“To Build a Fire” Write Up by Anaya Bonds

A man and his dog, a wolf-dog, are travelling through the Yukon, making their way towards a camp he will meet his friends at. His dog is aware of the danger of travelling in the conditions, and longs for the man to stop a build a fire instead of continuing on. The man flinches back from a frozen creek as he hears it crunch under his weight, knowing it would be dangerous to get wet in this temperature. He carefully crosses it, and continues this for several other possible traps. At one crossing, he shoved his dog onto the ice to check to see if it was stable. The dog fell through the ice and its legs became wet, the water immediately froze onto its legs. The dog began to chew at the ice to get it off and the man took off his mittens to help remove the ice, but stopped and pulled his mitten back on as his hand began to numb quickly. When they arrive at the forks of Henderson Creek, the man sits down to eat his lunch. He starts a fire and eats his lunch and smokes his pipe. The man gets up and prepares to set off again, but the dog doesn’t want to, once again not happy with travelling in the cold, but complies out of fear. The man misjudges a patch of snow in front of him, and falls through, becoming wet down halfway to his knees. He pulls himself out and starts to make a fire. He manages to get the fire going, and begins to take off his wet footgear. He had made his fire under a tree, against his better judgement, and snow falls on top of him and his fire. He moves to a clearing where there are no trees to drop snow on him, and begins to make a fire again, though at this point he is freezing and struggling to control his fingers. He attempts to grab a piece of birch bark out of his pocket, and his hands are so numb he can’t grab it. He begins to beat his hand against himself until some feeling returns to his hand, and he grabs the bark. He began to struggle with the matches then managed to press the pack of matches between his two hands and struck them against his leg, lighting the entire pack at once. He held the matches to the bark and kept doing so despite knowingly burning his hands. He manages to start a small flame, but ends up poking the center of the flame, causing it to fizzle out. He looks to his dog and thinks of cutting it open and warming his hands inside of the dog so he could use them again and make another fire. He manages to grab the dog but then realizes he isn’t physically able to hold his knife and cut the dog open so he lets it go. He begins running, hoping to manage to run to the camp his friends should already be at, and then begins to feel better from the movement. He grew tired and had to stop, unable to continue running for the moment. He realized running would not unthaw his nose, cheeks, hands or feet, but continues anyways and starts to run. He falls down again shortly after starting, and looks to his dog, once again envying its warmth. He feels himself beginning to slip off to sleep, and thinks about how his friends will find his body in the morning. He drifts into a comfortable sleep, his dog waiting by him for the rest of the day. The dog wonders why the man had sat down and not made a fire, and approached the man, the scent of death scaring the dog back a bit. The dog howled for a few moments, and then headed off in the direction of the camp.

Throughout his trip in the Yukon, the man only seems to be thinking about reaching the boys’ camp. Even as he’s dying, he doesn’t seem to be able to think about anything else. “He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his thought.” When he isn’t thinking about reaching the camp, he’s thinking about how cold it is, or about the lunch he has tucked in his shirt. The man is almost developed to be this disconnected from an actual life and feelings just so when he is killed in the end, the reader isn’t too attached. The narrator in the beginning even mentions how unimaginative he is. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero.” Adding to his lack of imagination, he tends to be very ignorant of his surroundings. He brings up an experienced man from Sulphur Creek and how he said never to travel alone when it’s fifty below, and then he goes on to think of the advice as false. “He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.” The man also seems quite ignorant of the temperature he is travelling in. “In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero.” Even his dog seems to know better than him in this case. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” It really seems like London is trying to make the man seem very careless and foreshadows his death.

Many times throughout the short story, we hear from the dog’s point of view how much the dog wants the man to make a fire and stop travelling, yet the dog continues to follow he man anyways. Even after the man attempts to cut the dog open to warm his hands inside of the dog, the dog follows the man as he runs in a blind panic. “On the other hand, there was keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip- lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire. But the man whistled, and spoke to it with the sound of whip-lashes, and the dog swung in at the man’s heels and followed after.”

The way London managed to make you disconnected enough from the character to not be devastated or upset with his death, but invested enough to keep reading. It also made me realize I am really too nice to my characters and I could definitely //abuse// them more.

Discussion questions:

Why do you think London chose to make the man’s companion a wolf-dog?

Does the man admitting the “old-timer of Sulphur Creek” represent a change of character?

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Enough with the Old Dead White Men: A Cheat-Sheet to Surviving Melissa Alter’s Presentation on “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

Well, I was completely and totally going to read the story in its entirety, but I had other homework and the Oscars were on and Sparknotes crashed, so…

Scold, scold, scold. I considered writing this section in Comic Sans just to punish you appropriately, but that seems cruel, even for me. Alright, then. Here you go, disgusting human who didn’t read the story.

In “The Story of an Hour”, Richards receives a telegram notifying him of his friend Mr. Mallard’s death due to a railroad accident. Richards goes to the Mallards’ house along with Mrs. Mallard’s sister, Josephine, to break the news to Mrs. Mallard, who has heart problems.

Upon learning of her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard weeps uncontrollably and shuts herself in her room away from Richards and Josephine. As Mrs. Mallard stares out the window, she sees signs of the oncoming spring and realizes that she finally feels free. At first, Mrs. Mallard tries to ignore this thought, but then she realizes that whatever love she had felt for Mr. Mallard is trivial in comparison to the autonomy she feels now that he is gone. Josephine calls through the door, worried for her sister’s health, but Mrs. Mallard dismisses this notion and steps out of her room, feeling stronger than ever.

Suddenly, the door to the house opens, revealing Mr. Mallard, who is perfectly hale and hearty and was far away from the accident. The occupants of the house are (understandably) shocked, and Mrs. Mallard dies from “the joy that kills”.

And I would’ve analyzed it, too, but I was studying for a Physics test…

Let’s kill two birds with one stone, shall we? Here’s how:

The chronic is the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, especially in relation to Mrs. Mallard’s conflicting feelings of love and confinement as a result of their marriage.

The acute is when the characters learn of Mr. Mallard’s “death”.

And that’s how you solve for tension. Mr. Landry would be so proud.

(This is all in Newtons, of course; remember to include units and draw those Free Body Diagrams.)

Dude, this story was worse than Twilight. Why the heck did you choose it?

First of all, ouch. That was just uncalled for.

Personally, I was kind of impressed by Chopin’s ability to pack so much into such a short story. The setting doesn’t change, and the entire tale is encompassed in such a short time span. I thought Chopin did a good job taking us into Mrs. Mallard’s mind and showing us her internal change. I loved that the reflection was after her husband’s death, as opposed to during their marriage, and just when we think that she’s free to be free (so to speak), her husband comes home. This is the first time we’re seeing the husband, but already we’re kind of disappointed by his arrival because we’re rooting for Mrs. Mallard. The last line just cinched the deal for me.

Lord of the Rings was on last night and I’ve decided to embrace my inner Hobbit-Thief. What can I steal from the story?

Well, I would recommend taking the “pro/con” format of the story. Mrs. Mallard goes back and forth between loving her husband and welcoming her newfound freedom. She feels guilty about feeling so relieved, but at the same time embraces the new direction her life seems to be taking. She continues this balancing act until she realizes that, even if she loved him, her freedom is more important. This internal conflict does an excellent job of characterizing Mrs. Mallard and makes the story more believable; if she felt no remorse, the story wouldn’t have had half the appeal. Additionally, it makes Mrs. Mallard’s realization that love is inferior to freedom ever the more impactful. The foreshadowing was also done really well. The first sentence of the story characterizes her as having heart troubles; and lo and behold, come the end of page three-ish, she “dies from a heart disease”. Coincidence? Me thinkith not.

Bringing back a character is tricky business, which is why Game of Thrones just leaves most of them dead (with a couple of exceptions, of course). However, I think that this story provides a nice format just ripe for the stealing. Mrs. Mallard’s clear relief at finally being able to take charge of her own life makes Mr. Mallard’s return ever the more stunning because 1) well, I don’t think any of us were expecting it, and 2) let’s face it, we’re rooting for Mrs. Mallard. We want her to be free and take charge of her own life, so we’re kind of against Mr. Mallard even though this is the first time we’re seeing him in the story. His return, though unexpected, is not completely unbelievable, and does a nice job of throwing us for a loop. Furthermore, we suspect that Mrs. Mallard will lose her freedom if Mr. Mallard returns, so if you’re trying to bias your readers against one of your characters before even meeting him, this is a nice way to do so. The point of view, which is extremely close to Mrs. Mallard, also automatically puts the reader on her side, while having a more distant perspective could change how we view Mrs. Mallard’s transformation. If we weren’t so close to her, we would most likely not be invested, and would probably sympathize more with Mr. Mallard than his wife.

Oh, uh, and while you’re testing your thieving powers, be a doll and pick me up the Mona Lisa, would you?

Alright, lovely discussions, so are we done he—

No. Sit down. It’s your turn to answer some questions.

I told you, I was busy reviewing Physics, I didn’t have time to study for this!

Consider it a pop quiz, then.

Please tell me it’s multiple choice.

  1. What is the actual cause of Mrs. Mallard’s death? Would she still have died if Mr. Mallard hadn’t come back?
  2. Were Mrs. Mallard’s thoughts about freedom just covering up her grief, or were they genuine? Consider: did she actually love him?
  3. What does Chopin say about the compatibility of freedom and love? Do you agree with her message? Let’s also think about the role of feminism in this piece, people.

…Umm, C?

 

Bonus:

Q: Why does Melissa keep presenting on stories where love is inferior to another force?

A: Love is not all you need.

“Strawberry Spring” Write Up by Emma Bennett

Summary

The story opens with a MURDER at a COLLEGE: two of the most terrifying things in existence. The murder takes place at a time called “strawberry spring”: a warm phase in an otherwise-cold winter. This lends the college a foggy, near-mystical effect that appeals to our unnamed narrator. The (first) murdered girl is named Gale Cerman, and the whole campus gets caught up in the morbid excitement that her death creates. The police come and add to the excitement, which culminates in the arrest of Cerman’s boyfriend. Later, the narrator has a headache andx goes for a walk. The next day, Cerman’s boyfriend is released, as another murder was committed while he was in jail. This time, the students are less excited and more suspicious/scared, which is increased by the fact that no arrest is made. Emotions reach hysterics when a boy is found unconscious and presumed a murder victim, but in reality just had the flu. Time continues and creative rumors surrounding the murders begin the spread; the unknown murderer is christened “Spingheel Jack” after a fellow murderer Dr. John Hawkins, plus the fact that there were no footprints around the wet ground of the crime scene. Investigation into the murders continues, with no success. The narrator reflects on the murders both alone and with his roommate, who comments that he sometimes wonders about he narrator. The narrator goes for another walk, and the next morning another woman is found dead, after which the campus goes “slightly mad.” Another arrest is made, but the man is once again released after yet another murder takes place while he is in jail. Spring break is moved up, and all the students leave nervously. That night, the temperature drops, the strawberry spring ends, and the murders stop (for now…). The narrator graduates, gets married, gets a job, and has a kid. He doesn’t think of Spingheel Jack until another strawberry spring occurs, and another murder appears in the newspaper. His wife questions where he was the night before, and is distraught because she thinks he’s cheating. The narrator can genuinely not remember, but suspects that he is Spingheel Jack.

What Makes It Worthy of Your Time?

First of all, it’s Stephen King writing something short, which is like a blue moon. Secondly, it’s a really interesting twist on the classic unreliable narrator: normally a narrator A) knows they’ve been lying to us the whole time, or B) is unreliable due to something like drunkenness or mental illness, which they can’t control, but that we, as readers, are aware of. Here, the particular kind of unreliability is one in which our narrator discovers his unreliability alongside the reader. (What did y’all think of this? Did it make our narrator more likeable? Or was it kinda meh?) The story also has a supernatural feel that is typical of Stephen King, no matter what he writes. The titular strawberry spring has both a beautiful and dangerous feel to it. The narrator’s fascination with this setting— viewed separately from his murderous episodes in conjunction with the weather— can provide an example of the human fascination with the dark and deadly; the students’ initial responses to the murders also support this. Originally, before reality sets in, every student seems to be caught up in that glee that is often associated with gore; eventually all of them, the narrator included, simmer down a bit and get more anxious. So the warmth of the weather contrasts with the DARKNESS in ourselves…

What Can We Steal Like the Dirty Thieves We Are?

In this story, the strawberry spring setting parallels— and is almost a physical representation of— the narrator’s murderous phases. Stephen King likes his supernatural stuff, so we might be able to even go so far as to say that he was possessed! Or maybe we won’t do that. Either way, having the physical setting parallel the character is always a neat trick— but instead of always having it be raining when a character’s sad, we can put a King-esque twist on it. One would think a strawberry spring would be positive— who doesn’t love spring?— but the way it’s incorporated into the story, it takes on a sinister tone. I love me some sinister tones.

You can also give your setting mystical or supernatural qualities without explicitly making it a fantasy story. The close association between the murders, the narrator, and the strawberry spring has a supernatural possession edge to it without ever explicitly stating any magic. When you mix the mystical stuff with the mysterious, you can’t really go wrong (I take that back you definitely can but I believe in y’all).

“Viewfinder” Write Up by Marin Hart

In the story “Viewfinder” by Raymond Carver, a nameless homeowner invites a man who has just taken a picture of his house in for coffee. He directs the handless man to his restroom and looks at the photo while he waits, surprised to see his own face in the window. The man comes out of the restroom, comments on the homeowner’s loneliness, and asks, not for the first time, if he wants to buy the picture. The homeowner attempts to make conversation by asking about some neighborhood kids, and the conversation turns to the handless man’s state of loneliness, and back again to the homeowner’s. When the handless photographer says that he sympathizes with him, he asks him to prove it by taking more pictures of him. They take many more pictures around the house until he asks to go onto the roof for a final picture. He climbs a stool, discovers some rocks the kids tried to through in his chimney, and chucks one off the roof while the photographer takes a picture, asking for another picture soon after.

There are many elements of this story that made it stand out to me. For instance, there is insanely little exposition, like so little. Even the unveiling of the chronic tension is not done through exposition or breaking away from the story at all, it is purely exposed through dialogue, one-sided dialogue I’d like to mention, and reveals information not only about the hooked-handed man who is speaking but the homeowner as well.

Although there are definitely some subtler hints dropped earlier (which I’ll get to) the first, most direct mention of the chronic tension comes when the photographer walks into the living room from the bathroom and says “You’re alone, right?” which the homeowner only responds to with “Drink your coffee.” This we may even pass by until he delves insistently deeper when he says, “So, they just up and left you right?” which, again, the homeowner does not respond to. These references only mention the homeowner’s side of the chronic tension, which I feel is intertwined with the information we receive in this quote:

“Me, I keep a room downtown. It’s okay. I take a bus out, and after I’ve worked the neighborhoods, I go to another downtown. You see what I’m saying? Hey, I had kids once. Just like you.”

Now, we know that the shared experiences of losing their families bring the two together. This ultimately leads us to the moment where the acute tension of the interaction between the two of them and the chronic tension of their respective losses meet so sweetly:

“… I sympathize.”

“Show me. Show me how much. Take more pictures of me and my house.”

It seems here that the dynamic between the two of them has switched so the homeowner is the one demanding pictures just as the handless man demanded information. By now, the chronic tension is doing its best work to fuel the acute tension through the end.

The second feature of this little story I tracked was significant detail or symbolism, also the second thing that intrigued me about this story. You know a story is good when the major symbols are hooks, Jell-O, and rocks.

The detail of the man’s handless-ness is no hastily thrown in tidbit meant to keep readers interested (though it does, for sure); it is an objective correlative (or uses the objective correlative?) by representing the man’s loss physically and spurring the homeowner to invite him in because he “wanted to see how he would hold a cup.” It also seemed like this offer of coffee was an excuse to talk to another person, especially since it is some random man with hooks for hands who just took a picture of his house.

Another concrete detail comes from the line, “I’d just made some Jell-O, too. But I didn’t tell the man I did.” Like he was just desperate enough to offer the man coffee to talk to him, but not desperate enough to share his Jell-O. To me, Jell-O represents something so personal and juvenile, as it is something I can only imagine one would eat with their small children or at three o’clock in the morning all alone, that I immediately felt bad for this Jell-O making loner. Later, the Jell-O is mentioned again:

“I had a headache. I know coffee’s no good for it, but sometimes Jell-O helps.”

This says to me that the coffee, a metaphor for their (and in general human) interaction, was not what was going to help him, it was the Jell-O, turning inwards and releasing his frustration by doing something silly (like throwing rocks off of the roof) that would ultimately make him feel better.

Finally, the two go outside and the photographer takes many more pictures of the homeowner. The homeowner insists on going up to the roof where he finds rocks thrown by children. He then hurls them off of the roof, symbolizing his letting go of his loneliness and resentment towards his family for leaving him, which in the end helped him more than talking to someone who had a similar experience. He is also utilizing what he still has that the photographer does not, a part of himself, his physical hands.

I think these two elements were applied exceptionally well. I can only strive to be so careful with my details and releasing of chronic tension in my own pieces so they all work their hardest for even the shortest of stories. I would also like to mention this tiny phrase: “It was then I saw them.” in reference to the rocks. This little string of words is so useful for indicating to the reader without huge flashing arrows that this is the most important thing that everything amounts to please God pay attention. He uses it to wrap things up so seamlessly.

Questions:

  1. What significance does the image of the house hold because the homeowner is in it?
  2. Do you think the homeowner really thinks taking the pictures will get the kids back or do they do it for some other reason?
  3. Do you think the photographer really lost his hands because of his children?! (or is it all a metaphor?)

 

“Stone Mattress” Write Up by Zoe Vastakis

SUMMARY

In Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” the speaker, Verna, is on a vacation in the Arctic, trying to create a fresh start. She’s an older woman, probably in her late sixties, early seventies. She went on the trip to sort of get away from everything, especially men. But she soon gives up on that. While prepping herself for the flirtation, she reveals that she has been married three times, and her third husband loved Tennyson. She begins perusing the available guys (because those who are taken are too much effort, as she learned from her first husband), and realizes that there are many men there named Bob. She hates that name because of a bad experience she had when she was younger. And low and behold, the Bob who was the reason behind her bad experience is the one on the ship! OMG! He doesn’t remember her and she is enraged.

We then get a reflection on her past, when she was asked out by this Bob. She was fourteen and he was eighteen, and he asked her to go to a winter formal with him. She thought she was in love with him, and the fact that she was even able to go to this dance was a big deal because he mother was very religious, Presbyterian, and didn’t let her go out. But she thought he was a reputable guy and there were going to be a lot of chaperones, so she let them go. She tells about how she was so dressed up, but Bob thought she looked trashy and disposable.  

Back to present tense, he smiles at her, not recognizing her, and Verna leaves to throw up in the bathroom. She remembers how everyone slut-shamed her because they thought she slept with him that night. Her mother sends her off to a house for unwed women when it becomes apparent that she became pregnant. She was basically shamed at the house by the adults for becoming pregnant, and when she birthed the child (which was worse than a typical birth) they took the child from her before she got to look at it. There were complications with the birth and she left with scarred tissue. They then gave her five dollars and told her to go home because she was still a minor, but she went to downtown Toronto instead.

An older man then takes interest in her, and that’s become the beginning of her sort of sexual exploration.

Back to the moment, she fixes her makeup and goes outside to where everyone is eating, and she kind of ignores him and takes a seat, but he sits next to her anyway. They converse for a bit and she reveals that she was a physiologist who specialized in rehabilitating heart and stroke victims.

She then tells the reader that each of her husbands died due to natural causes, usually dealing with a heart attack or stroke, and that she sort of aided those things. She used Viagra to get the heart rate screwed up and mixed up their medication until all three ultimately died. Two of the husbands had kids, so she gave them money to pay them off, and revealed that she still had a sense of morals, and liked balanced accounts.

Bob asks her about her husband, and she tells him she’s a widow. He reveals that his wife had just died 6 months previously, and he has kids and grandchildren and can’t imagine how empty his life would be without them.

She reminisces about how if she had been raped in present day, things could’ve been different. She could’ve gone to court because she was underage. She then goes into detail about the rape, and how he drove them out near a forest, got her all liquored up, and took advantage of her before his best friend came and did it as well. He then left her on the side of the road because she was crying. Bob had taken her panty girdle and wore it around his head like it was a prize. His friend, Ken, saw her walking on the road and picked her up before dropping her off and telling her to keep quiet. She says that was the day she lost her innocence and became this horrible, mangled woman. It was his fault that she became a murderer.

The next morning she begins planning how to handle the situation. She wasn’t going to work him up to become attracted to her because that wasn’t satisfying enough, and she wasn’t going to ignore him. The only option was to kill him.

She begins planning. Can’t push him overboard because he is too big. She’d also have to do it at the beginning of the trip before anyone really began to notice him, or put the two of them together as an item.

Before they left the ship, three staff members gave speeches to the group.

Everyone has tags on board. The first staff member told them that when they would leave, they’d flip the tags so they were red, and when they were on board, they’d flip them to green. So the staff can keep track of where everyone is. They also had to wear life jackets when travelling to shore, then put them in a bag once they got there. They also used this method to keep track of where people where. If they weren’t on shore, they jacket was in the bag.

Second staff member said they can’t take anything like artifacts or bones from the shore.

Third staff member talked about guns. They only use the guns in case of polar bears, and will shoot into the sky first to scare them off. Bullets will be removed from the guns during the trips to and from the land.

She goes back on board and is admiring the beautiful Arctic when Bob comes back up to her. He asks her out, and she declines, flirtatiously, before going to buy gloves from the store.

The next day begins with a talk from a scientist about stromatolites. He says that according the the greek roots, the word means “stone mattress” (hence the title).

She looks through her binoculars at the land and sees three ridges. She deduces that if you go behind the second one, no one will be able to see you. That is also where the best stromatolites are.

They now head to shore, Bob is in the same boat as her and he takes a picture of her, which freaks out Verna a little because she is afraid he’ll recognize her. She comes to the conclusion that if he recognizes her spontaneously, or if he apologizes, she won’t kill him.

It is revealed that you can take samples of the stromatolites back to the ship so everyone can all go look at it together.

They reach the shore, and she begins walking towards the second ridge, where she sees perfect stromatolites. She finds one that is sharp and puts it in her bag. She sees Bob, and considers if she should let things go, until a raven flies over head.

They go behind the second ridge when no one is watching and she puts on her gloves. She tells him who she is and he smiles, remembering her and not apologizing. She then stabs him with the stromatolite and laughs at how pathetic and funny he looks until he is dead. She takes his jacket, finding six miniature bottles of scotch, cleans off the stromatolite and gets everything together so there is no evidence and leaves. Once back on the ship, she switches his tag to green and pretends that he is alive and still on board by moving his stuff, and sending invitations sent to him to any of the other Bobs.

She gave the murder weapon to the scientist for everyone to look at so all of their fingerprints get on it.

The story ends with her reflecting on death, and how her memory isn’t how it once was.

TENSIONS

Acute: the rape, the murders

Chronic: I think maybe also the rape (because it happened before the story) but also her promiscuity, and how because of the fact that she was raped, she tried to make up for it by being “trashy” and not loving anyone.

WHAT MADE IT COMPELLING?

I found her mannerisms to be intriguing. The fact that almost every single thing she did was planned or rehearsed, like the way she said certain words or even walked into a room. Now that I know about all of the murders, it is probably in response to that, because she had to lie about the deaths of all of her husbands, but also had to pretend like she wasn’t plotting Bob’s death, then had to cover it up. Everything she does is incredibly calculated and planned and I found that to be one of her more defining characteristics.

Her husbands were really interesting characters. She didn’t mention them a lot, and when she did, it was mainly her third husband. Never her second one. Her third husband often recited poetry to her, specifically “Come into the garden Maud” by Tennyson, which is a love poem where the speaker is waiting on a woman who will never love him, even in death. Which further reveals much about Verna’s feelings towards men, and how she really doesn’t care about them. She was just using the old men for their money.

I also found her relationship with men to be interesting. She goes on the trip so she can shed her skin (start over fresh after killing yet another man), and move on from all men in general. She went as far to say that they were clutter on the earth, yet, within the same day, she is ready to get back in the game and chase after a new man. She hasn’t really had a single healthy relationship with any man, because her father wasn’t really in the picture, she was raped by two men at fourteen, then began sleeping with other men (and may have been raped two more times? Still not sure about that). So either she is a man eater and just wants to get rid of every man on the earth or she can’t really move on from them.

Innocence is a theme that we see everywhere, and again in this piece. She only references her innocence when she is reflecting in scene in her past. But because the scenes are so gruesome and heart-wrenching, it makes this loss even more heart breaking. And of course we love to read sad things.

IMITATIONS

I think this is a story that exemplifies foreshadowing and a thought out story perfectly. Even the poems mentioned by her husband further characterize the speaker. Even though we know that she will murder someone (as seen in the first sentence), we got brief hints at who she murdered and the heartbreak she had gone through throughout the piece which just added the pity I felt for the character.

“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” Write Up by Audrey Germany

In the short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez, a drowned man washes up on the shore of an island village where children are playing. The children could only recognize him as a drowned man once they had removed the sea matter on his body. They played with the drowned man in the sand until someone saw them and spread the alarm to the rest of the village. As the men carried the drowned man to the village, they noticed that he weighed so much that they were sure the water had filled his bones.  They knew that he was a stranger because the village had very few people, and they only had to look at each other to know everyone was there and alive. Instead of working the night, the men went to find if anyone was missing from the neighboring villages. The women stayed with the man and cleaned him up. Once he was scrubbed & bare, the women were breathless at the drowned man’s build and handsomeness. He was the most beautiful man they had ever seen. They made clothes for him because nothing from their own village would fit, and as they sewed they noticed that the wind and shore had never seemed so calm before that night. They thought the serenity was due to the man, and they thought that if the man had lived in the village he would have the best & biggest house. They believed he would have been the most prosperous in the village, and they began to compare their men to him. The village men seemed so incapable and useless when matched with the handsome drowned man. The oldest woman of the bunch said, “He has the face of someone called Esteban,” and everyone realized the same. The women pitied him for having to be so large and pictured his life at such a size; how he would react to others and what a kind, handsome fool he would’ve been. They covered his face with a handkerchief in the morning and they were overcome with grief and began to weep for him. The men returned and told the women that the other villages had no one missing, so the women were extremely happy to have their own handsome drowned man. As the day went on and the women continued to dote over the drowned man, giving him good luck charms and scapulars, the men complained about them spending too much time on some dead washed up man. One of the women removed the man’s handkerchief and the men were breathless at his beauty too. The men understood he was Esteban at first sight. They knew that he was ashamed of his size and was sorry for not drowning in a more discreet place. Even the most mistrustful men knew that Esteban had sincerity. They held a grand & beautiful funeral for Esteban. The women went to the neighboring villages to get flowers and came back with more women, and the women that saw Esteban went to get flowers too and brought back even more women. Some of the villagers became the drowned man’s substitute family. The village let Esteban into the sea without attaching an anchor so he could come back whenever he wished. The villagers were no longer all present, and they would never be. They knew everything would be bigger and wider so Esteban’s memory could visit without bumping into anything. Their land would forevermore be called Esteban’s village.

I picked “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” to present on mostly because of the good things I had heard about it from other teachers, but also because of the intriguing devices the author used in the story. I loved the bizarre outside-characterization of the drowned man and the descriptions, although I didn’t track the latter because of the unrestrained description used in the characterization. Instead, I tracked characterization and setting because of the important role the characterization had on the setting, and the descriptions in the story regarded both of these things. I also included the villagers as part of the setting technique because it’s easier to pinpoint the difference between them and Esteban this way. Another thing I enjoyed about this story were the “architectural marvel” sentences (I’ve realized that I’ve seriously come to appreciate ridiculously long sentences in pieces, and I’m so glad that this is an actual acceptable syntax in writing) and the high level vocabulary (i.e. virile, blunderbuss, jubilation). They add so much to the plot and they’re so beautifully written. Speaking of which, I love the plot too, but we will discuss that as we talk about the techniques.

Esteban arrives to the village as a drowned man and leaves as a drowned man, so it is impossible for the author to characterize him through actions. Instead, the author must use the other’s thoughts and actions to characterize Esteban, and he does so through the assumptions they make about his life. Even before the villagers are aware of his beauty, they knew that “he was a stranger” and that

…he bore his death with pride, for he did not have the lonely look of other drowned men who came out of the sea or that haggard, needy look of men who drowned in rivers.

Without even knowing the setting, the reader can tell they have a limited population and that they have had drowned people wash up around their village more than once. They also mention later that

They wanted to tie the anchor from a cargo ship to him so that he would sink easily into the deepest waves, where fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia, and bad currents would not bring him back to shore, as had happened with other bodies.

This could also answer the question of “why this day,” perhaps because such drowning events are common and signify why this certain drowned man was important. Seguing back to the outside characterization, the women cleaned Esteban and realized that

Not only was he the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they had ever seen, but even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination.

This could almost be seen as a power switch. First it was the women, who were cleaning, tending to, and curious about this random dead man who, being revealed, had the ability to almost control their thoughts. He caused so much surprise that now they couldn’t help but focus on him and where he came from. I believe this is how the author is able to characterize the drowned man so much, even giving him a name. The way the author delves into the women’s thoughts allows the reader to see how the men in the village are and what the village is usually like:

As they sewed, sitting in a circle and gazing at the corpse between stitches, it seemed to them that the wind had never been so steady nor the sea so restless as on that night and they supposed that the change had something to do with the dead man.

This drowned man has brought some peace to the island. This foreshadows what happens to the village and villagers themselves later in the story, and it mentions how the seas are usually calm at night. And it brings up an important question about the handsome drowned man; is this guy some sort of mythological figure, fairytale, legend or something? The reader is definitely curious about who this man is, which could be questioned before this line, but this is the first part in the story where Esteban’s presence affected something more than the villagers. This question will be brought up later. The women keep thinking about this man and begin to picture his life with them in the village. In their eyes, his extraordinary looks would match his life:

They thought that if that magnificent man had lived in the village, his house would have had the widest doors, the highest ceiling, and the strongest floor, his bedstead would have been made from a midship frame held together by iron bolts, and his wife would have been the happiest woman. They thought that he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names and that he would have put so much work into his land that springs would have burst forth from among the rocks so that he would have been able to plant flowers on the cliffs.

Strongly based on his appearance, the women believed that the drowned man would’ve made a wonderful villager. They compare him to their own men, and think that

for all their lives theirs were incapable of doing what he could do in one night, and they ended up dismissing them deep in their hearts as the weakest, meanest and most useless creatures on earth.

Despite us not knowing too much about the male villagers, we can conclude that this thought from the women seems irrational. Why would they dismiss the men completely just because of what they imagined one dead man could do, which he did none of? First reading this part of the story, I assumed that this was the shallow part in all of us that saw one person as perfect based solely on their appearance, and the affect that had on what we thought about the less adequate people in our lives. However, reading through the story again, I realize that the men in the village were the only men the women truly knew, not counting the men in the neighboring villages. From this perspective, the drowned man could, once again, be seen as a fable, even if it’s just based on his amazing figure.

Next, the eldest women, sighed:

“He has the face of someone called Esteban.”

Finally, the women had appointed to this drowned man the ultimate form of identity; a name. I believe this switches the power back to the women villagers, now that they can completely “understand” his life. In the next few lines, we can start to see the technical setting. This was a Wednesday, and some of the younger women first wanted to name Esteban “Lautaro.” Lautaro was an indigenous native of Chile who tried to stop the Spanish Conquest. This reveals matters of location, which is most likely in Chile, the South American coast. This also reveals to me that the place they live is not an island at all, but I’m too lazy to go back and change all the words. Surprise, it is not an island. The man has travelled far to be in the South Pacific Ocean. Back to the story’s plot, the women think something amazing. They picture Esteban, but not just him in general, they picture him as a breathing human with dialogue and emotion and he’s having an interaction with another human. There is a complete scene of Esteban that captures what they think of him perfectly:

It was then that they understood how unhappy he must have been with that huge body since it bothered him even after death. They could see him in life, condemned to going through doors sideways, cracking his head on crossbeams, remaining on his feet during visits, not knowing what to do with his soft, pink, sea lion hands while the lady of the house looked for her most resistant chair and begged him, frightened to death, sit here, Esteban, please, and he, leaning against the wall, smiling, don’t bother, ma’am, I’m fine where I am, his heels raw and his back roasted from having done the same thing so many times whenever he paid a visit, don’t bother, ma’am, I’m fine where I am, just to avoid the embarrassment of breaking up the chair, and never knowing perhaps that the ones who said don’t go, Esteban, at least wait till the coffee’s ready, were the ones who later on would whisper the big boob finally left, how nice, the handsome fool has gone.

Esteban is now so easy to pity with the thought of him practically begging a woman to let him stand so he may not ruin her chair. Esteban is a kind man, embarrassed by his huge height & weight, and he wishes to not cause anyone unhappiness or discomfort. What brings complete harmony between the women villagers and Esteban, though, is when they cover his face in the morning and observe him again:

…he looked so forever dead, so defenseless, so much like their men that the first furrows of tears opened in their hearts. It was one of the younger ones who began the weeping. The others, coming to, went from sighs to wails, and the more they sobbed the more they felt like weeping, because the drowned man was becoming all the more Esteban for them, and so they wept so much, for he was the more destitute, most peaceful, and most obliging man on earth, poor Esteban.

Without the beautiful face, he was just like their men. This allows them to open their hearts and weep for Esteban. This is the final straw for the women, and they now wish for him to be one of theirs, which is granted when the men come back with the news of no one missing. The men are understandably upset at the women for caring so much about “such fuss over a drifting corpse, a drowned nobody, a piece of cold Wednesday meat.” The women only have to show the men Esteban’s astonishing face, and they understand, too. Despite the seemingly shallow theme of a beautiful face changing one’s entire outlook on a person, I find something so beautiful about how one can spontaneously care for another. I think this story displays that spontaneity well. The men create a personality for Esteban as well:

They only had to take the handkerchief off his face to see that he was ashamed, that it was not his fault that he was so big or so heavy or so handsome, and if he had known that this was going to happen, he would have looked for a more discreet place to drown in, seriously, I even would have tied the anchor off a galleon around my neck and staggered off a cliff like someone who doesn’t like things in order not to be upsetting people now with this Wednesday dead body, as you people say, in order not to be bothering anyone with this filthy piece of cold meat that doesn’t have anything to do with me. There was so much truth in his manner that even the most mistrustful men, the ones who felt the bitterness of endless nights at sea fearing that their women would tire of dreaming about them and begin to dream of drowned men, even they and others who were harder still shuddered in the marrow of their bones at Esteban’s sincerity.

Notice the “I” in that quote? That sincerely surprised me. Is this story not third person omniscient?

This finalizes the village’s love for Esteban, and they hold a grand funeral. There are so many flowers and people that it is hard to walk. They continue to give Esteban more identity, by appointing him a mother and father and a huge family. The villagers are now revealed as dynamic characters:

While they fought for the privilege of carrying him on their shoulders along the steep escarpment by the cliffs, men and women became aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams as they faced the splendor and beauty of their drowned man. They let him go without an anchor so that he could come back if he wished and whenever he wished, and they all held their breath for the fraction of centuries the body took to fall into the abyss. They did not need to look at one another to realize that they were no longer all present, that they would never be. But they also knew that everything would be different from then on, that their houses would have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors so that Esteban’s memory could go everywhere without bumping into beams and so that no one in the future would dare whisper the big boob finally died, too bad, the handsome fool has finally died, because they were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban’s memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas, and the captain would have to come down from the bridge in his dress uniform, with his astrolabe, his pole star, and his row of war medals and, pointing to the promontory of roses on the horizon, he would say in fourteen languages, look there, where the wind is so peaceful now that it’s gone to sleep beneath the beds, over there, where the sun’s so bright that the sunflowers don’t know which way to turn, yes, over there, that’s Esteban’s village.

The village practically became Esteban in the end. There was a part of the villagers in Esteban that was taken to the sea, and Esteban left the widened bed posts and door frames and overwhelming smell of flowers on the cliffs. The handsomest drowned man in the world, Esteban, whose story was completely invented by the villagers, now gave identity to the village itself.

What I could take from this story and put in my own writing is learn how to change characters over time from the protagonist’s point of view. Doing first person has always been difficult for me, especially in characterization of others without loading on a pile of exposition, but complete images and guesses like the ones the villagers did could help a lot in making the story more effective and help it flow easier. I could also use this story to show how my characters affect the setting more, which has always been bland in my stories. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” has taught me a lot about writing, and I am very fortunate to be able to analyze it like this.

Questions:

Why do the children first meet the drowned man and not the male or female villagers?

Is Esteban human?

Who is the “I”?

A Call To Action

Unlike Lady Gaga, whose “statements” with the opening of her Super Bowl halftime performance here in Houston this past weekend were predictably bland, the writer Steve Almond has gotten political. In 2006, he resigned his position as a creative writing instructor at Boston College when they named then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice their commencement speaker, a bit of activism that got him the opportunity to go toe-to-toe, or rather head-to-head, with Fox News’ Sean Hannity–an experience that in subsequent years led Almond to reflect on liberal attitudes. Rereading the title story of his third collection, God Bless America (2011), in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, one can find a sinister historical precedent for our present moment as Almond explores what it means to act in different contexts.

“God Bless America” begins with Billy Clamm accidentally going into a class on acting when he’s looking for a class on tax preparation. He’s so enthralled by the teacher and his emphasis on “connectedness” that he quits his job and hurls himself into acting (to the apparent chagrin of his father, whom he still lives with). He takes a job as a guide for Sammy Duck Land and Sea Tours, believing he is cutting his acting chops as he enthusiastically leads tours to historical American sites, fantasizing about his American-Dream-style upward rise while hoping to get a role in its climactic reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. His gun-toting boss Augustino doesn’t seem likely to let this happen anytime soon, but when the arrest of one of the other guides disrupts the reenactment, Billy believes his big break has arrived and takes the initiative to play the British lackey who collects the tea after it’s flung into the harbor. He’s so in character he doesn’t notice the police have arrived in force until they start shooting at him and he sees one of his fellow guides, Esquivel, get shot. He believes it must all be a misunderstanding, but when the nervous inflammation of his face reminds him of a comment of his mother’s, he’s inspired to take action, steering the boat away from the commotion. Admiring the color of the sunset that his mother would have liked, he’s inspired with the idea for a new stage name: William Aubergine. Shortly thereafter, he discovers that the boxes he gathered, labeled TEA, are actually full of cocaine. Whereas Billy Clamm would return to resolve the misunderstanding, William Aubergine will take advantage of the dramatic moment. And so he sails off into the sunset to start a new life, marveling at the nature of American opportunity and imagining how it would take a good actor to pull off the sincerity of the moment.     

The chronic tension is Billy’s wanting something more out of his aimless life (manifesting in the contrast between his cheerful dead mother and abrasive living father). The acute tension is his discovering acting, which will lead to his discovering the cocaine (i.e., opportunity).

One might read Billy Clamm as representative of the average American–perhaps the liberal flipside to “Joe Plumber,” to dust off some 00s electorhetoric. Even the opening line presents us with a potential political idea: a division of classes, one based on preparing taxes (notably, by exploiting legal loopholes), one on acting. Billy aspires to the former but finds his place in the latter. He believes he is a good actor, but the reader can tell he’s not as good as he thinks he is when he interprets his teacher’s comment that “perhaps you should let your creative engine cool a bit” as acknowledgment of Billy’s professional calling.

Billy’s naivete is on display throughout the story; that he believes the shootout during the Tea Party reenactment is the product of some misunderstanding is reflective of the naivete of the general American populace, believing that organizations like corporations have their best interests at heart, or that they’re not consciously ripping you off when they overcharge you or double bill you–it’s just a misunderstanding.  

“Nothing to worry about,” he assured his audience. / But just then Billy realized that there was indeed something to worry about…”

Notably, at this point, the thing Billy is worried about is not his coworker’s arrest, but that the arrest will affect the upcoming performance. He quickly realizes that there’s an opportunity that he believes could be his big break–and in fact will turn out to be, though not in the way he anticipated.

Almond describes how the Tea Party reenactment works:

It was quite ingenious how they staged the performance, especially considering that they used a different boat every day and none of the crew seemed to speak English. The Duckies were hustled on board and Horatio Higgenbottom, intrepid revolutionary agitator, appeared on deck in a long buttoned coat and breeches, and delivered a stirring soliloquy, then flung a wooden box labeled TEA overboard, following which the Duckies joined in until dozens of boxes bobbed in the water and cheers issued forth and the boat spluttered off into international waters, where, if they so chose, guests could gamble by a variety of means while a “British lackey,” usually the ill-tempered Jacomo, sallied forth in a motorboat to fetch the tea.

Billy’s, the reader’s, and any tourist’s perception of what’s happening is later revealed to be only a surface understanding; the term “performance” here has a double meaning. There’s another entirely separate enterprise going on here that, on first read, we don’t realize–this is a drug smuggling routine. The dumping of the tea is literally the dumping of drugs into the water, then picked up by another boat and taken out to international waters. This might be representative of how the surfaces we interact with and/or witness around us, our interactions with corporations, etc., might seem innocuous, but really have some more sinister profit-mongering scheme as an ulterior motive for the whole setup.

Whenever Billy asked about securing a role, Augustino shook his head and put a finger to his lips and and peeled Billy’s pay from a roll of twenties as fat as an onion.  

Billy believes good acting is what will earn him a role in the climactic Boston Tea Party reenactment, when really this has nothing to do with it; rather, roles are determined based on who’s in on the drug ring. Of course, as readers we don’t discover this until Billy does, though Almond provides several clues, the first being Augustino’s suspicious response to Billy when he shows up to apply for the job, and the fact that he has a gun. The next being Billy’s payment from a fat wad of cash.

Billy’s pursuit of his acting dream leads him into the path of the drug ring–where the real American Dream is. The arc of the story seems to imply that getting ahead in America is not so much a product of hard work as it is of dumb blind luck–that, and a willingness to disregard the possible negative fallout of your opportunity on others. While Billy’s dumb blind luck is an inadvertent product of his hard work in his willingness to pursue acting–he wouldn’t have been in the position to intercept the cocaine if he hadn’t been willing to take the tour guide job–he doesn’t give a second thought to the coworkers he’s left behind for the cops. Of course, all of this can be easily rationalized away:

This was America and this was how things went sometimes in America, how the entire enterprise had gotten itself started and grown and prospered.

By connecting the Boston Tea Party to a cocaine ring, Almond is subtly drawing a connection between a couple of critical events in our nation’s history, while also calling our understanding of history into question. The Tea Party was a rebellious act that brought the colonies closer to revolution. The cocaine epidemic led to the massively counterproductive War on Drugs. We know who brought the tea over, but what about the cocaine? It’s still debated what role the government has played in its distribution.

By the end of the story, the verb “act,” initially connoting participation in dramaturgy, has started to take on shades of other meanings of the word. A great deal of meaning is packed into the line:

No, he was considering the new direction his life had taken since he’d decided to act.

By this point Billy has not only acted in terms of performing, he has acted in terms of taking action, by driving the motorboat with the tea boxes away from the fracas with the cops:

He could feel the red stain aflame on his cheek, and with it, the voice of his mother suddenly returned to him. “That’s just your way of telling the world you’re alive.” She had said this to soothe him, of course. But the words now seemed to have a different intention altogether. They were her way of recognizing the depth of his passion–a call to arms, or at least to action. Billy watched his hand, in something like amazement, as it grabbed the steering wheel and angled the boat away from the shore. Then his foot slammed the gas pedal.

One interesting thing about this passage is how removed, or disconnected, from his own actions Billy seems to be. It also equates while simultaneously drawing a distinction between a call to arms and a call to action. Most significantly, Billy’s acting here is no longer in the sense of performance.

But the overtones of disconnection are important. The concept of connectedness has been present since the beginning of the story, but with some (intentional) inconsistency. At first, the acting teacher uses it in the sense of being connected to your life, but thereafter seems to use it in the context of being connected to your process. By the end, it would seem that being connected to one might preclude, rather than foster, connection to the other. Billy is so connected to his process when he’s finding the character of the British lackey that he’s utterly disconnected from reality: “…he was busy brandishing his musket.” This moment, approaching the conflation of arms and action, might indicate taking up arms as a problematic call to action.

By design, Billy’s happy ending likely leaves the reader uncomfortable, bringing us into contact with the unseemly underbelly of the American Dream. There’s certainly irony in the story’s final moment of him imagining himself acting out the moment he’s currently living–another indication of potential disconnection. Now, more than ever, people are looking for a way to take action, and we will find out how much this action creates the potential for change. Billy Clamm would have gone back to resolve the nonexistent misunderstanding, and might well have been arrested as part of the drug ring for his trouble; William Aubergine serves himself first and leaves everything else behind. These are the poles bookending the spectrum of our options as Americans, to serve others and get screwed, or to screw others? So what will be your way of telling the world you’re alive?

-SCR