fil·a·ment noun \?fi-l?-m?nt\ :
a single thread or thin flexible threadlike
object, attaching one thing to another.
I loved Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins. Probably because of the perfect clarity of the writing and the wonderful characters. But, there was something else I loved equally well. I’ll call this something else a “filament,” for want of a better word.
Beautiful Ruins is a threaded narrative, a common narrative structure I’ve seen in other novels. For example, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a threaded narrative. A threaded narrative presents the story through a series of intertwined “threads.” These intertwined threads may have a different set of characters or they may occur in differing time frames or in differing locales (and any combination of these things may be the case). Each thread is presented one following the other, switching back and forth between them. Egan, for example, switches between five main characters and ranges widely across many years. She even switches literary points-of-view (some chapters are first person, some second person, some third person, and some power-point presentations).
Walter’s book exhibits a similar structure, alternating between the present day story of Michael Deane, Shane Wheeler and Claire Silver (the Deane Party) set in Southern California and the story of Pasquale Tursi, Dee Moray and Richard Burton, set in the Cinqua Terre of 1950s Italy.
Unlike Egan’s book, the threads in Walter’s book are easy to follow. Each chapter begins with an epigraph showing the time and place of the thread. Some chapters are excerpts of novels or plays. For example the first chapter of Alvis Bender’s book, The Smile of Heaven, appears as its own chapter. These chapters are easily understood because the reader has previously encountered them. This previous introduction is an example of what I mean by “filament.” The fact that we’ve previously learned about Alvis Bender’s book before it appears makes it familiar.
Walter uses these filaments, as I’ve called them, frequently. (I found more than 100 examples.) With these filaments he weaves his narrative together.
For example, Pasquale, when he first appears at Michael Deane’s office, is carrying an “ancient, wrinkled and stained” business card with Michael’s signature (36). Previously, we are told that a “signed Michael Deane business card is a form of currency” (29). When Pasquale hands Claire the business card, it makes perfect sense. The business card thrusts us into the opposing thread. As Dee Moray disembarks the boat in Porto Vergagna, she hands Pasquale a piece of paper with “Michael Deane, special production assistant,” written on it (11). The difference (and the similarity) between the piece of paper and the newer business card leads the reader to surmise, without being told, that Michael Deane and Pasquale have had further involvement. The detail knits the two time frames together and informs each of them.
This happens all the time in this book.
More examples: Pat Bender’s cleft chin, which, when we first encounter it, reminds us he is Richard Burton’s son, who had been previously described as having a cleft chin (203); the baby announcement that Pasquale carries with him helps us remember that Dee Moray was pregnant, and in fact, informs us, 50 years later, that Dee did not have the abortion, a fact we had not yet learned in the other thread (149); Edinburgh’s “entire history… [as] an attempt to get better vantage, a piece of high ground” (165) reflects the ruins of the gun-turret at the top of the cliff at Porto Vergogna; Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier’s discussions about the pure art of acting in the theatre vs. the corruption of acting in the movies reflects Claire’s pending decision about her job (172, 176); the fact that Alvis Bender owns a car dealership is horribly reflected when he dies in a car crash (271).
There are so many examples of interconnecting filaments that I lost track.
If the events in the narrative are the warp of the story, these interconnecting filaments are the weft. These filaments, these tiny, seemingly inconsequential details, appear in both threads. They inform the opposing thread as much as they inform the current thread.
For me, as a reader, these connections between the two threads serve not only as a source of information and a source of meaning as to what is going on, they also serve as a constant source of entertainment.
Before I finish my paper I want to more clearly define what I mean by filament. A filament, for me, in this paper, is any object or idea, introduced in one thread of a threaded narrative that appears later in another thread, and, in that other thread, helps the reader understand the story more deeply.
Other examples of these filaments are: the Deane Party / Donner Party equation (289); Lugo the Hero, who turns out to be a real life hero in the Battle of Porto Vergogna (281); Pasquale lowering his head to his chest in resignation, reflecting the way Pat does the same thing in the play (309); the sterility of the art museum vs. the messiness of real life and how it reflects on Claire’s decision to quit working for Michael (331). There are many more.
The funniest example, however, is Michael Deane’s Viagra® induced “rising flag of Iwo Jima.” While trying to be amorous with his wife, Michael is interrupted and called to his office to meet Claire, Shane and Pasquale (91). He throws his coat over his silk pajamas and rushes to the office. Fifty nine pages later Walter writes a single, perfect sentence: “Michael adjusts his heavy coat over his pajama pants. ‘Now, I’ve got to get home to Mrs. Deane’ ” (150). Walter reminds us, with a slim, tenuous filament, of Michael Deane’s state of affairs prior to being interrupted.
It is this attention to detail, this tidying up of every loose thread, that I find so satisfying about this book.
Dictionary.com Definition for Filament. http://www.dictionary.com (accessed 10 15, 2012).
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Walter, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. New York, NY: HaperCollins, 2012.
What Was Raymond Carver Talking About?
A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Collection
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Thomas Jay Rush
The first story of Raymond Carver’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love ends with the narrator saying “There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out,” referring to a young woman who had stopped at the home of a man whose furniture was on his lawn. The obvious reading of those words is that she was trying to understand what caused the man to put his furniture outside. However, I think there may be another, equally valid, reading. I think one could read those words as direct statement, not about the situation, but about the story itself.
As soon as I read those words, I started wondering what exactly the girl needed to “talk out.” I wondered what happened that was so dramatic that she was still talking about it weeks afterwards, and what exactly was the “more” the narrator has not told us about.
If one thinks about the words “there was more to it” for a moment, one realizes that the writer is saying that something has been left out of the story. One also realizes that the writer is aware that something has been left out (otherwise why would he say there was “more to it”). It seems to me that, because the writer is aware that something is missing, he has made a conscious choice to leave that part of the story out of it.
Using three example stories from the collection, Why Don’t You Dance, Tell The Women We’re Leaving, and Sacks, I will argue that this purposeful “leaving out” characterizes Raymond Carver’s entire collection. I will further argue that he drops hints, such as the words “there was more to it,” that point to directly to what’s been omitted. Further, I will argue what is left out is the most important part of each story, and that it is exactly these left out parts that help the reader understand what Raymond Carver is really talking about in each story.
I recognize that a paper like this, a personal interpretation of a writer’s work, is filled with difficulty. That the interpretations I make are mine alone, and that other readers may have wildly different interpretations, all of which are equally valid. Therefore, my final argument in this paper will be that the craft that the writer exhibits most forcefully is his ability to write stories that are open to broad interpretation. It is this aspect of the writing craft that I most wish to incorporate into my own work. It is a writer’s ability to communicate things that are not said that I take the most pleasure from when I read a great short story.
So, what did I find when I went back and re-read Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? looking explicitly for the “more”? I found a lot. Did I find anything “more” in any of the other stories in the collection? Yes, I did. Will I spend the rest of this paper trying to explain what I found? Yes, I will.
About half way through the story Why Don’t You Dance?, when the boy and the girl first get out of the car, the girl lays down on the bed. She tells the boy to lay down with her and says “Kiss me.” He says “Let’s get up,” feeling uncomfortable. A few sentences later she says “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” and trails off without finishing the thought. The obvious implication unsaid thing is “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made love on this bed out here in the driveway.”
Further in the story, after the man returns from the store and puts his sacks of groceries on the table, he puts a record on the record player and tells the young couple to dance. The narrator describes this thus: “Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway.” I found the words “up and down” an interesting word choice.
A few sentences later the girl says “Dance with me,” and the narrator goes on to say “…when the man stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open.”
Then there is a section break; two blank lines in the narrative.
Then the girls says “Those people over there, they’re watching,” as if a crowd has formed and is standing in the street looking at them. The man says “Let them watch,” and then “I hope you like your bed.” The story ends with the last paragraph where the girl is still, weeks later, trying to “talk it out.”
Because the writer told me that there was something “more”, that wasn’t told, I wondered exactly what happened during that section break. What happened in the time interval between those two blank lines. What did the writer not say? Why did a crowd form? Why, weeks later, was the girl still trying to “talk it out”?
I think what happened is that the man and the girl explored fully, and to its conclusion, the question “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” In my mind, what Carver was really talking about in this story was sex.
Of course, there is no way for me to know if my interpretation is correct. There is no way for me to know if the man and the girl made love on the bed in the driveway. It is very likely that I am completely wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is that the writer, clearly and on purpose, put the words “there is more to it,” into his story – and that those words opened up (at least for me) this interpretation.
I think this same sort of openness to interpretation is exhibited in Carver’s Tell the Women We’re Going.
In this story Jerry and Bill, two young men who’ve been life-long friends, ostensibly kill two girls that they meet by chance one Sunday afternoon. While returning from an afternoon of drinking and playing pool, the two men come upon a pair of girls riding bikes along the road . Jerry and Bill play a cat and mouse game with the girls, driving ahead of and behind them in the car as they peddle along the road. After a while Jerry pulls ahead and parks, waiting for the girls near a trail leading to Picture Rock, where he presumes the girls are going. When they arrive they get off their bikes and start to climb the trail. The boys follow them and the blunt, and surprising, end of the story is presented.
The obvious reading of this story is that Jerry killed the two girls with a rock while Bill stood watching. But, as in Why Don’t You Dance? I think there is another interpretation. Unlike the previous story, I did not find a direct instruction from the author telling me that there was “more to it,” but I think it’s there, nonetheless.
The main reason I think there must be more to this story is because the murder makes no sense. Other than two very violent words (“cunt” and “cockteasers”) Jerry uses to describe them, there is no hint of a murderous intent on his part anywhere in the story.
In fact, just the opposite. The writer says Jerry is “the happy father of two” and that he had “moved up to assistant manager.” He seems firmly ensconced in his life. He does seem a bit unhappy, when he and Bill are sitting on the deck, before they leave, but not murderously so.
When the boys meet the two girls on the road they turn the car around and start following them. The interaction between them is “playful” with the girls frequently laughing and giggling. There is a cat and mouse aspect to the interaction.
Just before Jerry pulls ahead and parks to wait for the girls the narrator says that one of the girls looked at Jerry “in the right kind of way.” However, in the first part of that sentence the narrator says “It seemed to Jerry”.
This is a perfect example of Carver’s penchant for leaving things out. If the narrator had said it seemed the girls looked at Jerry “in the right kind of way” and then said “but he was wrong,” that would be one thing. But Carver doesn’t say that. He chooses the word “seemed” which is a weak word. It seems to me that the sun comes up every morning. And that’s turn, it does. But it also seems to me that the sun moves through the sky, but it doesn’t, the earth spins under it. There is no indication of whether Jerry was right or wrong in his interpretation of the girls’ look. It seems to me that Carver did this on purpose.
A similar thing happens when Bill first finds the two girls “crouched behind an outcrop”. The writer says “Maybe they were smiling.” Without the word “maybe” this sentence is as clear as it could be. The sentence “They were not smiling,” would be equally clear. “Maybe they were smiling,” says nothing at all about whether they were smiling or not.
One wonders who didn’t understand if the girls were smiling or not. Technically it is the narrator who says the may have been smiling. The implication is that, like Jerry who may have misinterpreted the look the girls gave him, Bill thought the girls may have been smiling. But, technically, it is the narrator who says this. The narrator – that is Raymond Carver – is leaving open the possibility that the girls were smiling. As if they were inviting what came next. Which makes the murder even less understandable in the context of the story.
The last paragraph of this story says:
[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
When I first read that paragraph I thought to myself “Jerry killed them,” but then I realized that this interpretation depends entirely on what the writer means by the word “rock.” If rock means “rock,” as in an object found on the ground, then the murder reading is the obvious interpretation. If, however, “rock” means something else (let’s just say something else that is frequently described as being hard) then the meaning of this last paragraph is totally different.
This second interpretation, that Jerry used something rock hard that he hadn’t found on the ground, (that is that he had sex with both girls while Bill stood by watching) makes much more sense (at least to me) given the rest of the story, and the purposeful ambiguity that Carver has used.
We know Bill stands by in the kitchen while Jerry and his wife are having sex in the bathroom. We know that Jerry has been “looking for something on the side” as Riley the Rec Center worker repeatedly says. We know the girls went up the hill and looked back down before disappearing, mirroring the cat and mouse play from earlier.
The author presents no “dread” in his telling of the interactions between the boys and the two girls on the bicycles. Jerry and Bill climbed the hill at a “walking pace” because they knew they “had it made.”
As in the previous story there is no way for me to know what the writer intended, but this wonderful ambiguity, this lovely openness to interpretation is the craft aspect of this story that I love.
As in the previous example, I think, what Carver is talking about in this story is sex.
As an aside, before moving on to the next example, I want to point out that as the two boys are driving down the road, after leaving the Rec Center, they encounter “an old pickup loaded with furniture.” When I read this I wondered if this was the same guy who had his furniture out in the driveway in Why Don’t You Dance?.
The final story I will look at is called Sacks. This amazing story takes place in a lounge in the Sacramento Airport where a son has flown in for a quick visit with his recently divorced father. The two have clearly not been in touch for a while (the son didn’t even know the father wore glasses).
Without much preamble the father launches in to the story of himself and the woman with whom he’s had an affair. An affair that resulted in his divorce. The father tells the entire story while he and his son share drinks. It is a pretty straightforward story. As in the previous example, I would note, this story in a story is fundamentally about sex. I looked hard but I did not find anything that I would say was clearly open to interpretation, except perhaps the title.
The title of the story seemed interesting. Why Sacks I wondered. There only two sacks mentioned in the story – first, a sack filled with small gifts for the son’s wife and children. The second sack is the sack the saleswomen holds when she first knocks on the man’s door. Neither of these two sacks seemed to play any real part on this story. Like the murder in Tell The Women We’re Going it made no sense to me why the writer would choose this as his title.
At one point the father says “You’re an educated man, Les. You’ll be the one to figure it out.” Like the words “There was more to it.” I read this as a direct instruction from the writer that there is something to figure out about this story. This is totally conjecture, of course, but I think this story is a puzzle. I think the goal of the puzzle is to figure out why the story is called Sacks.
Looking at the structure of the story one sees that this is a story within a story. Les, the younger man, flies into Sacramento where he meets his father. Quickly, the father tells the story of what happened in his marriage leading up to his divorce.
The framing story, the story about the son and the father meeting at the airport, contains the inner story, the story the father tells about his affair.
The father’s story in first person present tense. The framing story is in first person past tense. There is a large amount of dialog in both stories. The dialog attributions in the framing story use the word “said” while the dialog attributions in the father’s story use the word “says.” This has the effect of making father’s voice sound much less well educated than the son’s voice.
I think, instead of just two sacks in this story, there are three. I think the third sack is the framing story itself. The writer has placed the father’s story inside the “sack” of the framing story. Otherwise I can’t explain to myself why the story is titled as it is. It makes no sense. The sacks in the story have no importance.
I think, in this story, the writer is flexing his writing muscles. Pointing out his own prowess in the art of punctuation and story craft. Saying to a careful reader “Look what I can do,” and then pulling off this amazing act of punctuation (quotes inside of quotes inside of an inner story, and so on). In addition to the amazing punctuation (which as far as I could tell is perfect) the transitions into and out of the inner story are seamless.
In some paragraphs the father is deep inside the telling of his own story and the writer places a comma, a closing quote, and tells the reader that the old man “shook his head.” This shaking of the head happens in the framing story. Immediately following this the writer jumps right back into the inner story without missing a beat. The transition is totally seamless. The reader is not jarred or confused in the least. Carver is telling two stories simultaneously, both perfectly, without the slightest hitch.
There are many interesting hints and connections to other stories in this collection built into this story. The son in this story is constantly looking at his watch, reminiscent of Bill in Tell the Women We’re Leaving. The old man say “I’ll tell you what’s the most important thing…there are things,” which is reminiscent of the story I Could See the Smallest Things (the title of which, by the way, is also a direct instruction to the reader to pay careful and close attention to the smallest things).
When describing the scene where the saleswoman’s husband, Larry, returns home to find the father and her in bed the old man says he was afraid Larry would push him up “against this big fence in the yard” and that the woman stood in the kitchen in “her robe,” both of these things being reminiscent of I Could See the Smallest Things.
Finally, the narrator says “My father started to say something more. But instead he shook his head.” Again, there is something more in the story that has not been said. There always seems to be something “more” in Carver’s stories.
When I read a short story I don’t usually care much what happens in the story. If a story simply relates a series of events, no matter how interesting, I feel let down. I usually look for something special, something hidden, or hinted at. In most stories I read I don’t find anything. Sometimes, when I do find something, it is so blatantly obvious and so completely lacks subtly, that I find it unrewarding. But Raymond Carver’s stories are different.
Raymond Carver’s prose is so sparse and so clean that somehow it allows itself to be opened wider to interpretations. It’s as if all the underbrush has been cleared away allowing the reader to see more clearly.
I have no idea if anything I’ve said in this paper is accurate. It’s all my own interpretation, of course. I do know, however, that Raymond Carver revised these stories many times (in some cases 40 to 50 revisions for a single story). It is difficult for me to believe that, after 40 revisions, a single word remains in any of these stories by accident. I think he purposefully crafted these stories to be open to multiple interpretations. Why would the writer put the words “there was more to it,” at the very end of the very first story in this collection? I think those words were put there for a very specific reason – to admonish readers to pay close attention, and to instruct the reader that careful attention would be rewarded. This is why I think this is such a wonderful collection.
When I write I sometimes try to put these sorts of double and triple interpretation possibilities into my writing, however it always turns out very heavy handed. It is this aspect of the craft of writing that I love. This ability of some writers, such as Raymond Carver, to say things without saying them. And to say them in such a way as to not be heavy handed, but to be subtle and secretive.
One final word. I tried to convince myself as I went through this exercise that what Raymond Carver talked about when he talked about love was sex. In the first two examples, with the man in the driveway and Jerry and Bill, I think I’ve at least opened the possibility that there may have been sex involved. I tried, in the third example story, to find an unsaid hint that someone was having sex, perhaps it was the woman dancing in the bar with her arms wide (reminiscent of the girl in the driveway) as the bartender watched (reminiscent of Bill). But I couldn’t convince myself.
Dancing in the Dark
A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Short Story
Why Don’t You Dance?
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
The first time I read this short story I thought “whatever,” and moved on to the next story in the book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.. I came back later and re-read the story. I found a much deeper meaning on my second reading than I did on my first. I should learn. This is not the first time this has happened to me with Raymond Carver’s work. It takes me a while but I catch on eventually.
This short story is about a man whose life has fallen apart. He’s alone, clearing out the remnants of his home. His wife is absent, although her presence is hinted at throughout the early part of the story. The reader see touches of her in the candy-striped sheets on the bed, designer pillows, the chiffonier. I’m a man. I actually studied furniture design for a couple of years. I didn’t know what a “chiffonier” was. I think this is an indication of what type of woman this man lived with.
For some reason, the man has taken the furniture out of the house into the front yard. He’s run an extension cord to the TV, record player and lamps. His neighbors think he’s crazy, but the reader gets the impression that this is not the first time they’ve thought that.
He goes out to the store (although we are not told this directly). While he’s gone a young couple stops, thinking there is a yard sale. They are just beginning their life together. The girl, and Carver consistently calls them the “boy” and the “girl”, is more forceful than the boy. She first says “Let’s see what they want for the bed,” before they turn in off the street. She seems more free-spirited, bossy. The boy fiddles with a blender and switches on the TV. She tells him to come and lie down on the bed next to her. He does so, but after a while he feels uncomfortable and gets up to see if anyone is at home. He wants to ask someone how much the various items cost.
The man returns from the store to find the girl on the bed and the boy on the porch. The girl, always controlling, had previously told the boy to always ask for ten dollars less than the seller initially asks for. The boy asks how much the man wants for the bed. He says fifty dollars, she offers forty. The man accepts. He wants twenty-five dollars for the TV, she offers fifteen, again he agrees.
The end of the story is ambiguous. The man opens a bottle of whiskey and offers the couple a drink. They accept and after a few drinks start to get a little drunk. The man says he wants to play a record, which he does. He suggests that the young couple starts to dance. In character, the boy is hesitant, but, also in character, the girl convinces him to dance. They dance in the driveway.
The first side of the record ends. The man flips it over. The girl wants to dance some more but the boy is drunk and doesn’t seem to want to. She asks the man to dance and approaches him with her arms wide open. Then there is a scene break. An extra blank line and no leading tab to the beginning of the next paragraph. It’s a subtle clue that something has change.
When the narrative reconvenes in the very next paragraph, she is saying “Those people over there, they’re watching.” The man says “It’s OK. It’s my place.” The reader is not exactly sure what’s going on. In fact, I was wondering what exactly is going on. The girls says “Let them watch.” She’s drunk. Carver writes “He felt her breath on his neck.” The very next sentence Carver has the man saying “I hope you like your bed.” She pushes her face into the man’s shoulder and pulls him closer.
One interpretation of this passage, obviously, is that they are dancing, however I think it is equally possible that they are doing something that may be called dancing but that is a decidedly different thing altogether. The last few paragraphs of the story hint at this second interpretation when Carver writes “A few weeks later….She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out.” What more is he referring to?
I also detected a symbolic layer to the story on my second read that I did not see on my first read. I think it is possible that the young couple in this story represents that man and his wife when they were first starting out. There are numerous clues to this. The way the young woman lies on the bed initially, the way she’s the one always suggesting what the boy should do, the fact that it is her idea to do something more than just lie on the bed when she says “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” All of these things could represent what the man’s wife was like when they first met. He mentions the candy-striped sheets, the designer pillows, and so on, which to me indicate a woman that likes to arrange things in her life, just like the girl.
The “boy” may also be interpreted as a representation of the man. The boy is hesitant, fooling around with the TV and the blender, sort of doing whatever the “girl” says, not because he wants to just because that’s the way things roll in their relationship. I think this could easily be interpreted as a representation of the older couple’s dynamics.
When the girl says “”I want the desk…[h]ow much money is the desk?” I read this as symbolizing the narrator’s work; perhaps he was a writer. The desk is where his livelihood came from, perhaps. The man says “Name a figure,” as an exasperated man might say to his soon to be divorced wife when they are haggling over the divorce settlement. The title may even be interpreted as a question from the man to his missing wife. “Why Don’t You Dance?” And by this I think he means the latter of the two interpretations of the word “dance” mentioned above.
There is a lot to this story that will be rewarded with a careful reading. I recommend it highly.
A Critical Analysis of
Kate Chopin’s Short Story
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
This is a very short piece of fiction. Ostensibly, it tells the story of a young woman (Babette) and her godmother, whom she calls Maman-Nainaine. The godmother wishes to have the girl visit her aunt down in bayou country. She repeatedly tells the girl that she will be visiting her aunt “when the figs were ripe,” which in South Louisiana is around mid-summer. The girl thinks that is a very long time away because it is only early spring when Maman-Nainaine first says this, but as the wise old woman knows, the time approaches quickly. When the figs finally do ripen the godmother is surprised at how early that have ripened this year. The young woman cannot believe they’ve ripened so late.
The piece is very short. 288 words. There are only three characters, Maman-Nainane, Babette and Babette’s aunt, Tante Frosine, the last of which is only mentioned by reference. What could this story be about?
If the reader looks at the surface of the story he finds that this story is about how the old and the young experience time differently. What seems early to the old woman has taken forever for the young girl. She has been going out into the orchard all summer looking at the fig trees to see if the figs have ripened. She does this because she wishes to go on trip to see her aunt. The young girl was anticipating the trip and could not wait for it to happen. The old women knew better. She knew that the time would pass very quickly – especially for herself, who, being old, would naturally want to savor every moment and feel that any passage of time was going by too quickly.
But, if the reader looks a little deeper, and considers each word in the tiny story carefully, something a little more interesting emerges. I believe that in a short piece like this, with less than 300 words, every word must count. In fact, if the writer can make words count more than once all the better. I think Ms. Chopin has done that with this story.
When describing Babette Ms. Chapin uses words like “danced out to where the fig-trees were,” and “as restless as a hummingbird,” reinforcing the sense that this is a young, sprightly girl. Also, she mentions spring, and “tender shoots” on the fig trees, each of which are evocative of youth.
When describing Maman-Nainane Ms. Chopin uses words like “sat down in her stately way,” and “but that is the way Maman-Nainaine was,” implying that she is set in her way – in short, old.
But there are two short passages that imply to me that what the story is really talking about is Maman-Nainane’s impending death. These are when Ms. Chopin decides to say “her muslin cap standing like an aureole about her white, placid face,” and “I shall look for her at Toussaint – when the chrysanthemums are in bloom.”
In the first quoted passage above the word “aureole” means halo, or a circle of light, referring, I think to the fact that the old woman will soon be joining the angles. In the second passage the word “Toussaint” is a Cajun word referring to an annual holiday that we westerners call “All Saint’s Day,” – that is, Halloween. Additionally, according to Wikipedia, chrysanthemums symbolize death because they usually appear at funerals or on graves.
I love stories like this. This is a very short passage, as I’ve already said, but it provides a good hour’s worth of effort to unravel each and every hidden word and phrase. It is very easy to read this short piece and say something like “Oh, that was nice. About an old woman and a young one and their different way of looking at time’s passage,” but upon deeper reflection it’s actually saying much more than that.
I See What I Was Missing
A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Short Story
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
This is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I was telling my wife about this story in the car the other night while we drove to pick up Chinese food and I almost started crying because this is such a stunningly beautiful piece of writing. I got about nine-tenths of the way through telling her about it and I couldn’t go on because I was choking up. I wrote this poem:
I was telling my wife about a lovely
Raymond Carver short story the other night
as the snow just started,
and we drove in my dirty car
together alone for the first time in weeks
to get some Chinese food.
And I had to stop telling so she wouldn’t make
fun of me because I would have cried if I had
gone on and told to the end.
I cry sometimes when I encounter things
beautiful. I don’t know why but I do.
I wanted to say “Thanks” for making me feel
that I shouldn’t share my joy with you.
This is a touching story of one man’s personal growth. A growth in understanding another human being and a growth in understanding what a cathedral is.
The main protagonist is told by his wife that her old friend, a blind man, is coming to see them and will be staying a few nights. The blind man’s wife has just died. He is in town visiting relatives.
In the beginning of the story the protagonist, the host, does not relish the idea of the blind man coming to stay with them. He finds the blind man odd and weird. He doesn’t want to be bothered. He looks on the blind man as a burden. There are hints that the host views the blind man as a potential rival for his wife’s affections. He says mean and politically incorrect things about the blind man. For example he says “My idea of blindness came from the movies…[that they]….moved slowly and never laughed.”
When the blind man arrives the host is surprised that he doesn’t wear dark glasses. The host is surprised that he doesn’t walk with a long cane with a white tip. This is the first, slight sign of a warming of the host towards the blind man.
The host (or narrator) describes a time, before he met his wife, where she used to work with the blind man. They worked together during the time when she was getting married to her first husband, her childhood sweetheart. After getting married the young couple moved away from Seattle (where the blind man lived – she had worked in his house as his assistant) to an army base. On the last day of her working for the blind man he had asked her if he could feel her face so he could remember her. She had allowed it. This was a memorable moment for her. We know this because the narrator, tells us that she tried to write a poem about the experience. He tells us this during the part of the story where he is being very hostile to the blind man and its clear that he thinks his wife may be in love with the blind man.
When the blind man arrives at their house they invite him in and get him a drink (the first of many that night). They have a large dinner and retire to the living room where the blind man and the narrator’s wife have a long conversation about their lives since they last met, mostly leaving the narrator out of the conversation who starts to get upset.
The narrator turns the TV. His wife says she’s going to go get ready for bed. She comes back in a nightly and bathrobe which upsets the host but by then he’s smoked a joint with the blind guy and he is starting to lighten up – maybe because of all the booze – maybe because of the joint – but he says at one point that his wife’s bare leg doesn’t bother him because the blind guy can’t see anyway. The more booze he drinks and pot he smokes the more mellow he gets.
His wife falls asleep on the couch and the blind guy and him start watching a show about Gothic Cathedrals. After a short while the host realizes that the blind guy can’t understand what’s going on because they are just showing pictures of the cathedrals and not really saying anything. Our host starts telling the blind man about the TV show but then he realizes that the guy probably doesn’t even know what a cathedral is.
The blind man tells the host to describe what a cathedral is but he sucks at describing so the blind man tells him to get a piece of paper and a pencil. The blind man comes down off the couch and sits on the floor next to the host. The blind man tells the host to take his hand and draw the cathedral while he’s holding it.
The host, this man who had so many pre-conceived ideas about what a blind person was, this man who could not understand his wife’s intense experience of having her face touched by a blind person, finally comes to realize, in a brilliantly wrought piece of writing, the experience that she must have had. He learns. He understands his wife’s love for this man who so gently deals with the world using whatever meager faculties are available to him, whether it be through touching a loved one’s face to learning about cathedrals by holding someone’s had as they draw it.
This is a profoundly human story. Mr. Carver pulls off a stunning work of staggering beauty, as they say. The protagonist, through his interaction with this blind man finally comes to see something that he could never have seen on his own.
The Birth of Flash Fiction
A Critical Analysis of
of James Thurber’s Short Piece
The Little Girl and the Wolf
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
James Thurber’s short piece The Little Girl and the Wolf is not very well written. The piece is extremely short – which to me means that it must be pitch perfect. I think one of the most important things about a very short piece (something that in these days has come to be known as flash fiction) is that it must be near perfect. The particular piece of writing I consider here is not very good in my opinion. I think the word choice is poor, I think there are logical errors and I think the ending lacks any semblance of subtlety.
Concerning word choice I think Thurber could have easily chosen his words more carefully. For example, in the first sentence he uses the words “a big wolf”. How dull. Like what, James? Like a big-bad wolf? Why not use big-bad? At least big-bad has some lyricism to it. Just “big” is truly dull. Another example (and trust me, finding two examples of poor word choice in a piece this short makes the point) is when Thurber says that the girl “approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed”. What does “approaching no nearer than….from” something even mean?
A second area of weakness in this piece is that it contains a few logical errors or omissions. These are not glaring mistakes, the omissions are more subtle than that, but mistakes like this are troublesome in such a short piece. When I read I want my mind to stay in the world of the piece. I do not want my thoughts thrown out of the piece while I have to contemplate what the writer meant. The first example of this sort of shortcoming is when Thurber says that the wolf was waiting for “a little girl to come along, carrying a basket of food to her grandmother.” When I read that my mind came out of the piece while I considered why a wolf would be waiting for such a specific event. Why wouldn’t the wolf just position himself in the path and take what comes? Why would the wolf wait for a little girl….carrying a basket…..and going to her grandmother’s? It just makes no sense. Another logical error appears when Thurber says “the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him.” Why would the little girl do this? Normally, I wouldn’t bother pointing these simple things out, but in a case like this, where the piece is so excessively short, I think these types of logical errors must be entirely removed.
The third, and final, shortcoming of this piece is the abrupt ending. An ending that completely lacks any sort of subtlety. The ending comes across as if a rather simple minded 15 year old boy wrote it (the piece first appeared in The New Yorker on January 21, 1939 – when Thurber was 45 years old). Thurber lets on that he doesn’t suspend his disbelief in the sentence where he says “for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother…” The very next sentence, and the sentence that ends the piece, is about the girl shooting the wolf by pulling a machine gun out of her basket. Then the silly, trite moral to the story. It all comes across as Mr. Thurber polishing his fingernails on his shirt and saying “Aren’t I cute?” No James, you’re not cute. You’re 45 years old. You can do better than that.
I haven’t read a lot of Mr. Thurber’s work – but I’ve always loved him – because of the story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I remember, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, reading some of Mr. Thurber’s stories. I remember in particular his drawings. He was very charming and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him, but – if I find more pieces like this of his, my heart my grow harder. Sorry, James. I loved ye once upon a time.
A Critical Analysis of
John Cheever’s Short Story
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
It would not surprise me to learn that Neddy Merrill, the lead protagonist in John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, was recovering from a breakdown in a mental institution, nor that he had been there during the late summer months and early autumn of the year of this story.
As the story opens Neddy is at a party at a friend’s house. He envisions a pathway home that would take him through the backyards of his neighbors in the upscale county in which he lives. Hackensack, NJ perhaps, however the place name is never mentioned. Neddy believes he can swim home from the party by going through back yards and swimming people’s swimming pools. He considers himself to be an explorer wending his way along an undiscovered river that he names after his wife Lucinda. The Lucinda River.
Neddy seems excessively happy at the beginning of the story, the author saying things such as “the intenseness of his pleasure […] seemed to flow into his chest” and that at one point he “felt tired” but was “pleased with everything.” As I was reading this early description of him I was suspicious. The way the author describes Neddy seems almost too good to be true – especially for someone who has taken the somewhat odd choice to swim home from a party by going through people’s backyards.
As Neddy makes his way from one neighbor’s pool to the next he encounters old friends and acquaintances who seem happy to see him, welcoming him into their backyards even as he climbs over their hedges unannounced, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. At some of these stops the neighbor says things like “what a marvelous surprise […] let me get you a drink.” Again – I found this somewhat odd as I read it The believability of the narrator started to wane. I came to disbelieve what the narrator told me. Why would, even friends, be so happy to see someone coming over their hedge and swimming across their pool. Why would they not find this odd? If a friend swam across my yard I would be very upset.
The author leads us to believe that the weather at the start of Neddy’s explorations is very nice. As if its some sort of sunny, summer day. However, as the story progresses images of autumn creep into the narration. When a storm blows through one of the trees loses “red and yellow leaves”. Neddy notices this but believes that the tree must have been blighted. The further into the story we get the more images of autumn appear. Additionally the author uses less buoyant words to describe Neddy’s feelings. By the middle of the story the reader begins to think that something is wrong with Neddy. The closer Neddy gets to home the less nice people are to him. At the house next to his but one, the owner with whom he has apparently had an affair, treats him rudely. By this time the descriptions of the weather have begun to be late autumn, the author using such words as “icy water” and describing Neddy as “miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered.”
When Neddy arrives at his house he finds it shuttered and closed. His daughters, whom we are led to believe are at home taking tennis lessons, are nowhere to be found. His wife is not home – how can this be? Is she still at the party?
Late in the story Neddy starts to notice that it is getting darker earlier than he thought it should be. We come to understand, although not explicitly, that Neddy has somehow lost a few months. Almost as if he’s been blacked out – as if he’s been in a coma for the months of late summer and early autumn. As if he’s been in an asylum.
This is a very good story. I would not say it was a great story but I liked it well enough. The story has moments of great subtly, however some of the things Neddy does in the beginning of the story don’t make sense. The way his neighbors react to him coming into their private spaces is so out of the ordinary it stands out. I believe the author did this to hint at the fact that Neddy was so delusional that he didn’t recognize how people were reacting to him. That Neddy didn’t realize that his neighbor’s reactions were in his own head. I just felt that these episodes could have been a little more subtly. I guess, when I read a short story, I like the under-story to remain a little more under the water.
In this story, swimming, I think, represents Neddy’s decent under the water of self-delusion. Near the end Cheever says “He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long” which can be related to his being delusional. The story in the end has Neddy coming to some realization that his home has fallen apart, that his daughters are gone, that his wife isn’t home and that his house is empty. I think this perhaps represents the fact that he is finally coming up for breath. That he is finally starting to get better. As if he’s waking up from a dream.
Short and Sweet
A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Short Story
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
At 502 words, Raymond Carver’s short story Little Things packs a wallop. The story revolves around two, apparently young people who are breaking up. They have a newborn baby. As the story opens the man is packing a bag – moving out – the women yells at him saying “I’m glad you’re leaving”.
During the fight the women picks up the picture of the baby that he has laid on the bed. I believe this is a fateful act. The man’s reaction to her taking that picture is to say he wants to take the baby. I don’t think he wanted the baby before she said that – that’s why he had a picture of the baby on the bed as he was packing – but after she takes the picture he wants the baby.
This women, we never learn her name, is a bitch – we don’t learn exactly what the man has done but he’s probably also an asshole of some sort. The baby, an innocent, is the one who suffers from their vitriol.
Once the argument turns nasty – over the baby – the author shows his skill. He deftly leads the reader into a scene of increasing tension. The baby – a beautiful, innocent, sweet baby – is put in danger. This is a brave thing for an author to do. Some writers may shy away from putting a baby in danger for the sake of his literary creation – not so Carver.
The argument moves into the kitchen, near a stove. The women holds the baby over the stove and of course the reader fears that the baby will be burned. The stove is mentioned three times as the argument rages. In a wonderful example of raising the tension in a story the author says “The kitchen window gave no light.” We (as the reader) is reminded about a comment in the first paragraph that there is a “shoulder-high window” in the kitchen. The focus of our fear shifts from the stove to the window. Will the child get burned or fall out of the window.
In the end we do not know exactly what happens to the baby. Carver leaves the issue ambiguous. It is pretty clear though that the baby is hurt but we don’t know if it fell out of the window, got burned by the stove or if these two assholes tore the baby limb-from-limb. We are left to decide for ourselves what is the worst thing that could have happened to the baby. The story ends with the very vague statement “In this matter the issue was decided.”
This story is very short. I feel that it could have been a little bit longer. I would have liked, for example, to have known what the couple were arguing about.
The author builds the tension very well. We worry about the stove, the window, about them grabbing the baby, everything. In the end we fear the worst and are left to decided for ourselves what happened.
I do not find very many poetical aspects to the story. It is written in a pretty straight forward manner. The word choice is pretty plain – perhaps to reflect the bareness of the apartment and the couple’s lives. This is not to say it needs to be poetical but, from my perspective, when compared to a story such as John Updike’s A&P I don’t like it as well. I like the mastery of Updike’s word usage as a personal preference.
Many of Raymond Carver’s stories revolve around similar themes – dysfunctional families, children being hurt in the fallout of a marriage. Carver’s father was apparently an alcoholic so perhaps his choice of story line reflects this fact. This story was first published in 1988 in the book Where I’m Calling from: New and Selected Stories.
This is the second version of the story that Carver wrote. He wrote a very similar earlier story called Mine indicating what he thinks this story is about. Its about how parents, during a separation or divorce will hurt their children. The story need not be read as a literal story – it can be read as an allegory of how people treat their children as things during a separation and hurt them.
I think the story is pretty good if a little short.
A Little Too Cute
A Critical Analysis of
Kate Chopin’s Short Story
The Story of an Hour
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
Ms. Chopin’s short story The Story of an Hour was first published in Vogue Magazine on December 6, 1894. Originally titled The Dream of an Hour the story has been widely anthologized. The story may be one of Ms. Chopin’s most popular. After her death in August of 1904, Ms. Chopin’s stories and books fell into obscurity. By the 1960’s and 1970’s however Ms. Chopin’s work experienced a resurrection, being recognized by some as “…one of feminism’s sacred texts…” (Susan Cahill, 1975). Today her stories, this one in particular, are recognized as powerful early expressions of the true feelings women of the time.
Early in this story, Mrs. Mallard, the lead protagonist, learns of her husband’s death in a train accident. A family friend, Richards, who apparently works with Mr. Mallard learns of the accident “at the newspaper”, hinting that Mr. Mallard owns the paper. The story says Mr. Mallard’s name “lead the list” of those who were killed, reinforcing his important social position.
When she first learns of the death Mrs. Mallard is crushed by the news. She sobs on her sister’s shoulder. Retiring to her room she finds a “comfortable” seat near the window. Looking onto the scene outside her window she sees sparrows twittering in the eaves, she sees the treetops in the square across the street “aquiver with the new spring life”, she smells the “delicious breath of rain….in the air”. Unusual things, I think, for the recently bereaved to notice.
The word choices the author makes in describing Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the death are very unexpected. Initially the reader is lead to believe that Mrs. Mallard is distraught, however the word choice belies a different reality. The words have an optimistic air, reminding one of freshness and spring, not things normally associated with a recent death.
A feeling comes over Mrs. Mallard that she cannot resist. We see her sitting in her comfortable chair, looking out the window at the pretty sights and we are told that she is holding something back. We are led to believe this something is an outbreak of sorrow, however in a very effective passage, the author teases us, and then finally reveals that Mrs. Mallard is happy. The author says “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully.“ Why fearfully? What is coming?
We soon learn that what is coming is an overwhelming feeling of joy at the death of her husband. She is fearful of what others might think of her, as the author may have been as she wrote those lines. In 1894, a story of a happy widow, one who feels “free, free, free!“ might be somewhat shocking to the reading public. Some researches believe that the obscurity that Ms. Chopin’s work fell into was this resistance to the idea of a women, a married women, having her own feelings outside of her husband.
In the end we learn that Mr. Mallard is not dead. As Mrs. Mallard is descending the stairway, after having been convinced by her sister to come downstairs, Mr. Mallard surprisingly opens the front door. Unaware that there has even been an accident he knows nothing of what’s going on.
His family friend, Mr. Richards, is apparently aware of the feelings that Mrs. Mallard is feeling because he tries to hide her from Mr. Mallard – to no good effect.
In a stunning shock of irony, Mrs. Mallard, whom, in the first sentence of the story we are told, has a heart condition, succumbs to the shock of her’s husband’s continued life and dies on the steps.
I think the story is OK. I do not think it is an excellent story. I found the depth of the woman’s exultation at the death of her husband to be a bit overblown. The husband is described as having “kind, tender hands” and having “never looked save with love upon her”. I found it a little bit hard to understand why she was so overjoyed if he was such a decent guy. Her exultation at his death is more indicative of someone being abused. I feel that it is possible that Ms. Chopin, the author, chickened out. Didn’t have the bravery to actually describe the man as he really was. The wife’s exultation at his death did not coincide with the way Mr. Mallard is described.
Another thing about this story that I find a as a shortcoming is the ironic ending. I am not sure about this but I think that short stories of the time were more formulaic. An ironic ending may have been an expected part of a short story. I think the story may have been better if Mrs. Mallard hadn’t died. Her death doesn’t add anything to the story. Death is bad outcome for her – don’t get me wrong – but it seems to me that worse outcome would have been if he had said “Why is dinner not ready?” when he came home.
I think it’s a good story – not a great story. Its so short that there is not a lot of opportunity to fully describe all the characters, nor the setting. I would have liked to have just a bit more information about Mr. Mallard. What level of society did the family exist in? Was the author saying something about all women of the time or just women of a certain socio-economic strata? I also felt that the irony was a bit too cute.
Bad Writers are Easy to Find
A Critical Analysis of
Isaac Asimov’s Short Story
The Fun They Had
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
Asimov’s story lacks almost all the qualities that one would normally look for in a well written story. His short story writing career started in 1939. This particular story was written in 1951 – 12 years after his first story. It seems to me that if this is the level of the man’s work after 12 years of writing then he wasn’t trying hard enough.
The story related a lame episode in a young child’s life about 200 years in the future. Teachers have been replaced with robots. Schools are non-existent. A young boy finds an old book – which is a total novelty to he and his little friend, a neighborhood girl. The story relates their surprise at the foreign idea of a person teaching a child in a school setting. Then the story ends.
I find no effective use of simile or metaphor, no use of symbolism or artistry of any form. I find no under-story, by which I mean a hinted at second layer to the story. The story is just one layer deep, relating boring events that happen to boring characters.
The basic idea behind the story is silly and sophomoric. People have stopped teaching children anything. Children cannot even imagine a day when a human being would stand up in front of a group of children to expound upon some sort of information. How silly. Why would anyone ever think that would be a good idea? I can imagine a day when robots exhibit perfect fidelity to humans when it comes to communicating with human beings. I can even conceive of a possibility where robots would be better communicators than people – but why in the world would anyone choose to replace a teacher with a machine that is so pathetically worse at communicating than Asimov’s robots are? It makes absolutely no sense.
Of course, one may interpret the story to be saying that such a thing would not be a good idea and switching to a system where students do not interact with robots is not a good idea, but that’s not saying much. Its like say ‘We shouldn’t use murders to teach our children.” Everyone would just say ‘No shit, Sherlock’.
Beside the point that the story is so silly is the fact that the story exhibits no artistic effort whatsoever that I can find. There are very few similes and/or metaphors. There are no allusions or references to other writings or other writers, there are no artistic turns of phrase.
Scholar James Gunn, in 1980, wrote of Asimov’s I, Robot:
The robot stories—and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.
I think this quote applies to this story as well. This may be his style but it’s quite poor.
I love Isaac Asimov. I spent many hours reading a reasonable portion of his 500 published books, but this particular story leaves me very disappointed, which is perhaps why I am so harsh in this analysis.
Even the title of the story sucks. All Mr. Asimov did was take the last four words in the story and make it his title. How ridiculous. No wonder he was able to write 500 books if they sucked as much as this story. I guess it just goes to show that ‘Bad Writers are Easy to Find’.
Turning a Phrase
A Critical Analysis of
John Updike’s Short Story
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
I never understood why people said John Updike was a great writer, however, after reading this story I do. This is an amazing story. Mr. Updike’s use of the English language is wonderful – in the literal sense of the word. He says things in ways that I’ve never heard before. Is this because he is a southern writer or because he’s a very creative writer. I think it’s probably the latter.
In this simple story a young man is mesmerized by a girl that comes into the store he works in. The girl, and two of her friends, come into the store wearing only bathing suits. The story revolves around a description of the prettiest girl, the “queen bee” (Queenie thereafter), as she moves through the store looking for a jar of “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢”. When the girls finally make their way to the checkout slot the manager of the store chastises the girls for being indecent. The narrator, a young man that cannot seemingly help himself, quits in protest of the manager’s treatment of the girls.
Throughout the piece Mr. Updike uses the most pleasant choice of words. His turn of phrase is quite entertaining. This interesting turn of phrase makes itself know in the first sentence where Mr. Updike simply jumps right in with both feet starting the story with “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” which is actually a partial sentence, but it totally works. Other wonderful turns of phrase include him saying that the girl’s upper chest looked “like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light”, saying the girls walked up the “cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle”, that his friend Stoksie had “two babies chalked up on his fuselage”. These types of magical formulations appear in almost every paragraph, making reading the story a pure joy. Careful study of the text, as I’ve done in the table below, is well rewarded.
The author uses a couple of other techniques that I particularly liked as well. Throughout the beginning of the story he repeatedly refers to things as “white”. White shoulders, white skin, two crescents of white skin under a girls bathing suit bottoms, white shoulders, white shirts. This simple symbolism implies the purity of the girls. It also reiterates the feeling a young man might experience when a slightly scantily clad young women comes near.
The author frequently uses words that can be interpreted as sexual. For example he uses the word peach twice in the story, peach being a colloquialism for a pretty girl. At one point he says that one of the characters opened a paper bag as if he as “peeling a peach”, clearly a reference to remove a pretty girl’s clothes. Almost any time he describes any physical attribute of Queeny the words he chooses can be interpreted as being sexual: “racks”, “rub the inside of my apron”, he uses the word “pink” a lot.
Another technique I enjoyed is found near the middle of the story when the author says “Now here comes the sad part of the story” indicating with no ambiguity whatsoever the transition from the start of the story to the middle and end of the story. This is an odd thing to do perhaps, but in this story it works perfectly.
The entire concept of the story – on top of its wonderful use of words and interesting phrases – is also very entertaining. A boy, in a rash moment, thinking he might win the love of a pretty girl, figuratively jumps off a bridge but tragically does not win the girl. That’s cute – and so indicative of something a young man might do.
I think this is an excellent short story. It not too long – it moves quickly – almost every paragraph contains some interesting or delightful turn of phrase – and it tells a cute and fun story. This story was first published in the New Yorker on July 22, 1961, also later appeared in the collection Pigeon Feathers. A short film was made of the story which you may view here.
I do not find a whole lot of symbolism in the story. Some writers interpret the A&P to be a symbol of middle class society – and Sammy’s rebellion against the A&P as a rebellion against convention, but I don’t see that.
A list of the interesting or unusual phrasing in this piece:
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits
This is the opening sentence. It’s titillating. Its interesting. I want to find out about these girls.
Describing a fat girl’s ass.
two crescents of white just under it
A place on the girl’s ass that is not tanned but shows. Good observation.
one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty
Updike is mean to the regular customers in this story – he shows them disdain every time he mentions one.
By the time I got her feathers smoothed
He made the customer feel better. The customer is a bird. Other customers are compared to pigs, sheep, etc.
a little snort
There is a recurring theme of customers being pigs in this story.
one of those chubby berry-faces
A strange description of someone’s face, but you get the idea clearly.
white prima donna legs
Updike starts describing the prettiest girl as a queen early in the story and then calls her Queeny from there on. This is how he describes Queeny’s legs.
dirty-pink – – beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble…
First of all he interjects the little ‘I don’t know’ in there reminding us that he was there and it is he that is describing this story. Secondly – the use of the word nubble is titillating. You can feel this young man’s boner growing.
looped loose around the cool tops of her arms
Why does he add the word “cool” here?
The slim sliver of white skin exposed by her bathing suit top hanging down because her shoulder straps are off her shoulders. To notice that this thin strip of white skin even exists – and then to make it clear how sexy that is – is one of the reasons why this is a great writer.
like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light
An odd way, but wonderful, to describe her shoulders the part of her body between the bottom of her shoulders and the top of her chest.
kind of dirty-pink…sort of oaky hair…
kind of prim face…
Use of “kind of” and “sort of” is the character talking. It gives us an idea of where this kid speaking came from.
oaky hair that the sun and salt had bleached
A good description. Very clear what color it is.
She must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stoksie…
An odd but poetic way of putting it. Weird punctuation.
but she didn’t tip
She didn’t let on that she had noticed the boys noticing her. I find the word “tip” suggestive somehow.
…her eyes moving across the racks, and stopped, and turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron…
His stomach was not the only thing rubbing against the inside of his apron. The word “racks” is suggestive.
…when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them…
Describing the other customers as they encountered this girl walking around with her bathing suit top down. The word “dawned” is perfect.
A funny way of saying it. You can feel the young writer flexing his muscles.
Again a stab at the customers this time as sheep.
this jiggled them
Used to describe how the customers felt when the encountered Queeny’s white shoulders – but the word “jiggled” implies that they encountered something else as well.
house-slaves in pin curlers
Another mean shot at the customers.
…all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor .
The words “stacked” and “naked” again hinting at the authors growing interest in this girl. The “green-and-cream rubber-tile floor” just a fun way of saying it and very visual.
…two babies chalked up on his fuselage already
World war two reference which would have been prevalent when this was written. Shows a nineteen year old’s lack of respect for fatherhood.
Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company
A joke that in the 1950’s would have been read as the Russian’s taking over the country.
big summer colony out on the Point… we’re north of Boston.
The summer colony is of rich people – like Queeny, not him. He lives in a town where some people “haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years”. This paragraph is where Updike inserts setting. He doesn’t make a big deal of it. It is just naturally part of the story.
varicose veins mapping their legs
Again with the attack on the older women shoppers.
twenty-seven old free-loaders tearing up Central Street
OK John. Let’s attack the old guys bums now. Showing disrespect for everyone – as young late teenage boys do.
Diet Delight peaches
The girls are peaches.
sizing up their joints
Joints is interpreted loosely here.
Now here comes the sad part of the story
He’s helping the reader understand that he’s moving into the middle of the story.
The whole store was like a pinball machine…. around the light bulbs..
This is such an unusual way to put it but it is 100% understandable. This is perfect. The little added “around the light bulbs” is perfect.
an old party in baggy gray pants
A bum. A little bit of respect here “old party” but he means bum.
into my fingers icy cold
Technically this says that his fingers were icy cold but its clear he means the jar. Interesting that the word cold or cool is used frequently in this piece. Queeny is cool – unapproachable – unattainable.
Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢.
Wonderful detail. Its things like this that makes this story stand out. This is a memorable detail.
the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top
The word “nubble” again. What does that make you think of?
The jar went heavy in my hand
What he’s saying is that he was stunned when she reached into her bathing suit top to get her money, as any nineteen year old red-blooded American boy would be.
Then everybody’s luck begins to run out.
Especially the author’s.
haggling with a truck full of cabbages
Lengel, a new character, doesn’t just come in he comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbage. He’s not haggling with a truck driver, nor with the cabbage, but with the truck full of cabbages. Another perfect detail.
the girls touch his eye
He doesn’t just see them – they “touch his eye”.
the way it [her voice] ticked over “pick up” and “snacks.”
The use of the word “ticked” is interesting.
All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room…
What an interesting way of saying it. In other words he understood her. This is almost cinematic – you can almost see the camera going down her throat and arriving in her living room.
a really sweet can
“can” is an old fashioned word now. It makes the story a bit nostalgic.
her lower lip pushing
Every time this guy describes something about this girl’s physical body it is titillating. “Lower lip pushing” is titillating.
her very blue eyes.
The word “very” here is quite effective. Queeny is no ordinary person with ordinary blue eyes.
shook open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach
That’s pretty gentle. Not to mention that if one thinks of the girls as peaches then “peeling a peach” has a sexual connotation.
it begins to make a little song
Let’s throw sound into the party while we’re at it. Just an added bit of fun.
two smoothest scoops of vanilla
A tasty way to describe Queeny’s tits.
her narrow pink palm
Take every opportunity, John to remind us of her sexuality. The use of the word “pink” is suggestive.
they flicker across the lot to their car
Why “flicker”? Because of the electric eyes? Just fun.
Leaving me with Lengle and a kink in his eyebrow.
Lengle is pissed.
I started to say something that came out “Fiddle-de-doo.”
That is just funny.
…like scared pigs in a chute.
Let’s take one more shot at the customers before we end.
The bow tie is theirs, if you’ve ever wondered.
Never did – but thanks for letting me know.
in my white shirt that my mother ironed the night before
Why does he add this detail? Cause he’s an great writer that’s why. It hints toward the difficulty he is going to have when he explains why he lost his job.
the door heaves itself open
I would have just said the door opened but like the artist he is Updike never passes up an opportunity to be wonderful.
outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt.
How can someone ever think to say something so interesting?
Now they are his girls. He wishes. He will probably never see them again.
Symbolism in the Hands of a Master
A Critical Analysis of
Earnest Hemmingway’s Short Story
Hills Like White Elephants
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
The story Hills Like White Elephants is an amazing piece of writing. Starting with a short descriptive paragraph and ending with a five sentence concluding paragraph, the bulk of the story is told through dialog between the two main characters, a pair of lovers vacationing in Spain. The action takes place at a train station in a small river valley between Barcelona and Madrid.
The story is carried by the words of the two main characters; a man (called the American) and a women (called the girl). They are talking and having drinks while waiting for a train. Their conversation, when not about what they’re drinking, is about the girl’s pregnancy.
It is possible to understand this story through the dialog alone, however I think the piece shines when one considers the underlying symbolism. The symbolism carries the story in a much more forceful way than the actual word-by-word sentences.
The two protagonists, and I think there are two – they form a couple and we care about them equally – are ‘discussing’ her pregnancy. The man supports the idea of having an abortion saying things like ‘It’s really an awfully simple operation’ and calling the operation a way to ‘let the air in’. The women is conflicted. When the man first mentions the operation she looks to the ground. She is agitated in their conversation. The story never actually says how the issue is resolved, but I believe that through a careful study of the symbols employed the reader may come to understand exactly what happened. I explain my interpretation of the author’s use of symbolism in the remainder of this essay.
There are many symbols employed in this story; among them are the hills, a perceived white elephant, the river valley, a beaded curtain, the train, a smile, some baggage and, finally, the train station. Each of these symbols serves to expose aspects of the story not directly stated.
I believe the hills represent the pregnancy of the young woman. Consider the shape of a hill; it reflects the shape of a pregnant woman’s stomach. Note also that the author chose not to call them mountains which might be more accurate given the locale.
In popular culture a white elephant frequently represents an unwanted gift, something difficult to get rid of. A white elephant is something one would not wish to have. It is important, I think, that the girl is the first one to mention the elephant.
I find it interesting that these first two symbols, the hills and the white elephant, are made so obvious by being used in the title of the piece. I wondered as I read the story why the author chose to do this. I take a stab at explaining this below.
The river valley represents a separation or chasm between the two characters. One side of the valley is described as being dry and barren. The other side of the valley has grain fields and a tree lined river, the River Ebro, one of the largest rivers in Spain. Near the end of the story the couple sits at a table, looking out onto the scenery. The woman, initially not in support of the idea of an abortion, looks out on the dry side of the valley. The man, who supports the idea, looks out onto the more pleasant side of the valley. I believe the valley represents the two possible outcomes of their conversation; the two sides of the issue.
The river is an interesting, if minor, symbol. In antiquity the River Ebro served as a boundary between the northern, Roman occupied, areas of Spain and the southern, Carthaginian occupied areas. It would be interesting to analyze what these two societies thought about the issue of unwanted, out of wedlock childbirth.
The idea of a border or boundary is reinforced by the fourth symbol used in the story, the beaded curtain, however I think it may more literally represent the actual act of abortion. At one point the women reaches out and puts her hands on the hanging strings of beads – this just a few seconds after she first considers the possibility of going forward with the abortion. She holds the string of beads in her hand as if she is considering them; and by implication as if she’s considering the idea of going forward with the abortion. More deeply, the abortion itself may be interpreted as a boundary (as can the baby if they where to decide to go forward with the birth), dividing the couple’s life into a before and an after.
I find another symbol in the train. I believe it symbolizes the baby. The waitress, at one point, says ‘The train comes in five minutes’. When the train comes, the couple must get on, there will be no going back. Their lives will be changed forever.
After the waitress says the comment about the train the girl ‘smiled brightly…to thank her’. I think this smile represents a resignation. The girl has come to conclude that she cannot get on the train – or, put another way, she will get on the train but to a destination different than the one she may have hoped for.
Throughout the conversation the girl has been looking to the American to make the decision for her. She says things like ‘And you really want to?’ or ‘If I do it you’ll be happy….’. She’s trying to elicit the decision from him. She wants him to tell her what to do, but he never does. I think she does this to try to alleviate her own guilt. I think she‘s known, since before the beginning of the story, that she must go through with the abortion – she is the one that first mentions the white elephant after all. I think her smile, at this point in the story, is a smile of resignation, the point where she resigns herself to moving forward.
The final two symbols I find, the baggage and the train station, confirm my conclusions.
Near the end of the story the couple sits staring at each other across a table. The man notices their baggage, over the girl’s shoulder, sitting next to the wall. Immediately after the girl’s smile of resignation he gets up from the table and moves their baggage to the other side of the station. Like the river valley or the table, the train station, a place of departure, a place where people make irrevocable decisions about the future of their lives, represents the decision that the couple must make. The baggage represents the actual decision. When the man moves the baggage the author is saying that the woman’s decision has been made. The American moves the baggage to his side of the station.
There are many other minor symbols. The table, where they sit across from each other, again, represents the pending decision. The felt pads, used to protect the table from water damage, may represent the small talk about the drinks, which shields them from having to talk about the real issue. The fact that they are outside of the bar may represent the fact that they are foreigners. These minor symbols add depth to the story and support general themes.
As the story concludes a longer descriptive paragraph appears where the author reinforces the ideas I’ve identified. In this paragraph the author says the man picks up the bags (the decision) and moves them to the other side of the station (the side that he had been sitting on – the side from which one can see a more beautiful view). The author says the man looks down the tracks and cannot see the train coming (that is, he cannot see the baby coming). The man goes into the bar where he looks at the people who are ‘reasonably waiting for the train’. Why did the author use the word ‘reasonably’? The word ‘reasonably’ in this sentence makes no sense, unless perhaps the author is saying that he thinks its reasonable to wait to have a baby – that an abortion is not an unreasonable thing for them to do. Finally the man comes back to the table where he finds the girl and she smiles (another sign of resignation) and says ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
Obviously Hemmingway is a master, but I wondered why he used the two early symbols – the hills and the white elephant – so prominently and so obviously; going so far as to use them for the title. I think the reason for this has everything to do with his mastery.
I can imagine that Hemmingway built this story, from the bottom up, starting with the symbols. I imagine him saying to himself ‘I am going to write a story that consists entirely of dialog – no description – but the dialog will not carry the story. The story will be carried by the symbols I interpose.’
So he set out to write his story; given a situation – a couple trying to come to terms with an unwanted pregnancy – and a long list of symbols; the train, the station, the valley, a smile; given these tools I imagine him building his story out from there.
I think Hemmingway used the two symbols (the hills and the white elephant) in the title and made them so obvious as a further display of his mastery. It’s as if he had such a wealth of symbolism that he could afford to waste some. He made these two symbols so obvious to divert our attention from the deeper symbols in the story.
A first level analysis may conclude that the story is about an unwanted pregnancy, however a deeper analysis concludes that its about a couple making a decision. About how hard decisions are. About how two people, if they’re in love, can come together and, through effort, continue their journey together, even if they are sometimes stuck in dry, unpleasant places.