the medical practice of the time are also pretty obviously satirized (774-777).
—ILLNESS & DEATH—
Given what I've said above, it's obvious that (ironically?) Ivan's fatal illness is the catalyst for his main character change: "There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware" (777).
Part of that change is a new & incredible sense of aloneness, of alienation: "They had supper and went away, and Ivan Ilych was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that this poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being"; "he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him" (778). Later, "during the loneliness in which he found himself as he lay facing the back of the sofa, a loneliness in the midst of a populous town and surrounded by numerous acquaintances and relations but that yet could not have been more complete anywhere—either at the bottom of the sea or under the earth—during that terrible loneliness Ivan Ilych had lived only in memories of the past" (793).
Like other characters in the story, one of Ivan's main reactions to the possibility of death is denial; there is, moreover, a good deal of personal pathos in the following denial: "The syllogism he had learnt from Kiezewetter's Logic: 'Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,' had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. . . . but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa . . . with the toys, a coachman and a nurse . . . with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth" (781).
"IT"—Death is wonderfully personified via an (italicized!) third-person personal pronoun at one point: "the pain in his side, regardless of the stage the proceedings had reached, would begin its own gnawing work. Ivan Ilych would turn his attention to it and try to drive the thought of it away, but without success. It would come and stand before him and look at him, and he would be petrified and the light would die out of his eyes, and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true." He'd come home from work "with the sorrowful consciousness that his judicial labors could not as formerly hide from him what he wanted them to hide, and could not deliver him from It. . . . And to save himself from this condition Ivan Ilych looked for consolations—new screens—and new screens were found and for a while seemed to save him, but then they immediately fell to pieces or rather became transparent, as if It penetrated them and nothing could veil It" (782). Later: "He would go to his study, lie down, and again be alone with It: face to face with It. And nothing could be done with It except to look at it and shudder" (783).
Before seeing the "light," his fear of death is great indeed: "He only waited till Gerasim had gone into the next room and then restrained himself no longer but wept like a child. He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God." He even asks his God, "'Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?'" (791), in a manner reminiscent of Job's laments in the Old Testament.
The "dialogue" with God then becomes an inner dialogue with himself: "It was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him. . . . 'What do you want? What do you want?' he repeated to himself. 'What do I want? To live and not to suffer,' he answered. . . . 'To live? How?' asked his inner voice. 'Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly'" (791). At this point, obviously, he hasn't learned much from his "inner self"! But that will change: "in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed—none of them except the first recollections of childhood. . . . As soon as the period began which had produced the present Ivan Ilych, all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty" (791). It gradually occurs to him that much of his adult life has been in vain, however much he balks at that realization at first: "'It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.'" His existential dread continues, with the new suspicious that his life may have been "wrong": "'Then what does it mean? Why? It can't be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony? There is something wrong!'" Then it occurs to him, "'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done . . . . But how could that be, when I did everything properly?'" (792)! Attempts at denial continue: "he at once recalled the correctness of his whole life and dismissed so strange an idea" (792). And once more: "'An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that,' and he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life" (793-794). Finally he gets it: "'What if my whole life has been wrong?' . . . He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning," other people's "every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death." In sum: "'All you have lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you'" (794-795).
—"Tell Me LIES, Tell Me Sweet Little LIES"—
Society's hypocrisy & denial regarding death becomes Ivan's main psychological torture: "What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying . . . . Those lies . . . were a terrible agony for Ivan Ilych. . . . 'Stop lying! You know and I know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!' . . . . The awful, terrible act of his dying was . . . reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident . . . . Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him," and has the nerve to say, "'We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?'" (785). "This falsity around him and within him did more than anything else to poison his last days" (786). This "poison" seems inextricably intertwined with the dying process, which became "the consciousness of life inexorably waning but not yet extinguished, the approach of that ever dreaded and hateful Death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity" of his family & friends (786).
Praskovya Fëdorovna's hypocrisy in the following is especially delicious in its irony: "'Please don't raise any objections. I am doing this for my own sake,' she said ironically, letting it be felt that she was doing it all for his sake and only said this to leave him no right to refuse. . . . Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself, as if that was so incredible that he must understand the opposite" (788).
Those rare moments when all the repression & denial & lying are threatened to be openly revealed are telling: "The silence had to be broken, but for a time no one dared to break it and they all became afraid that the conventional deception would suddenly become obvious and the truth become plain to all" (790).
—"Don't Go Towards the LIGHT?!"—
With the illness, a new imagistic motif is developed, that of light vs. darkness: when Ivan's brother-in-law makes him more conscious of his worsening appearance, "he bared his arms to the elbow, looked at them, drew the sleeves down again, sat down on an ottoman, and grew blacker than night" (779). Thinking himself out of earshot, his brother-in-law says to the others, "'Why, he's a dead man! Look at his eyes—there's no light in them'" (779). (For the most important appearances of a positive "light," see the death scene below. In a twist/reversal of the conventional "light v. dark" motif, "dark" death itself becomes associated, at last, with [religious] "Light.")
In the light/dark binary, darkness is of course death—and depression, and the frightening unknown, as Ivan ponders his mortality: "'There was light and now there is darkness. I was here and now I'm going there! Where?'" (780). Ivan's main attitude towards the "darkness," before his religious conversion, if you will, is an existential doubt & dread & despair: "'It makes no difference,' he said to himself, staring with wide-open eyes into the darkness" (780). Later: "If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness? . . . No, no! Anything rather than death!" (787).
Related to darkness is perhaps the most unusual—and visceral—image/metaphor of dying in the story, the "black sack": "It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but though they were pushed further and further in they could not be pushed to the bottom" (791). Then, towards the end: "For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force" (796). When he finally "falls through" to the "bottom," there's a—light! (796; see next)! (BTW, when I thought back to this story, not having read it for many years, this "black sack" was the first specific memory of it that came to mind.)
—"A Properly RELIGIOUS Ending"—
By the time of this story, Tolstoy (like Dostoevsky) was a devout Christian. In fact, his non-fiction writings on religion, which called for a return to a "simpler" Christianity based upon what he perceived to be the more intuitive, emotional faith of the common folk (peasantry), led to a Tolstoyan religious cult of sorts.
Given the religious ending, it's ironic, then, that Ivan's initial references to the Christian deity are toss-off inanities (much as many people today say, "geezus"): "His heart sank and he felt dazed. 'My God! My God!' he muttered. 'Again, again! And it will never cease'" (780). And again: "'For Christ's sake let me die in peace!' he said" (794). There's little indication in these instances that he had "God" or Christ really in mind at all.
In contrast, Ivan's death scene can only be read as an authentic(?) religious experience & conversion: "Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light" (796; contrast this with the former much darker image of the "black sack"). His soul-searching, too, comes to a positive conclusion: "'Yes, it [his life] was not the right thing,' he said to himself . . . 'But what is the right thing?' he asked himself, and suddenly grew quiet." The right thing—Tolstoy doesn't beat around the bush!—is Christian forgiveness & selflessness: "Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. . . . He felt sorry for her too" (796). "And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from . . . all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. 'How good and how simple!' he thought. 'And the pain?' he asked himself. 'What has become of it? Where are you, pain?' . . . He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. 'Where is it? What death?' There was no fear because there was no death." Instead: "In place of death there was light. 'So that's what it is!' he suddenly exclaimed aloud. 'What joy!' 'It is finished!' said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. 'Death is finished,' he said to himself. 'It is no more!'" (The literary historian might well wonder if Tolstoy knew John Donne's famous sonnet in translation—the one beginning "Death, be not proud," in which "Death" is conquered: "Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.") Then the rather curt final sentence: "He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died" (797).
My ridiculously silly Tolstoy meme:
My 2nd stab—don't go towards the light!—at a Tolstoy meme (photo of me, 2019):
Fyodor Dostoevsky: "The Heavenly Christmas Tree" [1876; in Russian] (Blackboard PDF)
Publication Background/ Intrusive Intro & Coda:
This text was published in a periodical (1876), and then collected in D.'s A Writer's Diary (1873-1881), which was largely non-fiction. This explains, in part, the odd authorial-intrusive 1st & last paragraphs (par. 1 & 12). The story begins, "I am a novelist, and I believe I have made up this story. While I say 'I believe,' I am certain that I did make it up. But somehow I cannot help feeling that this really happened somewhere . . . ." Even though an 1870's piece, this opening still casts a good deal of postmodern doubt upon the narrative. The finale, likewise, seems to call into question the "fairy-tale" happy ending: "Why in the world have I made up such a story, in this matter of fact diary of mine, which should treat only of real events? . . . But then, you see, I cannot help fancying that all this may have really happened,—I mean what took place in the basement and behind the woodstack. As to Christ's Christmas tree, I can't tell you whether or not it may have really happened. But it is a novelist's business to invent."
As at least one scholar has noted, one of D.'s signature moves is creating great pathos in his descriptions of children via the repetition of such words as "little" and "tiny." Thus the main character is a "little boy" (par. 2) with "tiny fingers" (par. 3). The first window scene involves an Xmas tree with "many little lights" and "little dolls and horses" and "a pretty little girl" (par. 4). The poor (dead) children at Christ's Xmas tree are "all little boys and girls" (par. 7; ditto par. 9), who eventually "wipe away their" mothers' "tears with their tiny hands" (par. 10).
One of the more painful passages of the story involves the dramatic irony that the reader knows more than the boy: "Feeling his mother's face, he wondered why she did not move at all and was cold as the wall" (geez!). Then the awful sentence: "He stood awhile, forgetting to remove his hand from the dead woman's shoulder" (par. 2).
Binaries: Urban Vs. Rural:
The story is set in "a large city" (par. 1; probably St. Petersburg), while the mother & boy are "from some provincial town" (par. 2); and the city comes off as the worse of the two, in terms of class extremes of rich & poor, and its sheer cacophony & hubbub. At least in his home town, "he had been warm and had been given enough to eat . . . ." (In the city now, he is "terribly hungry," and "so crave[s] a morsel to eat" [par. 2, 3].) The exclamation "Mercy, what a city!" is obviously from the PofV of the boy, who is jostled continually throughout the story from one cruel denial to another. And again: "What dazzling light, what crowds of people!" (par. 3). [For "light," see next.]
Binaries: Light vs. Darkness:
In this story, the "light" imagery is initially associated with the negatives of big-city life, the over-dazzling unnatural lighting of urban blight: "And the light—so much light!" (par. 4). In contrast, the "darkness" is ostensibly his salvation, his womb: cowering behind a stack of wood," the boy "felt safe there; it was dark, and 'they' would not find him" (par. 5). (Of course, this is ultimately ironic, as his newfound "warmth" there in the dark ultimately involves him freezing to death.) But the "light" returns at story's end as a new positive redemption, via Christ's Christmas Tree, which gives off "a flood of bright light," creating a "[s]hining radiance everywhere" (par. 7).
D. breaks a basic "rule" of fiction that one should stay in one tense (usually past tense, although some notable short stories are in the present ~). Mostly in the past tense, the story switches to present in the middle of par. 3, oscillates between present and past in the long par. 4, etc. Why does D. do this?! (Part of the answer is that D. is doing a lot of free indirect discourse, as the boy's PofV & language take over the narrative and break into the present tense; the several present-tense sections are also often the more immediate & exciting—to the boy—parts of the story.)
The plot arrangement includes a series of three "denials," as it were. 1st: the boy is hungry, motherless, in the city street, when a "policeman passed him, and turned away, to avoid seeing the boy" (par. 3). 2nd: the several well-to-do folks' Xmas trees (and the far-better-off "children—so clean and well dressed") and the promise of "cakes"; but when he finally dares to venture in, "Oh dear, how they shouted and waved him back with their hands!" (One woman finally does give him a pittance of money, but he can't hold it in his frigid fingers.) 3rd: "he felt that someone took hold of him from behind: a wicked, big boy who stood beside him, suddenly struck him on the head, snatched away his cap and tripped him. The little fellow stumbled to the ground, and people began to shout . . . ." But the story is also an emotional roller-coaster; scattered among these wrongs are moments of delight, especially when he sees the "three dolls": "He wanted to cry, yet had to laugh . . . ." Still, it's little wonder, at last, that he flees to the woodpile, where "'they' would not find him" (par. 4).
(more) Irony (or Foreshadowing?):
At one point, the boy sees that "behind the pane are three dolls, dressed in red and green gowns, looking just as if they were alive!" (p. 4). Wow, ironic, in that these inanimate objects seem alive, while his live body will soon be dead? OR does it perhaps foreshadow the fact that his own inanimate/dead body will be alive again, under Christ's Xmas tree?
Even a Christian-celebratory reading of the story's end can't miss the ongoing tragedy of class inequities evident in the ending itself. This version of Christian redemption in the afterlife is "for such little children as have no tree of their own": and "some [of these children] had frozen to death in the baskets in which they had been deposited on doorsteps; others had died in wretched hovels, whither they had been sent from the Foundlings' Hospital; others again had starved to death at their mothers' dried-up breasts; had been suffocated in the foul air of third-class railroad carriages. And now, here they were all angels" (10). A less sympathetic Marxist reading might complain that the "opiate of religion" is really a way for the more economically well-off to keep the poor in line, with hopes of better things in the afterlife.
Given my commentary to this point, what you do finally make of the tone of the last paragraph of the actual story?: "And down below, on that Christmas morning, the porter found the body of a little boy who had hidden behind a stack of wood, and there frozen to death. His mother was also found. . . . She had died before him. They had met before God in heaven. . . ." (I guess I should at least tell you that, by this point in his life, D. was a devout Christian. [But should that knowledge affect your reading?!] . . . Also, in terms of reader-response and reception theory, it's fascinating how Christian and atheist students of mine have read this ending in starkly different—and just as emotional—ways!)
Oh, "Heavenly Christmas Tree"?:
An older meme of mine, à propos of the "politics" of Dostoevsky's "Heavenly" ending:
Guy de Maupassant: "The Necklace" [1884; in French] (G&G 591-596)
—CLASS (& SOCIAL STRIVING)—
For someone known for detached/objective realism, Maupassant seems to be doing some pretty fine (& humorous) social satire regarding Mathilde Loisel, with her preoccupations with the higher classes and social climbing: "She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks." And given her airs, it apparently took some stooping to "let herself be married to a little clerk . . . ." Though poor (or at best lower-middle-class), "she was as unhappy as though she had really fallen from her proper station" among the upper crust of French society. And again: "She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for that. She would so have liked to please, to be envied, to be charming, to be sought after" (591). This character flaw is, of course, the source of the plot conflict, leading her to borrow the NECKLACE. As she says later, about dressing for the party, "'there's nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich'" (593).
So much for any Flaubertian non-judgmental detachment here. Mme. Loisel comes off as pretty spoiled, besides. After being shown lots of her well-off friend's jewels, she has the nerve to ask, "'Haven't you any more?'" (593)! Discovering the "superb necklace of diamonds . . . her heart began to beat with an immoderate desire"—combined with a good deal of hubris & narcissism: "She fastened it around her throat . . . and remained lost in ecstasy at the sight of herself" (593). Is this Maupassant's subtle (or not) way of getting the reader to think, at story's end, that she got what was coming to her? After the party, when her husband tells her to wait while he calls a cab, she disobeys: "she did not listen to him, and rapidly descended the stairs" (594). Could this be how she lost the necklace?! (In sum, one could read this as an old-fashioned [& sexist] morality tale.)
Maupassant baldly echoes the sexist stereotypes of his time, blaming her airs & social striving, at least in part, on Mathilde's gender: "Natural fineness, instinct for what is elegant, suppleness of wit, are the sole hierarchy [among women], and make from women of the people the equals of the very greatest ladies." Furthermore, women are but the hangers-on of men, especially "men famous and sought after, whom all women envy and whose attention they all desire" (591; ugh). Similarly, at the party, she is "in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage, of all this admiration, of all these awakened desires, and of that sense of complete victory which is so sweet to a woman's heart" (593).
The birder in me must point out the seemingly minor detail of hunting in this story, and the incredible fact that among the prey of 19th-century "sportsmen" were—larks!: thus M. Loisel initially balks at the sum of money for the dress because "he was laying aside just that amount to buy a gun and treat himself to a little shooting next summer on the plain of Nanterre, with several friends who went to shoot larks down there, of a Sunday" (592).
Another side-note, but given the knowledge that anti-Semitism was still strong in Maupassant's Europe, the following may well be an expression of that: M. Loisel "gave notes, took up ruinous obligations, dealt with usurers and all the race of lenders" (595; to clarify, the "race of lenders" traditionally referred to the Jews).
—THE (O. Henry) END—
Working a good part of her adulthood to pay off the huge sum of 36,000 francs, Mathilde seems to have suffered enough for her class aspirations: "Mme. Loisel now knew the horrible existence of the needy" (595); she "looked old now" (596). In fact, I feel a good deal of sympathy for her at those moments when she wistfully thinks of the past: "But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down near the window, and she thought of that gay evening of long ago, of that ball where she had been so beautiful and so fêted" (596).
But that's NOT the end! We then have the surprise plot twist that Maupassant made famous. Her friend Mme. Forestier finally fills her in: "'Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!'" (596).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: "The Yellow Wallpaper"  (G&G 297-308)
"John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall" (301; & see footnote: Mitchell was a 'famed nerve specialist who actual treated the author . . . with his well-known rest cure"). Part of Gilman's motivation for this story was to protest such a cure (see editors' intro ), the inactivity of which, in the story, apparently speeds the narrator along the road to a full-blown psychosis.
The editors' intro also reminds us that Gilman was "an important early figure in American feminism"—and also quite a "freethinker" for her time, actually performing self-euthanasia (chloroform!) in the face of terminal cancer. Rediscovered by a later wave of feminism in the 1970's, the story has been proclaimed "a small feminist masterpiece" (296).
—SETTING: THE GOTHIC—
Gilman clearly intends to evoke a Gothic setting, as John & wife rent the "ancestral halls" of an old "colonial mansion"; and the narrator goes further in wanting to imagine it as even more gothic: "I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity . . . ." It really is a nice place (also positively romanticized by the narrator): "The most beautiful place! . . . There is a delicious garden!" (297)—which kind of spoils her yen for "ghostliness"; but: "there is something strange about the house—I can feel it" (298). And a rather gothic descriptive passage occurs later: "Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees" (299).
The wallpaper itself at times is described in terms of gothic horror: "when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions" (298). Even more "gnarly": the wallpaper had "bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of 'debased Romanesque' with delirium tremens" (301).
—CHARACTERIZATION: THE PATRIARCHY—
John is the embodiment of patriarchal rationalism: "John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures" (297).
The sexism of the patriarchy led to some strange ideas about female psychology (some of it even retained in Freud): above all, women were supposedly more prone to "neurasthenia" (neurosis), accompanied by "hysterical" symptoms. Here, John & her brother—both physicians—claim "that there is really nothing the matter with one [that is, her] but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency" (297).
Jennie, John's sister, is merely his pawn in his patriarchal treatment of his wife; and the latter, too, at times, mimics the values & attitudes of her oppressor, reflecting her "assimilation" to the status quo, as it were: "I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition" (298). Likewise: "But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things. . . . and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim" (299). Most painfully: "He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try" (299).
John's infantilizing treatment of his wife is both sexist & pretty nauseating: "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction" (298). And more: "He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had" (302); "'What is it, little girl?' he said" (303); "'Bless her little heart!' said he with a big hug" (303); "Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose" (299). (No wonder she ends up in [what she at least thinks is] a nursery!)
The "strangling" oppression of the patriarchy may well be represented in the "woman-behind-the-wallpaper" central metaphor: "in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so" (306).
—CHARACTERIZATION: FEMINIST RAGE—
It's common (& I think right on) to read the narrator's psychic evolution as one towards what one feminist scholar has called "feminist rage." Gilbert & Gubar's famous book of feminist criticism The Madwoman in the Attic immediately comes to mind here: G&G theorize that women in 19th-c. fiction were either represented as either "angels" or "madwomen"; moreover, the "madwoman" aspect of the female was often figured, in fiction by women, as being pent up—in an attic, basement, etc. —both emblem of patriarchal repression and of feminist rage. The "woman" whom the narrator discovers "behind the pattern" (and "bars")—at last, the female rage of her own deeper self?!—is an excellent example of such a motif at work.
Gilbert & Gubar introduce, in the same book, the concept of "duplicity" as a positive female strategy in an age of patriarchal domination & repression. The narrator enacts such a duplicity on occasion: "I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition" (297). And she explicitly says that some of her behavior must include "deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake—oh, no!" (304).
—THE REST CURE—
Gilman's presentation/critique of Weir Mitchell's treatment method (itself quite sexist, since it was aimed mainly at women) is quite evident in the tale. Thus the narrator is "absolutely forbidden to 'work' until" she is "well again" (297). Later: "There comes John, and I must put this away—he hates to have me write a word" (298). Gilman's own contrary view—in favor of activity & catharsis through self-expression—is evident in the following: "I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me" (299). And again: "I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!" (302).
The narrator has just recently had a baby (299, 302). At least one critic has speculated that she thus may be suffering from postpartem depression; e.g.: "I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time" (301). (Interesting, but the eventual severity of her "illness" suggests that something else must [also] be at play here.)
—POINT of VIEW/DRAMATIC IRONY—
"I am glad my case is not serious!" (298). Did someone say dramatic irony?! The reader is much more aware how serious her case is, and the final paragraphs of the story are downright frightening as a portrayal of psychosis. The editor's intro also notes the influence of Poe's "unreliable narrators" (296), and this story is a veritable tour de force in that vein. (I've always wondered, though—if the text is supposedly her blow-by-blow "journal"-narrative of her stay there, and of her psychological change, HOW was she ever "sane" enough to finish it?!)
Another high moment of dramatic irony occurs well after we know she's gone off the deep end: "John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper" (305).
Obviously, the short, choppy sentences & paragraphs—increasing in the latter part of the story—mimic the narrator's "descent into madness"; e.g.: "I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able" (302). As the editors' intro puts it, "Nervous, disjunctive, and deliberately awkward," the story's style "communicates the mental anxiety and instability [to say the least!] of the narrator" (296).
—SETTING: THE NURSERY—
Scholars have suggested that the ROOM may not be nursery, after all, but a room especially prepared for "mental patients" (and the house itself—an asylum?!): "So we took the nursery at the top of the house. It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls" (298).
Besides the central image of the wallpaper, the "nursery" is also distinguished by "the heavy bedstead, and . . . the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs" (299). All of these can be read metaphorically, and in a quite feminist sense.
That the bed is "nailed down" (301, 307) has been read as a symbol of sexual repression.
It becomes clear that she's been doing some wood-chewing, too!: "How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed!" (307). Sure they did. She admits later, "I got so angry [trying to move the bedstead that] I bit off a little piece at one corner—but it hurt my teeth" (307). More irony, then, when she says earlier: "I never saw such ravages as the children have made here [in the 'playroom']" (300).
The bars are interesting because most mentions of them involve the "woman behind the wallpaper," metaphorically "barred" by the patterns on the paper. But we are reminded towards the end that the narrator, too, has been barred in, literally: "I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try" (308).
—THE CENTRAL "SYMBOLS" (er, TROPES): THE WOMAN & WALLPAPER—
"The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down" (298). It becomes pretty obvious that she has been stripping it off herself all along?
"The color is repellent . . . a smouldering unclean yellow" (298). Again: "It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of . . . old foul, bad yellow things" (305). Critics have noted, in terms of this story, that yellow was traditionally the color of "insanity." (No, I don't have a source; for one thing, yellow has always been my favorite color!) Later, she can "smell" yellow: "But there is something else about that paper—the smell! . . . It creeps all over the house. . . . It gets into my hair. . . . Such a peculiar odor, too! . . . But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell" (305). Note that synesthesia (the "crossing-wiring" of the senses) is a not-uncommon symptom of paranoid schizophrenia.
Her changing attitude towards the wallpaper reflects her character change. At first, "I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper" (299). But then the wallpaper becomes a "positive" obsession, however detrimental: "This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!" (300). And then: "I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper" (301).
"Behind" the wallpaper is the "woman," her alter ego or new self, and much of the later part of the story involves releasing that woman. At first, she just notices a subpattern: "This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then" (300). Then: "Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape. . . . And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern" (302). Later: "At night in any kind of light . . . and worst of all by moonlight, it [the wallpaper design] becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman" (304).
The creeping can be read in several ways: most obviously, it could represent women's child-like subservience in the face of such a patriarchal society. Alternatively, at least one critic has read her creeping at the end, anyway, as a positive (feminist) rebirth, as a newborn "baby" & person, as it were?
As an expression of "feminist rage" (& Gilbert & Gubar's "madwoman"), it's fitting that the woman is imprisoned and behind "bars": "The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out" (303). At one moment, it's as if it's "all women" who are pissed-of "madwomen" (yes, feminist critics have really grabbed onto this): "The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over" (306; see also 308 for "all the women").
Have I already mentioned that it is the narrator who's been defacing the wallpaper all along? The following, then, is more great irony: "There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over. I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for" (305). Finally, at story's end: "here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way" (308).
Towards the end, the narrator & the "woman behind the wallpaper" begin to merge somewhat. Of course the latter, when creeping outside, hides "when a carriage comes . . . . I don't blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! I always lock the door when I creep by daylight" (306; emphasis mine)! Soon they are partners in crime: "As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper" (307). Her final identification with/transformation into "the woman behind the wallpaper" involves an even more radical point of view shift: "I don't like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? . . . I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!" (308). (Now, like Mrs. Mallard, she's "free!"?! Interestingly, the "freedom" in both stories is very ironic. "Why?" is a basic feminist question here.)
—THE END—and: WHO THE HELL IS JANE?!—
"I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. 'I've got out at last,' said I, 'in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!' Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!" What an ending. But the question, indeed, the main controversy regarding this story, is—who is this "Jane" woman? (For one thing, there are just too many women whose names start with "J" in this story!: Julia, Jennie, & now Jane.) For many years, editors of the story changed "Jane" to "Jennie," assuming that it was simply a misspeaking/miswriting on Gilman's part. Later, feminist (and psychoanalytic) critics proposed the idea that "Jane" is—the narrator's name! (Brilliant.) So now the "NEW" 1st-person-narrator refers to her old self in the third person. (One might refer to the split narrators as "Jane" & "Insane"?!) I also like the fact that, if it's her real name, "Jane" has connotations of the "plain Jane" milksop of a personality she originally embodied.
—Addendum: TCG's PET THEORY: JOHN THE ADULTERER?!—
I've never seen this idea anywhere, but I've always suspected that John may be having an affair, besides?!: "John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious" (298). Weaker evidence here, admittedly: "I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least" (299). But how about this?: "I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases" (301). Hmmm. Does he have another reason not to move back home early?: "'The repairs are not done at home, and I cannot possibly leave town just now'" (303). And finally: "Hurrah! This is the last day, but it is enough. John is to stay in town over night, and won't be out [here] until this evening" (307).
Gilman meme (photo: some Halloween from my misspent 20's):
Anton Chekhov: "Misery" [1886; in Russian] (G&G 147-151)
The "theme" of grief & loss & death is immediately established by the time of day, season, etc.: "The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost" (147). (Also, snow[fall] itself seems to carry connotations of death in 19th-c. Russian fiction—and, as we will see, in Joyce.)
It seems like a small aside, but the horse's initial purported thoughts can be read as another slam against big-city urban blight (see the Dostoevsky story): "His little mare is [. . . .] probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think" (147).
As with the Dostoevsky short-short, the plot is largely a series of frustrations/denials. Here Iona's need to talk about his dead son is thwarted over and over, by 1) "an officer in a military overcoat" (147-148); 2) a three-man drinking party (148-149); 3) a "house-porter" (150); and 4) another (but young & sleepy) cabman (150). The 5th potential listener is a finally a success (151)—however pathetic.
Not to beat a dead horse (ouch), but this is 19th-c. Russia again, and the class inequities are once again pretty sad. The poor cabman Iona is physically & verbally abused by his "betters" throughout, including the hunchback's threat to give him "one in the neck"—a threat he eventually carries out (149).
Iona has a great need for catharsis, an outlet—he has to TALK to someone about his dead son. Thwarted in his attempts, the misery is unbearable: "Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. . . . The misery . . . comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery" (148; I'm reminded once again of the boy in "The Heavenly Xmas Tree"). And later: "Just as the young [cab]man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation. . . . His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . ." Unfortunately, that good ol' 19th-c. sexism erupts into Iona's thoughts, and rather spoils the pathos: "It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word" (150)?!
That his final interlocutor is another species lends the story some humor(?!) and some great pathos (in my opinion). It is also, of course, a pretty severe condemnation of Iona's "fellow man," for at last, he finally concludes that "it is no good to appeal to people" (150).
So it is also interesting that several of the cruel epithets thrown at Iona by his clients are animal in nature: the officer calls him an "old dog" (148), and a member of the drinking party calls him an "old dragon" (149). How appropriate, then, that this "animalistic" fellow ends up talking to a horse? (This reading may be a total reach!)
Intentional humor or not, I find the ending pretty damned touching, especially the appeal to the mare's maternal instincts!: "'That's how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . . He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . . . Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You'd be sorry, wouldn't you? . . .'" There seems to be a PofV disruption now, as the 3rd-person-limited (to Iona) claims that the mare "listens," and maybe we're suddenly inside Iona's imaginings, too. But note that the narrator doesn't claim that the mare understands?!: "The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it" (151). (By the way, one can't but help think that the author of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" must certainly have read this?!)
A Chekhov meme (graphic: Efimov's 1903 illustration for "Misery"):
Kate Chopin: "The Story of an Hour"  (G&G 157-158)
—(Heck of a ) FIRST SENTENCE!—
"Knowing that Mrs. [Louise] Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death." Plot-wise, the reader is plunged headlong into the story; character-wise, "heart trouble" is a phrase quite pregnant with metaphor. Besides a physically "weak" heart, Mrs. Mallard has another "trouble of the heart," we'll soon learn: her marriage/love life apparently hasn't been the best. Though she is still "young," her face had "lines [that] bespoke repression" (157). Yes, "she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not" (158). This metaphorical use of "heart" plays itself out in the last sentence of the story.
The surprise ending is probably forecast by Richard's haste to pass on the news: "Her husband's friend Richards . . . . had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received . . . He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened" to the Mallard home (157). (And in retrospect, then, "intelligence" is pretty dang ironic.)
The early descriptions of setting are also wonderfully metaphorical (& foreshadowing) of Louise's own rebirth into the "freedom" of a new life (but also, given the ending, painfully ironic!): Through her room's "open window," she "could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. . . . The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves. There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds" (157).
In a crucial sense, the story is all about character change (despite the O. Henry ending): "There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name"; she was even (vainly) "striving to beat it back with her will" (157). (Why? Because, in the eyes of many in her patriarchal society, her eventual feeling of freedom from a bad marriage might have been perceived as "a monstrous joy" ?!)
The epiphany arrives: finally, "she abandoned herself" to it—this realization that she was "'Free, free, free! '" (157). The epiphany certainly involves a proto-feminist sense of independence & empowerment: "she saw beyond . . . a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature." Indeed, "this possession of self-assertion . . . she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!" (158).
—O. HENRY ENDING—
To the (likely) great surprise of the reader, Brently Mallard comes home—ho-hum!—to be "amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife" (158).
—Did Someone Say IRONY?!—
If one has any inkling that Louise is heading for a fall (or—if you're simply rereading the story!), her final feelings of triumph are pretty painful in their retrospective irony—especially since they seem almost hyperbolic: "'Free! Body and soul free!' she kept whispering. . . . she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window. . . . There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory" (158).
"When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills" (158). The dramatic irony here is to die for (sorry). The doctors (& presumably all the other characters) think that she's been so overwhelmed with joy at seeing hubby return that her weak heart just gives out. ("Oh, how sweet! How sad & touching!") The reader has a higher level of awareness (the definition of dramatic irony): it wasn't joy at all that killed her—probably something closer to despair.
"The Meme of an Hour" (made this one years ago, it was so obvious to a birder [my female Mallard photo, 2011]):
A man said to the universe: "Sir I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."
—Stephen Crane, p. 1895
Stephen Crane: "The Open Boat"  (G&G 196-213)
As the editors' intro tells us, Crane's main occupation was as a newspaper reporter ("correspondent"), who experienced a shipwreck "off the coast of Florida" in 1897, and subsequently published an actual account of the event (editors' intro: 195; excerpts follow the story [213-216]). "The Open Boat" is a fictional version thereof.
Crane was a leading American Naturalist, the literary expression of the deterministic worldview of Darwinian science—which might be summed up as "'nature does not regard'" humankind "'as important'" (editors' intro: 195; 207).
Throughout the story, the natural world—especially the ocean—is portrayed, through Crane's word choices, as not only amoral & uncaring, but downright malevolent: "These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall" (196). Again: "A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that . . . you discover that there is another [wave] behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats. . . . it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests" (197). And later: "the tall black waves . . . swept forward in a most sinister silence, save for an occasional subdued growl of a crest" (205). And again: "The wind came stronger, and sometimes a wave suddenly raged out like a mountain cat" (209). When the men are almost to shore, the personified pummeling continues: "The third wave moved forward, huge, furious, implacable" (211).
In contrast, the humans in the story are cast as weak pawns against the uncaring, even inimical & sinister, universe. For starters, the oiler has "a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap" (196).
The boat itself is at times portrayed as an animalistic force in cahoots with "nature," and against the crew: "The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal. As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high" (196). More often, the boat becomes a metaphor for the plight of humankind itself, cast about willy-nilly on an omnipotent "ocean" (i.e., an uncaring universe):" The little boat, lifted by each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress . . . . She seemed just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously, top-up, at the mercy of five oceans" (199). Towards the story's (and the boat's) end, "The little boat, drunken with this weight of water, reeled and snuggled deeper into the sea" (211).
When the seabirds are first described as "Canton-flannel gulls," they sound almost cute & fluffy. But they, too, soon become representatives of a sinister cosmos: "Often they came very close and stared at the men with black bead-like eyes. At these times they were uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at them, telling them to be gone." One gull's "black eyes were wistfully fixed upon the captain's head. 'Ugly brute,' said the oiler to the bird. 'You look as if you were made with a jackknife.' . . . the bird struck their minds . . . as being somehow gruesome and ominous" (198).
The most extended expression of Naturalism in this story is as follows: "As for the reflections of the men, there was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus: 'If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble? The whole affair is absurd.—But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.' Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds: 'Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!'" (202; versions of this thematic refrain recur on 205, 207). The "sacred cheese of life" image/metaphor implicitly compares humankind to mice, in line with the Naturalist idea that homo sapiens is really just another animal. (And of course there's a good deal of sexism in Crane's rehearsal of the old assumption that "Fate" is female!)
Another powerful Naturalist passage follows one of these "seven mad gods" repeats: "During this dismal night, it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention of the seven mad gods to drown him, despite the abominable injustice of it. For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural. Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails, but still—When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples" (207).
The "unconcern of the universe" is developed in another famous passage, in which Naturalism's notion of the natural world's "indifference" is made explicit: "This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual . . . . She [i.e., nature] did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent." A few paragraphs later, "the cook and the correspondent were obliged to look over their shoulders to contemplate the lonely and indifferent shore" (210).
If the Naturalist universe is a "blind," uncaring, and even absurd place (from the point of view of meaning-making humans), I read the following as emblematic of humankind's inability to even make sense of it, try as we may: "'Well, I wish I could make something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?' 'He don't mean anything. He's just playing'" (204). I also find the story's final sentence to be ironic, as I see it, as the men only think they can serve as translators of the force & mystery of nature: "When it came night . . . the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters" (213).
With the story's end, and the death of the oiler, even death is portrayed as part of this great Naturalist unconcern: "The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave" (213).
There's a good deal of verbal & dramatic irony in the men's words & thoughts & attitudes during their long ordeal. For one thing, the many times they near shore, only to have to go back to sea again, make the story feel like a big—painful—tease. Also, they seem at times just stupidly optimistic: "'Bail her, cook,' said the captain, serenely. 'All right, captain,' said the cheerful cook" (199). And again: "The management of the boat . . . could not prevent a quiet cheerfulness. In an hour, perhaps, they would be ashore"; finding some cigars & matches, "thereupon the four waifs rode in their little boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water" (201). Later: "'He's waving at us!' 'So he is! By thunder!' 'Ah, now, we're all right! Now we're all right! There'll be a boat out here for us in half an hour'" (203). (Not!) And more: "'Oh, it's all right, now.' 'They'll have a boat out here for us in less than no time, now that they've seen us'" (205). (Not!)
Maybe the greatest verbal irony is the cook's refrain of "Funny they don't see us" (201, 202): there's nothing literally funny about it!
I find the most hilarious moment—(yes, I'm a sick man)—of the story to be the cook's incredible question to the oiler. The cook's mind "was deep in other scenes. Finally he spoke. 'Billie,' he murmured, dreamfully, 'what kind of pie do you like best?'" (205)!
A sinister" ocean needs a shark, of course: "There was a long, loud swishing astern of the boat, and a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like blue flame, was furrowed on the black waters. It might have been made by a monstrous knife. . . . The correspondent saw an enormous fin speed like a shadow through the water, hurling the crystalline spray and leaving the long glowing trail. . . . Ahead or astern, on one side or the other, at intervals long or short, fled the long sparkling streak, and there was to be heard the whirroo of the dark fin. The speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired. It cut the water like a gigantic and keen projectile" (207). Amid the danger-evoking imagery of knives and cutting, the word "admired" is Crane's playful irony at work again. A similarly "odd" word choice occurs later: "They passed on, nearer to shore—the oiler, the cook, the captain—and following them went the water-jar, bouncing gaily over the seas" (212).
Even the weather/"nature" itself is at times described in ironically upbeat terms: "The morning appeared finally, in its splendor with a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves" (210).
The great situational/plot irony comes at the end, when the strongest man, the one who seems most likely & qualified to live—doesn't: At first, "The oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly" (211). But then: "In the shallows, face downward, lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea" (213).
The story's ironic end—the death of the "best & bravest," the strongest man of the four—is perhaps foreshadowed in the following: "Previously to the foundering [sinking of their ship], by the way, the oiler had worked double watch in the engine-room of the ship" (200).
—POINT of VIEW—
While the correspondent (of course!) is the main "central intelligence," the story's omniscient PofV is clearly evident in the following: "It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction, but the men did not know this fact" (201). (And course it allows another outlet for dramatic irony here.)
Meme: "The Open Boat" (the cook's question about "what kind of pie you like" has always struck me as the dark-humor highlight of the story!):
Gabriel Conway, in some ways, is modeled after Joyce himself, especially in his intellectualism and his not-entirely-positive attitude towards his own Irish culture. (Our editors speak of his "love-hate relationship with his native city" [Dublin], of his "profound ambivalence towards his homeland and its politics" [429, 430].) Even Gabriel's appearance rather reminds one of certain portraits of the bespectacled Joyce: "his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes" (436).
—CHARACTERIZATION: Husband & Wife—
The reader is unaware that the relationship between Gabriel & Gretta Conroy will become the crux of the story, but we get some hints fairly immediately, incl. Gabriel's comment that "that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself" (435). Is this some loving ribbing or an early sign of tension between the two? A little later: "But as for Gretta there, said Gabriel, she'd walk home in the snow if she were let" (437). There may be intimations here of Gretta's more rural & less moneyed origins, compared to her husband. This background is more evident in the following: "A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her [his mother's] sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all" (441).
"Gender troubles" are also foreshadowed early with the housemaid Lily's strange reply about her boyfriend/suitor: Gabriel says, offhandedly, "I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: —The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you" (436). Ouch. Even her employers have noticed her "man troubles": as for "that Lily," Aunt Kate remarks, "I'm sure I don't know what has come over her lately. She's not the girl she was at all" (438).
The "fireworks" that begin the story's turn to the couple itself deserves quoting at length: "Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing. "He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. . . . Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter" (455-456). One wonders how much one really knows/loves a person if she is "a symbol of something"; in Gabriel's act of aestheticizing his wife, "Distant" may well be the operative word here. The "mystification" of his wife continues: "Gabriel watched his wife who did not join in the conversation. She was standing right under the dusty fanlight and the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before. She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her. At last she turned towards them and Gabriel saw that there was color on her checks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart" (457). Since Gabriel is the PoV character, it may take slow readers like me a while to realize that something "important" is going on inside Gretta, too. Because of Gretta's actual frame of mind, the long descriptions of Gabriel's "lusty" anticipation—his "keen pang of lust" (459)—end up ironically (& plaintively so?—or is he just an insensitive jerk?): "Gabriel's eyes were still bright with happiness. The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous. . . . he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory" (457). And a page later: "A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers" (458). (Yikes.) His anticipation is aided by his imagination: "Perhaps she would not hear at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her. She would turn and look at him. . . ." And, oh, poor Gabriel has such hopes: "as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure" (459).
But then the TRUTH comes out, which rather shatters Gabriel's world. The turn has been prefigured in her wistful reaction to the song; and now, "Her face looked so serious and weary that the words [of conjugal 'lust'] would not pass Gabriel's lips" (459). His pathetic, soon-to-be-dashed desiring continues for a while longer, and even takes on a tinge of machismo violence: "If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardor in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood. . . . He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her" (460). Hearing the first hints of Gretta's first great—and apparently greatest—love, Gabriel initially feels the "dull anger" of jealousy (461). But it gets worse: she confesses, "It was a young boy I used to know . . . named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate. —O then, you were in love with him? said Gabriel. —I used to go out walking with him, she said, when I was in Galway. —He is dead, she said at length. He died when he was only seventeen. Isn't it a terrible thing to die so young as that?" (461).
Epiphany #1?: "While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror" (461). But it gets even worse!—when Gretta tells him, "I think he died for me . . . . I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering" (462).
Epiphany #2?: And so Gabriel's soul-searching continues: "So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death" (463).
—CHARACTERIZATION: Gabriel Conroy, Elitist?—
Gabriel's (and Joyce's!?) alienation from the Irish "common folk" is evident in several places: "He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognize from Shakespeare or from the [popular Irish] Melodies [of Thomas Moore] would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education" (436-437). Another of his self-absorbed reveries ends, "What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?" (445)! And later: "When everyone had been well served Gabriel said, smiling: —Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak" (448). In his speech later, Gabriel stuffily & learnedly refers to his hosts as "the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world" and adds, "I will not attempt to play to-night the part that Paris played on another occasion" (452; i.e., Paris's choice of goddess Aphrodite in a "beauty contest," the purported cause of the Trojan War).
Gabriel is also characterized as a bookish introvert not really at home in social gatherings: "Gabriel's warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!" (444-445).
—CHARACTERIZATION: Mr. Browne, He of the "Other Persuasion"—
It's important to understand the Irish cultural/religious backdrop, dominated by the conflict between the dominant Catholics (Ireland's traditional brand of Christianity) & the Protestants (more usually associated with/sympathetic to Ireland's English—and Anglican—overseers). Mr. Browne is one of the latter, and critics have found some Joycean critique of Protestantism in his characterization of this somewhat ridiculous jokester/womanizer. Apparently there is some off-color humor involved in the following: "I'm the man for the ladies, said Mr. Browne, pursing his lips until his moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is —He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at once led the three young ladies into the back room" (439).
But nor can one say that Joyce allows his own (former) Catholicism to come off well. Aunt Kate complains, "I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it's not at all honorable for the pope [Pius X] to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it's not just, Mary Jane, and it's not right. —Now, Aunt Kate, you're giving scandal to Mr. Browne who is of the other persuasion. —O, I don't question the pope's being right. I'm only a stupid old woman and I wouldn't presume to do such a thing" (446)!
—CHARACTERIZATION: "The Small Touches"—
As with some of our other skillful authors, Joyce can characterize his characters with the small but wonderful detail or two: "Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister's, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple" (437). And another: "Freddy Malins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of his last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him" (440-441).
—BACKGROUND: Irish Politics—
It's also important to be aware that the turn of the 20th century was an active time in Ireland's (seemingly forever ongoing) fight for independence from England/Great Britain, with an "Irish Free State" being declared, finally, in 1922. (Another great Irish writer, William Butler Yeats, BTW, was a significant player in the fight around this time.) This backdrop explains some of the more interesting dialogue in the story, the "repartee" between Gabriel and Miss Molly Ivors: "I didn't think you were a West Briton [i.e., a British sympathizer]," Molly says. "It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express [an anti-rebellion rag, as the footnote explains], for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely" (442). Gabriel's attitude of relative ignorance (& lack of commitment to the cause) perhaps reflects his detachment from the "people." More: "And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land? —Well, said Gabriel, it's partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change. —And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish? asked Miss Ivors. —Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish [that is, Gaelic] is not my language. Their neighbors had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humor under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead. —And haven't you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country [and your own wife?—ooh]? —O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!" (443). (See the bio note on Joyce, above.) The later allusion to William III via the belittling epithet "King Billy" is another reference to this centuries-old struggle (454).
In this nationalist context, it may be telling that the song that later captivates Gretta is "in the old Irish tonality" (456).
Surprisingly (to me, at least), the issue of ethnic inequity actually comes up in this story, however peripherally. In the long (and boring!?) table talk about opera singers, "Freddy Malins said there was a negro chieftain singing in the second part of the Gaiety pantomime who had one of the finest tenor voices he had ever heard" (448). (Note that such "pantomimes" were much "lower-class" musical fare than the opera and "legitimate" musical theater.) He remonstrates: "And why couldn't he have a voice too? . . . Is it because he's only a black? Nobody answered this question and Mary Jane led the table back to the legitimate opera" (449). (Frankly, I'm not sure why Joyce introduces this "theme" here, or what exactly his tone/attitude is, though most 21st-c. readers would no doubt sympathize with Freddy's complaint.)
[2019 add:] I found a much more subtle reference to "race" in Gretta's odd comment that the word "galoshes" reminded her of the Christy Minstrels—as your footnote explains, an American "blackface minstrel show" of the day (438). It finally occurred to me that the connection is the word "golliwog"!—the name for a racist rag doll of the late 19th century:
—SETTING & ATMOSPHERE: "It's Snowing All Over Ireland"—
The snow flies through the story as a leitmotif, and its presence is established early on: "Is it snowing again, Mr. Conroy? asked Lily," the housemaid. "Yes, Lily, he answered, and I think we're in for a night of it" (435-436).
The fact that it's not only snowing in the winter, but that "it's Christmas-time" (436) may set up another level of irony, given Joyce's attitude towards Catholic orthodoxy. (As does, likely, Joyce's naming the main character Gabriel, after the archangel.)
When the anti-social Gabriel thinks of the snow outside before his speech, it's initially portrayed as a rather a positive escape from human social interactions?: "People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres" (451). But positive or not, Joyce is in the background reminding us that it is there.
Towards the end of the party: "It's the weather, said Aunt Julia, after a pause. . . . They say, said Mary Jane, we haven't had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland" (456). The inhuman coldness of the snow is connected with the story's title. Critics have also read the snow "all over Ireland" as "symbolic" of Joyce's negative perception of his contemporary Irish compatriots in general, as a people "blighted" by a narrow/unchanging culture's moral paralysis, as a mass psychological "DEATH"(see next subheading). (I'm not sure that this reading is available to the reader of just this one story from Joyce, however!?)
As people leave the Morkans' party, the weather seems downright foreboding: "The morning was still dark. A dull yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending" (457). (See last bullet point below for Joyce's "snowy" conclusion.)
Who is/are the dead? The first clear (and extended) answer are Irish ancestors (and the older generation who retain their values). Yes, Gabriel's speech at the party is one of those fuddy-duddy "kids nowadays!" speeches, one might say, but it is above all a tribute to the Irish "dead": "A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day. Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die" (452).
The song that grabs Gretta's attention (and Gabriel's libidinal notice of her attention) includes the line "My babe lies cold" (456). No "symbolism" & foreshadowing here, eh? (Think of what we later learn about the fate of Gretta's beau.)
In Gabriel's final epiphanic moments, he even thinks, "Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade"—as will everyone, eventually: "One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Like Michael Furey?! (Cf. Neil Young: "It's better to burn out than it is to rust"!) As for his wife?: "He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love" (463).
The last few paragraphs "thematically" combine the snow motif/setting with Gabriel's thoughts of the dead & death: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. [Think of the several implications here.] Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. . . . It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead" (463-464).
Paul is immediately characterized as someone really concerned about (self-)appearances, almost as if he were a teen American version of Oscar Wilde: "His clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole" (107). Also, Paul's usher's "uniform" is "one of the few that at all approached fitting, and Paul thought it very becoming—though he knew the tight, straight coat accentuated his narrow chest, about which he was exceedingly sensitive" (109). Later, at home, "Paul bounded upstairs, scrubbed the greasy odor of the dish-water from his hands with the ill-smelling soap he hated, and then shook over his fingers a few drops of violet water from the bottle he kept hidden in his drawer" (113).
His over-the-top behavior & mien, moreover, shock many of his teachers & peers: "His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy" (107). Even his supercilious attitude is off-putting: "Disorder and impertinence were among the offences named, yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal" (107). And again: "His teachers felt . . . that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower" (107).
For some reason, he apparently also has an aversion to being touched?: "Once, when he had been making a synopsis of a paragraph at the blackboard, his English teacher had stepped to his side and attempted to guide his hand. Paul had started back with a shudder and thrust his hands violently behind him" (107).
And—a self-conscious paranoia?: "Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something" (108).
His peers' reaction towards him even approaches bullying: "tonight he seemed quite beside himself, and he teased and plagued the boys until, telling him that he was crazy, they put him down on the floor and sat on him" (109). (Even the acting company finds him strange: when Paul is forced to renounce the "stock company" actor crowd, even they "agreed with the faculty and with his father that Paul's was a bad case" .)
Fittingly, upon his arrival on New York City, Paul immediately goes shopping, for some "dandy" stuff: "His new street suit he put on in the fitting-room; the frock coat and dress clothes he had bundled into the cab with his new shirts. Then he drove to a hatter's and a shoe house. His next errand was at Tiffany's, where he selected silver mounted brushes and a scarf-pin" (115). (Cather also namedrops several famous landmarks during Paul's excursions: Tiffany's & the Waldorf Hotel ; Fifth Avenue & Central Park ; and the Metropolitan Opera .) Indeed, NYC allows Paul to indulge in the climax of his dandyism: Once in his eighth-floor room at the Waldorf, "he saw at a glance that everything was as it should be; there was but one detail in his mental picture that the place did not realize, so he rang for the bell boy and sent him down for flowers. . . . Presently he came out of his white bath-room, resplendent in his new silk underwear, and playing with the tassels of his red robe" (116). Later, when Paul returns to the Waldorf: "the red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street. Above, about, within it all, was the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth" (117).
In NYC, he has a "mirror-stage" moment, as it were, the embodiment of self-absorbed narcissism: "He spent nearly an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be" (117). And more: "The flowers, the white linen, the many-colored wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance" (117).
Ultimately, in NYC, his faux-upper-class dandyism becomes a power trip: "His dearest pleasures were the grey winter twilights in his sitting-room; his quiet enjoyment of his flowers, his clothes, his wide divan, his cigarette and his sense of power" (118).
Having decided upon his plan of suicide, he retains some of his dandyism to the end: "he sprang to his feet, looked about him with his white, conscious smile, and winked at himself in the mirror" (119)!
CLASS (& a Marxist critique): The elephant in the room in this story is that such a lifestyle requires money, and lots of it—and a socio-economic system that allows some to have a lot more money than others. After spending most of his stolen money in NYC: "He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted" (120).
Paul's wallowing in (and assuming the privilege of) such an upper-class existence becomes pretty disgusting?!: "When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added . . . Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about. He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street" (118)? Worse (and so utterly delusional): "Cordelia Street—Ah, that belonged to another time and country! Had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures, and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger? He rather thought he had" (118). He even comes to feel a weird sense of entitlement to this lifestyle: "Was he not, after all, one of these fortunate beings born to the purple [that is, to royalty], was he not still himself and in his own place? " (119).
—ART vs. REALITY—
Like several other famous 20th-c. fictional characters (I think immediately of Thomas Mann's Felix Krull), Paul's "case," to my mind, ultimately involves the problem of confusing "art" with "life," and living in a aesthetic realm that has little connection with everyday reality. (There is also the literary-history backdrop, with which Cather was no doubt familiar, of the late-19th-c. "Art-for-Art's Sake" movement in Europe—incl. England, most notoriously figured in Oscar Wilde.)
Paul's great love and outlet for joy are the arts—especially music. And it's obviously the art & music of the upper classes with which he's most enamored. For instance, his favorite music genre, apparently, is "grand opera" (108fn). (But then, what do make of one of the oddest moments in the story, when he "ran downstairs [from the picture gallery], making a face at Augustus Caesar, peering out from the cast-room, and an evil gesture at the Venus of Milo as he passed her on the stairway" ?)
Again, it's mostly music that is his life's elixir: "It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor" (109).
He's not only star-struck by the actors & singers, but (symptomatic of his entire worldview), he veils them in a characteristic cloud of romanticization: "The soloist chanced to be a German woman" who "had that indefinable air of achievement, that world-shine upon her, which, in Paul's eyes, made her a veritable queen of Romance" (110).
Art has already become his all-in-all in life. After a concert, "He had the feeling of not being able to let down; of its being impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all" (210).
He "lives," in fact, in imaginative daydreams about this artsy, upper-crust world: "In the moment that the door [to the upscale hotel] was ajar, it seemed to Paul that he, too, entered. He seemed to feel himself go after her [the German actress] up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining-room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday World supplement" (110). "Surfaces" is a telling word here. Paul's main values are based upon "surfaces," appearances, spectacle: "all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant. The mere stage properties were all he contended for" (118).
In the first half of the story (in Pittsburgh), he very much resents his exclusion from the magic circle of the artsy-fartsy: "There it was, what he wanted—tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime; as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it" (110).
"It was at the theatre and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting. This was Paul's fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love. . . . The moment the cracked orchestra beat out the overture from Martha, or jerked at the serenade from Rigoletto, all stupid and ugly things slid from him, and his senses were deliciously, yet delicately fired." That this "fairy tale" is an unnatural, "artificial" aesthetic distancing from reality is clear: "Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odors of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring" (113). And again: "It would be difficult to put it strongly enough how convincingly the stage entrance of that theatre was for Paul the actual portal of Romance. . . . So, in the midst of that smoke-palled city, enamored of figures and grimy toil, Paul had his secret temple, his wishing carpet, his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine" (114).
Surprisingly, for someone who lives so much in the realm of dreams & imagination, Paul isn't a reader: "he got what he wanted much more quickly from music; any sort of music, from an orchestra to a barrel organ. He needed only the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own." Also oddly, "He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything" (114). (In sum, for an aesthete, it's rather odd that he chooses to be a mere consumer of the arts, not an artist of any sort.)
As an aesthete, his trip to New York City seems inevitable (and was long planned & already rendered "artistic" in his scrapbook & mind): "Not once, but a hundred times Paul had planned this entry into New York. He had gone over every detail of it . . . and in his scrap book at home there were pages of description about New York hotels, cut from the Sunday papers" (115-116). The flowers in NYC seem all the prettier for their "un-naturalism": "Here and there on the corners whole flower gardens blooming behind glass windows, against which the snow flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley—somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece" (117). (For Paul's addiction to spectacle, everything admirable must be "theatrical.")
NYC again, as center of American artistic culture, becomes for Paul "the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations . . . whirling about him like the snow flakes" (117). And again: "The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color—he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors" and rooms, "as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone" (117). Towards the end, "The glare and glitter about him, the mere scenic accessories had again, and for the last time, their old potency" (119).
Even alcohol becomes something of a catalyst for his aesthetic imagination: "Even under the glow of his wine he was never boisterous, though he found the stuff like a magician's wand for wonder-building" (118).
If his life was (about) "art," so, too, would be his death: "He would show himself that he was game, he would finish the thing splendidly" (119).
—THE REAL WORLD: "Boring . . . & So Bourgeois"—
For Paul, his school and home are banal bores of bourgeois conventionality: "Paul had often hung about the hotel, watching the people go in and out, longing to enter and leave school-masters and dull care behind him for ever" (110).
His home—and father—are introduced in all their conventionality & mundanity as follows: "The end [of his dalliance with high society & art] had to come sometime; his father in his night-clothes at the top of the stairs, explanations that did not explain, hastily improvised fictions that were forever tripping him up, his upstairs room and its horrible yellow wall-paper[!], the creaking bureau with the greasy plush collar-box, and over his painted wooden bed the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin, and the framed motto, 'Feed my Lambs,' which had been worked in red worsted by his mother" (110-111).
Cather's long description of his neighborhood can easily been read as exemplifying Cather's own disdain for the bourgeoisie/middle class: "It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school . . . and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived. Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. . . . He approached" his house "tonight with the nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head," as he felt "a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence" and a contrasting "morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers" (111). (But note—tone-wise—that Paul's own yearning for another class's "fine things" is still dubbed "morbid.")
Ironically or not, the bourgeois attitude is characterized by an (over-?)concern with the paltry business of making money—and idolatrous respect for those who have made a lot of it: "The men on the steps—all in their shirt sleeves, their vests unbuttoned—sat with their legs well apart, their stomachs comfortably protruding, and talked of the prices of things, or told anecdotes of the sagacity of their various chiefs and overlords"—including "the iron kings" (that is, the "captains of industry"—the railroad magnates and/or iron-&-steel foundry capitalists? [hey—it's Pittsburgh!]) (112). But despite his scorn for plain ol' business, Paul "rather liked to hear these legends of the iron kings, that were told and retold on Sundays and holidays"—because they returned him to his imaginary life-in-the-clouds: "these stories of palaces in Venice, yachts on the Mediterranean, and high play at Monte Carlo appealed to his fancy, and he was interested in the triumphs of cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage" (113). (In some ways, he is very like the fictional Gatsby of a few decades later; the difference is that he never has any intention of actually doing anything!—just as he never has any yen to become an actual actor or musician .)
This strange sentence may say something about Cather's own classism (& attitudes towards other groups of people) in general?!—or are we in Paul's PofV here?: "But the little, clay-bespattered Italians were still sleeping, the slatternly women across the aisle were in open-mouthed oblivion, and even the crumby[!], crying babies were for the nonce stilled" (115).
Paul's fate (suicide) seems pretty well determined when he sees no possibility of returning to this workaday world. To go back would "be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever. . . . it all rushed back upon him with sickening vividness. He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over" (119)!
—LIES (as "ART"?)—
Because of his two-tiered life, as it were, Paul also must live a world of lies and subterfuge: his interactions with his father include "explanations that did not explain, hastily improvised fictions that were forever tripping him up" (110). "Fictions" is another revealing word, as there are implications in the story that Paul considers his lying as itself an aesthetic coping mechanism, another "art form."
His lies to his fellow students are also elaborate: "When these stories [made up about schmoozing with Carnegie Hall actors] lost their effect . . . he would bid all the boys good-bye, announcing that he was going to travel for a while; going to Naples, to California, to Egypt" (114).
Another big lie, in NYC (and having money helps!): "He registered [at the Waldorf] from Washington; said his mother and father had been abroad, and that he had come down to await the arrival of their steamer. He told his story plausibly and had no trouble, since he offered to pay for them in advance" (115).
Where'd he get the money for his trip? That's explained via a flashback, after his arrival in NYC, through which we learn that his greatest act of deceit is the theft of approx. $3,000 from his new job at Denny & Carson's. And for the moment, at least, the money & flight from home seems to have freed him from the rest of his lies: "It had been wonderfully simple . . . . a mere matter of opportunity. The only thing that at all surprised him was his own courage—for he realized well enough that he had always been tormented by fear, a sort of apprehensive dread that, of late years, as the meshes of the lies he had told closed about him, had been pulling the muscles of his body tighter and tighter. Until now, he could not remember a time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy, it was always there—behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him[hmmm]—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew" (116).
There's definitely something psychopathological (&sociopathic?) in Paul's elevation of lying to an "art form"—or, as he also thinks of it, as mere "acting": "He had never lied for pleasure . . . but to make himself noticed and admired, to assert his difference from other Cordelia Street boys"; "now . . . he had no need for boastful pretensions, now . . . he could, as his actor friends used to say, 'dress the part'" (119). Yes, it also involves a willful act of "asserting his difference," of transgressing bourgeois social norms, no doubt; but it's hard to find this rebellion as a praiseworthy individualism—given the flimsy values & goals of his behavior? I empathize with him most towards the end, when Cather seems to put her best spin on this societal "revolt": "The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed; all their red glory over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the show windows that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass. It was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run" (120). But at last I find his character much more disturbed than revolutionary.
One of the trademark "symptoms" of the "socioopathic" personality is the lack of a conscience: "It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him. His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could" (119). Outed by the Pittsburgh newspapers & destined to suicide, he still has no "remorse": If he had to choose over again, he would do the same thing tomorrow. He looked affectionately about the dining-room, now gilded with a soft mist. Ah, it had paid indeed!" (119). [Wow.]
—The Absent MOTHER (and Dad?)—
Maybe the great aporia ("gap" or "hole") in the story is the absence of his mother, and his own thoughts about this loss, and how it may have affected him. All we know is that Paul was "born . . . only a few months before his mother died out there [in Colorado] of a long illness" (108); later he's referred to as "the motherless lad" (119). Psychoanalytic critics might have a field day here.
On a related note, father has probably not been a positive role model or center of a loving home life. Fled to NYC, Paul thinks, "How astonishingly easy it had all been; here he was, the thing done; and this time there would be no awakening, no figure at the top of the stairs" (117).
—Was Paul GAY?—
For a nuanced argument that Paul's "case" or problem involves gender identity, see "Gendered Identity and Heteronormativity in an American Short Story", by David Smith. Besides some pretty stereotypical character-markers (several cited above, under "Paul the Fop"), I personally don't see the question of whether he is or not as a major aspect of the story (but I may just be "slow"). More pertinent to me are the less debatable facts that he is a vain & narcissistic fop, "dandy" (107), an aesthete detached from reality. To assume that these signify "gayness" may be stooping to a rather low level of heterosexist stereotyping?
But maybe the best evidence are those few places where Cather seems to dance about a subject "that dare not speak its name": "his drawing master voiced the feeling of them all [his teachers] when he declared there was something about the boy which none of them understood," concluding "'There is something wrong about the fellow'" (108). There is also his odd encounter with "a wild San Francisco boy"; they pull an all-nighter but, although "They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship . . . their parting in the elevator was singularly cool" (118). Of course, the "wild" fellow may have just realized, like the Pittsburgh folk, that Paul was a "case" study in psychopathology.
[2019 add:] If this story is read as a "case study" of the effects of homophobic oppression, how might its ending be related to such early feminist texts like "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Story of an Hour"?!
Paul's sole moment of remorse, maybe, comes at the very end, though it's pretty pathetic in being stuck in his illusory values system: "When the right moment came, he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands" (121). I don't think we're talking about any epiphany worthy of the name here!?
I really don't know what to make of the story's last phrase?!: "Then, because the picture making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things" (121). Somebody explain to me how this isn't just some vacuous "literariness." (And contrast it with the Crane story/ending!?)
RESPONSE #2 (2 pages or more)—Due FR, 10/4—CHOOSE ONE (and specify which):
Note: For all prompt choices, please avoid mere plot summaries or merely rehashing points that I made in class or expanded upon on this "NOTES" page. (DO feel free to disagree with them, however.)
a) [Always an option for these responses:] A do-your-own-thing "reader's journal" that addresses a "goodly" number of our assigned readings since Response #1 (that is, from Tolstoy thru London [see full list below]); but please avoid simple plot summaries or (again) a simple rehashing of ideas brought up in class or on the course web notes.
b) [A version of option "a," really:] A (more) focused response to a specific issue, "theme," technical device, etc., evident in a "goodly" number of the stories at hand. (Several of you did a fine job w/ this prompt for Response #1.)
c) C/C any TWO of the eligible stories, arguing that one is superior to the other because of its "art" (form/style) and/or its "politics" (in the most general sense).
d) As a variation of option "c," write a one-act play in which two or three of our authors argue about the relative merits of their stories.
e) Write a parody of one of these stories that also "refers" somehow at least one of the other stories. (Others of you did a great job w/ this option last time.) One idea: Gilman's "YW" narrator could imagine a LOT of things?!—incl. characters/plot lines/authors from other stories? Oh—"The Open Boat": your version now has three or four of our authors (or characters) in that doomed tub? Etc., etc. (With all these creative responses, be sure to "work in" a lot of details from the authors/stories at hand!)
To be as clear & helpful as possible, here are the eligible stories: Tolstoy: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (758-); Dostoevsky: "The Heavenly Christmas Tree" (Canvas PDF); Maupassant: "The Necklace" (591-); Gilman: "The Yellow Wallpaper" (297-); Chekhov: "Misery" (147-); Chopin: "The Story of an Hour" (157-); Crane: "The Open Boat" (196-); Joyce: "The Dead" (434-); Cather: "Paul's Case" (107-); London: "To Build a Fire" (548-)
A 2nd Cather meme (from 2013): —Since I'm part-"Injun" (and ecocritic), Cather's "pioneer" fiction in general—and this quot. in particular—have always pissed me off. (This plaque is just south of campus, at the Great Plains Art Museum.)
Jack London: "To Build a Fire"  (G&G 548-558)
Influenced by Marx—and his own working-class/labor-protest background—it's no surprise that London had "a lifelong commitment to socialism" (editors' intro: 547).
More crucial for the story at hand: influenced by Darwin, he was, like Stephen Crane, "squarely in the camp of Naturalism" (editors' intro: 547).
Note that a letter from London to his editor reveals that he had given the main character a name (Vincent) in an earlier draft, but later changed all references to simply "the man" (559fn). Question: why is this a thoroughly Naturalistic move?!
—SETTING (& Atmosphere!)—
The amoral backdrop of the Naturalist universe—uncaring, if not downright sinister—is established right away: "Day had broken cold and gray . . . . It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark . . . . The Yukon [River] lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice" (548).
As in "The Open Boat," the human character here is pretty much a blind & "frail" pawn unaware of his paltry & fragile place in the cosmos: "But all this— . . . the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land . . . and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. . . . Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe" (548).
In the grand scheme of things, other species are often better able to survive than human beings stupidly full of the hubris of little bit of reason. His companion, "a dog, a big native husky . . . . knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment" (549). Later: "The dog was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge" (552).
The malevolence of the Alaskan cold is at times made more universal (and more cosmically sinister?) via such expressions as "the cold of space" (552, 553) and "the face of outer space whence this cold came" (552).
At story's end, "His idea of it [his dealing with death] was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut off—such was the simile that occurred to him" (558). Yep, exactly. That's a Naturalist view of humankind in a nutshell!
What a realistic (& gross & even humorous?!) detail ensues as a "penalty" for chewing tobacco in such cold: "a crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin" (550)!
As a general note on plot & pacing, etc., I find London's portrayal of the suspense of the man's frenzied attempts to save his life by trying to light a second fire (554-556) very well done—as is his general realistic representation of frozen & numb human limbs!
—IRONY (& POINT of VIEW)—
The omniscient point of view allows for great dramatic irony. For example, early on, the reader knows it's a lot colder than the man does: "In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero [as the man assumes] . . . . It was seventy-five below zero" (549). . . . However, there seems to be a point of view glitch later: "He knew he must not fail [making the fire]. When it is 75 below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire. [He knows this now?] This is especially true if his feet are wet. . . . All this the man knew" (553). I can only surmise that London fouled up here. (That the PofV is 3rd-p. omniscient is made even clearer when we get into the dog's head on p. 552!)
My assumption, at least, that this story will not end well leads me to see dramatic irony in the following: "He was sure to frost[bite] his cheeks . . . . But it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious" (550). (Human over-confidence/hubris getting its comeuppance is Naturalist irony incarnate.) Again: "He was pleased at the speed he had made. If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys by six" (551). For a good part of the story, in fact, the ordeal is almost a laughing matter to him: "He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers" (551). (Oh, oh.) There are moments of doubt—it is freaking cold, after all, and he does need to be careful: when he can't feel his feet, he becomes "a bit frightened. . . . It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man [the 'old-timer'] from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things" (552). But even the untoward fall into open water seems but a minor inconvenience at first: "He had hoped to get into camp with the boys at six o'clock, and this would delay him an hour, for he would have to build a fire and dry out his footgear" (552). Later, the prospects of life & hope remain "promising," allowing for more irony: "There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame" (554). Even in his last mad dash as he's freezing to death, "The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys" (557).
The longest ironic-in-its-cockiness meditation by the man is as follows: "But he was safe. . . . The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone" (553).
One of the man's problems is that there is no real bond between him and the only other mammal who might be of some help: "there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip lash and of harsh and menacing throat sounds that threatened the whip lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire" (552).
HERE, PUPPY!?: "The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head" (556). Kill "it," & crawl into the body for warmth! But, try as he might—"He realized that he could not kill the dog." Why? A moment of compassion? Nope: "There was no way to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath knife nor throttle the animal" (556-557)!
Matches gone and a "big chill" setting in, he finally realizes "that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him" (557)—though he continues to have moments of (ironic) hope.
For a Naturalist author, is the following metaphor supposed to be just ludicrous, even laughably in its vainglory?!: "He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth" (557).
His final "nice & warm" feelings of course remind of us of the little boy in Dostoevsky's story: "As he sat and regained his breath, he noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not shivering, and it even seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest and trunk" (557). And so "the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known" (558).
Is this just sour grapes at this point?: "Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die" (558). (Okay, maybe not!)
The last sentence can be read as another iteration of nature's insouciance towards humankind (i.e., "the man"): the dog "turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were the other food providers and fire providers" (558).
—A NOTE on STYLE—
I don't think that many people have found London to be a "writer's writer"—a master stylist in the vein of a Flaubert or Joyce. In fact, I find his sentence structures (in this story, at least) to be often clunky & awkward.
Franz Kafka: "The Metamorphosis" [1915; in German] (G&G 467-500)
In the editors' intro, note especially that Kafka "was the only surviving son of a domineering, successful father. . . . He never married and lived mostly with his parents" (465).
—The METAMORPHOSIS: Theatre of the Absurd—
The event promised by the story's title takes place in the opening sentence ("arguably . . . the most famous opening sentence in twentieth-century literature" [editors' intro: 465]): "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" (467). Just like that. All matter-of-fact-like. There's incredible black humor in this "matter-of-factness" in the first few scenes, as Gregor absurdly still ponders making his train on time, etc. For instance, when he finally gets the door open, "With a deep breath of relief he said to himself: 'So I didn't need the locksmith,' and laid his head on the handle to open the door wide" (474). And even after the family & chief clerk first see him & react in horror, he remains—uh, composed: "'Well,' said Gregor, knowing perfectly that he was the only one who had retained any composure, 'I'll put my clothes on at once, pack up my samples and start off'" (475)! It takes him a long while, in fact, to realize that this whole turn of events is more than just an inconvenience: "he must lie low for the present and, by exercising patience and the utmost consideration, help the family to bear the inconvenience[!] he was bound to cause them in his present condition" (478-479).
I don't know if it's funny or sadly pathetic, but Kafka's stylistic choice to often include the adjective "little" when describing his many insect legs is effective: "instead [of four human limbs] he had only the numerous little legs which never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least" (469; see also 470, 473, 474, 477). The adjective's use wanes in the 2nd half of the story, as his repulsiveness is being emphasized, but right before he dies, there are again those (now) "feeble little legs" (497).
—The METAMORPHOSIS: Freudian Wish-Fulfillment?—
One way Gregor's absurd transformation has been read is as a unconscious Freudian gesture—a wish fulfillment—on his part, to escape a pretty burdensome life & set of responsibilities; deep down, he may well (however unconsciously) wish to no longer be responsible, and this surreal change certainly does the trick in that regard. Even when he assumes at first that his change is but a momentary bad dream/illusion, he's lamenting his everyday situation: "Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. . . . The devil take it all!" (467). His burden includes liabilities he's assumed on behalf of his parents: "[If I behaved like some other salesmen,] I'd be sacked on the spot. Anyhow, that might be quite a good thing for me, who can tell? If I didn't have to hold my hand because of my parents I'd have given notice long ago . . . . once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents' debts to him [G.'s boss]—that should take another five or six years—I'll do it without fail. I'll cut myself completely loose then" (468). Well, in an even more radical way, he's already been "cut loose." (Besides his parents' debt, we later learn of "the collapse of his [father's] business five years earlier" .)
He's so devoted to his job, consciously at least, that it seems to border on the pathological. So he must be really "sick," to not be at work: "'He's not well,' said his mother to the" chief clerk. "'The boy thinks about nothing but his work.'" Hurt by the chief clerk's suspicions, he thinks, "Were all [his firm's] employees in a body nothing but scoundrels, was there not among them one single loyal devoted man who, had he wasted only an hour or so of the firm's time in a morning, was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed?" (471). (Hmmm.)
Yes, consciously, Gregor still seems dedicated to work & family, as absurd as that is, given the fact that his unconscious (following the Freudian reading) has turned him into a giant insect: "Well, why was she [his sister] crying? Because he wouldn't get up and let the chief clerk in, because he was in danger of losing his job, and because the chief would begin dunning his parents again for the old debts? Surely these were things one didn't need to worry about for the present. Gregor was still at home and not in the least thinking of deserting the family" (472). And later: "he felt great pride in the fact that he had been able to provide such a life for his parents and sister in such a fine flat. But what if all the quiet, the comfort, the contentment were now to end in horror?" (478).
However, we also get a clue from the chief clerk that Gregor has already started shirking responsibility, "transforming" & "escaping" a bit, as it were, before the actual transformation: "'I don't see why your parents shouldn't hear it too. For some time past your work has been most unsatisfactory'" (472).
That his transformation can been read as an escape from work & real life is nowhere clearer than in the following: "He meant actually to open the door, actually to show himself and speak to the chief clerk; he was eager to find out what the others, after all their insistence, would say at the sight of him. If they were horrified then the responsibility was no longer his and he could stay quiet." One might even read a sense of relief in his surrendering to the help of others in the following: "Yet at any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him" (473).
Maybe part of his problem is that his great sacrifices & efforts for his family weren't exactly over-appreciated?!: "At that time [of his father's business failure,] Gregor's sole desire was to do his utmost to help the family to forget as soon as possible the catastrophe which had overwhelmed the business and thrown them all into a state of complete despair. And so he had set to work with unusual ardor and almost overnight had become a commercial traveler instead of a little clerk, with of course much greater chances of earning money, and his success was immediately translated into good round coin which he could lay on the table for his amazed and happy family." However: "They had simply got used to it, both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling" (481).
—The LAW of the FATHER—
Linked to Kafka's own troubled relationship with his "domineering" father (465) or not, Gregor's relationship with his father doesn't seem to be a happy one, and indeed his whole interaction with his parents in general seems disturbing—allowing for more Freudian/Lacanian readings. The chief clerk's words seem to transcend their literal sense: "'Mr. Samsa,' the chief clerk called now in a louder voice . . . . '[You are] neglecting your business duties in an incredible fashion. I am speaking here in the name of your parents and of your chief'" (472)—as if an invocation of Lacan's Law of the Father: grow (back) up and remain a part of the Symbolic realm!—which, significantly, involves the centrality of human LANGUAGE and the sacredness of the FAMILY unit.
Gregor certainly returns to being the "child" in the FATHER/CHILD dynamic of the following: "he [G's father] seized in his right hand the walking stick" and "snatched in his left hand a large newspaper from the table and began stamping his feet and flourishing the stick and the newspaper to drive Gregor back into his room. No entreaty of Gregor's availed, indeed no entreaty was even understood, however humbly he bent his head his father only stamped on the floor the more loudly" (476). In a much later scene, his father "lifted his feet uncommonly high, and Gregor was dumbfounded at the enormous size of his shoe soles. [Did some Freudian say castration anxiety?!] But Gregor could not risk standing up to him, aware as he had been from the very first day of his new life that his father believed only the severest measures suitable for dealing with him. And so he ran before his father" (488).
The more ingenious psychoanalytic critic might find the Freudian primal scene (& thus the Oedipal complex) in the subtext of the following: "With his last conscious look he saw the door of his room being torn open and his mother rushing out ahead of his screaming sister, in her underbodice, for her daughter had loosened her clothing to let her breathe more freely and recover from her swoon, he saw his mother rushing towards his father, leaving one after another behind her on the floor her loosened petticoats, stumbling over her petticoats straight to his father and embracing him, in complete union with him" (488-489).
—THE DECLINE & DEATH of GREGOR SAMSA—
After the initial "metamorphosis," Gregor's decline is steep and unabating, a descent into greater and greater alienation from his family and the human world. His sister's initial care & concern is the only silver lining; but after a while, even she grows distanced: "she opened the door again immediately and came in on tiptoe, as if she were visiting an invalid or even a stranger" (479). (And later: "for the time being [because of his injury] it took him long, long minutes to creep across his room like an old invalid" .) At least these figures of speech are human; later he will be figured more and more as the non-human Other—and practically speaking, who can really blame the family for that?—just a huge dead bug, at last, an "it" to be poked at and shuffled around with a broom (497).
He certainly does become less human and more and more insect-like. Noticing how quickly his insect body has healed, he wonders, "Am I less sensitive now? . . . and sucked greedily at the [old & 'uneatable'] cheese" (479)!
His eventual death by starvation is foreshadowed fairly early, when Gregor sometimes doesn't have the appetite to eat at all, "which gradually happened more and more often" (480). (Towards the end: "Gregor was now eating hardly anything" . And after his death: "Grete, whose eyes never left the corpse, said: 'Just see how thin he was. It's such a long time since he's eaten anything. The food came out again just as it went in.' Indeed, Gregor's body was completely flat and dry" .)
His " descent" to the non-human is pretty stark, given his voice change (& language loss), his new habit of hanging from the ceiling, etc.—rendering all the more pathetic those moments when he earnestly tries to hold on to being human: "Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? He had indeed been so near the brink of forgetfulness that only the voice of his mother, which he had not heard for so long, had drawn him back from it. Nothing should be taken out of his room; everything must stay as it was; he could not dispense with the good influence of the furniture on his state of mind" (485). Pathetically, he tries to hold onto his one hobby, fretwork (well, sort of): "he was struck by the picture of the lady muffled in so much fur and quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly[!]. This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody" (486).
Gregor deals with the initial reaction of the others pretty well (via denial, above all?). But when his mother finally/truly sees him for what he has become, he's cut to the quick, and cut off from humankind altogether, one might say: "her mother . . . took a step to one side, caught sight of the huge brown mass on the flowered wallpaper, and before she was really conscious that what she saw was Gregor screamed in a loud, hoarse voice: 'Oh God, oh God!' fell with outspread arms over the sofa as if giving up and did not move" (486); and so "Gregor was now cut off from his mother, who was perhaps nearly dying because of him" (487).
At last, he just gets virtually ignored: "Who could find time, in this overworked and tired-out family, to bother about Gregor more than was absolutely needful?" (490). His very existence becomes more & more forgotten & erased: "His sister . . . hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot any food that was available . . . . The cleaning of his room, which she now did always in the evenings, could not have been more hastily done" (491).
Conversely, he also loses interest in them: sometimes "he would not [even] be in the mood to bother about his family, he was only filled with rage at the way they were neglecting him" (491). And again: "Gregor reconciled himself quite easily to the shutting of the door, for often enough on evenings when it was opened he had disregarded it entirely and lain in the darkest corner of his room, quite unnoticed by the family" (492). His fateful straying into the living room includes the following: "He felt hardly any surprise at his growing lack of consideration for the others; there had been a time when he prided himself on being considerate" (493).
Another well-known short story by Kafka is "The Hunger Artist," whose title character, when finally asked how he could go so long without eating, says, I never found a food I really liked. And of course, this is all great metaphor, even allegory, for the true artist who lacks "nourishment" in a society hostile to "true art." I'm not claiming that the same intent is happening here, but Gregor's "trouble" with food is broached at several points, and seems especially to border on metaphor in the following: "'I'm hungry enough,' said Gregor sadly to himself, 'but not for that kind of food. How these lodgers are stuffing themselves, and here am I dying of starvation!'" (493).
Gregor's last real "communion," if you will, with the human world is his long, plaintive (& ultimately pathetic) reverie about his sister: "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders[!]; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the sofa, bend down her ear to him and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatorium[!], and that, but for his mishap[!], last Christmas . . . he would have announced it to everyone without allowing a single objection. . . . After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck" (494). (Did someone say Beauty & the Beast?)
I tend to read Gregor in death—and his acquiescence to death for the "good" of his family—as a sacrificial victim (or even scapegoat?) of sorts: "He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath" (497). (Wait—do insects have nostrils?!)
—THE RISE & REBIRTH of the SAMSA FAMILY—
Irony of ironies, Gregor's trajectory of decline & death allows for an opposite trajectory, something of a positive renaissance for the rest of the family. In the beginning they are pictured as pretty lazy, even spoiled (especially Grete): "Now his father was still hale enough but an old man, and he had done no work for the past five years and could not be expected to do much; during these five years, the first years of leisure in his laborious though unsuccessful life, he had grown rather fat and become sluggish. And Gregor's old mother, how was she to earn a living with her asthma, which troubled her even when she walked through the flat and kept her lying on a sofa every other day panting for breath beside an open window? And was his sister to earn her bread, she who was still a child of seventeen and whose life hitherto had been so pleasant, consisting as it did in dressing herself nicely, sleeping long, helping in the housekeeping, going out to a few modest entertainments and above all playing the violin? " (482).
But his sister Grete experiences the first "benefits" of Gregor's downfall, in a new personal assertiveness—that "self-confidence she had recently developed so unexpectedly and at such cost" (485). It is she who pretty much takes control of the "problem" that is Gregor: "he often heard them [his parents] expressing their appreciation of his sister's activities, whereas formerly they had frequently scolded her for being . . . a somewhat useless[!] daughter" (483).
Even dear old Dad gets a lifestyle/attitude makeover: "'Ah!' he [G.'s father] cried as soon as he appeared, in a tone which sounded at once angry and exultant. Gregor drew his head back from the door and lifted it to look at his father. Truly, this was not the father he had imagined to himself . . . . And yet, and yet, could that be his father? The man who used to lie wearily sunk in bed whenever Gregor set out on a business journey; who welcomed him back of an evening lying in a long chair in a dressing gown; who could not really rise to his feet but only lifted his arms in greeting . . . . Now he was standing there in fine shape; dressed in a smart blue uniform with gold buttons, such as bank messengers wear . . . . from under his bushy eyebrows his black eyes darted fresh and penetrating glances" (487-488). His newfound cockiness even includes a new stubbornness, "the mulishness that had obsessed him since he became a bank messenger" (489). And he also gets the gumption to give his three lodgers the heave-ho: "'Leave my house at once!' said Mr. Samsa, and pointed to the door" (498).
Their new occupational successes (& new work ethic) continue: "his mother, bending low over the lamp, stitched at fine sewing for an underwear firm; his sister, who had taken a job as a salesgirl, was learning shorthand and French in the evenings on the chance of bettering herself" (489). When the family is reduced to just an old charwoman for help, "everything else was done by Gregor's mother, as well as great piles of sewing" (490).
The two trajectories intersect (Gregor on the way down, the family on the way up) with Grete's newfound assertiveness (note in the following that Gregor is finally an "it"): "'My dear parents,' said his sister, slapping her hand on the table . . . 'things can't go on like this. Perhaps you don't realize that, but I do. I won't utter my brother's name in the presence of this creature, and so all I say is: we must try to get rid of it. We've tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as is humanly possible" (495). She won't take no for an answer: "'We must try to get rid of it,' his sister now said explicitly to her father . . . . 'He must go . . . that's the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we've believed it for so long is the root of all our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can't live with such a creature, and he'd have gone away on his own accord" (496). (And so—he kinda does?)
The family's (final) rejuvenation is ushered in by the spring, as an archetypal trope of rebirth: "Although it was so early in the morning a certain softness was perceptible in the fresh air. After all, it was already the end of March" (498). The coda is almost painful in its positivity?!—with more rebirth imagery and the final image of Grete coming alive, as if for the first time, like a fine young antelope or panther: "Then they all three left the apartment together, which was more than they had done for months, and went by tram into the open country outside the town. The tram . . . was filled with warm sunshine. Leaning comfortably back in their seats they canvassed their prospects for the future, and it appeared on closer inspection that these were not at all bad, for the jobs they had got . . . were all three admirable and likely to lead to better things later on. The greatest immediate improvement in their condition would of course arise from moving to another house . . . . While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa . . . as they became aware of their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement . . . that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body" (499-500). (Now reread the first sentence of the story again, and then again this last, to better appreciate what I mean by the end seeming "painful in its positivity.")
Someone else's play on the ubiquitous English-major term "Kafka-esque":
A student sent me this tweet by a third party:
A meme I found on the 'Net:
Sherwood Anderson: "Hands"  (G&G 15-19)
"Hands" is a short story from Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of stories based loosely around the "coming of age" of the central character, George Willard.
Anderson was one of the first American authors to take seriously Freud's ideas of the unconscious & psychosexuality; this is partly the reason why his "treatment of sexuality was considered shockingly frank for the time" (editors' intro: 14).
—CHARACTERIZATION: The "Grotesque"—
Most of the notable characters in Winesburg, Ohio have been dubbed "grotesques"—characters who aren't quite right because of some physical and/or psychological "abnormality." Wing Biddlebaum's "grotesquery" involves his hands, of course, and he is immediately pictured as "a fat little old man" who "was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks" (15). The signifier "hands" becomes something of a stylistic refrain: "Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands"; and in the very next paragraph, "The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name" (16). (Why imprisoned?!)
But his grotesqueness isn't just his ever-moving hands: they simply "made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality" (16). His "elusiveness" is an alienation & aloneness, at last: "forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, [he] did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years"; indeed, "for twenty years [he] had been the town mystery" (15; and there are a LOT of "mysterious" people in Winesburg!).
Anderson's attitude/tone towards WB is certainly sympathetic; and the narrator even keeps asking for a "poet" to better write WB's story: "The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet" (16). (But Anderson certainly succeeds in doing the "poet's" job for a good number of the "obscure" grotesques in Winesburg.) (I emphasize this point because Anderson is not presenting/condemning WB as a pedophile, a not uncommon reading of the story by today's students.)
—PLOT (& the "Solution" to the "Conundrum" of WB's Hands)—
George Willard usually functions in Winesburg as the curious budding newspaper reporter who serves as witness to the town's odd characters. Here, "George Willard . . . had many times wanted to ask about the hands. At times an almost overwhelming curiosity had taken hold of him. He felt that there must be a reason for their strange activity and their inclination to keep hidden away" (16).
The most important part of the "present-tense" plot line involves GW & WB: talking passionately to George Willard, "Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. 'You must try to forget all you have learned,' said the old man. 'You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.' Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face." Well, this pretty much freaks GW out: "George Willard [is left] perplexed and frightened . . . . 'I'll not ask him about his hands,' he thought, touched by the memory of the terror he had seen in the man's eyes. 'There's something wrong, but I don't want to know what it is. His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone'" (17).
Through a long flashback, we learn of WB's previous life as an inspiring teacher—"And then the tragedy. A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts," leading to a homophobic lynch mob: "Adolph Myers [WB's real name] was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night. . . . one of the men had a rope in his hands. They had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white, and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape" (18).
WB's "look of horror" during his "hands-on" talk with GW is thus explained. He's received severe punishment for this behavior before. And so, having moved to Winesburg with a new name, he's been "going timidly about and striving to conceal his hands. Although he did not understand what had happened [in the Pennsylvania school episode,] he felt that the hands must be to blame" (18).
The final portrait of WB carrying on with his sad life is wonderful in its unassuming details, and in my opinion, is the real reason for the story's aesthetic success, the reason that it is so often anthologized: "Lighting a lamp, Wing Biddlebaum washed the few dishes soiled by his simple meal and, setting up a folding cot by the screen door that led to the porch, prepared to undress for the night. A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary" (19).
Virginia Woolf: "A Haunted House"  (G&G 844-845)
Besides achieving fame as a modernist novelist, Woolf is also well-known as the first truly influential literary feminist of the 20th century, thanks to her non-fiction work A Room of One's Own (1929). Her fiction is renowned (and "feared"?!) because she "pioneered 'stream of consciousness' narration, a style which tries to portray the seemingly random way in which thoughts, feeling, and perceptions flow through a character's mind" (editors' intro: 843). While "A Haunted House" isn't full-blown stream-of-consciousness, the fragmented dialogue of the two ghosts certainly exemplifies a difficult modernist style.
The reader is thrown into the story right away: "Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple"—who spend much of their time talking about, looking for, a "buried treasure," making this ghost story something of a mystery story, too. It later becomes apparent that the "treasure" may be non-physical, metaphorical: "Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy" (844).
The climax occurs when the ghost pair comes upon the sleeping, living couple: "the faces . . . search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy." ("Ah, I'm starting to get it?") But for such an "obscure"/modernist story, the answer to the story's riddle seems pretty mundane: is it simply LOVE that they seek?: "Waking, I cry 'Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart'" (845).
—POINT of VIEW—
At story's end, at least, the point of view becomes obviously 1st-person ("I cry" ). But either this 1st-p. narrator knows the ghostly pair's history, or the PofV is broken by a third-person-omniscient interjection: "Death was the glass; death was between us [i.e., the living couple & dead couple], coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it" (844).
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?":
William Faulkner: "A Rose for Emily"  (G&G 238-245)
As an author in good part "responsible for the flowering of Southern fiction" in the early 20th century, his thematic concerns included—as very evident in "A Rose for Emily"—"the dissolving society of the antebellum aristocracy in the aftermath of the Civil War" (editors' intro: 225). (Emily G. is one of the last "remnants" of this society.)
—POINT of VIEW—
This story is one of the most famous examples of the rare "1st-person-plural" PofV, established in the first sentence: "our whole town went to her funeral" (238).
SEXIST ~: But "we the townsfolk" are presumably male!?—since "the women" attend the funeral "mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house" (238)! Also: "Only a man of Colonel Sartoris' generation and thought could have invented it [the excuse to remit EG's taxes], and only a woman could have believed it" (239)! And towards the end, at the funeral, "the ladies [are] sibilant and macabre" (244). (Again, this is the townspeople's attitude expressed here, not necessarily Faulkner's.)
—SETTING as TROPE for the OLD SOUTH: The House—
Emily G.'s status as emblem of the old/dying "feudal," racist South is clear via the metonym that is her house: in her once-aristocratic neighborhood, "only Miss Emily's house was left," in "its stubborn and coquettish decay" (238).
—CHARACTER as TROPE for the OLD SOUTH: Emily G.—
The first description of Emily is of a person as "run-down" & "dead" as her house: she's a "a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. . . . She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue" (239).
The plural "townspeople-narrators" have greatly mixed feelings about Emily & what she represents. There is the positive regard for the past & tradition: "Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town" (238). There is also a conflicting envy, an almost vindictive hope that "the mighty will fall": "That was when [after the smell went away that] people had begun to feel really sorry for her. People in our town, remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely crazy at last [foreshadowing?], believed that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were. None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them [Emily & her father?] as a tableau . . . . So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated" (240-241). And again: "When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized" (241). But even towards story's end, she is still largely a human antique, a curiosity of a bygone era: "Thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse" (244).
Emily's very handwriting, in reply to a tax notice, is further evidence: the mayor "received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink" (239).
Moreover, Emily pretty much LIVES in the 19th century—in her mind: When asked once again to pay her taxes, she says, "'See Colonel Sartoris.' (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years)" (240). (BTW, Colonel Sartoris, mayor in the 1890's, is another representative of the Old South, looking out for his own [the antebellum aristocracy] when he remits [that is, cancels] Emily's taxes [238-239]—which leads to later controversy, and untoward visitors to EG's house!)
Especially as a Southerner, Faulkner was ahead of his time in his anti-racist sentiments. When a character uses the "n- word," one can safely bet that WF has a negative attitude towards said character. This includes Judge Stevens, the mayor during the discovery of the "smell": "'It's probably just a snake or a rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard'" (240; see also 241). Then we have a previous mayor, Colonel Sartoris, issuing "the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron" (239).
—EMILY and her ELECTRA COMPLEX?—
Emily's apparent father-fixation seems very important in the story, in terms of her relationship with men in general. The initial description of inside her house includes "a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace" upon which "stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily's father" (239).
When Daddy dies, "Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days," until finally "she broke down, and they buried her father quickly." The townspeople even sort of understand her (however pathological) love for her father, and offer a psychoanalysis ironically more right on than they could know at the time: "We did not say she was crazy then [when she denied he was dead]. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will" (241).
Also symptomatic is the clause "as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die" (243).
—HOMER, the "Yankee"—
Her main beau—and father surrogate?!—in the plot line is "a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee"—and his Northern origin is scandalous enough itself: "At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, 'Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.' But there were still others, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige" (241; note how the old Southern-gentry ideals still survive in certain segments of the townspeople). There's even the whispered scandal of—gasp—premarital sex: "And as soon as the old people said, 'Poor Emily,' the whispering began. . . . She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was fallen" (242).
As I said in introducing the story, one thing Faulkner does extraordinarily well here is to "play" with time so adeptly—via flashbacks, etc.— that the reader remains confused until the very end. Part I begins with her funeral, then backtracks into Emily's life. Part II flashes back even further, with some startling info: "So she vanquished them [the 'city authorities'], horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell. [Huh?!] That was two years after her father's death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her—had deserted her" (240)!
As the story continues—largely through a "reverse chronology"—more shocks from the past follow: "Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic"! And the PofV "townspeople" can be counted on to confuse us further: "So the next day we all said, 'She will kill herself'; and we said it would be the best thing" (242). Faulkner's obfuscation continues, as the reader falls for the townspeople's continual confusion: "Then we were sure that they [Homer & Emily] were to be married. We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler's and ordered a man's toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men's clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said, 'They are married.'" [Wrong again!] "And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for some time" (243).
Faulkner's famous long-long-freight-train-of-a-sentence style is most evident in the following. But note, too, the various thematic concerns of the story summed up therein: "They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years" (244). Critics have noted that such sentences are so long that time tends to get forgotten (or all "mixed up"), and the reader ends up in some "eternal present" (or "huge meadow"?!) in which past & present become one.
The end is foreshadowed, certainly, by the fact that "she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house" (244). Then detail after sordid detail is revealed—all shocking, yet all cleverly foreshadowed beforehand: "A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal . . . upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man's toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a collar and tie, as if they had just been removed . . . . The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust" (244-245). Even ghastlier: "Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair" (245). (Note the implications of this final detail.)
* CHRONOLOGY of "A Rose for Emily" [some scholar figured out/best-guestimated the dates!]: 1854--Emily is born. 1884--Emily's father dies (section II). 1885--Homer appears, begins courtship (III). 1886--Emily buys poison (arsenic); Homer disappears; the smell appears; the upstairs room is closed (III, II, IV). 1894--Col. Sartoris remits Emily's taxes (I). 1906--Col. Sartoris dies (I). 1908-10?--Emily gives up her china-painting lessons (I, IV). 1916--Aldermen try to collect her taxes (I). 1928--Emily dies at age 74 (I, IV, V). [1930--Faulkner publishes story.]
Ernest Hemingway: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"  (G&G 372-375)
In Paris of the 1920's, "Hemingway slowly perfected the terse, direct, and understated style that would change the direction of modern American fiction. Hemingway's celebrated prose style embodies [Ezra] Pound's definition of the 'Imagist' method that demands 'direct treatment of the "thing"' and 'the use of absolutely no word that does not contribute to the overall design'" (editors' intro: 370). (Note that this is really a restatement of Poe's "unified effect"! Also, the appeal to Imagism is a bit misleading; Imagist poetry was really an aesthetic unto itself fairly unrelated to Hemingway & modernist fiction.) Again: "His greatest contribution may lie in the terse, stripped-down quality of his early stories, which renders contemporary alienation with stark concrete details and with dialogue that accurately captures the speech of hobos, waiters, bookies, and boxers" (editors' intro: 371).
—STYLE: "Geez, It's Mostly Dialogue"—
It is doesn't seem much of a story, with mostly a series of curt sentences spoken between two waiters and an old drunk. And even serious matters of life & death get Hemingway's terse stylistic treatment. "'Last week he tried to commit suicide,' one waiter said. 'Why?' 'He was in despair.' 'What about?' 'Nothing'" (372). (Of course, "nothing" becomes the central word, the ultimate empty or zero signifier, of the entire story.) Again, the following discussion of life, death, & suicide is largely sentence fragments: "'How did he do it?' 'He hung himself with a rope.' 'Who cut him down?' 'His niece.' 'Why did they do it?' 'Fear for his soul'" (373).
—Youth vs. Age—
The waiters eventually distinguish themselves in that one is fairly young, and wants to get home to his wife: "'He should have killed himself last week'"—so this guy wouldn't have to be working so late right now (372). He's even in-your-face about it: "'You should have killed yourself last week,' he said to the deaf man" (372)!
The older waiter is apparently more understanding of the old man's desire to stay up late drinking: "'He stays up because he likes it.'" To which the younger waiter replies, "'He's lonely. I'm not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me'" (373). The contrasting views continue (younger waiter 1st): "'I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing[!]' "'Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him'" (373). The older waiter even sees a certain nobility in the old man: "The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity" (373).
It becomes more & more apparent that the older waiter has more in common with the old drinker than with his co-worker: "'You have youth, confidence, and a job,' the older waiter said. 'You have everything.' 'And what do you lack?' 'Everything but work.' 'You have everything I have.' 'No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.' . . . 'I am of those who like to stay late at the café,' the older waiter said. 'With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.'" The younger waiter: "'I want to go home and into bed.' 'We are of two different kinds,' the older waiter said. . . . 'It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café'" (374).
—POINT of VIEW/"NOTHING"—
So far the story is apparently in Hemingway's famous objective-detached PofV; but it becomes clearly third-person limited when the older waiter breaks into a reverie, an internal monologue the reader is privy to. But the reverie is an odd one, based as it is on "nothing"/"nada." Call it existentialist, nihilist, religiously irreverent, a symptom of the modern age—it comes as both a surprise(?) and as further confirmation that the older waiter is even closer to the old man in his life-weary worldview, co-sufferers of a devastating ennui: "What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada [nothing and then nothing] y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee" (374-375).
He stops in a bar on the way home: "'What's yours?' asked the barman. 'Nada.'" The bartender knows this type!: "'Otro loco más [Another crazy one],' said the barman and turned away." The coda is another example of Hemingway's marvelous understatement: "Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it" (375).
If the main philosophical gist of the story is towards "nothingness" (and by metaphorical extension, "darkness"), what's with this emphasis on a "well-lighted place" (and on a certain "cleanness and order") on the part of the old drunk and especially the older waiter? Shallow recompense for the lack of any real "light" in their lives? Or . . . ?
For Hemingway, I Got Nada:
Jorge Luis Borges: "The Garden of Forking Paths" [1941; in Spanish] (G&G 55-62)
"One might summarize Borges's main achievements [in laying much of the groundwork for postmodern fiction] in two ways. First, he found a way to combine the accessible pleasures of traditional genres"—including the "supernatural tale, detective story," and spy fiction!—"with the intellectual complexity of experimental fiction. . . . [U]nderneath the engaging story [of the 'popular form'], he created a second but more ambiguous and intellectual narrative that questions but never quite negates the surface plot. Borges's second major innovation was to take conventional nonfiction forms (such as the book review . . . encyclopedia entry, or scholarly article [or—signed confession statement!]) and use them as fictional devices. Borges, for example, often reviewed nonexistent books. Mixing real information with sheer invention, he recounted imaginary plots of fictional biographies in a form that readers associated with factual exposition. These pseudo-essays allowed him to explore metaphysical paradoxes and historical mysteries in the compressed and evocative form of short fiction" (editors' intro: 54).
The popular genre that Borges is playing with in this story is that of spy fiction (and maybe even a little sci-fi, given the notion of parallel universes?).
Thus we learn early on that the spy Yu Tsun's cover has been blown, and that he will probably soon be killed by the British, and that he "possessed the Secret. The name of the exact location of the new British artillery park on the River Ancre" (56). (This river is in northern France, and flows near a town called Albert!)
True to a good spy-mystery, we don't find out how he's going to inform the Germans of this vital piece of info until the very end: "I have won out abominably; I have communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city they must attack. They bombed it yesterday; I read it in the same papers that offered to England the mystery of the learned Sinologist Stephen Albert who was murdered by a stranger, one Yu Tsun. The Chief had deciphered this mystery. He knew my problem was to indicate . . . the city called Albert, and that I had found no other means to do so than to kill a man of that name. He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness" (62). (But of course, the final "contrition and weariness" must be explained by the "postmodern" narrative of the story, his lesson regarding "time.")
—"Fiction + Nonfiction"—
The story begins, "On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World War I" (55); Hart was a real military historian, and he did write a book on WWI, but Borges apparently changed the dates given in that history.
Borges is playing with "nonexistent books" in the following: "We came to a library of Eastern and Western books. I recognized bound in yellow silk several volumes of the Lost Encyclopedia, edited by the Third Emperor of the Luminous Dynasty but never printed" (58)!
—POINT of VIEW—
Postmodernist fiction also frequently plays with PofV. Note that this story has a third-person "editor"-narrator's frame (the first two paragraphs) that introduces a first-person spy-narrator's "statement." There's even a footnote added defending the British captain, Richard Madden, presumably added by the third-person editor (one of Yu Tsun's British interrogators?!) (55, 55fn).
Interestingly (and rather out of the blue), Yu Tsun's claims to be spying for the Germans to "prove" himself to his white European associates: "I didn't do it for Germany, no. . . . I did it because I sensed that the Chief somehow feared people of my race—for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies" (56).
The serious-literature/postmodernist "theme" of the story is a heady one, involving the nature of "time," and of reality itself, as figured in the image of the labyrinth, or maze. (For starters, its nature as a puzzle of dizzying relativism makes it a perfect metaphor for the postmodernist worldview.)
Before even encountering the man with the "answer," Mr. Albert, Yu Tsun has a reverie that foreshadows that answer, at the same time filling us in on a strange bit of family history: "The instructions to turn always to the left reminded me that such was the common procedure for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths. I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts'ui Pên . . . who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel" and "to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost." However, "his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth. Beneath English trees I meditated on that lost maze: I imagined it inviolate and perfect at the secret crest of a mountain; I imagined it erased by rice fields or beneath the water; I imagined it infinite, no longer composed of octagonal kiosks and returning paths, but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms . . . I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars" (57-58). At this point, though, he sees all this to be "illusory" (58).
Arriving at the house of the man he plans to murder, whose name he has found in a phone book, Yu Tsun is immediately (& very "coincidentally") confronted with the labyrinth—and the memory of his great-grandfather—again: "'You no doubt wish to see the garden?' . . . 'The garden?' 'The garden of forking paths.' Something stirred in my memory and I uttered with incomprehensible certainty, 'The garden of my ancestor Ts'ui Pên.' 'Your ancestor? Your illustrious ancestor? Come in'" (58).
By total chance—wow—Mr. Albert is an expert on Yu Tsun's ancestor & his work: "'An astounding fate, that of Ts'ui Pên . . . . he abandoned'" all his other great talents & interests "'to compose a book and a maze." Yu Tsun remonstrates that the "'publication [of his ancestor's 'chaotic manuscripts'] was senseless. The book is an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts. I examined it once: in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive'" (59). Ah, but that's it exactly; the book is all about . . .
"TIME": "'A labyrinth of symbols,' he [Albert] corrected. 'An invisible labyrinth of time. To me, a barbarous Englishman, has been entrusted the revelation of this diaphanous mystery. . . . Ts'ui Pên must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing. . . . Ts'ui Pên died; no one in the vast territories that were his came upon the labyrinth; the confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the maze'" (59). In trying to explain his discovery/theory, Mr. Albert hands Yu Tsun a letter: "I read, uncomprehendingly and with fervor, these words written with a minute brush by a man of my blood: I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths" (59). Albert continues: "'Before unearthing this letter, I had questioned myself about the ways in which a book can be infinite. I could think of nothing other than a cyclic volume, a circular one. A book whose last page was identical with the first, a book which had the possibility of continuing indefinitely'" (59). And more: "'Almost instantly, I understood: "the garden of forking paths" was the chaotic novel; the phrase "the various futures (not to all)" suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. [One can easily claim here that Borges is formulating hypertextuality a half-century before its time!] Here, then, is the explanation of the novel's contradictions. . . . In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings.' . . . He read with slow precision two versions of the same epic chapter" (60).
Such a concept of "time" also seems to predict recent theories in physics about parallel universes: "'The testimony of his contemporaries proclaims—and his life fully confirms—his metaphysical and mystical interests. Philosophic controversy usurps a good part of the novel. I know that of all problems, none disturbed him so greatly nor worked upon him so much as the abysmal problem of time. . . . In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us'" (61).
Borges then skillfully directs the whole speculation about labyrinths & parallel universes back to the "main" plot line, of espionage & murder: "'In every one,' I pronounced, not without a tremble to my voice, 'I am grateful to you and revere you for your re-creation of the garden of Ts'ui Pên.' 'Not in all,' he murmured with a smile. 'Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy'" (61). [I find this to be a pretty uncanny moment. So—we are also reading only one "version" of the story, as they are living only one version of their intersecting lives!?]
Terminology: Metafiction refers to fiction "about fiction." One might argue (and critics have) that Borges' fiction is ultimately "about" the art of fiction, and that the trope of the labyrinth aptly describes his own dense, "circular" postmodern texts.
Borges Meme ("I was pretty lost here"):
Gabriel García Márquez: "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" [1955; in Spanish] (G&G 289-293)
Note the acknowledged influence of Franz Kafka on GGM's fiction (287), especially "The Metamorphosis" (288, 293-294).
GGM is also one of the foremost practitioners of "Magical Realism," the mixing of "the magical and the mundane" (288).
The main image of "magical realism" here is the old man who "may" be an "angel," although that idea is pretty well deconstructed by his sheer pathetic decrepit old-man status: his "incomprehensible dialect" (289) may be heavenly or, uh, sailor-ly—and his diet is "nothing but eggplant mush" (291).
But his real status really isn't the point?: the story seems above all to concern how other people try to create meaning out of this strange being, be it through the "wise neighbor" woman's folkloric superstitions (289, 291), or the priest's appeals to an over-bureaucratic Vatican (290, 291). People's sad (& fickle) attraction to the strange & exotic as pure spectacle is also obviously under critique (289-292), as are greed (290) and cruelty (291).
If there is any truly "religious" stuff going on here (however ironically), it involves the archetypal pattern of rebirth/rejuvenation, as when the child gets over his sickness when the "angel" first arrives (289), and when the old guy himself is "reborn" with the "first sunny days," grows new feathers, and simply flies away (293).
—HIGH COMEDY (Funniest Passages)—
"By that time onlookers less frivolous[!] than those at dawn had already arrived and they were making all kinds of conjectures concerning the captive's future. The simplest among them thought that he should be named mayor of the world. Others of sterner[!] mind felt that he should be promoted to the rank of five-star general in order to win all wars. Some visionaries hoped that he could be put to stud in order to implant the earth a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe" (290).
"The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn't sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious[!] ailments" (290)
"Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn't recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn't get to walk but almost[!] won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers. Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel's reputation . . ." (292).
García Márquez Meme (the satires on organized religion are certainly one of the story's highlights):
A good part of the story is an indictment of the institutional racism & poverty of the inner city, as young African-Americans "bumped" their "heads . . . abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities" (27)—options which include heroin addiction (27, etc.) & (a however slow) suicide (29, 30, 31). Even the narrator—a teacher who has "got out," sort of—perceives mostly a culture of failure: "So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn't changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. . . . But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster" (32). Much later in the story, Sonny is looking out the window and says, "'All that hatred down there . . . all that hatred and misery and love. It's a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart" (46).
The most overt example of racism involves the death of Sonny's & the narrator's uncle. It's almost too painful to read: "'Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain't stopped till this day. And, time your father got down the hill, his brother weren't nothing but blood and pulp'" (35).
Sonny's long descriptions of his heroin addiction (43-47) are pretty damned amazing (I assume!) in their psychological realism.
—Blues: The MUSIC—
What strikes me most every time I read this story is how classist & snobbish (& ignorant) the African-American narrator is about jazz (until the final scene, of course) (36-38).
Sonny's jazz (& "blues") is his salvation, at last: he is "at that piano playing for his life" (40).
Amazing, too, is Baldwin's final tribute to jazz, including his wonderfully poetic description of the musicians' interactions (47-49). Yes, by the end we are "in Sonny's world" (47): "Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. . . . Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness. And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. . . . Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. . . . Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth" (48-49).
Albert Camus: "The Guest" [1957; in French] (G&G 65-74)
Note that Camus was a (French) Algerian, and that Algeria had been colonized by the French (64)—resulting in a great complication of allegiances & moral dilemmas for Camus. "'The Guest' takes place in Algeria during the waning years of French control there, when even the most fundamentally decent of civil servants is forced to share the blame for what is perceived as a callous example of colonial injustice" (65).
"Camus' name became forever linked with existentialism, and his writings reflected the sense of the 'absurd' that characterized intellectual life in a Europe whose traditional values were destroyed during the [second world] war" (64). (This link also means that one should regard any decisions—or lack thereof—made in the story that follows with great interest!)
For what it's worth, the French "L'H™te" means both "guest" & "host" in French.
It's interesting, in terms of colonialist cultural indoctrination, that the initial classroom scene includes a blackboard with "the four rivers of France" (65)!
The French colonial Daru is in charge of giving his students rations because "they are all poor" (66)—symptomatic again of the usual colonialist situation.
Not only does the Arab prisoner have a "restless and rebellious look," but the French officer Balducci mentions "talk of a forthcoming revolt" (67).
Odd at least—and really disturbing, at last—is Daru's racializing of the Arab via his "huge lips . . . almost Negroid" (67; see also 70). One might "defend" it as Daru's initial attempt at dehumanizing the man, whom he might have to drag to the authorities in Tinguit?
However—ironically & problematically—Daru, though ethnically French, "had been born here," in Algeria (like Camus). This is his "place": "Everywhere else, he felt exiled" (66).
But Balducci tries hard to interpellate Daru as "one of them" (the French colonizers): "'If there's an uprising, no one is safe, we're all in the same boat'" (68). Daru refuses to fall in line (sort of): "'I won't hand him over. Fight, yes, if I have to. But not that.'" Balducci's colonialist attitude remains clear: "'you can't let them have their way'" (69).
Left alone with the prisoner, Daru has some thinking to do—about what to do. Almost right away he feels great "joy" when he thinks the Arab may have escaped, "might have fled and that he would be alone with no decision to make" (70). (Note that existentialism entails making an "ethical" decision in a world without any God-given original/universal principles to guide one.)
Significantly, the Arab asks Daru, "'Are you the judge?'"! No way, man!, Daru is no doubt thinking. But the latter does try to imagine the man's crime, or even criminal nature: "He had to look at this man. He looked at him, therefore, trying to imagine his face bursting with rage. He couldn't do so. He could see nothing but the dark yet shining eyes and the animal[?!] mouth" (70). But then Daru seems to immediately play judge, as if seeking a way out of his moral dilemma: 'Why did you kill him?' he asked in a voice whose hostile tone surprised him. . . . 'Are you sorry?'" (71).
Later, the feeling of camaraderie Daru feels with just being with his "guest" through the night "bothered him . . . by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances" (71). Apparently, he still can't grant the Arab any sense of full humanity?
But later his sense of ethics is ultimately challenged: "That man's stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away" (73). Why? Because now he has to make a decision? (If one had to paraphrase Camus' existential "message," it might be something like "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't; so you might as well 'do.'")
Finally, he makes the Arab make his decision for him, pointing him both east, to Tinguit and the authorities, and south, to his own people. The Arab at first feels "panic" himself, and seems unable to decide for a good while, either (73-74). Daru finally sees that he's "walking slowly on the road to prison" (that is, to Tinguit). (Talk about your internalized colonialism?!)
So what does one do with the ending, when he finds the words on the blackboard, undoubtedly by the Arab's friends, "'You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.' Daru looked at the sky, the plateau and beyond the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone" (74)?
My old Camus meme (the "mother" stuff quotes the weird opening of his most famous novel, The Stranger):
Ned Merrill is immediately characterized as one fine moneyed stud: "He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather" (123). (But note the reference to the declining day. More on this below.)
"His [Ned Merrill's] own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis" (123). The adults in this heaven of suburbia apparently spend most of their time boozing beside their swimming pools (very 1st paragraph , etc.): "Oh, how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River! Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer's men in white coats passed them cold gin" (125).
The public pool, part of his itinerary, is of course met with upper-class disdain: "It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. . . . Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers' with longing and thought that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm—by swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River" (127).
And the Biswangers aren't quite up to his upper-crust level: "They were the sort of people who discussed the price of things at cocktails, exchanged market tips during dinner, and after dinner told dirty stories to mixed company. They did not belong to Neddy's set—they were not even on [his wife] Lucinda's Christmas-card list" (129). (But by this point, the reader is more aware of Ned's own plight—and so this now comes across with a good deal of irony.)
—The COLONIALIST TROPE—
His journey is compared at several points to that of some grand European explorer: "Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water. . . . He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography" (123, 124).
"The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River" (124).
He's offered another drink at his very first stop: "He saw then, like any explorer, that the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination" (124; see also 126).
When we realize that his life has already crumbled around him, the trope becomes pathetic & ironic: "He had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague" (130).
The foreshadowing of the storm begins with the "massive stand of cumulous cloud" (123), followed a few pages later by "thunder," until—"It would storm" (125).
But at first, the rain represents for him just another invigorating part of his adventure: "Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?" (126). (But are there darker intimations in this passage?! For much more—& darker—foreshadowing, see below.)
—FORESHADOWING II: OF DECLINING DAYS & SEASONS—
It's summer, isn't it? The first suggestion that it may not be: "The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn" (126).
Another hint: "On he went, barefoot through the wet grass, to the Welchers', where he found their pool was dry. This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream" (126).
Later it becomes obvious that it is not summer: "The worst of it was the cold in his bones and the feeling that he might never be warm again. Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this time of year? He needed a drink. Whiskey would warm him, pick him up, carry him through the last of his journey, refresh his feeling that it was original and valorous to swim across the county" (128).
The turn from daylight to dusk can of course be read metaphorically; also, it gets dark sooner than it should on a fine summer day!: "He went toward their pool with . . . some unease, since it seemed to be getting dark and these were the longest days of the year" (129).
Later: "No one was swimming and the twilight, reflected on the water of the pool, had a wintry gleam" (129).
Finally, it hits him: "Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry" (130).
—FORESHADOWING III: OF A DECLINING LIFE—
The truth about Ned is revealed through a series of clues: "When had he last heard from the Welchers—when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them? It seemed only a week or so ago. Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?" (126).
But we keep returning, for several pages, to Ned's "normal" optimism & bravado & "explorer" spirit. Even after several inklings of truth: "This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county. That was the day! He started off then for his most difficult portage" (126). But he finally does begin to question the wisdom of his enterprise: "Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?" (127; BTW, given later clues—has his whole life been "horseplay" and playing "explorer"—and is this part of his problem?!).
The first major hint is from nudist/purported-Communist Mrs. Halloran: "'We've been terribly sorry to bear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.' 'My misfortunes?' Ned asked. 'I don't know what you mean.' 'Why, we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children. . . .' 'I don't recall having sold the house,' Ned said, 'and the girls are at home'" (128).
The following is in reference to Ned, the reader can now safely assume?: "Then he heard Grace [Biswanger] at his back say: 'They went for broke overnight— nothing but income—and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars'" (129).
His mental deterioration becomes more & more apparent. Regarding his mistress, Shirley Adams: "They had had an affair last week, last month, last year. He couldn't remember" (130). And she says, significantly, "'If you've come here for money . . . I won't give you another cent'" (130).
And so, HOME: "The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys' for supper? . . . He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands. . . . The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty" (130-131).
Joyce Carol Oates: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"  (G&G 664-675)
"Many of her [Oates'] stories present dark or troubled characters whose lives become a focus for terror or violence. Her fascination with violence and the macabre link her to the Gothic tradition" (editors' intro: 663).
This story is dedicated to Bob Dylan (664), apparently because Oates has claimed it was inspired by his song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (the lyrics of which are quoted in the last paragraph ). The lyrics end: The vagabond who's rapping at your door Is standing in the clothes that you once wore— Strike another match, go start anew, And it's all over now, Baby Blue.
Connie, fifteen years old, "knew she was pretty and that was everything." In contrast to her "plain and chunky and steady" older sister June, Connie's "mind was all filled with trashy daydreams" (664).
Her behavior, too—including mall-walking w/ her just-as-shallow friends!—just spells trouble: "Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: [for example,] her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head" (665).
And of course her "daydreams" are full of the pop-romantic nonsense of the era (or maybe most eras?!): "Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs" (666).
The restaurant-hangout across the road from the mall seems like a teenager's dream (in a bad sitcom about the 1950's?!): "They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for" (665).
—Characterization: ARNOLD FRIEND (Or: "Could It Be—Satan?!")—
Arnold's first appearance, at the burger joint, seems innocuous enough—or NOT: he's "a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away, but she couldn't help glancing back and there he was, still watching her. He wagged a finger and laughed and said, 'Gonna get you, baby'" (665).
When he shows up at her front door, it becomes more apparent that there's something not quite right—indeed, very fake—about him . . . as if he were "the Devil in disguise"? His hair, for starters: "he had shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig and he was grinning at her" (667). Later, "He placed his sunglasses on top of his head, carefully, as if he were indeed wearing a wig" (671). The sunglasses themselves, which are "metallic and mirrored everything in miniature" (667), are a reflective mask of sorts. And behind them?: "He took off the sunglasses and" his "eyes were like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way" (669). Later: "She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered makeup on his face but had forgotten about his throat" (672).
And his NAME: "'This here is my name, to begin with,' he said. ARNOLD FRIEND was written in tarlike black letters on the side, with a drawing of a round, grinning face that reminded Connie of a pumpkin, except it wore sunglasses" (668). Critics have pointed out that "FIEND" is simply "FRIEND" without the "R." (Or: cross out the "R" in "ARNOLD," and you get "AN OLD FRIEND"!?) Also, the "black tar" imagery is repeated later: "He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material" (670).
Arnold also has a hell of a time just standing up—as if he had cloven hoofs?!: "He was standing in a strange way, leaning back against the car as if he were balancing himself" (668). And again: "He stood there so stiffly relaxed, pretending to be relaxed, with one hand idly on the door handle as if he were keeping himself up that way and had no intention of ever moving again" (670). And later: "He wobbled in his high boots and grabbed hold of one of the porch posts" (672). And again: "One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn't in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle" (672). Later, he gives "a mock bow, but again he almost lost his balance. He had to bend and adjust his boots. Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller" (673). (In fact, Oates seems to run this device into the ground, as Arnold's main "Satanic" signifier.)
Even Arnold's "sign" seems infernal? When Connie is led to ask what it is, "he drew an X in the air, leaning out toward her" (670).
The Devil, that "Old Familiar": "And his face was a familiar face, somehow: the jaw and chin and cheeks slightly darkened because he hadn't shaved for a day or two, and the nose long and hawk-like, sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke" (668). His knowledge of Connie is a bit uncanny (although any obsessive sociopath could probably readily acquire it): "'I know your name and all about you, lots of things'" (669). (Also, one is reminded at several points in this story of the "fellow traveler" in "Young Goodman Brown"?) When Arnold runs off the names of lots of her friends, Connie asks, "'Do you know all those kids?' 'I know everybody.' 'Look, you're kidding. You're not from around here'" (669; ooh). Connie finally realizes that he's no teenager and "suddenly" asks, "'Hey, how old are you?' His smile faded. She could see then that he wasn't a kid, he was much older—thirty, maybe more" (670; ooh). Most eerily, perhaps, Arnold finally asks Connie, "'Don't you know who I am? '" (673)! (Note, finally, that his "words" at one point seem "only part of an incantation" .)
Towards the end, Connie even intuits that Arnold may not be "of this world": "she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him . . . that was so familiar to her was only half real" (671).
Connie's too-flirtatious/boy-crazy-ways-for-a-15-year-old(?) get their come-uppance when Arnold gets creepily sexual: "'You're my date. I'm your lover, honey. . . . Yes, I'm your lover. You don't know what that is but you will. . . . I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me" (671-672).
Finally, I'm NOT claiming that Arnold is necessarily supposed to be the Devil; I'm just pointing out that the "archetype," if you will, certainly lies behind much of his characterization. "Note, however, that the story's pagination (in G&G) includes the number 666!"
Added After 1st Class Discussion (2014): Students—having done their own research—also noted that "Arnold Friend" without the FIRST "r" becomes "An Old Friend" (cf. "Old Familiar"); that the "secret code" numbers "33, 19, 17" (668) refer to a quite relevant passage in Judges 19.17 (Judges is the 33rd book from the end of the Bible?!): "Whither goest thou? And whence comest thou?"—and that Connie sure says "hell" a lot! . . . [my 2015 add:] It struck me on this reading, the several images of flies (e.g., 665, 666, 667); of course, Satan is also "Lord of the Flies"!?
The situation finally gets "real" for Connie: "She thought, I'm not going to see my mother again. She thought, I'm not going to sleep in my bed again." Arnold only makes things worse when he speaks in a threatening riddle (and "inspires" the story's title!): "'The place where you came from ain't there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out'" (675). There does seem to be a "devil's moral" at story's end, however, an intimation that Connie's behavior has made her an easy target for—Satan?: "'be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?" (675).
The final image is haunting in its sinister suggestiveness, an image of "the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it" (675).
[Note: what follows are my web-notes from an Intro-to-Lit course in 2003; I apologize for any sins-of-a-youth gross stupidities.]
Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) [pronounced BART-ul-mee]: "One of the most influential & innovative short-story writers in contemporary literature" (Magill), Barthelme was also one of the first writers in English to incorporate the features of the French "new novel" of the 1960's, which ushered in the "postmodern" era in fiction.
Postmodern fiction represents a rejection of the traditional/modernist elements of realism, plot line, and consistent point of view & characterization. Thus the postmodern story or novel is often absurdist rather than realistic; the tradition plot schema is usually absent or twisted, the story often involving a mere (absurd) situation, with no explicit climax or denouement; moreover, the point of view is often inconsistent, intentionally obscure, even impossibly contradictory, and the characters themselves often lack "consistency" as stable identities, making it impossible for the reader to consider them real persons. Thus (at least some of) Barthelme's stories have been characterized as having "no subject, characters, plot--or understandability."
Critics have also pointed out that--in good postmodernist fashion--Barthelme's strange, "fragmented" stories reflect the "fragmentation of modern life"; Barthelme is also notorious for incorporating lots of clichés, jargon, and buzz phrases from contemporary culture & popular/kitsch art, as if to reflect the empty banality of contemporary existence. Or, in one scholar's words, he reiterates "the flotsam & jetsam of contemporary society"; his stories are "not so much plotted tales as they are parodies & satires based on the public junk & commercial media hype that clutters" our lives; and he sees modern humankind itself as a mere product of "media & [pop-culture] language." (Did someone say, "Whass'up?"?!)
"Game" is from Barthelme's best/most famous collection of short stories, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968)--and is actually one of the more "normal" stories in the collection.
Keep in mind the time of the story (1968); the 1950's & 60's have been dubbed the "Age of Anxiety" in American literature, with the geopolitical tension of the Cold War and the everyday threat of nuclear attack. . . . Also, a (late-60's) social-protest theme is evident in B.'s characterization of an "insane" military-industrial complex: the characters are unconscious or unwilling "products of the perfect bureaucracy" (Gordon).
The story isabout the "present human condition" in which "normal human relations are no longer possible" (Fadiman)? (Ergo the underground missile silo, a setting with "universal" symbolic overtones. . . .)
As in Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Kafka's The Trial, the characters encounter the "existential problem of waiting": they are reduced to devising interminable ways of fighting boredom (Gordon)--e.g., writing on the walls, scheming to get the jacks.
—CHARACTERIZATION/POINT of VIEW—
Also a nice portrayal of situational psychopathology (how would you act in such an "insane" situation?) . . . ergo, the point of view might be characterized as "first-person pathological" (cf. "The Yellow Wallpaper," etc.) . . . AND YET note how Barthelme, the postmodernist, is (possibly) toying with the traditional notion of a consistent point of view, with such comments as "Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about" and "Shotwell is not himself, but I do not know it. . . ."
It's "postmodern," "avant-garde": note the ceaseless repetitions, even "refrains," especially the pathetic (or chilling) "I am not well." . . . The "plot" is merely a situation, without any climax or denouement, with the "refrains" making it more a prose-poem revolving in a circle rather than a traditional (linear) short story.
Leslie Marmon Silko: "The Man to Send Rainclouds" [1st publ. 1969; from Storyteller (1981)] (G&G 739-742)
[Note: what follows are my web-notes from a Native American Lit course a few years ago. I've keyed the notes to our G&G page #'s; the other numbers refer to paragraphs; sorry.]
1: the discovery of the old man . . . jeans: "light blue"?! (cf. "blue mountains" in same paragraph, and the various "symbolic" colors that follow) . . . Note also the season of the year, another symbolic motif. . . .
2: "small gray feather" (ceremonial ~) . . . body painted in the four "directional" colors of traditional Pueblo ceremonialism
3: "rain clouds"—N.B. archetypal rebirth invocation (and explicit reference to the story's title)
5: note the dead man's name: "Teofilo" (—and note the irony that it means "lover of God")
6: deception of the priest regarding Teofilo's death—WHY?
8-9: dramatic irony: "'he won't do that any more now'"!
11: ceremonial dressing in new clothes (cf. rebirth angle, further developed by the story's/ceremony's WATER)
15: symbolism—it's dusk! ("sky . . . west . . . pale yellow light")
19: CRUX of the (ambiguity of) "The Man to Send Rainclouds": Louise thinking "'[a]bout the priest sprinkling holy water for Grandpa. So he won't be thirsty.'" [2013 add: the story is ultimately about cross-cultural misunderstandings, especially on the part of the priest, who can't comprehend the Natives' incorporation of Catholic ritual into their own cultural practices & beliefs.]
21: Leon at the priest's door: sees the bells "from the king of Spain with the last sunlight pouring around them in the tower"—significance?!
24: reason for his calling on the priest: "'if you would bring your holy water to the graveyard'"
25-27: the priest: "'Last Rites'"?!; Leon: "'It wasn't necessary. . . .'"; priest: it WAS, for "'a Christian burial. . . .'"
29: Leon's ultimate reason: "'we just want him to have plenty of water'"!
30: the priest: in a "green chair," with a "glossy missionary magazine"!—turning "pages full of lepers and pagans without looking at them"! [2013 add: obviously, his commitment to, even knowledge of, his Native "flock" is pretty meager. Note that Silko's anti-Christianity in her non-fiction writing is quite vehement; it's much more subdued here!]
31-33: the priest: initially refuses, then decides to go
33: setting (encore): setting sun
34: the body so small, the priest thinks: it might be "some perverse Indian trick—something they did in March to ensure a good harvest"! (another rebirth reference; but note the cultural misunderstandings thruout) . . . another ref. to the sunset: "the last warmth of the sun" (dominant archetypal motif: symbolic tension of death & rebirth thruout)
35: sprinkling of the WATER: awkward fumbling, and "the water disappeared almost before it touched the dim, cold sand"—ooh, "symbolism"?
35 encore: priest's strange thought—the water "reminded him of something—he tried to remember what it was, because he thought if he could remember he might understand this"; what WAS "it"!?
36: ref. to Pueblo rebirth symbols: "corn meal" and "pollen" . . . lowering of body into grave: "the sun was gone" . . . like his "evaporating" water, the priest, walking away, "disappeared"!
36 encore: Leon is feelin' good about the whole deal, "happy about the sprinkling of the holy water; now the old man could send them big thunderclouds for sure."
Ursula Le Guin: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"  (G&G 531-535)
"Le Guin is one of the few science-fiction writers whose work has earned general critical acclaim" (editors' into: 530).
Regarding this story, Le Guin has said explicitly that it involves the "psychomyth" of the "scapegoat" (535). She also explains the origin of "Omelas"—from a road sign! It's "Salem O[regon]" backwards! (I also like her association of the name with the French "Homme hélas"—which can be translated as "Humankind—alas!")
—A UTOPIA (sort of!)—
The tale begins with a utopian society, apparently, as "the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea" (531); the initial descriptions, indeed, are pretty stereotypical of your "standard" mythic or fantasy/sci-fi utopia.
The narrator (playing with the reader, of course) even gets frustrated that he/she cannot really express their reality, that they are not your stereotypical utopian society. "How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naïve and happy children . . . but I wish I could describe it better," for again, "Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time" (532).
The narrator's struggles do include some cheeky humor, though: "I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate" (532). Even the description of the "perfect drug" seem something of a satire on Huxley's "soma" in Brave New World: "I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming" (533). (Ha!)
—The Cultural SCAPEGOAT (really!)—
The narrator continues: "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing. In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window" (534).
Soon Omelas' dirty little secret is revealed: "In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. . . . The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes," except for the child's feeders, and the occasional curious (534).
And the cultural significance?: "They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city," etc., "depend wholly on this child's abominable misery" (534). (The philosophical ramifications are rampant here, regarding the dependency of "good" upon "evil"? Of happiness upon suffering? Of "day-bright" ego consciousness upon the ["dark" & repressed] unconscious? Etc., etc. And, uh, to get political: the upper class upon the poor? The colonizers on the colonized? The First World upon the Third? White privilege upon people of color? "Etc., etc.")
For each new generation, however, the dirty truth does come as quite a culture shock. When "young people" visit, they are appalled, of course: "But there is nothing they can do. . . . Those are the terms" (534). And again: "Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox." And a paradox it is: "Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives" (535).
—The Cultural REBELLION? (—or?)—
The story receives a second twist when some Omelasians(?) vote with their feet, as it were, in a final powerful image & act of protest(?): "At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. . . . They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas" (535).
High-school-teacher question?: "Can you relate this story in any way to contemporary (geo-)politics & social issues?"!? (As a Native Americanist, this time I read the story, I couldn't help thinking how the U.S., this mighty "greatest nation on earth," has been built [and thus in a crucial way has depended] upon the near-genocide of its land's indigenous peoples.)
The shy homebody sister: "Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe" (810). And what a figure of speech: "Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks" (811).
The narrator/mother: "I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. . . . I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. . . . One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall" (811).
"Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them" (811).
"I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don't ask my why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now" (812).
Given the date of the story (1973), it's obvious that Dee/Wangero and her companion are meant to represent the new generation of African-Americans growing up in the late 1960's under the influence of "Black Power": this included a new racial pride in all things African (Afrocentrism) and a turn to Islam. (Remember the boxer Mohammed Ali?) Note that Dee Wangero's first greeting is in (tortured?) Swahili, and that her boyfriend's is in Arabic (813).
As evidenced by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Black Power also entailed a new radicalism & militancy: "'Well,' I say. 'Dee.' 'No, Mama,' she says. "Not "Dee," Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!' 'What happened to "Dee"?' I wanted to know. 'She's dead,' Wangero said. 'I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me'" (813; see 814 for a dig at her friend's new Muslim name). By the conversation that immediately follows, however—and the rest of the plot line, for that matter—it's clear that the Dee/Wangero's new identity is satirized as a pretentious, even inauthentic, pose.
Note that some Black Muslims already live "down the road": "When the white folks poisoned some of the herd the men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands" (814).
—CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (as it were)—
The visitors' attitude is condescending from the beginning: "Hakim-a-barber" can only stand "there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a Model A car. Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head" (814). Then why is Dee/Wangero even there, besides being family?
Well, for "old" family stuff—parts of a butter churn, for one thing: "'I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,' she [Dee/Wangero] said . . . 'and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher'" (814). (Recall the title of the story, and compare that notion of real utility with this "new-fangled" aesthetic use of the items.)
Then the climactic episode: "'Mama,' Wangero said sweet as a bird. 'Can I have these old quilts?'" (Note that these two are the most thoroughly hand-crafted, and therefore most precious as display-"antiques" to Dee/Wangero.) And so the main conflict arises when the mother says, "'The truth is . . . I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas.'" Dee Wangero: "'Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! . . . She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use'"! The mother: "'I reckon she would . . . . God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!' I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style." Dee/Wangero: "'But they're priceless!'"—and Maggie will just use them and wear them out! Mother (with the ultimate zinger): "'She can always make some more . . . . Maggie knows how to quilt'" (815; ouch).
The mother finally asks Dee/Wangero, "'Well . . . What would you do with them?' 'Hang them,' she said" (816)!
Maggie, the poor also-ran-of-a-sister, is self-abnegating to the end: "'She can have them, Mama,' she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. 'I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts.'" (Zinger #2!) "When I looked at" Maggie, "something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. . . . I did something I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss[!] Wangero's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap" (816).
Dee/Wangero's final words reveal a continued ignorance of the real value of things, of "everyday use"—and of true "heritage"?: "'You just don't understand' . . . . 'What don't I understand?' I wanted to know. 'Your heritage,' she said, And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it'" (816).
Mom, I Want It for "Everyday Use":
Margaret Atwood: "Happy Endings"  (G&G 22-24)
The story begins with a prototypical skeleton plot premise, complete with an invitation to "choose your own adventure," if you will—a pop genre that Atwood is certainly having fun with: John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A. (22)
Option A provides the main stereotypical "happy ending"—well, except for the actual ending: "Eventually they die. This is the end of the story" (22). In a crucial sense, as we will see, this is the crux of the entire story (or stories). Options B, C, D, E, & F will be (hilariously) less happy, and most of these will be causally (& hilariously) interconnected.
If Atwood's common "theme"/political agenda is a woman's plight in patriarchal society and the traditional marriage institution (in sum, institutional sexism), I'm still most struck by the small matter of economic class here: ""Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted" (22; sheesh).
The first twist on Option A's "happy ever after" plot is the traditional/patriarchal male-dominated relationship, which Atwood satirizes unmercifully: "Mary falls in love with John but John doesn't fall in love with Mary. He merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind" (22). After her home-cooked meal and sex, "he falls asleep, while she does the dishes so he won't think she's untidy, having all those dirty dishes lying around, and puts on fresh lipstick so she'll look good when he wakes up, but when he wakes up he doesn't even notice" (22). As for sex itself: "He doesn't take off Mary's clothes, she takes them off herself, she acts as if she's dying for it every time, not because she likes sex exactly, she doesn't, but she wants John to think she does because if they do it often enough surely he'll get used to her, he'll come to depend on her and they will get married, but John goes out the door with hardly so much as a good-night and three days later he turns up at six o'clock and they do the whole thing over again" (22)!
Then John starts dating Madge, too, and so Mary commits suicide: "Mary collects all the sleeping pills and aspirins she can find, and takes them and a half a bottle of sherry. . . . She leaves a note for John. She hopes he'll discover her and get her to the hospital in time and repent and then they can get married, but this fails to happen and she dies" (22-23)!
The end?: "John marries Madge and everything continues as in A" (23).
In this scenario, John "is an older man" who "falls in love with Mary, and Mary, who is only twenty-two, feels sorry for him because he's worried about his hair falling out. She sleeps with him even though she's not in love with him. She met him at work. She's in love with someone called James, who is twenty-two also and not yet ready to settle down" (23).
"But James is often away on his motorcycle, being free. Freedom isn't the same for girls, so in the meantime Mary spends Thursday evenings with John" (23).
Ingeniously, the plot contains a repetition-but-"revision" of Option A—and incorporates Option B: "John is married to a woman called Madge[!] and they have two children, a charming house which they bought just before the real estate values went up, and hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging, when they have the time. John tells Mary how important she is to him, but of course he can't leave his wife because a commitment is a commitment" (23)!
Well, John catches Mary and James "entwined" and "purchases a handgun, saying he needs it for target practice—this is the thin part of the plot[!], but it can be dealt with later—and shoots the two of them and himself" (23). (Note the metafictional reference to the story's own plot/composition.)
The end?: "Madge, after a suitable period of mourning, marries an understanding man called Fred and everything continues as in A, but under different names" (23).
This continues Option C, with "Fred and Madge," who "have no problems" and who escape a "tidal wave": "thousands drown, but Fred and Madge are virtuous and grateful, and continue as in A" (23). (Another "happy ending," I guess, with "virtue" rewarded?)
This option is a negative (& very funny) spin on D: "Yes, but Fred has a bad heart. The rest of the story is about how kind and understanding they both are until Fred dies. Then Madge devotes herself to charity work until the end of A. If you like, it can be 'Madge,' 'cancer,' 'guilty and confused,' and 'bird watching'" (24). Note how the latter scenario of the woman's terminal illness is quite different!
This option turns political, but humorously so, with a little dig at the blandness of Canadian politics?: "If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you. Remember, this is Canada. You'll still end up with A" (24).
As a quite metafictional text, the story's artifice has been foregrounded from the beginning, but now Atwood/the narrator really comes out from behind the curtain, as it were: "You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake . . . or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality. The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die" (24).
The finale is even about the craft of fiction, ostensibly; but of course it's also about living one's life: "So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with. That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why" (24).
Since much of Cisneros' fiction is based upon her experience growing up in a lower-class Chicano neighborhood of Chicago, it's no surprise that economic class comes into play here. After an initial description of the two girls' lavishly adorned Barbies—well, "that's all we can afford, besides one extra outfit apiece" (160-161; see also 161, 162).
The story is highlighted by its style, through the playful, stream-of-consciousness point of view of the young female narrator: "Every time the same story. Your Barbie is roommates with my Barbie, and my Barbie's boyfriend comes over and your Barbie steals him, okay? Kiss kiss kiss. Then the two Barbies fight. You dumbbell! He's mine. Oh no he's not, you stinky! Only Ken's invisible, right? Because we don't have money for a stupid-looking boy doll when we'd both rather ask for a new Barbie outfit next Christmas" (161). And at the flea market, where they beg for more Barbies: "How much? Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, until they say okay. On the outside you and me skipping and humming but inside we are doing loopity-loops and pirouetting" (161)!
One might even easily call the PofV "2nd person," since it begins "Yours is the one with mean eyes and a ponytail," and it maintains this colloquial I'm-talking-to-you-my-BFF throughout the narrative—er, the one-sided conversation (dramatic monologue).
While there is hardly a traditional climax & dénouement, the reader is at least satisfied by the final humor regarding one of the "irregular" fire-sale Barbies: "So what if our Barbies smell like smoke when you hold them up to your nose even after you wash and wash and wash them. And if the prettiest doll, Barbie's MOD'ern cousin Francie with real eyelashes, eyelash brush included, has a left foot that's melted a little—so? If you dress her in her new 'Prom Pinks' outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch, and hair bow included, so long as you don't lift her dress, right?—who's to know" (162).
Of Barbies; A Meme:
Ralph Ellison: "A Party Down at the Square"  (G&G 218-222)
—IRONY (Title, etc.)—
It's my PARTY (and I'll cry if I want to)! The very word "party," in context, has to be one of the greatest verbal ironies we've encountered all semester: "I don't know what started it. A bunch of men came by my Uncle Ed's place and said there was going to be a party down at the Square" (218).
Combine the lynching "party" with the frequent use of the "N-" word by the Southern racists in the story, and there is immediately painted a sad picture of a whole era in U.S. history: "When we got there everybody was mad and quiet and standing around looking at the nigger." Notice, too, how public (& publically acceptable) the public execution is: "It was right in front of the courthouse . . . . Folks started yelling to hurry up and kill the nigger." That the very town square is not safe for people of color, at least at this time of the day, is obvious: "Not a single nigger was there except this Bacote nigger and they dragged him there tied to the back of Jed Wilson's truck." And of course it's all high spectacle and great entertainment: "I counted forty cars before I lost count" (218).
The plight/fate of the African American himself is a described pretty graphically: "The nigger was bleeding from his nose and ears, and I could see him all red where the dark blood was running down his black skin" (218). Some passages are just painful to read: "Well, that nigger was tough. I have to give it to that nigger; he was really tough. He had started to burn like a house afire . . . . He kicked so hard that the platform, which was burning too, fell in, and he rolled out of the fire at my feet. I jumped back so he wouldn't get on me. I'll never forget it. Every time I eat barbeque I'll remember that nigger[?!]. His back was just like a barbecued hog" (221; see below for more on "fire").
Damning & sad, too, is the complicity of the white women in the whole enterprise: "there must have been thirty-five women in the crowd, and I could hear their voices clear and shrill mixed in with those of the men" (219).
The following makes yu' proud to be an American: "Will somebody please cut my throat like a Christian?" (No irony here?!) And Jed hollered back, "Sorry, but ain't no Christians around tonight. Ain't no Jew-boys neither. We're just one hundred percent Americans" (220).
No comment: "They got some tree limbs and held him there this time and he stayed there till he was ashes. I guess he stayed there. I know he burned to ashes because I saw Jed a week later, and he laughed and showed me some white finger bones still held together with little pieces of the nigger's skin. Anyway, I left when somebody moved around to see the nigger. I pushed my way through the crowd, and a woman in the rear scratched my face as she yelled and fought to get up close" (221).
The frequent descriptions of the fire establish a hellish atmosphere: "The fire was pretty small, and they put some logs around the platform they had the nigger on and then threw on some gasoline, and you could see the flames light up the whole Square. . . . It was so bright that the bronze statue of the general standing there in the Square was like something alive" (218).
It can hardly be fortuitous that the narrator's favorite slang word is "hell"?!: "God, it was a hell of a night" (218). Later: "The plane was close as hell" (219). Even later: "They were yelling to beat all hell" (220). And once more: "It blew for three days steady, and put the town in a hell of a shape" (222).
—The CINCINNATI KID—
We eventually learn that the narrator is from the North; is this why, as much as he succumbs to mob psychology, he's not exactly completely gung-ho about the whole deal?: running back to the lynching scene, "I tripped and fell over the limb of a tree lying in the grass and bit my lip. It ain't well yet I bit it so bad. I could taste the blood in my mouth as I ran over. I guess that's what made me sick." Or was it something else?: "the nigger looked up with his great white eyes looking like they was 'bout to pop out of his head, and I had enough. I didn't want to see anymore. I wanted to run somewhere and puke, but I stayed. I stayed right there in the front of the crowd and looked" (220).
After the murder: "My heart was pounding like I had been running a long ways, and I bent over and let my insides go. Everything came up and spilled in a big gush over the ground. I was sick, and tired, and weak, and cold. . . . The next day I was too weak to go out, and my uncle kidded me and called me 'the gutless wonder from Cincinnati.' I didn't mind. He said you get used to it in time" (221; wow).
At story's end, there seems to be some intimation that the "times, they are a 'changing," even in the Jim Crow South, even if the sharecropper's words in the following say more than he knows: "They had to kill another nigger who tried to run out of the county after they burned this Bacote nigger. My Uncle Ed said they always have to kill niggers in pairs to keep the other niggers in place. I don't know though, the folks seem a little skittish of the niggers. They all came back, but they act pretty sullen. They look mean as hell when you pass them down at the store. The other day I was down to Brinkley's store, and a white cropper said it didn't do no good to kill the niggers 'cause things don't get no better[!]. . . . Somebody said that he'd better shut his damn mouth, and he shut up" (222).
The final sentences return us to the "party" refrain & bravado (& irony)—but now one senses a slightly different attitude on the narrator's part?: ""It was some night all right. It was some party too. I was right there, see. I was right there watching it all. It was my first party and my last. God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!" (222).
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) was diagnosed in her twenties with lupus, and thus spent much of her life knowing that she had an incurable disease and that she would likely die young. She also spent much of her adult life as a near-recluse, "on the family dairy farm" in Georgia, "where she wrote . . . and raised peacocks." (See "The Displaced Person" for her "heavenly" regard for these birds.)
"O'Connor is unusual among modern American writers in the depth of her Christian vision. A devout Roman Catholic, she attended mass daily while growing up and living in the largely Protestant South." (Much more on this below.)
GOTHIC: Given her settings, grotesque characters, and macabre plots, O'Connor is often referred to as a (latter-generation) "Southern Gothic" writer.
HUMOR: "Despite . . . her religious and social themes, O'Connor's mordant humor . . . is outrageous and frequently hilarious, and may be the greatest distinguishing characteristic of her literary gift."
A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND and Other Stories (1955)
"I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like a bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. . . . I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable . . . ." (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor 90)
"There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not[!?] recognize the moment." (O'Connor, Mystery and Manners 118)
O'Connor: Introductory Comments, by way of "Problems"
I. O'Connor: The Problem of Faith—in a secular age
* [same as 1st quot. above:] "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like a bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. . . . I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable . . ." (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor 90).
* "The universe of the Catholic fiction writer" includes "doctrines that the modern secular world does not believe in. It does not believe in sin, or in the value that suffering can have, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that since the sixteenth century has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. This means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated to the Catholic mind" (O'Connor, Mystery and Manners 185).
II. [New Criticism:] The problem of "Intent"?!
* According to the most influential 20th-c. critical school, one should be able to "interpret" a piece of literature without any knowledge of the author whatsoever, including any external statements by the author about what he/she "meant." Well, my first readings of O'Connor, when I knew nothing of her, hardly found her didactic message (of Christian grace & salvation) to be obvious. So isn't all this Christian-interp. of O'Connor kinda cheating?! . . . On the converse side of the coin (from a Marxist/New-Historicist angle), can one even read a text "outside of ideology" (Althusser's phrase), either the reader's, the author's, or a combination thereof? (Of course there is no problem perceived when the author's & reader's ideologies are a good match [= Barthes' "readerly text"].) . . . In other words, New Criticism's ideal of an "objective" reading is a bogus deal.
III. [Reader-Response Theory:] The problem of "horizons of expectation"?!
* (As an another "relativist" approach,) I can imagine a mainstream community of readers two hundred years from now whose cultural knowledge base, whose "horizons of expectation," allows them no real entry into O'Connor's worldview, and thus can only read her stories in a non-Christian way. (And haven't we long been forced to do the same in terms of, say, Homer, or Dante [e.g., his Purgatory, if you're not a Catholic], or contemporary non-Christian literatures [e.g., Native American writer Leslie Silko]?) Heck, even though I was raised a Catholic, I find it difficult to meet (that is, understand) O'Connor on her own terms in the present day. . . . In sum, I've introduced items II. and III. of this outline to problematize any assumption that there is one "correct" (dare I say "orthodox"?) reading of the text, even if we are steered towards one by authorial (and critical) commentary.
BTW, there is, in fact, a "demonic" school of O'Connor criticism, ushered in by John Hawkes' "Flannery O'Connor's Devil" (Sewanee Review 70 ), in which he pretty much claims that FO was (to invoke Blake on Milton) of the "Devil's party without knowing it"—versus her proclaimed Christian didacticism.
Questions Your Friends Asked You When They Saw the Book Cover & Title of A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND (these are true as reported by former students, though probably not verbatim):
"Is that a self-help book you're reading?"
"Are you taking a Lesbian Lit. class?"
[A third student chimed in, via email:] "I bought A Good Man is Hard To Find at a 1997 garage sale in Steamboat Springs, Colorado when I was going through my divorce. I saw the title and thought, 'Yeah, no kidding!' and plunked down my buck twenty-five . . . ."
"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" (51-66)
—It's interesting that even adhering to a "Catholic line" has led to contrasting readings of this story. That is, are Mr. Shiftlet's words at story's end, "'My mother was an angel of Gawd'" and his accompanying "mist of tears" (66) an anagnorisis of Christian grace? Or is his final set of behaviors more a continuing blindness to such an opportunity? (That is, is he still stuck in a "false godliness" of "auto-worship," as it were?) Is his destination—Mobile (63)—a reference to change?! In fact, S.'s first words about his mother—"'the best old mother in the world'" who was always telling him to do "'right'" (65)—has the Catholic in me hearing "Mother Church"! Note the hitchhiker's words, "'You go to the devil!'" and S.'s own final "prayer" of sorts: "Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. . . . 'Oh, Lord,' he prayed, 'Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!'" (66). (As in several of FO's stories, if this is redemption, this particular reader doesn't feel that he's been adequately prepared for it. I rather read the final ref to "Mobile" as an indication of his continued adherence to the "false god" of auto-mobility.)
—Earlier religious signifiers include S.'s "figure formed as a crooked cross" (52) (ooh, and his middle initial "T" !?); his connection with imagery of fire (the match—a "mystery of flame"—followed soon after by the name "Sparks" ); his present occupation ("carpenter") and previous one (in an "undertaking parlor") (55); the metaphorical ramifications of the literally true statement, "'I'm a man . . . even if I ain't a whole one'"; and a man, above all, with a "'moral intelligence!'" (57); the CAR [see below]; the lusterless non-Church marriage (62); S.'s statement after the marriage that "It's the law that don't satisfy me'" (62)—which may be a subtle play on Church law; the name of the "eating place": "The Hot Spot" (64)!?; the counter-boy's description of Lucynell as "'an angel of Gawd'" (64)—leading us back to the end, with S.'s statement above about his blessèd mother [see above]. (I'd also like to make something of daughter Lucynell's first word, "'bird'" —as in winged angel, or even the Holy Spirit as a dove?!—but that may be going to far!?)
—No surprise now that S. is yet another "old school" (semi-nostalgic/Romantic) character for whom "'The [present] world is almost rotten'" (and the old woman agrees) (53; see also 55, 56, 58, 66). (But of course, how much he really believes this is debatable.) Another "Rom.-alert" = S.'s harangue against unfeeling scientific medicine (53-54)—worthy of Wordsworth's critique of "murder[ing] to dissect." (Later, the marriage "ceremony" is without that good ol' ROM magic: "'nothing but paper work and blood tests'" .) Most concertedly Romantic is his apparent yearning to "escape to the country," to live "in a desolate place . . . where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do" (56; but again, this is an unreliable character, remember: he's also scheming the old woman). And, in terms of his auto-fetish, S.'s scorn for Fordism [assembly-line manufacture] (58) is a firm anti-industrialism (and anti-conformist) note.
—But, as suggested above, S.'s god-substitute is an item of technology, the car, which he seems to care about more than people (his dear "'sugarpie'"!). In very religious terms—when he finally gets it running, it's "as if he had just raised the dead" (60). Later he claims that the human "'spirit . . . is like a automobile'" (61). Obviously a false god is at play here, and so it may not be insignificant that, at this point, his "smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire" (61)!
—Title note: "'The life you save may be your own'" (65) was an actual slogan/highway traffic sign back in the 1950's—but, of course, the connotation of Christian salvation is (almost too?) blatant.
O'Connor raised peafowls as a hobby; they show up occasionally in her fiction: e.g., Lucynell Crater—the younger—has "eyes as blue as a peacock's neck"; and the peacock's spread plumage serves as the supreme deific vision of "The Displaced Person." [my photo, Lincoln Children's Zoo, 2006]
(Another) cover of O'Connor's book, with a graphic conflation of a woman (O'Connor?) and a peacock.
—As foreshadowing of Ruby Hill's realization of her pregnancy, the vegetation (fertility?) imagery appears right away: "like a big florid vegetable"; "'collard greens'"; "mulberry-colored hair"; "seed" (67). But so do allusions to death, intimating the close connection that birth-giving and mortality has for the point-of-view character: "like a funeral urn"; most "pregnant" with meaning (sorry) in this regard, the "seed" image listed above is a "poisonous seed" (67). . . . Other obvious foreshadowing: Ruby telling herself, "You better take it easy, baby" (70); her nausea (72); her recent weight gain (73); Mr. Jergen's question about whose "birthday" it is—and even the state name, Florida (74); Ponce de Leon & the "fountain of youth" (74-75); the "pain in her stomach" (76); her friend Laverne's easy knowledge of the obvious (76-81); Ruby's bulging stomach (77, 79, 81); her swollen ankles (78); her refs. to Rufus as a "baby," an "'enfant'" (79, 81); her "'tight'" feeling (79).
—Like much of her family, Rufus, the younger brother returned from war, seems associated with death already, a ne'er-do-well who lacks Ruby's "get" & gumption (68-69; see also 71). Later, we learn that her mother had eight kids—and "had got deader with every one of them" (70). Ruby's hubris is her belief that she's better than all them, has transcended all that. It's as if growing old—or even getting pregnant—can't happen to a "somebody as alive as her" (73). . . . What probably strikes the reader as strange is Ruby's great denial, then fear, of her pregnancy (81-end). But "[s]he was not going to have something waiting inside her to make her deader" (82).
—Catholic/Christian refs.?: the hubby, Bill B. Hill, sells "Miracle Products" (68); the stairs—her climb, her spiritual journey?—are "like steeple steps" (69); later, regarding the steps, she says, "'God Almighty' . . . . They got darker and steeper [the stairs] as you went up" (76); her hope(!?) that it's "heart trouble" (72, 81) probably has—as in other F.O. stories—a spiritual connotation (cf. Hulga in "Good Country People"). . . . And no doubt the "fountain of youth" mentioned above (75) has baptismal undertones.
—The title, as usual, bears at least one level of irony: the fortune-teller's prediction of "'a stroke of good fortune'" (69) (her pregnancy, on one literal level) is totally misinterpreted by Ruby, as moving. (But the truth is a "move," a change, certainly.)
—The psychoanalytical critic in me can't but see the boy Hartley's pistol—all "[n]ine inches" of it—as a phallic symbol (and the immediate cause of her good fortune!?). No coincidence, then, that the boy's nickname is "'Little Mister Good Fortune'" (71)? (And note the later ref. to her sitting on the gun .)
—The ending strikes me as another of F.O.'s ambiguous endings that might be read as a positive recognition (of the "grace" of childbirth?) or of an alienation from the possibility. Just having been knocked down by the running boy nicknamed "Good Fortune," she "gazed down into the dark hole, down to the very bottom where she had started up so very long ago. 'Good Fortune,' she said in a hollow voice . . . 'Baby.'" Then she feels the baby move (oh—I get it!!) again: "It was as if it were out nowhere in nothing . . . resting and waiting, with plenty of time" (84).
—[Later Add:] Current feminist takes on the story revolve around Ruby's right to control her own body: doesn't she have the right to decide not to bear a child, at this time in her life (or whenever)? In this view, Bill Hill is the true villain here, with his patriarchal control of the birth control (and with the very real possibility the he indeed "planned" her pregnancy?!).
"The River" (25-49)
—Another facile "common reading" of an O'Connor story that I just don't get: the boy's drowning is a positive act of Christian redemption (and a laudable escape from a fouled-up, uncaring, corrupt secular world). Hey, the Jesuits taught me that suicide was a mortal sin?! Indeed, even from a Christian point of view, I'd much more tend towards a reading that this is religious faith gone awry, "corrupted" itself, incarnated in an "innocent" child who just doesn't get it. . . . For one thing, it seems obvious that he makes a fundamental miscalculation of logic, mistaking a literal river (and "Baptism") for a spiritual one (the "River of Life").
—[2012 add:] As an example of the reading above, one scholar sees the boy's ultimate fate in the river as a quite positive "symbolic awakening to the spiritual" (George Kilcourse, Flannery O'Connor's Religious Imagination 139)?! Huh? (This is the Catholic interpretive "party line" I've been talking about; it turns out that Kilcourse's PhD is in theology, and in fact, he's also a priest.)
—But Evil incarnate can again be seen as allegorized here, in the various pig/pork images that run throughout the story ("animalistic evil," apparently) and the porcine Mr. Paradise (thus an ironic name), he of the phallic "peppermint stick," from whom the boy could be said to have escaped with his soul. . . . As long as I'm Christian-symbol-searching, the frequent references to the sun ("Son"), usually in association with the "River," are probably not coincidental.
—O'Connor's tone towards Harry's decadent, hedonistic, non-believer parents (gasp—they smoke & drink!) is pretty obvious in their last name: Ashfield. (T. S. Eliot starts to sing: "It's a Waste Land; nothing but a Waste Land. . . .") . . . One might even discern a ROMANTIC characteristic here, too, in the apparent disdain of the story's tone for an urban (& semi-leisure?) class, divest of any connection to the "soil," as it were. And (as already noted above) to consider modern urban (and "immoral") existence an "Ashfield" is, in part, a quite Romantic nostalgia at work. (This nostalgia, and scorn for a present day that's "gone to hell in a handcart" is uttered by various characters throughout the book—and is implicit in O'Connor's own worldview.)
—Like many of O'Connor's stories, this tale's religious trappings are complicated by the fact that it is obviously a Protestant revivalist meeting that Harry/Bevel attends, and there may well be some inter-sectarian warfare, some satire, going on here. (Indeed, if O'Connor felt "outside" as a Southerner, and as a Christian in a secular era, she was triply "othered" as a Catholic in the Protestant Bible Belt.)
—I can't not mention some of my favorite knee-slappers here: the two shallow Catholic schoolgirls ("Temple One" and "Temple Two") whose every sentence is said to have begun "'You know this boy well one time he . . .'" (86)! (Reminds me of driving all the way to Texas with my 12-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old niece in the back seat!) And thus the great humor of imaging two such insipid souls seriously uttering the title quot., "'Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!'" (88; see one of their later mysterious statements, after a night out with the boys: "'I enjoyed it all but the you-know-what'" ). . . . The girl's mocking of the Baptist minister: "She would pull down her mouth and hold her forehead as if she were in agony and groan, 'Fawther, we thank Thee'[!] . . . . She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick" (95)!
—If there's any "theme" in O'Connor that comes close to the critical attention that her Catholicism has received, it's that of race, and Southern prejudice against "negroes" (e.g., 86). This is the 1950's, and I'd agree with most that FO should be applauded for at least saying "negroes" when it's her own/narrator's voice in question; as far as I've noticed, it's only her (usually negatively portrayed) characters who employ the word '''nigger.'" You might read the phrase "a special night for niggers" (94) as an exception; however, we're still obviously in the point of view of the girl here, in spite of the lack of any "she said" or "she thought" indicator (the lit. term for this is "free indirect discourse"). . . . In a similar vein, it's a rather damning characterization of the boy Wendell to react to the Latin song as follows: "'That must be Jew singing'" (93)!
—The minor character Cheatum—or "Cheat"—has rather sinister undertones; even his "'car . . . smells like the last circle in hell'" (89).
The Protestant Problem: As already intimated, the ostensibly Christian "message" of O'Connor's stories is complicated by the fact that, as a Catholic in the American South, she wasn't too fond of what she saw of Bible Belt fundamentalism at work: "[T]he obsession with Christ . . . reiterated throughout O'Connor's fiction . . . is usually characterized by an overtly crazed backwoods fundamentalist Protestant" (Whitt, Understanding Flannery O'Connor 60-61).
—The Protestant boys in this story belong to the Church of God, which the main character/"child" immediately lampoons: "'they were both going to be Church of God preachers because you don't have to know nothing to be one'" (89; see also 96)! Their "hillbilly song" about Jesus is contrasted with the stern Latin of the convent girls (91-92). "Tantum ergo Sacramentum," by the way, was written by St. Thomas Aquinas; the 5th & 6th lines seem significant; translation: "Faith for all defects supplying." All of FO's characters have "defects" in one sense or another. In this story, the hermaphrodite at the fair is obviously the most "defective"; but our point-of-view heroine comes around, through this figure, to acknowledging her own "defects"? . . . (Speaking of Aquinas, F.O. once described herself as a "hillbilly Thomist"!)
—The child's own (possible) "conversion" includes the temporary choice of "saint" as occupation—and her immediate self-confessional thought that she wasn't capable of it since she was such a sinful little scamp (95). And again, any epiphany on her part is related to the hermaphrodite, and his/her's statement, "'This is the way He wanted me to be'" (98). And so, at the convent, the girl prays, "'Hep me not to be so mean," etc.—until she thinks of the "freak's" words, above; then the nun clumsily embraces her and looks at her "with little periwinkle eyes" (101). (Weird. Is this supposed to be the magic epiphanic spark of a moment?) On the ride home, she learns from the (porcine!) driver that some (Protestant!) "preachers" had gotten the fair closed down, because of the "freak" in question, no doubt, and the girl is left pondering all this. Then the "obvious" finally "revelation": "the sun [Son?!] was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood" that eventually "sank out of sight" (102).
—Interesting are the child's several extended imaginative daydreams (90, 95-96, 99-100), which are reminiscent of Thurber's famous story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
—In this collection, this is F.O.'s most concerted treatment of a non-African-American "ethnic" Other—the immigrant Polish. Note that, while the Nazi pogroms against the Jews are alluded to (226, 258), these Poles are Catholic—an alterity itself, in the U.S. South, as frequently documented by the anti-Catholic remarks from the various Protestant characters [see below]. (I've subsequently learned that there were less-famous Nazi pogroms against Catholics in Poland.) The most frightening thing in the story, perhaps, is how the Southern characters, especially Mrs. Shortley, have such a absurd idea of the "foreigner," as if the latter were a being from another planet (e.g., 209). Mrs. Shortley even wonders, "'You reckon they'll know what colors even is?'" (210; or—good grammar!?). Mrs. S. even thinks of them as "rats with typhoid fleas," who "have carried all those murderous ways" to the New World (which is an enlightened & pacifist Garden of Eden, apparently?!). Again: "Every time Mr. Guizac smiled, Europe stretched out in Mrs. Shortley's imagination, mysterious and evil, the devil's experiment station" (223; see also 228)!
—The "Displaced Person" = CHRIST figure?: note Guizac's "gold-rimmed" glasses (208)—like a halo? Note that when he shows up, and works hard, Mrs. McIntyre says, "'at last I'm saved! . . . That man is my salvation!'" (220). . . . Later, it's no idle coincidence, I think, that "nails"—cf. Christ's crucifixion—are added to his description: "His eyes were like two bright nails behind his gold-rimmed spectacles" (246). And the priest even says, "'He [Guizac] came to redeem us'" (252). Perhaps most tellingly, Mrs. McIntyre says (ironically, given her limited point of view): "'As far as I'm concerned . . . Christ was just another D.P.'" (256). (Ouch.) Mr. Shortley is eventually characterized as a Satan/Judas-like betrayer, who moves behind the final scenes "like a snake" (259). And of course, the "D.P." is finally killed—or "crucified," as it were.
—One might also consider the Christ-like Guizac's apparent lack of understanding regarding racial differences, his openness to that "sin"—in the eyes of most Americans of the time—of miscegeny: "he didn't know the [racial] difference, like he might have been as black as them" (225; see also 243). Mrs. McIntyre expresses such an attitude most harshly as follows: "'You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you!" (246). As with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one might easily ask, who's the real monster here!? . . . Even the old stereotype that people of color are innately more sexual (ergo the origin of term "racy"!) comes to the fore: "'You can't talk to a nigger that way [about a young white girl]. You'll excite him'" (247).
—PROTESTANT versus CATHOLIC: The former characters—again, especially Mrs. Shortley—see the latter as not having achieved their own "advanced religion," as not having been "reformed" (212; see also 214, 222, 225). Of course, the irony is dripping. The notion among some Protestant sects that the Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon" is even explicitly referenced (229). And thus Mrs. S.'s (anti-)"vision": "'The children of wicked nations will be butchered'" (230), a "prophecy" that her husband fulfills after her death, in the murder (I'd call it) of Guizac, the Christ-figure.
—The PEACOCK [my photo on the right; click to see larger photo]: [As I alluded to earlier:] as an unmarried invalid, F.O. found some compensation in raising peacocks, one of the few real joys of her life, In this story, these birds are a very obvious symbol of the miracle & splendor that is the Catholic God: with their "'tail full of suns,'" they are a "vision for them all" (213; see also 207). Mrs. Shortley, notably, is blind to such a vision: "She might have been looking at a map of the universe [in the peacock's tail] but she didn't notice it" (215). The priest, however, is inordinately conscious of the bird's (Catholic!) wonderment: "'Where is that beautiful birrrrd of yours?'" (250). After the bird is described as having "[t]iers of pregnant suns" floating "in a green-gold haze," he says, "'Christ will come like that!'" (251).
—DISPLACEMENT redoubled: The literal "D.P." is not the only one to be displaced in the story. Mrs. S., upon being fired, finds herself "displaced in the world from all that belonged to her"; she's thus reduced to perceiving "the true frontiers of her true country" (235; i.e., a lack of place—though this "true country" is also no doubt suggestive of the afterlife). And Mrs. McIntyre has a final similar "displacement" [see below].
—I love the Marxist implications of the elder black man's words, "'Judge say he long for the day when he be too poor to pay a nigger to work . . . . Say when that day come, the world be back on its feet" (236). (To quote John Lennon, "imagine" that!)
—Interestingly, the "practical"/"logical" (e.g., 259) Mrs. McIntyre professes a rather Social Darwinist (survival-of-the-human-fittest) viewpoint: The "'world'" is "'getting so full of people that only the smart thrifty energetic ones are going to survive'" (238).
—Mrs. McIntyre's "denial" of the Catholic truths that the peacock and Guizac represent includes a moral lack, a denial of responsibility for the ills of contemporary society: in her mind, "she had not been responsible for any of this" (242): she's referring to the European social problems that led to the Poles' forced emigration; but isn't her entire racist & classist worldview complicit in those very problems? And she is, morally, a stunted soul, metaphorically expressed in the "empty safe": "she knew there was nobody poorer in the world than she was" (245). Later, she says, "'I'm not responsible for the world's misery'" (248; see also 252). Hmmm. . . . After the D.P.'s death, Mrs. M. at least intuits her guilt & complicity in all this (her "grace"/epiphany?): "She felt she was in some foreign land . . . and she watched like a stranger as the dead man was carried away in the ambulance" (264). Her physical and mental health then "go to hell," and she ends, bedridden, having to(!) listen to the priest's sermonizing (265).
—BTW, as in "The Life You Save," the automobile is presented as a contemporary-technological-secular-world fetishist substitute for religion: "'all they want is a car'" (259).
—One of F.O.'s starkest critiques of anti-black racism by good "Christian" people, the story is ostensibly an initiation/"coming of age" story for the boy (he will learn that "'the city is not a great place'" )—and for the grandfather, too, ultimately. But Mr. Head's feeling of God's "mercy," the self-recognition of his "true depravity" (his shame over having betrayed Nelson) at story's end (131-132) is ironic in my mind, in that it is hardly a new knowledge that he has been a racist S.O.B. all his life and has taught his grandson to be the same. He is still a racist S.O.B.
—In the city/country give-and-take we've seen in F.O., the city (Atlanta) is here portrayed as another emblem of the modern secular age gone to HELL. But obviously, the two main characters aren't any better (see "Good Country People" yet again); in fact, in some ways they're more "backward," in terms of racial sensitivity. Maybe that's why, early in the story, their clock doesn't work right (104), and Nelson tells the old man, "'How you know it [the city] hasn't changed some?'" (105). Indeed, in one sense, the story follows the old comedy plot formula of the country rube goin' to the big city, and getting into dire straits over and over again from sheer "country" stupidity. Mr. Head's hubris about his own wisdom & experience is forever being turned upside down by his inner monologue of fears & self-doubts, and the sheer weight of surprising (& hilarious) plot events.
—Catholic symbolism?: the "sewer entrance" in Atlanta as "the entrance to hell" (117; see, later, the "hollow tunnel" and "pitchfork prongs" ). . . . Maybe the oddest plot event is Nelson's sudden attraction to the large black woman with the "tremendous bosom": "he wanted her to reach down and pick him up" and embrace him (120-121). If it's any help, some scholars have read her as a Madonna figure of sorts. . . . Peter's famous denial of Christ is echoed in Mr. Head's denial of his grandson: "'This is not my boy . . . . I never seen him before'" (126). . . . When totally lost, "Mr. Head . . . lost all hope" (128): I hear an echo here of the "sign" over the entrance of Hell in Dante: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." And a little later, Head shouts in desperation, "'Oh Gawd I'm lost! Oh hep me Gawd I'm lost!'" (129). . . . Scorned by Nelson now for his treachery, the old man now feels "what man would be like without salvation" (129). . . . [see also light imagery as enlightenment, below->]
—RACISM: Mr. Head is sure that Nelson won't like Atlanta because—it's "full of niggers." To Nelson's remonstrance that he must have seen a black person at some point in his life, granddad says, "'A six-month-old child don't know a nigger from anybody else" (107). Truer words—ironically—were never spoken! . . . On the train, the first black characters appear; and Mr. Head's god-awful words to another passenger: "'That's his first nigger'"; and Nelson finds that he hates the old black fellow "with a fierce raw fresh hate" (112). . . . "'They rope them off,'" in the dining compartment (113-114; as in the back-of-the-bus segregation of the time). . . . "'Mammy Cane Syrup!'" (114). . . . "let a Negro polish your shoes" (116). . . . the African-American neighborhood they stumble into = "nigger heaven" (120). . . . Even speaking to a black person is apparently dehumanizing (and F.O. may be playing with 19th-c. notions of racial Darwinism here): Mr. Head accuses Nelson of "'standing there grinning like a chim-pan-zee while a nigger woman gives you directions. Great God[!]'" (123). (Later, when hiding from Nelson, Mr. Head "hunched like an old monkey" .) . . . [and see next->]
—The dilapidated lawn jockey is the symbolic climax, of course—"'An artificial nigger!'"—as an appropriately damning emblem of Southern racism. The two stand "gazing" at it—in grand ignorant irony again—"as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat" (130). How socio-psychologically penetrating this is regarding one of the main motives for racism, especially among poor whites. This reconciliation of the two is the "mercy" (131) referred to in my first point above. Thus the sighting of the lawn jockey is a serendipitous or synchronistic "miracle" of sorts—but do they ever really—see? And is the "light" imagery in the 3rd-to-last stanza—the moon's "full splendor," the "white clouds illuminated like lanterns" (131) an actual (moral) enlightenment?
—Finally, I must address some common current-day student responses on the Web: these students can't understand how O'Connor can use such an inflammatory, racially insensitive epithet—uh, the "n-" word—throughout her stories, especially this one. I can only reply—they just don't get it. For one thing, it's sophomoric to mistake an author for her characters. And it's readily apparent in FO's fiction that her attitude towards her characters who use the "n-" word is inevitably one of disdain, and indeed, this is one way in which she renders them reprehensible. (Also, when I write about the racism that I saw my mother experience when I was growing up, I don't self-censor my use of the word "squaw"—though I know most "kids"/people today don't even know what an awful term that is.) . . . [2019 add:] HOWEVER—due to what I perceive to be a worsening of "race relations" in this country, I am no longer saying the "N-" word aloud in class, even in a literary-quotation context.
—[Later Add:] I must be a very poor reader because I still can't understand why a common critic's reading of this story is that Mr. Head's final moment of "grace" involves some newfound consciousness that his lifelong racism has been wrong, a "true depravity" (132). Sorry, but all I see in his final perception of God's "mercy" is his relief at being reconciled with his grandson—and his great sin, his Peter-like denial of the boy in Atlanta.
Racism (obviously) and the N- word are still alive & well; in Hingham, MA, 2010 (oops, someone took it odwn!):
RESPONSE #3 (two pages or more)—Due FR, 11/15—CHOOSE ONE (and please specify which in your response): —First, note that the texts that qualify for Response #3 range, on the syllabus, from Kafka: "The Metamorphosis" thru Ellison's "A Party Down At The Square," and even including the stories assigned (so far) in Flannery O'Connor (see full list at end).
a) [Again, always an option for these responses:] A do-your-own-thing "reader's journal" that addresses a "goodly" number of our assigned readings since R#2 (that is, Kafka thru O'Connor); but (again) please avoid simple plot summaries or a simple rehashing of ideas brought up in class or on the course web notes. b) Write an imaginary dialogue between ANY THREE of the authors in the range defined above (and listed below), having them debate the relative merits of their artistic genius (and maybe, social consciousness). c) Do "anything else" with at least THREE of the stories in question, be it an analytical C/C, a creative mash-up, etc. . . . d) Do an imitation or satire of O'Connor by having her lament the state of "secular" fiction (for, say, 1/2 page to a page); then have her offer her own REWRITES of the endings of at least two of the other stories in the assignment range (Kafka thru Ellison). (Well, the Oates story is already pretty O'Connor-esque!?)
—To save you some time, here are all the eligible stories for Response #3: Kafka: "The Metamorphosis"; Anderson: "Hands"; Woolf: "A Haunted House"; Faulkner: "A Rose for Emily"; Hemingway: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"; Borges: "The Garden of Forking Paths"; García Márquez: "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"; Baldwin: "Sonny's Blues"; Camus: "The Guest"; Cheever: "The Swimmer"; Oates: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"; Barthelme: "Game"; Silko: "The Man to Send Rain Clouds"; Le Guin: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"; Walker: "Everyday Use"; Atwood: "Happy Endings"; Cisneros: "Barbie-Q"; Ellison: "A Party Down At The Square"; O'Connor: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "A Stroke of Good Fortune," "The River," "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," "The Displaced Person," and "The Artificial N-----"
—[my old] BIO note: "A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene [CorduhLANE] Indian" who "grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation" in Washington state, Alexie planned to be a doctor until he "fainted three times in human anatomy class and needed a career change." Aside from several collections of well-received poetry, he has also published a good deal of fiction: his first collection of short stories was called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), the title of which indicates Alexie's humorous take on pop culture and Indian-White relations. This was followed shortly by his first novel, Reservation Blues (1995). A big fan of mass media, Alexie jumped at the chance to co-write a movie screenplay, Smoke Signals (1998—based on TheLR&TFinH), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; it was "the first feature film to be written, produced, and directed by American Indians."His reputation is still on the rise: "In June 1999, The New Yorker acknowledged Alexie as one of the top writers for the 21st Century." [Such shoddy scholarship—from old notes of mine: as best as I can recall, most of the quots. above are from Alexie's own "official" bio at Sherman Alexie: the Official Site.]
HALF OF ANYTHING (Dir. Jonathan Tomhave, 2006; with Sherman Alexie and John Trudell)—including Alexie's famous reply to the question, "What is a real Indian?"
Sherman Alexie Rails at Cornell
[Indian Country Today, 30 March 2009]
ITHACA, N.Y.—Sherman Alexie talks rapidly and with great enthusiasm about the size of his abnormally large head. He attributes his oversized cranium to hydrocephalitis—water on the brain—as an infant, a condition that should have killed him or rendered him a vegetable.
He rolls this morose tale in his very own brand of "Ind'n humor," so rather than tears, he elicits a torrent of laughter from the audience that ripples through the lecture hall.
Alexie appeared before a packed crowd at the Statler Hall Auditorium on Cornell University's sprawling, hilly campus March 6. He likes to call people out on their biases, hang ups, prejudices and privilege; he reaches out and metaphorically pokes his finger in peoples' eyes. During Alexie's nearly two-hour lecture/standup comic routine/rant he touched on a range of topics from the personal, to politics, to social commentary, to the basic desire to belong to a group and be accepted.
He ribbed the Ivy League school for its unmistakable foresight in having nestled itself in the winding hills high above the townspeople peppered along the shores of Cayuga Lake—an institution deliberately situated to look down on the people below.
With wide-eyed, full-grinned mischief he affectionately called the Cornell crowd of students a bunch of over-privileged tofu-eating kids, and that was the mild beginning. He took a tough-love cajoling approach to the brown students, telling them he didn't want to hear how hard their struggle was to get to university or how hard they fought to make the grade.
"You've already won!" Alexie howled. "If you've gotten this far, you've made it to the top of the hill! You've beat the system!"
In his recent book, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian," which received the National Book Award in the young adult category, Alexie talked about what it was like to be the Indian kid who left the reservation to be the only Indian kid at the "white" school.
"First, you got punished for leaving, so you got pounded by the Indian kids," he said. Walking across the stage in a strut with his back straight and tall, and his head cocked, he assumed the role of one of his Indian aggressors, "What? You think you're better than the rest of us? You think you're so smart?"
"Then, when I got to the white kids' school, I got pounded for being Indian because I didn't belong and I had no business being there," he said with a shrug. "And when they asked me my name, I told them: 'Junior.' Well they laughed and pounded me some more because they never heard of anyone with the name 'Junior.'"
Alexie deliberately touches nerves, but he couches his stinging criticism with comic good humor. For a few brief moments he seemed to deliberately step back from the routine, straying from the banter. "I got where I am because of rage," Alexie stated point blank. His words hung in the air; the weighty seriousness cast a pall.
Few people or issues are spared Alexie's wit and sharp tongue—including fellow Indians. "The people who've done the most damage to me are other Indians. We Indians can be as imperialistic, self-serving, and self-righteous as the next group. . . . Right now, I'm soooo mad at my own tribe."
Alexie, who is Spokane/Coeur d'Alene alluded to enrollment practices and being unable to enroll his own children in either his wife's tribe or his own. He said his two boys are a combination of about five or six different tribes, with some German, and other European blood thrown in for good measure.
When asked if he finds tribal enrollment practices to be archaic and whether they should be changed to suit contemporary needs, he replied, "We all know that tribes' enrollment practices are problematic. The lust for casino money has become a huge factor in enrollment policies. Tribal enrollment and membership are now really business decisions, and with any business decision, the process must be transparent and held up to close scrutiny."
Overall, Alexie suggests Indian country look inward and take personal responsibility for its problems. "But neither should we let the white folks off the hook; we also have to hold the outside world accountable."
He demanded an acknowledgment of the genocide that wiped out entire tribes of people. "Where is our roomful of moccasins?" asked Alexie, referring to the Holocaust Museum's powerful room full of shoes that illustrates the thousands of lives lost in Nazi extermination camps. "We need our own Holocaust Museum. Nobody calls it genocide, what happened to the Indians; we just let it all go."
Later, he was asked if given the opportunity to do his own exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, what it would feature. Without hesitation, he said, "The genocide. The story has not been told."
government-issued food (usually in cans or boxes) notorious for its poor quality (but hey, the cheese is pretty damned good!)
Crazy Horse (286, etc.)
Famous late-19th-c. Lakota warrior (& Custer's nemesis) who is frequently invoked in Alexie's fiction, as the prototypical bad-ass Indian warrior. (BTW, the expression "It's a good day to die"  is commonly associated with Crazy Horse at the Little Bighorn, though it's a stock Lakota-warrior expression.) Irony is usually present at such moments (at least for me) because the character doing the invoking is usually from a non-Lakota tribe (like Alexie himself, who seems to have an obsession w/ this non-"salmon people" historical figure—or at least likes inventing characters who are).
Crow Fair (331)
one the most famous U.S. powwows (see next), which takes places every August on the Crow Agency in Montana (just NW of the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn)
"enit" (89, 227, etc.)
reservation "slang" pronunciation of the phatic sentence ending "ain't it"—often pronounced (in South Dakota, at least) without the final "t," as in "en'uh"
HUD (89, 170, 176, 182, 289)
(The Department of) Housing & Urban Development: thus a "reservation HUD house" is (inevitably cheap) government housing, ubiquitous on most reservations.
powwow (1-2, 332, 440ff, 460)
A Native American (secular) social gathering (comparable to, say, a county fair) characterized by traditional & fancy dance contests, drum groups, gambling games, and a "good time had by all." (No, it's not a religious gathering, as many whitestream Americans assume.)
ribbon shirt (171)
a traditional Native "dress-up"/fancy-regalia shirt design with long, thin, ribbon-like pieces of fabric sewn on the upper front
salmon (90, 169)
One of Alexie's running "themes" (& punch lines) is that the Pacific NW Native tribes, like his own Spokane & Coeur d'Alene, are "salmon people" (fishing cultures)—versus the "buffalo people" (hunting cultures), the Great Plains tribes much more familiar to whitestream Americans because of movies & other popular media.
Sun Dance (345)
the main public religious ritual of many Great Plains tribes, usually involving several days of rituals such as dances and songs, drumming, a sacred pipe, and the ceremonial piercing of flesh
Allusions to the traditional Native warrior, as a nostalgic, no longer possible "career choice" for Indian men are common in Alexie's fiction, most famously in the character of Victor in The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Often, the male Native character yearning for such a role has to settle for a much less satisfactory (often pathological) displacement. (See also Crazy Horse, below.)
Blasphemy: from The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
* "That Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" (75-90)
—Note: this story becomes the central plot line of Alexie's screenplay for the movie Smoke Signals.
—Above all, this story is the first thorough treatment (in Alexie's 1st collection) of Thomas as a tribal storyteller (e.g., 77, 85, 86, 88); key [student] question: If he's so prophetic & traditional & all that, why doesn't the rest of the Rez want to listen to his stories?!
—Also: "fireworks" motif (79): "The fireworks were small . . . . Years later, they [Victor and Thomas] would need much more"—meaning what?! (Cf. later related images of fire, explosions, etc., and earlier ones of storms ["hurricanes"]. The "need" here, I think, refers to the need for more and more stimulation & "amusements," as they grow older, to ease the pain & boredom of reservation life.)
—Animal images/symbolism?—the "suicidal" jackrabbit (87); (versus:) the dad's imagined rising "like a salmon" (90): what does each say about Rez life (& death)? (For one thing, the "emptiness and loneliness" of the rabbit's habitat reminded them, perhaps, of their own situation on the reservation, where suicide is epidemic?)
Blasphemy: from The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
* "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (160-169)
—NOTE on the narrator: from such clues as his self-description as a "former college student, a smart kid" (166), he is most likely Junior Polatkin again.
—[My question:] Why is the book "named after" this story, which, I'm sure many of you will agree, is hardly one of the best stories in the book? Is it because the title itself is so intriguing, and points directly to the Indian/white conflicts that occur throughout the collection? (Plus, the title is a quite cleverly phrased epitome of Alexie's infatuation with pop culture, one might add. And at last, isn't the title a fine summation of the cultural-hybridity "battle" within Alexie's own psyche, and the characters in the book?)
—More to the point, [common student question:] What does the fanciful title have to do, at all, with the events in the story?! (Note Junior's interactions with the white 7-11 manager, the white basketball player, and above all, his white girlfriend.)
—Another painful episode involving racism—in particular, racial profiling—when he gets "lost"(!—no metaphor there!?) in a "good" neighborhood (161-162) . . .
—[Great student question:] "What does Alexie mean by the story's last sentence (190: 'I know how all my dreams end anyway.')?" (A by-now all-too-familiar refrain in the book, en'eh?—worse yet here, it's Junior, not Victor. Right before this, in his urban setting, he wishes to have "lived closer . . . to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump," a gesture towards rebirth and traditionalism. But mostly, in that urban setting—as he tells us earlier—most of his dreams have become "nightmares" [64-165].)
Before the recent Johnny Depp film, the best-known incarnation of the famous cowboy-and-Indian duo was the 1950's television show The Lone Ranger (1949-1957):
Blasphemy: from The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
* "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor" (170-185)
—The narrator's trickster humor/laughter—is it a defense mechanism against Rez-life pain & suffering in general, and his own terminal illness? (And how might this apply to Alexie's own humorous fictional style?) . . . More obviously, laughter (and thus Alexie's style?) is a universal bridge: e.g., Jimmy and his doctor "laughed, you know, because sometimes that's all two people have in common"; but then laughter's defense-mechanism nature again: "we laughed, you know, because sometimes you'd rather cry" (178). (Also, see next quotation:)
—[Collation of (old) student questions:] Jimmy says at one point, "Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds" (180), and indeed, his sense of humor in the face of cancer, etc., is the main point of the story. But why, then, doesn't humor/imagination save him when Norma leaves him, for being so damned flippant all the time (175)? (My answer: Or does humor finally save—both of them, as Norma finally returns, to re-embrace his "humorous" worldview ?)
—The racist-police-stop section (180-182) is, of course, one of the more effective soberingly realistic episodes in the book (despite its hilarity!).
—Norma is "a warrior in every sense of the word" (183; see also 81 [the "Phoenix, AZ" story], where she stops Victor from pounding on Thomas): (former) students have often noted in class how many of the true "warriors" (& upholders of Native tradition) in Alexie are women. Thus her oh-so-serious comment, "'Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away . . . . And that hurts more because I don't know how much of a future we have'" (183).
Blasphemy: from The Toughest Indian in the World (2000)
* "Assimilation" (330-350)
Given that almost every Native American has some contact with mainstream culture, and thereby experiences at least some assimilation, cultural hybridity (& double consciousness) has become the rule of the day, especially for urban Indians. This cultural "mishmash" is humorously expressed when Mary Lynn recalls "[h]er most cherished eccentricity: when she was feeling her most lonely, she'd put one of the Big Mom Singers's powwow CDs on the stereo (I'm not afraid of death, hey, ya, hey, death is my cousin, hey, ya, ha, ha) and read from Emily Dickinson's poetry (Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—)" (332).
—"I Want Me a WARRIOR"—
Notice, as far as mixed marriages go, the situation here is the opposite of that in "Class" (Indian man/white woman): "She [Mary Lynn] was a Coeur d'Alene Indian married to a white man." However, she is also "a wife who wanted to have sex with an indigenous stranger. . . . She simply wanted to find the darkest Indian in Seattle" (330, 332). Moreover, like the urban Indian woman in "Crazy Horse Dreams" (in The Lone Ranger & Tonto), she wants a "REAL"/traditional Indian—a "warrior," hopefully! In the motel room, then: "His skin was salty and oily, the taste of a working man. She closed her eyes and thought about her husband, a professional who had his shirts laundered. . . . She ran her finger along the ugly scars on his belly and chest. She wanted to know the scars' creation story—she hoped this Indian man was a warrior with a history of knife fighting" (334-335).
But her dalliance (if you will) with "real" Indians can only go so far: "what about the Coeur d'Alene [Indian] men" from her home rez? "Mary Lynn wanted nothing to do with them, then or now. As a teenager, she'd dated only white boys. As an adult, she'd only dated white men. God, she hated to admit it, but white men—her teachers, coaches, bosses, and lovers—had always been more dependable than the Indian men in her life" (334-335).
Mary Lynn's flashbacks/reveries include a great description (& critique) of white privilege: "At ball games, in parking lots, and especially in airports, white men demanded to receive the privileges whose very existence they denied" (336)!
Jeremiah has apparently never completely come to terms with his interracial marriage: "His secret: he was still in love with a white woman from high school he hadn't seen in decades. What Mary Lynn knew: he was truly in love with the idea of a white woman from a mythical high school, with a prom queen named If Only or a homecoming princess named My Life Could Have Been Different" (339; ha!—now that's a funny Alexie sentence!). He's even insecure about their relationship: "He wondered if his wife was ever going to leave him because he was white" (343).
—RACE: "What a Concept"!—
The following is not only intellectually interesting, but it entails one hell of a (right on) metaphor: "During the course of their relationship, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah had often discussed race as a concept, as a foreign country they occasionally visited, or as an enemy that existed outside their house, as a destructive force they could fight against as a couple, as a family. But race was also a constant presence, a houseguest and permanent tenant who crept around all the rooms in their shared lives, opening drawers, stealing utensils and small articles of clothing, changing the temperature" (344).
This passage, too, reflects Alexie's fine socio-psychological perception about "race": "As a rational scientist," Jeremiah had "known that race was primarily a social construct, illusionary, but as the husband of an Indian woman and the father of Indian children, he'd since learned that race, whatever its construction, was real. Now, there were plenty of white people who wanted to eliminate the idea of race, to cast it aside as an unwanted invention[!], but it was far too late for that. If white people are the mad scientists who created race, thought Jeremiah, then we created race so we could enslave black people and kill Indians, and now race has become the Frankenstein monster that has grown beyond our control. Though he'd once been willfully blind, Jeremiah had learned how to recognize that monster in the faces of whites and Indians and in their eyes" (344).
The Original Ending: In the original Toughest Indian version (2000), the last paragraph is radically different:
"Jeremiah pushed through the crowd, as he ran away from the place where the woman had jumped. Jeremiah ran across the bridge until he could see Mary Lynn. She and he loved each other across the distance" (TI 20).
—Perhaps reacting to critiques of his depressing & tragic portrayals of Native life in his earlier fiction, Alexie writes a "good story" here, with happy ending and all. It also has his (now formulaic?!) husband/wife main characters, with their often entertaining banter or repartee. (Think back to Norma & James Many Horses in "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor.")
—Often his later story marriages are mixed (Indian man + white woman, or vice-versa), but not here: "Sharon and I were Native American royalty, the aboriginal prince and princess of western Washington" (265). (So another change in this later Alexie: class is now much less of an issue?! Can we guess that this may due to the author's own financial success, his move to the big city, etc.?) In fact, the relationship seems almost too perfect, too normal: "Sharon and I were in love and happy and young and skinny and beautiful and hyperliterate" (266; in fact, the English-major jokes & references are pretty gag-worthy)!
—Their relationship difficulties stem from two central "lies." The first is the husband's lying about his "heroic" role in the early cat episode—after which Sharon "must have lost faith in" him "and more importantly, in herself" (271).
—But after their marriage, everything, once again, seems almost too normal: "For the next twenty-nine years, we lived as wife and husband, as the mother and father of four kids . . . . We paid our taxes, owned a modest home, and made love an average of three times a week"; in sum: "we lived a good and simple life" (273-274)—and the reader either falls asleep?!—or suspects that something this good can't be true?
—Aha!: and so the second "lie," when Sharon confesses "to an extramarital affair" (274; she even admits later that she "lied to him "directly" about it )—and the reason why?: "'Everything is so normal. You didn't used to be normal. I didn't marry normal'" (275).
—In terms of the story's racial politics, it's interesting that the husband-narrator is actually "strangely relieved" to find out that the other man was white: "I would have been tortured to hear she'd slept with another Indian man. . . . [and his hubris!:] I doubted another Indian man of my particular talents existed out there in the world" (277). There's also a class elitism going on: "What if she'd slept with a supermarket graveyard-shift worker or a high school dropout? I couldn't stand the thought of my wife sleeping with a blue-collar man who'd read fewer books than I had" (278; geez).
—LAUGHTER: the scene at the bottom of 280, when the couple begins laughing hysterically during their troubled discussion of the affair reminds one immediately, of course, of "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor," in which laughter is an "antiseptic" that heals all "wounds" (180).
—The marriage returns (once again!?) to "normal"?: "I realized we'd completed the rebuilding project, we'd constructed a brand new marriage, a new home"—until "Suddenly, Sharon and I were forty" (282). A page later, "And then suddenly[!] and mortally, Sharon and I were sixty-six years old" (283). (And frankly, this reader has started to snooze again!) As I said at the beginning, it has a happy ending (well, but the wife dies, of course), and the final "repartee" can be compared to the end of "The Approximate Size" story (as a weak imitation?!). Wife: "'I'm going to die soon. . . . I'm okay with it.'" Husband: "'I'm not. Because I love you so much . . . I would fistfight Time to win back your youth.'" (ugh?!) Wife: "'You're a liar[!!].'" Husband: "'I lied to you once . . . . But I haven't lied to you since.'" (Really?!) Wife: "'Is that the truth?'" Husband: "'Yes'" (284).
—AFTERTHOUGHT: It finally occurs to me that this is the first Alexie story we've read in which the "Indian"-ness may be "merely" there as local color, as "exotic" backdrop? I mean, how would this story—which is, above all, about bourgeois suburbia—be all that different if the couple were Lebanese, or Mennonite, etc.?
M, Nov. 25th:: . . . incl. group pres. planning time
Blasphemy: from Ten Little Indians (2003)
* "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" (437-464)
—The fact that this story is the last in Alexie's "selected stories" collection means that either he and/or his editors thought that this story was something special?! I mentioned in class that it feels more like one of his early stories, with the first-person narrator who is eternally "down on his luck," living out a "culture of failure" and yet keeping his (black) humor about it. Indeed, it almost feels as if it were meant to be a story for those reading Alexie for the first time—it was first published in The New Yorker—since it also seems to rehash a lot of his "greatest hits" in terms of running punch lines and plot devices.
—As for the first-person PofV—why are most of Alexie's better stories in the first-person? (Or is this just my own bias/imagination?!)
—The "witty repartée" on p. 439 actually involves some pretty clever deconstruction of the problematic notion of some essentialist Indian identity.
—That the narrator's grandma's powwow regalia was stolen 50 years ago (440)—presumably by members of the dominant whitestream culture, to buy & sell—brings up the heady topic of cultural appropriation (and a good explanation for why the pawnbroker feels pretty guilty about possessing it).
—"Jackson Jackson" (= "Jackson squared," etc. [442, 445]) is Alexie playing with names once again (see "The Approximate Size").
—Raising the $1,000 becomes a "quest" for JJ (446; see also 459, where he's on a "mission")—a quest which can immediately be associated with the vision quests for young men of various Native tribes.
—SOCIAL CRITIQUE (re Natives in the U.S. military, etc.): It's funny how "we brown people are killing other brown people so white people will remain free" (448; see also the Jimi Hendrix/Woodstock story)!
—Note that JJ's two sidekicks both abruptly "disappear" on him (443, 450-451; ditto the Aleuts: 463), following an early theme in Alexie that one of the things Indians do best is to "disappear" (via death, relocation, etc.). And, oh, like his early recurring character Junior Polatkin, JJ is also diabetic (455).
—The HUMOR: Hey, I'm not going to that bar, JJ says: "It's full of drunk Indians"! And when the cop asks him why Natives laugh so much, JJ claims that Indians & Jews are the "two funniest tribes" because of "the inherent humor of genocide" (456)! (I can't deny that there might be a good deal of truth to this.)
—A "Good" Ending: The ending makes this another "good story" by Alexie, as JJ ends up donning the regalia and dancing with (and "as") his grandma: "I was my grandmother, dancing" (464).
M, Dec. 2nd:: . . . incl. group pres. planning time
From War Dances (2009): "War Dances" (Blasphemy 42-74)
* Part 1 is called "My Kafka Baggage," and for good reason: the narrator returns from a trip, unpacks his luggage, and finds "a dead cockroach, shrouded by a dirty sock, in a corner" of his travel bag (42). His thoughts soon move to Kafka-esque themes: "who is lonelier than the cockroach without his tribe?" (42-43); when this cockroach "died, did he feel fear? Isolation? Existential dread?" (43)! A bit later, he imagines freeing a "small angel" from his ear canal; "she'd unfurl and pat dry her tiny wings, then fly to my lips and give me a sweet kiss for sheltering her metamorphosis" (44; emphasis mine). The motif continues. Later in the story, concerned about his hearing, he wonders, "How many cockroaches were in my head?" (54). And later: "I woke, hour by hour, and touched my head and neck to check if they had changed shape—to feel if antennae were growing. Some insects 'hear' with their antennae. Maybe that's what was happening to me" (58)!
* Then the there's the Dickens joke, when he's considering the words "benign" and "malignant": "No one ever wants to read the word 'malignant' unless you're reading a Charles Dickens novel about an evil landlord" (64)!
RACIAL POLITICS/NATIVE STEREOTYPES:
* The politics of "color," for starters, as he's asking strangers for a warmer blanket for his dad: "Maybe he was Mexican, which is really a kind of Indian, too, but not the kind that I needed. It's hard to tell sometimes what people were. Even brown people guessed at the identity of other brown people" (48; ouch).
* The repartée that follows is spot-on wonderful: so, the stranger asks, "you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?" "Yeah." "That's fucking ridiculous. [. . .] And it's racist." "I know." "You're stereotyping your own damn people." "I know." Then the punch line: "But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones" (51)!
* The interview of the WWII vet regarding the racial epithet "Chief" (60-61): "But, anyway, we called all them Indians 'Chief.' I bet you've been called 'Chief' a few times yourself" (60; I think I told you in class of my brother's experience at his job in Rapid City, SD).
* As for the narrator's bad poem, he realizes in retrospect that "'Indian summer' is a fairly questionable seasonal reference for an Indian poet to use" (71)!
INDIAN POSEURS/INDIAN "SPIRITUALITY" (& NOSTALGIA FOR TRADITION):
* "The Indian world is filled with charlatans, men and women who pretended—hell, who might have come to believe—that they were holy. Last year, I had gone to a lecture at the University of Washington. An elderly Indian woman, a Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan, had come to orate on Indian sovereignty and literature. She kept arguing for some kind of separate indigenous literary identity, which was ironic considering that she was speaking English to a room full of white professors" (49). (As a Native Americanist, I'm pretty sure this is a pretty vicious dig at a specific person: Dakota author Elizabeth Cook-Lynn! In fact, I see that "Sioux"—an old term for the Dakota and Lakota—was a later add to the story, as was "and charlatan"! BTW, Cook-Lynn had already written some very critical stuff about Alexie's darkly realistic" portrayals of reservation life.)
* But ultimately the narrator (& Alexie!?) pities her at last: "I felt sorry for her. I realized that she was dying of nostalgia. She had taken nostalgia as her false idol—her thin blanket—and it was murdering her" (49-50; recall the earlier image in Alexie of the rez car that had only one gear: reverse!). . . . A minute later, he's talking about his dad dying, from too much vodka, and another character quips "Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?" (50)!
NATIVE STORIES & SINGING & DRUMMING . . . (& ALL HUMAN ART?!):
* "I knew this song would not bring back my father's feet. This song would not repair my father's bladder, kidneys, lungs, and heart. This song would not prevent my father from drinking a bottle of vodka as soon as he could sit up in bed. This song would not defeat death. No, I thought, this song is temporary, but right now temporary is good enough" (53; like all of Alexie's "good stories"?! And maybe—it occurs to me to ask—like ALL HUMAN ART? ).
IN PART, THIS IS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FICTION:
* I mentioned Alexie's hydrocephalus at birth in class: "In order to save my life, and stop the water demon, I had brain surgery in 1967, when I was six months old. I was supposed to die. Obviously, I didn't" (54; note that Alexie was born in 1966).
* This story is more pomo-experimental than the other Alexie stories assigned in class, with its incorporation of "non-fiction" genres, such as the "partial transcript" of the "taped interview" (59) with the WWII vet who knew his grandfather (59-62). (Also pretty pomo is the interview's incredible anti-climax!) Even more experimental is the imaginary (within the story!) "Exit Interview for my Father" (68-73)—inserted into which is the narrator's own wretched (supposedly adolescent?) poem (70-71)! The section ends—rather dizzyingly, in terms of POV—with the narrator's own imagining of his father's critique of the narrator's poem.
(OTHER) GREAT HUMOR(?!):
* One of my favorite "one-liners" is during his phone call with his wife, who's in Italy, and about to tour the Vatican: "You can't leave now. You have to go and steal something. It will be revenge for every Indian. Or maybe you can plant an eagle feather and claim that you just discovered Catholicism" (57). (The original reads "Italy" rather than "Catholicism"! Hmmm.)
* "Is it true that the only literary term that has any real meaning in the Native American world is road movie?" (68; a reference, in part, to the movie Smoke Signals, for which Alexie wrote the screenplay).
* "'If God really loved Indians, he would have made us white people'" (72)!
AND MAYBE NOT SO FUNNY:
* Part of his imagined "interview" w/ his father: "Your son has often made the joke that you were the only Indian of your generation who went to Catholic school on purpose. This is, of course, a tasteless joke that makes light of the forced incarceration and subsequent physical, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of Native American children in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools" (69). (No kiddin'. I remember him making that same joke the last time he visited UNL; I don't remember finding it that funny then?!)
* I said when I assigned this story that it followed Alexie's not uncommon formula of "forgiving the father" (Smoke Signals, etc.). I also think this ending works better than those of some of the other Alexie stories we've read most recently, maybe because he's not trying so hard for that perfect rhetorical flourish?: "none of them laughed as hard about my beautiful brain as I knew my father would have. I miss him, the drunk bastard. I would always feel closest to the man who had most disappointed me" (74).
* Note that the original version, in The New Yorker, simply ends with "But none of them laughed as hard about my beautiful brain as I knew my father—the drunk bastard—would have," without the final two sentences in the Blasphemy (and War Dances) version quoted just above.
—Hey, there are NO INDIANS in this story! Instead, the narrator is "the only white man living on a block where all of my neighbors are black." In that same paragraph (295), he really protests too much about how he's not racist, don't you think?: "They are people, not black people; and I am a person, not a white person." (Hmmm. Really?)
—But the old mattress thrown out on the curb drives his own (cultural?) sense of propriety nuts, even though he is conscious that it might be a cultural thing: "frankly, it felt racist to me to look out my front window at that abandoned mattress and wonder about the cultural norms that allowed my neighbors [. . .] to create a health hazard" (296).
—Reverse Profiling?!: Recall the racial profiling in "The Lone Ranger" story, when Junior is confronted by the police for walking in a well-off white neighborhood (161-162). Here the white guy humorously imagines the opposite situation: "I wondered what the police would do if they discovered a clean-cut white man creeping through a black neighborhood"! The cops' imagined dialogue, "'You don't fit the profile of the neighborhood'" (297), is word for word, in fact, from the older story.
—Not surprisingly, his stealthy disposal of the mattress is met with by scorn from his black neighbors (since it is, at last, rather the height of white paternalism?!): "'You think you're better than us, don't you?'" (298; yes, he does!). "'You go home, white boy [. . . .] And don't you bother us anymore'" (299).
—Note the implicit (colonialist) racism of story's final trope: he feels "like an American explorer in the wilderness" (299; just wow).
—Maybe the real/deepest "racial" truth is expressed earlier in the story; in wondering what group is being the most racist, he speculates, "Or was it all of us, black and white, passively revealing that, despite our surface friendliness, we didn't really care about one another?" (296).
—A final question: how does knowing that the author is Native American complicate any reading of this story's racial politics?!
* "Faith" (303-311)
—While much of the narrator's scorn is for "conservative Christians" (i.e., Christian fundamentalists) (304), his own Catholicism comes in for some ribbing: as an "American Catholic," he and his wife were "disinterested in the Pope and in love with Eucharist, that glorious metaphoric cannibalism of our Messiah [. . . .] And we only went to Mass on Easter and Christmas and maybe three other random Sundays during the year" (303-304).
—Literary Influence?!: The story's main point of interest—the narrator's fascination with another woman's prosthetic leg (304ff)—makes one think immediately of Manley Pointer and Hulga in O'Connor's "Good Country People"!
—Humor: one of the funniest lines in the whole book?!—when the narrator feels apologetic about staring at her leg so long: "I wanted to apologize, but I couldn't exactly blurt out at a dinner party, 'Hey, I'm really sorry for objectifying you there, and I do respect you as a human being, even if you are a crazy fundamentalist Christian, and if you want to stare at my legs or any other part of me, that's okay, because men love to be objectified'" (305).
—Much of the rest of the story involves the man/woman "witty repartee" stuff (once again!), with the end result of the man resisting what he perceives to be "an official invitation to commit adultery" (310). And for once, I find the ending quite effective, since Alexie maybe isn't trying to hard—it's a "quieter," more suggestive ending?: "I promised myself that I'd only think about sex with her as long as it took me to get home. And I have mostly kept that promise. Mostly. So, damn" (311).
F, Dec. 6th:: finish up Alexie; group presentation
Extra Credit: A few of you have inquired about an extra credit opportunity. While I don't make a habit of making extra work for myself because students haven't done enough work, I figure, WTH. Unfortunately, (unlike my Native Lit courses,) there aren't a lot of events on campus to attend regarding the "art (or politics) of the short story." But I'll offer this, then: for 10 (possible) e.c. points—meaning all 10 points aren't guaranteed, depending on yr effort—write a two-page-or-more response to the question, "Should Tom add the Alexie story 'The Toughest Indian in the World' (Blasphemy 27-) to the syllabus the next time he teaches this course?" Yes? Or no? Above all, WHY? Of course, I'd wait and read a number of the assigned Alexie stories beforehand, as support for your answer. Let's make the due date FR, Dec. 6th, as a hard copy at the beginning of class.