“The Wolves of Cernogratz” Write Up by Bailey Ashworth

The Wolves of Cernogratz” by H.H. Munro (aka Saki) opens on a baroness who is hosting some guests in her recently acquired mansion and is explaining to them the legend associated with the house. Unexpectedly, the baroness’s governess, Fraulein Schmidt, interjects and says that the baroness’s account is inaccurate; the wolves only howl for members of the von Cernogratz who are dying, and a tree falls when the von Cernogratz’s soul leaves their body. The baroness criticizes her for speaking up against her, which prompts the governess to explain that she is the last living von Cernogratz, and she heard these tales from her father. Once she departs the party, the guests rail on her story and make fun of her. Only one man, Hamburg, believes what Schmidt has said. The baroness states that she is planning to fire Schmidt after the holidays. This will never come to pass, however, because the governess falls ill around the holidays and is bedridden. The governess laments over her sickness as it leaves her having to do things for herself, and she is talking to her guests about this tragedy when the howling of wolves sounds from outside. Alarmed, the baroness rushes to see the governess, who tells her that she is dying and to leave her alone to die with the wolves’ sounds. When the baroness rejoins her guests, they are all startled by the sound of a falling tree. The next day, the governess’ name appears in the paper, as the last von Cernogratz.

In this piece, I tracked the occurrence of arrogance and complacency in the characters. Knowing that Saki was a satirist who loved to make fun of the Edwardian time in England, Saki’s repeated use of negative and snooty character actions summarize a good half of what he is commenting on in this story; he views the elite of the day as thinking they are better than one another and this creates an obvious and easy pathway to being a social commentary. The people, especially the women, in his day took themselves extremely seriously and there seems to be very little room for compromise or open-mindedness as displayed by the baroness in her complete disregard for her governess’s assertions.

The second highlight I tracked was deliberate lies or mild deception, of which there were so many! The baroness uses the doubt over what the governess has said to twist her into appearing to be an insane woman, essentially gas lighting her room, and paints her in a light that not only makes the governess look very negative, but also to bolster her own reputation all at once. This is most evident in the last sentence, where the baroness has released a statement to the press that she was a close friend of the late great heir of the von Cernogratzs. The governess is not entirely guilt-free either; we are not sure by the end of the story whether or not she was telling the truth at all or if the situation of her death was peculiar on accident or on purpose or really an act of god. We read this story all the way to the end to get answers to the mysterious legend of this mansion, but are ultimately left unanswered.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why didn’t Saki tell us for sure whether or not the governess was a Cernogratz?
  2. Is this short of a story effective enough to be a proper social commentary?
  3. Does it even matter if the story is answered or finished if the whole point is to satirize?

“How To Become A Writer” Write Up by Sophie Walker

In Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Become a Writer,” a second-person “you” (though it’s actually not the reader, it’s someone named Francie) tries to be all sorts of things (primarily a movie star) but fails miserably, so when she’s fifteen she tries to write haikus and sonnets and villanelles. She tries to show them to her mother, but she doesn’t believe that Francie can become a writer. Francie tires of counting syllables, so she tries to write fiction. She writes a story about an elderly couple who shoot each other with a malfunctioning rifle, and her English teacher tells her that she is bad with plot. Francie simply blows him off. She is good with kids, so she takes many babysitting jobs and goes to college as a child psychology major. However, when she tries to go to her elective class, birdwatching 101, she ends up in the creative writing classroom due to an error in the computer that made her schedule, and she chooses to stay in this class instead of fixing the problem. She continues to write violent stories about couples who are electrocuted or blown up. Again, she is accused of having a bad sense of plot. She decides to write comedies and dates a very funny man so she can use his comments in her stories. She starts getting in trouble for taking more creative writing courses than child psychology courses. No one likes her work, and she feels dejected. Writing, however, is very important to her, and she even switches majors. Her teacher wants her to be imaginative, so she decides to write a parody of Moby Dick, but her roommate doesn’t like it because, again, there is no real story. Suddenly, her teacher wants her to write pieces based on her own life. She only writes a few words about losing her virginity and can’t write about how her brother lost his leg in Vietnam, but she can write about her parents’ divorce—well, it ends up being a story about an elderly couple blowing up. At a cocktail party, her drunk roommate states that Francie always writes about her dumb boyfriend. Francie insists that she’s interested in syllables—what she so hated counting as a teenager—and everyone finds that ridiculous. Her mother tries to get her into becoming a business executive. Instead, she writes a story about a confused music student that involves exploding violinists. She writes a manuscript, but no one likes it. Francie breaks up with her boyfriend, quits numerous jobs, and dates random people—many of which just see her as a sex object—including one man who constantly straightens his armhair in the same direction, similar to the way Francie’s life constantly points in the same direction: Writing about people blowing up.

I chose to highlight the characterization of Francie and her change throughout the story and the evolution of her writing. They both mirror each other a bit, as the reader learns a lot about Francie through the things she writes and the careers she chooses. Ultimately, her writing, though it changes faces several times, is plotless and mediocre, while her hope and sanity is at first high but eventually falls to meet the goodness of her writing.

At first, Francie tries to write poetry. Her mother doesn’t believe in her, but Francie stays determined, as it is said in the quote,

This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

Later, Francie moves on to fiction:

Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables.

When her English teacher tells her she has no sense of plot, Francie writes on her paper,

Plots are for dead people, pore-face.

Next up, however, Francie’s career dramatically changes. She branches off from writing altogether and instead tries at babysitting. As it says in the story,

Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you.

And later,

Apply for college as a child psychology major.

However, later Francie’s career turns again and she ends up back in the creative writing field:

Perhaps your creative writing isn’t that bad. Perhaps it is fate.

Unfortunately, this class does not go well. As her teacher says,

Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.

Then Francie’s career changes again—she tries to stick to comedy. However, her writing still has no plot, and Francie’s feeling finally change and she begins to feel down.

You spend too much time slouched and demoralized.

“Why write? Where does writing come from?”

Francie has lost her confidence and is questioning why she even writes. Eventually, she comes up with an idea.

“It will be about monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York. The first line will be, ‘Call me Fishmeal,’ and it will feature a menopausal suburban husband named Richard, who because he is so depressed all the time is called ‘Mopey Dick’ by his witty wife Elaine.” Of course, it is disliked because, again, it has no plot. “You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?”

Francie loses even more confidence about her work.

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say.

Her mother tries to get her into business, but Francie still likes to write despite it all. She writes about exploding violinists, which her roommate likes only because she used to date a violinist (it can be assumed that that relationship didn’t end too well), and it is even admitted that the story wasn’t a big hit.

In the last few paragraphs, Francie seems to have lost her mind over her writing. As the story says,

Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.

She finally gets a manuscript done, but it’s still not good. Francie compares being a writer to having polio.

Ultimately, Francie’s feelings and career can be summed up in the last line:

…he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.

Francie is essentially the arm hair, being smoothed in the direction of writing, and in the end it doesn’t turn out that great.

In my own writing, I can use this technique of placing two things side-by-side to compare them, such as how Moore essentially compares Francie and her writing. In this story, Francie’s writing doesn’t change but Francie does, as her writing remains plotless but she herself slowly loses her mind in a way. In my own writing, I could do a similar thing, but perhaps they both change in the same way or opposite ways. It serves a form of characterization, to help the reader better understand the character and their arc.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why do you think the author chose second person point of view? (which I should’ve made this presentation about)
  2. Why do you think Francie was always writing about people, particularly couples, dying and/or blowing up? (which I also should’ve made this presentation about)
  3. Why do you think Francie’s stories still lacked plot despite years of teaching?

The Necessity of a Duplicitous Perspective

Techniques tracked:
-point of view: determining ratio in omniscience
-objective correlative: the storm, his wife’s clothes

The same week Otessa Moshfegh’s “An Honest Woman” came out in the The New Yorker with Bob Dylan on the cover, David Sedaris was giving his annual reading in Houston. Per his standard practice of promoting someone else’s work, the book he’d elected to promote this time around was Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen. The excerpt Sedaris read was exposition describing Eileen’s life in a cramped house with her alcoholic father, rendered primarily via the results of her abusing laxatives to relieve her constipation. It gets graphic as she almost overflows the toilet, audience members visibly squirming. “‘And these,'” Sedaris concluded with characteristic bravado, wrapping up a passage in which Eileen heaves on the bathroom floor in sweaty relief, “‘were the good times.'”

“Horrible,” he effused in the aftermath of the applause, nearly vibrating with glee. “Just horrible.”

The discomfort in “An Honest Woman,” published just over two weeks before the 2016 election, is more subtle but no less chilling. The story begins with a young woman meeting her next-door neighbor, an old man named Jeb who’s lived in the neighborhood for years–“‘Through seven Presidents,'” he tells her through the chain-link fence separating their backyards. Jeb can hear everything the girl does in her house when he sits in his basement, though he preferred not to take advantage of this anomaly before the girl’s boyfriend Trevor left. When Jeb’s nephew comes over for breakfast, Jeb gives his nephew a piece of misdelivered mail he’s been saving so the nephew has an excuse to talk to the girl. After inquiring about her appearance, the nephew goes over to the girl’s house and they set a date for a drink. That afternoon, Jeb brings the date up when he sees the girl in her yard; she insists the date is platonic enough that Jeb could join them, and he invites her to stop by his place for whiskey before she and the nephew leave. A storm hits, and the nephew calls Jeb to tell him he won’t be able to make it. When the girl arrives at his house in the midst of the storm, Jeb tells her his nephew has been delayed and will be late, then serves her whiskey (in a glass he’s licked the rim of). While they drink, Jeb says that the storm might have saved the girl from his nephew doing the “pump and dump.” The girl responds that she knows he’s trying to get a rise out of her:

“I see your game. You’re trying to shame me for being young and pretty. You want to make me apologize for all the other girls who didn’t like you. You just can’t stand that I’m right next door reminding you of all that. That’s it, isn’t it? Pump and dump,” she scoffed. “Nothing you say can hurt me. See if you can do it. I dare you.”

Jeb laments young women who give themselves away “for free,” language the girl also calls him out for. She asks if his nephew is coming and Jeb admits that he isn’t. She doesn’t leave but looks at some old photos and then uses his bathroom, inducing a memory of a woman who offhandedly rejected Jeb while she was sitting on a toilet. When she returns, Jeb reminisces about his dead wife, setting a hand on the girl’s knee in his alleged emotional reverie, which the girl also calls him out for:

“Get your nasty paw off my leg,” the girl said flatly.

Jeb then offers to let the girl try on some of his wife’s old clothes in his bedroom, an offer repeated and refused several times. He says she’s lucky he’s not a creep, then offering that his wife was not a “tease or hussy like you find nowadays,” at which point the girl suddenly straddles him, asking if this was what he wanted. Before he can respond, she leaves. When the nephew calls later, Jeb declares the girl “a dud.” The next morning Jeb listens in his basement as the girl sings along to the radio “as though nothing at all had happened.” He continues to watch her from a distance, not offering to help her with her house chores as he might once have. A few days later the ex-boyfriend Trevor returns, and to escape the house, Jeb wanders around town, musing what it would be like “to be worshipped and beloved.”

The writer Robert Olen Butler says the kernel of all good fiction is yearning, and this last line articulates fairly directly what this character’s yearning is. Jeb’s yearning, in the current sociopolitical context at least, comes to stand for the misogynist yearning of what it turns out is a more significant percentage of the population than we thought. But “to be worshipped and beloved” is a desire that is itself a product of entitlement that inevitably comes at the expense of others. The story’s conclusion seems to posit further that even when people are confronted directly with the delusional nature of their delusional mindsets, they themselves will then proceed “as though nothing at all had happened.”

The point of view bears out the politics of gender dominance: omniscient but predominantly told from Jeb’s perspective, the story never gives “the girl” a name, though Jeb must have presumably learned it. This name use, or lack thereof, reflects not the fact that as a man Jeb is better and deserving of a name–and its concurrent individuality–while women are not, but rather that society treats men as if they were better and deserving of names, etc. The reader can’t tell initially how malevolent his intentions are–likely because he himself isn’t aware of how malevolent they are. The most dangerous evildoers are the ones convinced they’re doing good. 

We do get glimmers of the girl’s perspective, individual sentences that spring up here and there, unexpectedly yet wholly welcome, in around a ten-to-ninety-percent ratio. Take, for instance, when Jeb’s crossed a verbal threshold of sexual aggression:

Men never ceased to amaze her—sly dogs, all of them, nasty creatures.

The other moment that goes into the girl’s perspective does it for a few more sentences:

The girl tapped her fingernails against her glass and let herself sink back against the old plaid couch. Its springs had been flattened over the decades. The upholstery smelled of Jeb—bitter, like dry rot, and slightly chemical. The rough fabric of the cushions scratched the girl’s arms. She closed her eyes and sipped her drink. She was tired. It was hard work to get her house in order, and she was doing it by herself now. She was glad to have the distraction, away from her thoughts, the cold jabs each time she longed for Trevor’s hand to touch her, his lips to kiss her neck, her cheeks, her thighs. Sinking deeper into the couch, she thought that if Trevor were to come back she’d let him do whatever he wanted. Maybe she’d even let herself get pregnant. But the idea was like a bad taste in her mouth. She made a sour face.

This is a passage that could theoretically give the girl some agency over the story’s conclusion–Trevor returns because she wants him to, not because he wants to, though there’s still the uncomfortable aftertaste left by the fact that Jeb won’t respect her privacy until there’s a man back in the picture. (Note as well how the passage that keeps us predominantly in the girl’s perspective embeds a sentence, the third, that could possibly be Jeb’s, though possibly not, about the way the couch smells like him. Note as well how the last sentence makes the transition from internal though to external action.)

The point of view shifts constantly early on in the story, when Jeb and the girl first meet:

Jeb laughed again and sighed and looked at her through the fence. His shock of white hair gleamed in a single ray of light falling from the girl’s yard into his. His strange, spotted face and bulbous nose made the girl look away. White strands of loose thread hung down from her jean shorts and fluttered around her thighs. Her breasts, Jeb noticed, were untethered—no bra. What color were her eyes? Jeb looked down at them, perplexed to find that they were of different colors, one a strange, violet shade of blue, the other green with flecks of black and honey.

The first sentence of this passage sets us up to be in Jeb’s point of view: Jeb is looking at the girl, so we expect to see what he sees. But then we don’t–in the second sentence we see what the girl must be seeing, Jeb’s “shock of white hair,” which Jeb himself wouldn’t be able to see. But then in that same sentence, via the “ray of light” making Jeb’s white hair gleam, the point of view pivots again–the ray falls “from the girl’s yard into his,” shifting the point of view from the girl back into Jeb. The third sentence is ambiguous, POV-wise: Jeb’s face is described from an external perspective as making “the girl look away,” but his awareness of his own looks (implicitly showing his insecurity about them) could be his own interpretation of why the girl is looking away, so we’re ostensibly looking at the girl look away from his point of view. (The use of “the girl” as the character’s demarcator also keeps us always predominantly in an external perspective–specifically Jeb’s–even in passages that are unequivocally from within the girl’s own head.) The fourth sentence, describing the girl’s clothes (“jean shorts”) and then body (“thighs”) are squarely from Jeb’s perspective: the girl(’s body) is being gazed at. The fifth sentence goes further into Jeb’s male gaze, intensifying his sexualization of her; we also get an unequivocal demarcator of Jeb’s perspective in this sentence with the phrase “Jeb noticed”–the author does not want the reader to confuse Jeb’s perspective for the story’s. The final two sentences keep us squarely in Jeb’s perspective; Jeb’s observation that the girl’s eyes are different colors gives us an objective correlative for not only how this woman in particular is “perplexing” to him but how all women are. There’s also the irony that he can observe the girl’s eyes’ nuance, implying he’s able to do so because it’s a physical feature that can be observed with the eye.

The girl’s perspective pops up that ten percent of the time as an insistence that the female perspective will not be suppressed. The fact that in the story Jeb has access to the girl’s perspective literally–listening to the girl through the basement window–puts him in a position men rarely are to actually see the true effects their actions have on a woman. (A literal invocation of perspective also ups the stakes of the implications of the point of view the story is told through, since it seems to make the story a commentary on perspective itself.) We see that the girl’s indifference observed by Jeb at the end (when she acts like nothing happened) will simply become part of the cycle in which Jeb’s hatred/disrespect of women is fueled by their reactions to his hatred/disrespect of them. The girl will become another fleeting memory for him, like the woman who rejected him while on the toilet, except possibly not even, since the girl’s relationship with him was not as intense or prolonged–we see that his interaction with her might even have been fleeting enough for him to transmute the memory of what really happened with her, as he starts to do in his phone call with the nephew later that same night (“‘had a fine time with the neighbor girl without you'”). We see that Jeb does ascribe the boyfriend a name, just as he ascribes him something else he does not ascribe the girl alone–privacy. This is reminiscent of a tweet from the #YesAllWomen movement that arose in response to Elliot Rodger’s 2014 shooting spree:

because ‘I have a boyfriend’ is more effective than ‘I’m not interested’—men respect other men more than my right to say no

Granted, and tellingly, he does this not out of respect, but rather out of being threatened and sexually insecure himself. This is one of the chilling insights the story offers, that of the misogynist’s concept of respect for women:

“You never know with young women these days,” Jeb said. “It’s a rough, wild world out there, and girls, women”—he knew the distinction was an important one to make for the girl to feel respected…

The not-so-implicit concept of respect here being that it’s more important for a woman to “feel respected” than to actually be respected, implying further that a woman is not worthy of actual respect. He wants to make her feel respected rather than actually respecting her. (An attitude chillingly reminiscent of that inherent in a certain president-elect’s offhand claims that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” Which we could then take even further back to Clinton’s games with semantics during his impeachment hearings. Does our president-elect respect women? It depends on what the meaning of “respect” is…)

In an interview about the story with the New Yorker‘s fiction editor, Moshfegh discusses including the girl’s perspective–which she had to discover through drafts after initially creating a flat cliched female character–as a way to write against our objectification of victims:

While describing the actions of a predator, getting into the mind that creates predatory behavior, it’s easy to objectify the victims; we stop seeing them as individuals. I wanted those flashes into the girl’s perspective to give weight to her realness, so that the reader could feel her vulnerability there in Jeb’s living room, and then be surprised by how she handles herself when he makes his move.

What we really see at work in Jeb’s perspective is the cycle of hatred and attraction at the heart of misogyny: men hating women because of their dependence on and needing of them. David Foster Wallace captured the sentiment twenty years ago in a passage from Infinite Jest describing the womanizing Orin Incandenza:

And about contempt, it is about a kind of hatred, too, along with the hope and need. Because he needs them, needs her, because he needs her he fears her and so hates her a little, hates all of them, a hatred that comes out disguised as a contempt he disguises in the tender attention with which he does the thing with her buttons, touches the blouse as if it too were part of her, and him. As if it could feel.

We see Jeb appraise the girl physically (in a passage that calls attention to the dehumanization of a common slur invoked against women):

She was thicker than she looked, Jeb thought. Strong but small, like a bulldog puppy. Tough bitch, he said to himself.

By this point we’ve seen him note something unfavorable about the girl, as though to keep something in reserve to protect himself from her possible rejection of him, should he deign to make an advance:

Despite being pretty and soft of flesh, she had something harsh about her, Jeb thought. Something crude.

Via the objective correlative of the wife’s clothes, we see Jeb making his advance–in a way that’s indirect, again likely for the sake of protecting himself against possible rejection.

“But these dresses,” Jeb said. “They’d fit you perfectly. Let me bring one down so you can see it. … Shall I bring one down? It’d be such a pity to throw them all away. You can come up and look through them yourself, if you like.”

This is an an objective correlative that transcends the usual use of the OC because you can see that Jeb’s logic: if he gets the girl in his bedroom, if she says yes to trying on the clothes and goes in his room, that literally equates in his mind to a yes to the other question–she wouldn’t go in his bedroom if she didn’t “want it” in some way, even if she ostensibly went in there for some other reason that was elaborately fabricated by him in the first place. We can tell this from such passages as:  

“No, thanks,” the girl said. She was only pretending to be bored, it seemed, fingering the lid of Jeb’s cigar box.

“No” does not mean “no.” What a woman expresses she’s feeling is not what she’s really feeling. What she’s really feeling is not only up to the man to interpret, but to determine.

The ongoing storm is another objective correlative that rears itself in the midst of Jeb’s pushing the clothes:

Outside, the storm paused for a minute. They sat listening, waiting to see if it was really over. Then the rain started up again.

What’s starting up again is Jeb’s continued offering of the clothes: his rejections of the girl’s rejections. (Note that the storm does not serve solely mood and objective correlative functions, but directly affects the plot: the girl would not be here alone with Jeb in the nephew’s absence without it. Plot-necessity helps alleviate heavy-handedness. Note also that, as close as we are to Jeb’s perspective, we don’t know definitively whether Jeb’s wife really exists–in this way the reader too is victimized by the white male’s duplicitous perspective. We suspect she’s not real, making his reference to her as “an honest woman” even more ironic.)

After the girl has firmly rejected the offer of the clothes several times, we see how Jeb starts to erect a mental fortress of justifications and excuses for why she would reject him via another objective correlative the characters themselves directly engage in, and which provides the story’s title:

“You’re lucky I’m not a creep,” he continued. “I could do anything I wanted to you, you know. A young girl, drunk on my couch. You should be more careful. My wife—” Jeb gasped suddenly, dabbing pretentiously at invisible tears. “God bless her soul. She was a good woman. An honest woman. No tease or hussy like you find nowadays.” He stared down at the girl’s bare feet on the hardwood floor and licked his lips.

Jeb describes his own feelings by describing his wife’s feelings, more specifically, his verdict on the girl: she’s a tease. The girl responds by enacting what a non-tease would do at that moment–she straddles him. Confronted with the ostensible object of his desire, Jeb has no idea what to do, which seems to be exactly what the girl wants the gesture to call attention to. The girl is the real “honest woman” of the title, repeatedly calling Jeb out directly for his misogynist bullshit.

Do we sympathize with Jeb at all in this story–which is to ask, do we sympathize with the misogynist perspective? Would it make us bad people if we did? It’s important to remember that sympathizing with someone who’s done something bad doesn’t have to mean you condone the bad thing he/she did. Sympathy seems to me to be more about understanding where the capacity to do the bad thing originated, in understanding more about its possible source(s). One classic example is the perspective of the abductor in George Saunders’ “Victory Lap,” in which we get a glimpse of his past and see that he was abused as a child–this does not make us think it’s okay for him to kidnap and abuse young girls, but it makes us sad that he got sucked into such a senseless cycle of violence. The reference to Jeb’s past here is almost just as fleeting–the memory of the woman who casually rejected him while she was sitting on a toilet. We see in that moment that all of his dehumanization and disrespect of women stems from his own pain and insecurity–his internalized need to conceive of women as worthless so that this woman’s rejection of him will by extension be worthless. This is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s #YesAllWomen tweet:

Men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them, while women’s greatest fear is that men will kill them.

In the end, the reader can recognize that Jeb is rotten through and through while sympathizing with how he got that way. Through his nephew, we further see that this problematic attitude has transcended generations when Jeb informs him the girl is a dud and the nephew responds “‘I’ve got other girls.’” (We sense, however, that if he’s got time to come over and eat with Jeb so regularly, his life might be equally pathetic.)

Moshfegh seems to take extra pains to emphasize (and then indict) Jeb’s whiteness, underscoring him as  a symbol of white men in general:

When it was over, he took off on foot down the road into town and spent the whole afternoon ambling like a stray dog under the striped storefront awnings, dodging the daylight, lest his white skin burn and blister. He licked a vanilla ice-cream cone and regarded his slumped silhouette in the shop windows. He straightened his posture as best he could, but he was stooped by nature. (emphasis added)

 

In the end, representing this duplicitous perspective at work might be one of the only ways to eradicate it. At the least, it might give us some insight into how we got here. Moshfegh’s conclusion–that even when confronted directly with the problem, the misogynist perspective is unable to recognize itself–is especially chilling in the wake of where the national tides have turned. Certainly the story’s storm descriptions take on a new layer of ominousness read post-election, as we wring our hands and ask how this could have happened:

A storm was coming. High winds, they warned. Keep your pets safe inside. “Whatever,” the girl muttered, and turned the dial to jazz.

A common attempted-optimist response to the election’s outcome has been that now we’ll have to confront the problem of the pervasiveness of this perspective in our populace. Let’s hope that’s true.

-SCR

“Death of a Government Clerk” Write Up by Evan Ryan

Anton Chekhov’s story “Death of a Government Clerk” begins at a Russian opera. The protagonist, Ivan Dmitritch Tchervyakov, enjoys an opera and after a sudden fourth wall break sneezes. He is caught off guard when he realizes he had sneezed onto a civilian general at the government office he worked at, Brizzhalov. Ivan attempts to apologize for his uncivil action, however is left feeling guilty once Brizzhalov disregards the instance. Ivan apologizes again after the show, but is yet again brushed off by Brizzhalov. Ivan goes home to his wife and is told by her to continue attempting to apologize. He visits Brizzhalov’s office as he is talking with multiple petitioners. Ivan begins talking to him as soon as he can and once again apologizes for the incident yesterday and is berated by Brizzhalov who says that he has forgotten about it. Still feeling guilty, Ivan waits for all of the petitioners to leave to apologize once again but is aggressively turned away by Brizzhalov. Ivan thinks about writing a letter of apology but decides against it, instead apologizing yet again and was shouted away. Ivan goes home, lays on his couch, and dies.

The most prevalent element of this story that I noticed is the unnecessary apologies for a simple incident. This seemed to be innocent at first but began to increase to a level of obsession that seems unhealthy. The best example of this I noticed is the following sentence:

“I ventured to disturb your Excellency yesterday,” he muttered, when the general lifted enquiring eyes upon him, “not to make fun as you were pleased to say. I was apologising for having spattered you in sneezing. . . . And I did not dream of making fun of you. Should I dare to make fun of you, if we should take to making fun, then there would be no respect for persons, there would be. . . .”

Although it seems excessive that it should be considered excessive, Ivan’s wife encourages him to apologize more prominently. This begins the process of understanding Ivan’s actions. The fact of the matter is that a normal person’s conscience can easily feel guilt and when the normal person feels guilty they go to great lengths to apologize to the person they have transgressed. Combine this with the fact that the subject of his attention is his superior and can cause him to be fired. The combined guilt and fear may not allow for his actions to be considered reasonable but can still be related to. This is an element that Chekhov uses masterfully, creating an average situation and slightly increases the drama just enough to create an interesting, yet believable story much like a situational comedy. I would like to implement this concept of including basic elements of our lives into a story to allow a certain aspect of relatability within it.

I also enjoyed the use of irony in the beginning where Chekhov addresses the audience as such:

…opera glass at the Cloches de Corneville. He gazed and felt at the acme of bliss. But suddenly. . . . In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly.” The authors are right: life is so full of surprises!

This addresses a cliché directly which allows for its use to not be disregarded but instead serves as an element that the reader can enjoy instead of criticize for sticking to closely to the tropes of writing. I hope to use this in my writing to allow a moment of light-heartedness to relieve the tension or create a humorous element within my story.

One other element that interested me was the references to the setting. It is never directly stated that the story takes place in Russia but is easily inferred through names of characters, locations, and operas. Another thing that is hinted at is the fact that Ivan works within the government; this is in fact directly said but is constantly reminded without becoming excessive. I would like to use subtle hints within my own writing finding that sweet spot between over exposition and excluding necessary information. I also wish to implement them in such a way as Chekhov did, to where none of the information seems out of place and contains substance.

Overall, this story was an exquisite piece of work that used simple concepts to its fullest capability and I hope that someday my work can be half as good as this one.

 

“The Tell-Tale Heart” Write Up by Jackson Wagner

This short story puts the short in story. It does, however, manage to tell a fascinating tale which puts the spotlight on paranoia and the toll it can have. The most valuable thing I think one could take away from this tale is Poe’s economic word choice. He spends words like the last pennies in a beggar’s pocket. It leads to a concise, yet immensely satisfying read. Poe also gives the point of view of a murderer attempting to avoid capture. The reasons he gives for this evil man’s drive to slay is both fascinating and unusual. He makes a point of saying how he’s not mad and how his victim is being killed simply because of his evil eye. This leaves us thinking even after the story about the true reason for the noise he heard, as well as the drive he had for killing the old man. Was it truly about the evil eye? Or was this a metaphor for some trauma he had suffered at the man’s hand? Or was he, despite his claims, truly mad? The ending also leaves us wondering why the man’s paranoia ended with his doom. He had gotten away with the murder clean, the police were convinced of his innocence. The best of stories are the ones that leave you thinking long after you finish them. With his economic word use, and fascinating ending, Poe easily lands the “Tell Tale Heart” in this vaunted group.

“Hills Like White Elephants” Write Up by Anya Price

The story “Hills like White Elephants,” written by Ernest Hemingway, opens by establishing the setting. An American and a girl sit at a train station bar outside, sitting at a table while staring at the River Ebro in Spain. The couple decides to get two beers. The girl begins to compare the mountains in the background to white elephants. The man proceeds to say that he’s never seen one. They order more drinks, despite just ordering beers. The American then tells the girl, who he begins to call Jig, about this so called ‘operation’ that Jig is on the fence about getting. He tells her that it isn’t that big of a deal. She remains quiet for a while, and then begins to argue with him about whether she should get the operation done or not. It is never mentioned specifically what this operation is. By the end, the girl has asked her lover to stop talking to her about it and has yet to make up her mind on it. They put their bags up and get ready to go back on the train.

The reason that I decided to track the symbolism used throughout the piece is because it is such an important and prevalent element. There are many parts of the plot that Hemingway decides to keep open to interpretation, leaving us readers relying upon the symbols used to point us towards understanding of these sections. For example, the hills that resemble white elephants symbolize the elephant in the room. Both the male and female skirt around the topic of conversation that they need to discuss, which is the outcome of this pregnancy. Every time the American wishes to talk about it, the girl avoids responding, to the point where she says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” A white elephant is also a gift that is usually either useless or troublesome, especially when the utility of the gift is outweighed by the price of maintaining it. It becomes obvious that this unexpected pregnancy is a white elephant in the American’s eyes, as he urges the girl to get the abortion. The beaded curtain is also another manifestation of the pregnancy and any other obstacles that weigh the couple down at this point in time. These things act as ‘curtains’ that force boundaries between them, pushing them further away from each other. There were so many other smaller symbols in this that you couldn’t even tell were there, yet they definitely made a difference.

I also decided to track places where there were purely descriptions of the setting and scenery. I decided to do this because a majority of the story that wasn’t dialogue consisted of basic exposition about the setting. I felt that due to this, there had to be some significance in their location. For example, the author decided to jump right into the story by describing the setting, something that proves that the scene is going to be detrimental to understanding/aiding the plot. In fact, the whole first paragraph consisted of pure description of the setting:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

I think that symbolism is a very good technique that I would like to use in my own writing, because, as you can tell, it can reveal the deeper meanings in a piece of work. Smaller, seemingly ‘meaningless’ symbols enhance the story by creating additional imagery, as well as a multitude of connotations. These are some things that I would hope to have in my work, as they keep the reader interested and give the story more depth. Setting is another technique I would like to implement into my pieces, because setting is such an important thing, as it helps the reader visualize what exactly is going on. Not only that, but it gives context clues that could help the person reading understand what is going on. I also think that the use of dialogue was very distinct and left the ends open enough that allowed us to interpret their conversation as we wanted to. This, again, helped support the symbolism in this piece. Overall, there were many great elements that were used in this that I could put into my own writing that would help me very much.

  1. What do the trains and train station symbolize?
  2. Why do scenery and symbolism tend to overlap throughout the story?
  3. Why was alcohol referenced so often?

“The Stolen Party” Write Up by Josie Nunn

Summary: The Stolen Party” by Liliana Heker starts with Rosaura arguing with her mother. She wants to go to her friend, Luciana’s birthday party, however, her mother does not want her to. The mother believes that the rich do not like the poor. Though, in the morning she discovers her mom fixing up her Christmas dress to wear to the party. Once Rosaura arrived at the party she quickly goes to find the monkey that Luciana was talking about. She was also the only one allowed in the kitchen and even made food and carried it out. Later Rosaura meets Luciana’s cousin, who claims that Rosaura couldn’t be one of Luciana’s friends because she knew all of them. Rosaura says that she is the daughter of an employee; this is what her mother tells her to say. Senora Ines comes and asks for Rosaura’s help, which prompts her to say, “See?” and kick the cousin in the shin. Despite this Rosaura had a lot of fun with Luciana and the boys. She passed out cake to everyone, this made her feel like a queen in a story she read. The queen had power over her subjects’ life. Then the magician came and preformed, when a boy did not want to hold the monkey, he called up Rosaura. She was very proud of herself and told her mother about it at the end of the party. Senora Ines came to them and gave Rosaura money instead of a toy.

One thing I find very interesting about this story is how the mother seems to know what is going to happen. She tries to convince Rosaura not to go:

“I don’t like you going,” she told her. “It’s a rich people’s party.”

However, in the end she allows Rosaura to go. The mother is making this choice to allow her daughter to face this social norm and “learn it the hard way.” The idea that the mother is ultimately the reason Rosaura has this life changing event is something that is common but doesn’t seem to be thought about often. This is something that could easily happen to anyone here. One person can control a life changing you have. Mind blown.

I also looked at how Rosaura seems so much better than everyone else. In the beginning Rosaura shows off better morals than even her mother; normally you find the mother to be wiser than the daughter.

“Rich people go to Heaven too,” said the girl, who studied religion at school.

“Get away with Heaven,” said the mother.

And throughout the party Luciana is rarely talked about and Rosaura is shown as the center of attention. She does everything right and things go her way. The perfect topper being able to hold the monkey and then being complimented by the magician.

And before Rosaura returned to her seat, the magician said, “Thank you very much, my little countess.”

At the end Rosaura tells her mother all about the experience. Sadly, Senora Ines comes and pushes her back down to her poor level by giving her money. Her pride and perfection is easily taken away by a small act. I like the plot twist, a big contradiction between the end and the rest of the story. “The First Day” has similar themes of simple things completely changing the main character’s view. This is especially surprising because throughout this all Rosaura has such a high regard for the rich and powerful.

Rosaura too wanted to be rich, of course.

In my own work I would like to use both of these tactics, having one person controlling the protagonist’s fate and a contradiction between the end and the rest of the piece. I would like to use an unlikely person to change this person’s fate. The contradiction I would like to be something that is unexpected and will change the person as well as their views.

Questions:

  1. Do you think it was a wise choice for the mother to reveal this social difference? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think that Luciana thinks of Rosaura as a friend?
  3. Will Rosaura continue to aspire to be rich?