“A Temporary Matter” Write Up by Dhara Rodgerson

“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri is about a couple, Shoba and Shukumar, in a destitute marriage who are informed of a temporary power outage that will take place in the evenings. In the dark, they play a game of shared secrets with each other, starting off with minor indiscretions and leading toward more intimate confessions. Shoba and Shukumar are able to communicate candidly about their relationship and the death of their child in a way they never could with the lights on, and use the outage as a way to bridge the distance that the miscarriage caused between them.

The chronic tension is Shoba’s miscarriage and Shoba and Shukumar’s lack of communication, and the acute tension is the power outage.

I think “A Temporary Matter” is compelling because it was such an intimate and complicated portrait of marriage for such a short story. Lahiri uses memory and inaction to portray the deterioration of Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage, which makes the parting of the couple feel so much more like a loss, because we know as readers what they used to have. Shoba and Shukumar are both characterized by how they used to act, what they used to do, and how they used to treat each other:

She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.

This leaves the reader wondering how much of the marriage is salvageable, and whether Shoba and Shukumar can ever revive their old relationship, or whether they are doomed to live and grieve as individuals.

I also loved the use of food to represent Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage. Shoba’s past love of cooking and her meticulous joy in grocery shopping are indicative of her previous marital happiness, and her disinterest in these after the miscarriage contributes to the sense of alienation we feel from her character. Food also comes to represent Shukumar’s attempts at intimacy with Shoba, and after the power outages start, he finds himself cooking romantic dinners and excited to go to the grocery store again. In fact, after the power returns, the first thing Shukumar thinks of is the shrimp malai he was planning to make for her:

He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba, but when he arrived at the store he didn’t feel like cooking anymore. It wasn’t the same, he thought, knowing that the lights wouldn’t go out. In the store the shrimp looked gray and thin. The coconut milk tin was dusty and overpriced. Still, he bought them, along with a beeswax candle and two bottles of wine.

Bottles of wine are used as olive branches, and so are home cooked meals. I think the power in this motif is that it’s relatable to almost everyone, regardless of whether they’ve been in a failing marriage or not. Food is a form of communication that is often overlooked, and I appreciate Lahiri’s use of it as a craft device.

In my own writing, I think I can apply more subtle and nuanced methods of communication between characters. There isn’t any explosive confrontation between Shoba and Shukumar, and I think that makes the story feel more realistic and personal than characters that are overdramatized in their emotions and behavior. I also want to adopt some of Lahiri’s approach to ‘negative characterization’ – we get a sense of who Shoba and Shukumar are by who they used to be, and the parts of themselves that they lost after the death of their son. In addition, I think food can tell us more about people than we think. Using food to characterize people and relationships is something I’d like to try in the future, and I think Lahiri executes it very well, especially considering how important food is to Indian culture.

WRITING EXERCISE

Write a story with two characters that have a communication barrier, real or imagined. How do they overcome this? How does this affect the dynamic of their relationship? Is there any way they can be honest with each other?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Why do you think the story was called “A Temporary Matter”? What was temporary in the story? What wasn’t?

Do you think the power outage confessions have a different meaning for Shoba and Shukumar? What do they represent to each of the characters?

Much of “A Temporary Matter” is centered around little snips of memory: dinners past, taxi cabs, dentist appointments. Why do you think this is, especially since the story tackles such large and complex issues, like marriage and miscarriage?

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“The Lottery” Write Up by Audrey Germany

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is about a small town holding its annual lottery. The story begins describing the day of the lottery, June 27th, as the people gathered in the square. The children begin to make piles of stones while the men quietly joke. The women gossip with each other before moving to be with their husbands. Mr. Summers, the conductor of the lottery, arrives in the square carrying a black wooden box which holds the pieces of paper for the people to choose from. The box had been used for the lottery even before the oldest man in town was born, but they replaced the wooden chips for pieces of paper once the population outgrew three hundred. Before the lottery begins, Mr. Summers has to write out the lists of the heads of families that would first pick from the box. Some people in the town recalled some sort of  ceremony in the past, but now the person called just walks to the box and picks a slip. Just as the lottery begins, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, claiming that she completely forgot what day it was. Mr. Summers calls out the family names in chronological order, and the husband of each family gets up to get a slip. During this time, Mr. Adams mentions that some towns abandoned holding the lottery to Old Man Warner. Warner replies that young people are too choosy and lazy, and that there’s always been a lottery. Once Mr. Summers finishes, the people open their slips of paper and Mr. Hutchinson gets picked. Mrs. Hutchinson argues that he didn’t get enough time to choose, but the ritual continues. Mrs. Hutchinson, Mr. Hutchinson, and their three children each pick a slip of paper from the box. Once it’s revealed that Mrs. Hutchinson chose the slip with a black dot in the middle, the people begin to stone her to death.

The chronic tension is the lottery itself, and the acute tension is the lottery in the specific year taking place in the story.

The use of foreshadowing in “The Lottery” makes the story compelling to read because the true nature of the lottery isn’t revealed until the last few scenes of the story. For the first three (ish) pages, there’s no foreshadowing aside from this curious section on the first page:

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix – the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy” – eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.

This foreshadowing  is clever because so far, we only know that a lottery will take place at some point, so we may assume that the kids gathering stones are just playing around. However, the word “already” hints that Bobby is preparing for something later on, but this is subtle enough for us to overlook on the first read. The interjection about the villagers pronouncing Delacroix as “Dellacroy” is enough to distract the reader from what’s relevant to the story’s eventual climax. The foreshadowing of the lottery’s outcome becomes more dense as the story progresses, but even these sections are too vague to pinpoint what may actually happen:

“Right.” Mr. Summers said. He made a note on the list he was holding. Then he asked, “Watson boy drawing this year?”

A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. “Here,” he said. “I’m drawing for my mother and me.” He blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head as several voices in the crowd said things like “Good fellow, lack.” and “Glad to see your mothers got a man to do it.”

From this quote, we can tell that the boy is anxious to be in the lottery, and that the townsfolk are proud of him for stepping up to replace his mother. We’re starting to get the idea that the lottery in Jackson’s world isn’t the same as the lottery in reality, but this isn’t enough to infer that the winner of the lottery gets killed. I’ll say now that I know the point of foreshadowing isn’t to completely reveal the climax of a story; that would ruin this story. I mean to highlight Jackson’s foreshadowing as incredibly vague and understated, which makes the story more compelling because we’re unsure what happens to the person that wins the lottery, although we know it probably isn’t something good. Tessie’s reaction to her husband getting picked furthers this, and it makes the story even more enthralling.

The final bit of foreshadowing reveals the most about the lottery’s outcome:

“All right,” Mr. Summers said. “Open the papers. Harry, you open little Dave’s.”

Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper and there was a general sigh through the crowd as he held it up and everyone could see that it was blank. Nancy and Bill Jr. opened theirs at the same time, and both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.

This shows that the winner of the lottery will ultimately be Tessie or Bill (Or Harburt?), and it shows that the author isn’t cruel enough to write about a little kid getting stoned. Neither are the townsfolk; the “general sigh” reveals that they aren’t heartless monsters. However, it also reveals they would’ve stoned Dave if he had been picked. But we don’t realize this yet because we haven’t seen what happens to Tessie – we’ve only realized the lottery results in something really bad. We could also use this section to infer that Tessie was late to the lottery because she didn’t want to go.

The pacing of “The Lottery” is another technique that aids in the story’s mystery. Here, I highlighted how much of the story wasn’t foreshadowing – rather, I highlighted the parts of the story that distracted the reader from the main plot:

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before old man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

This section in the story comes after Mr. Summers’s arrival and before Mrs. Hutchinson’s arrival. Although it could be considered exposition, I think of it as an interruption. The history of the black box has no real importance to the plot, and it seems like something that an editor would advise to cut completely in order to not distract the reader. However, this long section of unnecessary information helps the climax of the story startle and frighten the reader more than if Jackson had stuck with the immediate plot structure. It prolongs the story to make the outcome more sudden.

Another example of good pacing is when the family that won the lottery is revealed:

After that, there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers, holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill.” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”

Up until this point, the story’s progression was slow. The name-calling section takes a long time to have the same impact as the bouts of information –  to create an unanticipated outcome. But at this moment, the urgent lines of dialogue help heighten the tension in the story before the outcome is reached. The characters’ dialogue had been polite or teasing discussion previously in the story to distract from what was about to happen.  At this point that politeness is breached by anxiousness, and the quick pacing of the dialogue allows this.

In my own writing, I would like to imitate Jackson’s use of foreshadowing to subtly reveal more about the outcome as the plot continues. Also, her pacing helps set the tone of each section, and I would like to pace my stories the same way so I can give a clear depiction of what the scene is like. The writing exercise is to write a plot with a sharp, unexpected turn at the end and figure out how to foreshadow this turn in earlier sections of the story.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did you think any of the long paragraphs of information (the one about the black box, about the lottery’s history, etc.) were necessary to the main plot?
  2. “The Lottery” is the kind of story that is most impactful on the first read. What makes readers return to this story even though they know the outcome?
  3. Shirley Jackson’s story was very controversial when it was first published in 1948. Why do you think it was controversial?
  4. I feel like Suzanne Collins sort of ripped this story off when she wrote The Hunger Games. What do you think?

Adulthood and Everything in It

A Presentation by Benjamin Arthur, Vera Caldwell, and Olivia Barnes

Summary part 1: Benjamin
“A Perfect Day for A Bananafish,” by J.D. Salinger, begins with a call from one of the story’s main characters, Muriel’s, mom. Muriel is on a vacation with her newly-wedded husband, Seymour, and her mother is concerned about her daughter’s safety. The two talk over the phone of Muriel’s father, her situation at the hotel, and their concerns for one another. The conversation ends with Muriel assuring that her mom that she’s fine, and with her mom begrudgingly accepting.

Summary part 2: Vera
A little girl named Sybil Carpenter runs off down the beach and finds Seymour, Muriel’s husband, after her mother puts sun tan oil on her. They go into the water together, and he tells her about bananafish, which are fish that swim into holes with a lot of bananas in them, eat all of the bananas, become trapped in the hole, and die. They also have an exchange about Sharon Lipschutz, another little girl who Sybil saw sitting next to Seymour while he was playing the piano. Sybil believes that Seymour should have pushed her off, but Seymour finds such an action to be impolite and also points out that, unlike Sybil, she has not been cruel to a dog belonging to another customer at the hotel. Sybil says that she has seen a bananafish, and Seymour decides that it’s time to leave the water. Sybil says goodbye and runs down the beach, and Seymour leaves as well.

Summary part 3: Olivia
After a meandering conversation on the beach, Seymour and Sybil wade into the water. Once they are in the water, the young man describes to Sybil what a bananafish is, giving the reader a glimpse of his insanity, and after Sybil is convinced she sees one, the fellowship dissolves quickly. Exiting the water, Sybil runs back to her mother in the hotel, and after a small period of time, Seymour follows. Once he is back in his room, Seymour demonstrates his insanity one last time, by taking, loading, and killing himself with his pistol.

Analysis 1: Benjamin

This story was engaging, and kept me invested in it the whole time. The author’s use of concrete details when describing the point of view of the characters, and speed at which the plot progressed made it very enjoyable to read. Specifically, when the two worked hand and hand to progress the story. One example is when, Muriel, a main character, was talking with her mom about her husband, Seymour. They discuss his mental state and her mom brings up that, during their last doctor visit, the doctor said that Seymour was on the verge of completely losing control. They also discuss how Seymour was in the army, what he did to Muriel’s grandma’s chair, and how he is generally unstable. Their points of view, her mother being worried for Muriel, and Muriel reassuring herself and her mom that Seymour will be perfectly fine, lead to very important information about Seymour that give his actions later in the story much more clarity. Seymour is mentally unstable, likely due to his time in the army, and that explains his previous actions, as well as his future ones.

JD Salinger is very adept at conveying information through details and recollections that his characters have. We were not explicitly told that Seymour was mentally unstable, or that Muriel didn’t feel the need to talk to the physiatrist in the hotel in case Seymour went insane, or that Muriel gradually became nervous and unsure of herself during the course of her call with her mother. We were just told that Seymour had done strange things and that her mom was worried, there was randomly a physiatrist in the hotel with his wife, and that Muriel just went to grab a smoke and crossed her legs. Little, almost unnoticeable details like that make the reader feel rewarded for discovering them, and that keeps them engaged. That is a great technique in writing, and I applaud Salinger’s use of it, it’s definitely a technique to mimic in our own writing. Along with that, meaningful and not extra dialogue as portrayed by Muriel and her mother’s conversation, and descriptive wording for insight into characters as to show and not tell, portrayed by Muriel’s actions and recollections during the call.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Seymour plan to do on vacation?
  2. Do Muriel and Seymour legitimately talk that often?
  3. Why would Seymour spend his nights on vacation playing piano instead of being with his wife in the bar?

Analysis 2: Vera

The first element examined is characterization. This is an incredibly vital part of this story because it plays such a big role in the premise, which is that Seymour doesn’t identify with adulthood like the people around him do. The beginning of the story takes a look at Seymour’s wife, Muriel:

She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

From both of these quotations, we can tell that this Muriel is wealthy, feminine, and above it all. After we are introduced to her, we learn about her family, including her husband, through a phone call with her mother. This section introduces the mother as being concerned, as she constantly asks her daughter if she is all right and would like to come home. The reasons for her concern become more and more evident as you read on-

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

“All right, all right. He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” the girl said, and giggled.

“It isn’t funny, Muriel. It isn’t funny at all. It’s horrible. It’s sad, actually.”

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there’s a chance–a very great chance, he said–that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”

We hear a little bit about Seymour Glass’ lack of proficiency at driving- he seems to have driven Muriel’s parents’ car into some trees at some point. This indicates that Seymour is not a reliable person. Note, however, that Muriel does mention Seymour’s offer to pay for the car. This conversation then reveals that Seymour calls Muriel ‘Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948’ and that Muriel finds this funny. We are now sure that Seymour is an unusual man. However, only towards the end of the conversation do we learn that Seymour is considered mentally ill or unstable by Muriel’s parents and that some sort of incident involving the army may be connected with this. We also learn a little more about Muriel and her relationship with her mother when Muriel mentions being badly sunburned as an excuse not to come home and then flippantly dismisses her mother’s concerns by saying ‘I’ll live.’ Muriel comes off as detached from the people around her.

We also learn about a somewhat different side of Seymour. When Muriel describes the drive to the hotel, she explains that he did a good job of driving and ‘was even trying not to look at the trees.’ He spends a lot of his time at the hotel playing the piano and that, at the time the phone call is taking place, he is sitting out on the beach and is refusing to take off his bathrobe. The two reasons discussed for this are his paleness and that ‘he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo.’ In the middle of the conversation, Muriel asks her mother to locate a book of German poetry Seymour gave to her. She explains that he’d told her that they were written by ‘the only great poet of the century’ and that she should have bought a translation or just learned German. From these pieces of information, we learn that Seymour is shy, studious, well-intentioned, and just plain eccentric. Rather than think of him as a raving lunatic, we see him as more of an all-around odd person. These details make him come off as more likeable than Muriel’s mother feels he is.

This conversation also displays some elitism on the part of Muriel and her mother-

“The people are awful this year. You should see what sits next to us in the dining room. At the next table. They look as if they drove down in a truck.”

“Well, it’s that way all over.”

As well as this comment about the less fashionable/poorer people staying with them at the resort, Muriel also passes judgement about the wife of the psychiatrist she met at the resort based on an ugly dress she was wearing. These comments give us context for Seymour’s frustration with them

Next, we get to meet our little girl, Sybil, as well as Seymour himself.

She was wearing a canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years.

Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle, she was soon out of the area reserved for guests of the hotel.

Sybil is a cheerful girl whose carefree lack of self-awareness is a world away from Muriel’s personality. She is the consummate small child, not yet as empathetic and polite as an older person but with crystal clear perception and honesty many adults lack.

When Sybil finds Seymour waiting on the beach, we get a good sense of his mannerisms and personality. He has been expecting Sybil’s father ‘hourly’ and is seriously considering/giving plenty of thought to going in the water.

“That’s a fine bathing suit you have on. If there’s one thing I like, it’s a blue bathing suit.” (pg6)

Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. “This is a yellow,” she said. “This is a yellow.”

“It is? Come a little closer.” Sybil took a step forward. “You’re absolutely right. What a fool I am.”

“Are you going in the water?” Sybil said.

How could one confuse the colors blue and yellow, seeing as they are so different? We don’t know why Seymour made this mistake. There are two very important things to notice in this passage. Seymour doesn’t provide an excuse for not knowing what the colors were. There’s nothing about him being underslept and confusing the words or even being colorblind. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself. Second, Sybil is not concerned. The main thing she’s been asking him throughout this exchange is whether they are going in the water or not, and that continues to be the focus. She doesn’t think that Seymour is crazy or weird. If this exchange had occurred between Seymour and one of Muriel’s friends, the wearer of the bathing suit would have found Muriel immediately, told her that Seymour needed to be put in a mental hospital, and lectured her about taking care of herself and remaining safe, all because he had confused the colors blue and yellow and failed to explain himself. Seymour doesn’t have any freedom from judgement with other adults, but he does with children.

He let go of her ankles, drew in his hands, and laid the side of his face on his right forearm. “Well,” he said, “you know how those things happen, Sybil. I was sitting there, playing. And you were nowhere in sight. And Sharon Lipschutz came over and sat down next to me. I couldn’t push her off, could I?”

We get a sense of Seymour’s kindness through this passage. He doesn’t ‘push anyone off’ out of loyalty to anyone else, instead opting to be nice to them because they haven’t done him any harm. We have this passage, which makes this point to an even greater extent-

“Do you like Sharon Lipschutz?” Sybil asked.

“Yes. Yes, I do,” said the young man. “What I like particularly about her is that she never does anything mean to little dogs in the lobby of the hotel. That little toy bull that belongs to that lady from Canada, for instance. You probably won’t believe this, but some little girls like to poke that little dog with balloon sticks. Sharon doesn’t. She’s never mean or unkind. That’s why I like her so much.”

Seymour has a strong ethical sense as well. Apparently, Sybil poked a small dog in the lobby of the hotel, and Seymour is willing to let her know that he doesn’t like that she did that. Note, however, that he only mentions it once and doesn’t continue to bring it up after he knows that he’s made his point. He doesn’t even tell Sybil’s mother because he knows that he has made an impression and that that’s enough to teach her a lesson.

After Seymour and Sybil leave the beach and go their separate ways, Seymour gets angry at a woman who he thinks is looking at his feet. This scene changes the mood in order to transition from carefree swimming at the beach to what will happen at the end of the story. In terms of characterization, we also get a sense of Seymour’s frustration with the world.

“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”

Seymour doesn’t understand why people don’t come right out and say what they’re doing. He also has a poor grasp of the pleasantries that keep many adults who are at odds from constantly fighting and that obscure people’s real feelings and motivations.

At the end of the story, he puts a pistol to his temple and we feel sorry for him. Note the transformation in our perception from the beginning of the story-we’re wary of him but intrigued when we hear the phone conversation, but now we understand his plight and how expectations of adulthood can stifle more unusual people and make them feel terrible enough for something like this to happen. The stakes are raised from ostracization to death here.

Through dialogue as well as thoughtful description, Salinger is able to make these characters come alive and feel like people we might be able to recognize in our own lives. Many a talented writer has followed the oft-said advice to ‘show, not tell,’ and this shows in Salinger’s work. He never comes out and says that Seymour is misunderstood, for instance. You have to interact with the text, visualize this story yourself, and realize it on your own. Seymour’s portrayal changes as you go through the story, and the reader has to keep track of this information and understand it themselves.

Another way that Salinger conveys character in this piece is through exquisite usage of dialogue. This had to happen to some extent out of necessity because half of his story is a phone conversation, but it’s an excellent device that makes a story stand out. We learn about Seymour bit by bit through what’s brought up in the phone conversation and through his interactions with Sybil. From the way he speaks and from the way others speak about him, you get the information needed to draw conclusions. Speech is often easier to remember than long descriptions of setting or appearance, especially if this speech resembles real life enough that we can connect to it and believe that it could actually be said. What follows are two examples of great pieces of dialogue and a quick explanation of what can be imitated in each of them.

“It isn’t funny, Muriel. It isn’t funny at all. It’s horrible. It’s sad, actually. When I think how–“

Salinger gives his characters complete sentences, but ones that don’t feel forced and flow together. He does this by making them short to improve clarity and adds interruptions where characters cut each other off (as happens intentionally or unintentionally in real life). If you give characters long, winding sentences without punctuation, it is less effective even if that is how many people talk in real life.

“Well,” he said, “you know how those things happen, Sybil. I was sitting there, playing. And you were nowhere in sight. And Sharon Lipschutz came over and sat down next to me. I couldn’t push her off, could I?”

By making these sentences choppy and by using the word ‘and’ effectively but sparingly, Salinger crafts a recounting of a memory in a way that feels realistic but is easily readable.

The second craft element I analyze here is significant detail. Since this category is broad enough to encompass some of the other craft elements, including characterization, I chose specific phrases within the story that contribute in other ways. Consider the details discussed previously significant.

The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear.

The first significant detail that we get in this story is that Muriel is at odds with her mother. This detail is significant because it sets up the tension between these two characters over Seymour. Muriel’s mother is anxious about her daughter’s safety because she believes Seymour is dangerous, and Muriel is less concerned and seems to find him entertaining. These are both judgements that the characters make about Seymour, which are vital to the plot and meaningfulness of the story. The reason that this detail was used was to create tension before Seymour’s existence, much less mental state, was revealed. This makes those events feel less sudden.

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

We learn that something happened involving Seymour, a car, and some trees, which contributes to the story because we think of him as irresponsible after hearing that he wrecked a car. This is one of the pieces of information about Seymour that isn’t quite characterization but is important enough to be evidence we have to grapple with as we evaluate his personality.

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor.”

Seymour was in the army and in a hospital, presumably for reasons concerning his mental health. This statement does two things to advance the plot. First, it gives us the impression that there are a lot of people around Seymour who are concerned about him. This gives us a feeling that Seymour is stifled, especially later when we meet him. We feel sorry for him because people want to put him in a hospital and think that he is hurting his wife. Second, it conveys the dramatic nature of Muriel’s mother, which the rest of this phone call does as well-her constant ‘are you okay’s and offers to take Muriel home juxtaposed with Muriel’s indifference and reassurances suggest that she is overly worried. Also, since Seymour doesn’t like living in the adult world, the idea of him in the military, which is incredibly ordered and has the prospect of death looming over its soldiers, makes us feel for him.

The next significant detail that doesn’t have to do with worry about Muriel’s well-being is that Seymour spends a lot of his time playing piano. This was already mentioned under characterization, but I put it under significant detail as well because it is mentioned again when Sybil complains about Sharon Lipschutz and it gives us a somewhat poetic sense of Seymour’s personality and role in the world. Pianists are looked at in awe but can also be apart from the rest of society, especially when they are playing. First, piano players sit on a bench behind a piano, so they are separated by this large instrument from other people. Second, good pianists (and we get the feeling that Seymour is one, especially having learned about his studious nature through the book of German poetry) have so much knowledge and expertise that people often feel disconnected from them. Sharon Lipschutz sat next to him on the piano bench. If you wanted to take this idea even further, you could say that, being a young child, she was able to become closer to him because she didn’t know of the social constructs that dictate that people with talent should be put on a pedestal.

“See more glass,” said Sybil Carpenter, who was staying at the hotel with her mother. “Did you see more glass?”

This detail is not incredibly significant to the plot, but I thought I’d bring it up. It took me a while to realize that she’s saying ‘Seymour Glass’ and isn’t just being weird. It also shows that she didn’t stumble upon him by coincidence and that she presumably likes him.

Seymour’s answer to Sybil’s inquiry about the location of Muriel-

“Where’s the lady?” Sybil said.

“The lady?” the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. “That’s hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.”

This exchange reveals the resentment Seymour feels toward his wife. These words feel biting when you read them. Seymour’s rejection of the high society, overly self-obsessed, and incredibly mature life his wife and their social circle and family lead is essentially the main conflict, and this dialogue perfectly conveys this resentment.

“Ah, Sharon Lipschutz,” said the young man. “How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire.”

This line is significant because it directly shows Seymour’s longing to be in the company of children rather than adults. This helps us understand the tension between the adult world he is forced to live in and the world of children he feels more comfortable in.

The next significant detail is the description of the bananafish themselves:

“Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.” He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon. “Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again. Can’t fit through the door…Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die.”

The actual bananafish are important to the story because they can be interpreted as a metaphor. The bananafish, swimming into the banana hole, look normal, but act rashly and greedily. Their inability to escape from the banana hole is their downfall. This could be interpreted as a reflection upon the other adults in Seymour’s life and their materialistic and superficial personalities.

He plodded alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel.

This sentence, especially the use of the words ‘plodded’ and ‘alone,’ marks the transition from happily frolicking on the beach to the moments before Seymour’s suicide.

The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.

Before the final moments of this story and of Seymour’s life, one of the last things we are reminded of is the wealth and superficiality of his wife and how there’s no barrier between those things and him. This drives home an important point this story is making, which is that Seymour can’t escape from these horrors of adulthood.

Salinger uses detail sparingly, only including what is absolutely needed to set the scene and advance the plot. There are no flowery descriptions of the water in the summertime or of the paintings on the wall of the hotel room. Part of the reason for this is that he is conveying most things in this story through dialogue, so the details had to give for that reason. This sparing and precise use of detail is incredibly important for writers to keep in mind, especially because talented writers are talented at description and it can be easy to overuse that talent. The idea of planning out what details to include and what each of them will mean as you write is something that is interesting and important to contemplate.

Class discussion questions:

  1. How does the use of dialogue contribute to characterization?
  2. What do you think is the most significant detail in this piece?

Analysis 3: Olivia

The first technique tracked is scene v.s. summary. Because this story was partially an action filled story, there were very little summarizations, but it did contains significant scenes, that were necessary to make the story effective.

Where the first scene took place, in Muriel and Seymour’s bedroom, also happened to be where the ending scene was located. In the beginning scene, Muriel waits for the telephone line to be available, and while she is waiting, she does many acts that frame her character.

She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.

In the midst of those acts, Muriel is summarized in a significant way.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

Muriel is displayed, in both this scene and summarization, with a very rich, arrogant personality which is demonstrated a second time later in the story.

After a phone call with Muriel and her mother, the character Sybil is introduced. Sybil is a very defined character, because she is one of the only characters in this story, to interact with Muriel’s husband, Seymour and we learned much about Seymours behavior from Sybil and Seymour’s interactions. We are able to visualize Sybil’s youth by the first scene in which she was in.

Mrs. Carpenter was putting sun-tan oil on Sybil’s shoulders, spreading it down over the delicate, winglike blades of her back. Sybil was… wearing a canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years.

Because, Sybil is so young, her role in the story seems unnecessary, but the importance of the character of Sybil is shown in later scenes. After Sybil is allowed to go to the beach, she finds Seymour resting near the water. Because Sybil is young, the conversation between Seymour and Sybil is one of little depth, but Seymour’s insanity, which was referenced to during the Muriel’s phone conversation, is shown as he describes the imaginary bananafish to Sybil.

“Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.”

You might wonder how that signifies Seymour’s insanity, but when Sybil claims she sees a bananafish, Seymour begins to behave oddly. Sybil acts in this story as a gateway to Seymours unusual behavior.

The young man suddenly picked up one of Sybil’s wet feet, which were drooping over the end of the float, and kissed the arch.

Later, after Sybil runs back to the hotel from disapproval of her feet being kissed, Seymour has a argument with a lady on an elevator, claiming she was looking at his feet. Again showing parts of his queer behavior that tie to his insanity.

“I have two normal feet and I can’t see the slightest God-damned reason why anybody should stare at them,” said the young man.

The insanity of Seymour was completed in the final scene of the story, when he enters his room, looks at his sleeping wife on one of the hotel beds, and promptly kills himself.

He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his temple.

Sybil’s belief of bananafish almost seems as if it leads directly to the suicide of Seymour as he kills himself almost immediately after Sybil claims she spotted a bananafish and his actions become more and more unusual.

The second technique that is tracked in, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, was flashbacks and the opinions expressed about Seymour. Both of these occurred often throughout the phone call. When Muriel first picked up the phone her mother questioned if she was alright. The reason for this questioning was because Muriel’s mother was worried if Seymour had been able to maintain self control. Several of the questions Muriel’s mother asks signify that she is suspicious of Seymour’s behaviors.

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl.“And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

The last question asked of Muriel’s mother suggests that Seymour, while driving, would act strangely around the trees, perhaps crashing into them, perhaps swerving towards them demonstrating splinters of his insanity. Although Muriel’s mother is worried about Seymour acting in insane ways, Muriel is convinced that there is nothing to fear. Aligning perfectly with her arrogant personality shown above.

“Mother, I’m not afraid of Seymour.”

Although a major question is, Why is Seymour insane?, the answer is shown by the flashback through the eyes of Muriel’s mother.

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor.”

The mother subtly indicates in the quote directly above that because Seymour was released from the Army hospital too soon, perhaps his madness or insanity comes from the a war in which he participated in.

The importance of flashbacks and opinions in this story are evident because they lead us into the history and introduction of Seymour’s insanity.

discussion questions:

  1. Why does the author create such a long phone call between Muriel and her mother as opposed to providing a summary of what took place over the phone call?
  2. How does the author introduce the unusual – insane – actions of Seymour?

“The Sentry” Write Up by Ella Bernstein

Summary of “The Sentry” by Téa Obreht:

Bojan’s father is away in the military most of the time. He has no mother in his life, so he lives with his housekeeper, Mrs. Senka. His father comes home from the front one summer when Bojan is 10, bringing with him his sentry dog, Kaiser. Bojan is excited to meet Kaiser, but the dog turns out to be huge and scary. Immediately Bojan feels like the dog has uncovered secrets about Bojan that he himself doesn’t even know. The dog terrorizes the neighborhood. However, no one outright protests the dog, because everyone is afraid of Bojan’s father. Bojan tries to avoid the dog. One day, he is so afraid of Kaiser that he runs away from him, goes down to Mrs. Senka’s bedroom, and grabs the pistol from her bedside. He points it at Kaiser and shoots, but the gun is empty. Still, Bojan realizes that Kaiser recognizes a gun and becomes submissive to Bojan when he holds the pistol. For a long time this is Bojan’s mechanism for dealing with Kaiser. He takes one of his father’s pistols from his collection, unloads the bullets, and shoots at Kaiser, who usually pees himself out of fear. He only does this when his father is not in the house. One day, a group of boys gang up on Bojan after school. During the encounter, Bojan finds himself wishing for the dog to come and protect him. This desire angers him. When he gets home, his father is asleep by the fireplace. Bojan lets Kaiser in. Bojan proceeds to “shoot” at the dog as usual, watching as Kaiser shudders and pees, but when Bojan turns around his father is standing behind him. His father commands him to sit down and takes the pistol from him. Bojan listens as his father loads the gun. Then, he shoots—Kaiser crumples to the ground. Reflecting on the incident, Bojan recalls how Kaiser’s face relaxed when he died, blood pooling around him, and wonders if his father looked the same when he was executed in the war.

Chronic tension: Bojan’s relationship with his father

Acute tension: Bojan’s fear of Kaiser

The first element I highlighted in the story is Bojan’s discussions of his sense of guilt. It added a dimension that I felt was closely personal and mysterious. Bojan never defines what this guilt stems from, and he may not even know it himself when describing his feelings upon meeting the dog:

He remembered it for years afterwards, the sensation of being uncovered, even though, at that time, he wasn’t covering anything up at all, wouldn’t know for years that there was anything he should be covering up.

This was the first time he mentioned this feeling. Bojan later describes how he feels when the dog barks at him, that it

…made Bojan feel like something inside his chest was going to shake loose, buckle under that sense that he had done something and that the mastiff knew, it knew, it knew, and it was trying to sniff him out.

He fears not just being found out by the mastiff, but by others as well:

He would wonder for years whether everybody knew how he would turn out, whether there was something about him that revealed itself to people who could just feel those things, and even to people who couldn’t, something about him that made itself obvious to everyone around him.

Maybe I was missing something, but I don’t know what Bojan’s secret was. My best guess is that it was something he hadn’t discovered yet, something that we’re about to discover…

The second element I tracked was comparisons between Bojan’s father and the dog. Here’s what we know: Bojan’s father is a sentry in the military, in the middle of a war. The name “Bojan” is found in the former countries of Yugoslavia (interesting note: the name means “warrior” or “military commander”). We can assume this takes place in or near present day. With this and a couple google searches, we can assume that Bojan’s father is probably a guard at a concentration camp in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Whether or not that’s exactly true, Bojan’s father (and his dog) are closely involved in some really brutal stuff. Bojan doesn’t know the truth of what his father does in the military, though:

Bojan could picture the two of them on sentry duty: his father, tall and heavy-set, the dog growling like a rusted grate at his side while they performed manoeuvres, or, in some of Bojan’s more daring fantasies, searched for mines. This was years before newspaper reports surfaced, years before photographs of barbed-wire compounds and starved men herded into lines.

Throughout the story, the author subtly compares Bojan’s father to the mastiff. When his father and Kaiser arrive in the neighborhood, Kaiser begins his regime of fear, replicating his job as a sentry dog:

Confined to the yard, the mastiff still dominated the neighbourhood. … It made a show of patrolling up and down the grounds and bounding to the fence whenever the neighbour’s widow made her daily appearance. Kaiser had a bark you could hear all along the street, and made use of it often; so often, in fact, that the paperboy made his deliveries from across the road and the local children started taking the longer route to school.

Kaiser’s power of fear makes people avoid him, like they avoid Bojan’s father because of his power of status:

People complained, but always indirectly, with reluctance, usually at church and in ways that made their concerns seem more like observations than actual grievances. They knew Bojan’s father; they seemed to know better.

Bojan also craves a protective relationship with both his father and the mastiff, both of whom fail to protect him. When first being introduced to the menacing dog, Bojan had this reaction:

He slid instinctively behind his father, who reached around and pulled him forward by the sleeve so the dog could smell him.

Bojan had a similar experience with Kaiser when being attacked in the park:

His one coherent thought in the park had been a silent longing for the mastiff, the huge, defensive hulk of it, the alliance he still hoped might shift if the mastiff saw him under attack. This need made him angry.

Bojan subverts this similarity and his fear of both the mastiff and his father when he starts “shooting” the dog. Suddenly, Bojan has the power. But when his father discovers the practice, his power reigns over both of them. As he takes over the scene, he commands Bojan: “Sit.” Just like Bojan had commanded to the dog many times. And when Bojan hears the gun fire, he has this reaction:

…for a moment his heart felt punched.

…which echoes Kaiser’s reaction to when Bojan “shoots” him:

…it would shudder as though he’d hit it in the heart.

What is Obreht doing here? Is she introducing a comparison between the dog and Bojan? In that case, what does the father killing the dog symbolize? Killing his son? Killing himself? Does it symbolize something else, or nothing at all?

Before we get into discussion, I want to reflect on what specifically Téa Obreht did to make this story so magnetic to me. Something I think she did really well was utilize mystery and vagueness. It added a wonderful tension to the story, in my opinion. There is vague foreshadowing when Bojan references whatever he’s hiding, something at once sinister and innocent in those thoughts. The hints at his father’s true occupation also elevated my curiosity and investment in these characters. Knowing that he likely is a concentration camp guard adds new meaning to his power over his neighbors, his dog’s defensiveness of their territory, and the casual way he is able to kill the dog in the end.

With that in mind, my writing exercise for this piece is to write a character who is hiding something without fully revealing what that is.

Now the fun part: questions!

  1. What do you think Bojan was hiding?
  2. What do you think the author was trying to convey about Bojan’s father in the last scene, especially considering the running comparison between him and the mastiff?
  3. What is the significance of the names? (Bojan: military commander, warrior; Kaiser: German word for emperor)

“The Ceiling” Write Up by Ty Gates

The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier follows a man and his family after an object appears in the sky. The object, named The Ceiling by the press, is a perfectly flat obsidian square slowly but steadily getting closer to the Earth, and threatening to crush the town. As the ceiling makes its descent, the signs of the marriage’s failure and the wife’s affair with the neighbor become more obvious until the ceiling finally crushes them all.

The chronic tension is the failure of the marriage and Melissa and Mitch’s affair. The acute tension is the ceiling.

I think the most interesting thing about this story is how Brockmeier uses metaphor. This story is rife with it. The story is driven by the controlling metaphor of the ceiling. The impending dread and the world-crushing weight of the ceiling is a stand in for the affair that Melissa is having on the narrator.

Controlling metaphors can be tricky, but what I think makes “The Ceiling” stand out is that the metaphor isn’t perfect. It’s not exactly a one to one. The instinct with controlling metaphors is usually to make every part of the symbol relate back. Brockmeier, however, lets his metaphor live its own life a bit. This can be seen when the barber and the main character participate in a joke about the ceiling that had been “circulating” the town “since the object appeared.” With this event it’s a bit difficult to find how the symbol is shedding light on the marriage. Really, it’s not. Brockmeier is simply making the ceiling real in the world and allowing it to have some freedom from the affair.

Of course, the ceiling is still an effective driving metaphor. For one thing, every time a new development is made in the discovery of the affair, new information about the ceiling is given almost immediately after.  When the affair officially comes out, the ceiling crushes the water tower right after, the first time the ceiling destroys something essential to the town’s existence.

The way the news of the water tower’s destruction is given is through the account of a townsperson. This paragraph, in my opinion, sums up the whole story. Hankins the grocer says he was driving when he saw the water tower’s “leg posts buckling” under the weight of the ceiling. The affair comes out, and the main character feels the “kick of pain.” Then, when the water tower collapses, Hankins is carried away in the deluge, losing all control. This is, simply put, the marriage collapsing. But the reason I love this paragraph so much is because of how layered it is. There is the controlling metaphor of the ceiling crushing the essential foundation of the marriage that has already been established. Then, there is the sub-metaphor of the main character completely losing control in the flood of emotions resulting from the water tower’s collapse.

What I want to incorporate into my own writing, or at least try out, is the imperfect metaphor. By letting the ceiling exist only in part separate from the affair, and letting it become a part of the story’s world in its own right, Brockmeier gives the world some depth and the metaphor some grey. It makes the story a bit more interesting. Developing the symbol more as just an element of the world also brings up other aspects of the symbol that can be used in the metaphor. For example, the wind caused by the ceiling being so low to the ground literally shakes their house and threatens its structure.

Writing exercise

Take a fantastical element (ex. the ceiling, a hole opening in the ground) and develop a metaphor. Then, develop the element within the world (how do people react to it? How does it change everyday life?).

Discussion Questions

Why didn’t the townspeople just leave?

How does the town’s complacency regarding the ceiling relate back to the marriage?

What do you make of the final scene, especially the fact that all of them are lying together helpless to the force of the ceiling?

Men v. Women, Part 2: The Power

While the premise of Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel The Power shares the exploration of gender roles via an alternate reality with Stephen and Owen King’s doorstopper Sleeping Beauties, Alderman’s slimmer volume is more ambitious and more successful in achieving its ambitions both structurally and thematically. The story about women gaining the power to shoot electricity from their fingertips is bookended by letters between a man named Neil and a woman named Naomi that frame the narrative as one actually written by Neil–a device that works to turn the content of the story on its head, especially when you take into account that the novel Neil has written is “historical.”   

Inside the frame, the narrative is divided into chapters that shift between four main characters experiencing the emergence of the electrostatic power, though later on, chapters are given here and there to other characters; the chapters are divided into parts that provide a decade-long countdown to a cataclysmic global war. Our four main characters are 1) Roxy, the daughter of a British mob family who witnesses her mother’s murder and whom the power manifests in very strongly, 2) Tunde, a male reporter who travels the world chronicling the power’s effects and the buildup to war as rebellions break out, 3) Margot, a woman who rises up the American political ranks from small-town mayor to senator, and 4) Allie, an abused orphan who hears a voice in her head that leads her to start a new religious movement as Mother Eve. 

These four characters follow separate independent tracks for the first parts of the novel, their paths eventually converging as they move toward the the war that starts in Moldova–rechristened Bessapara by its new leader Tatiana Moskalev, who’s implied to have killed her husband, the former oppressive ruler. Margot is called on to pledge political support for Tatiana’s war against the forces threatening to undo Bessapara, while Allie and Roxy essentially become Tatiana’s soldiers–until Tatiana goes crazy with paranoia and Allie, her right-hand woman, deems it necessary to kill her. The skein that a woman’s electric power comes from is located in a muscle along the collarbone; Roxy, who peddles a drug called Glitter that amplifies the power, is betrayed by her own father (whom she let go instead of killing after finding out he was responsible for the murder of her mother) and has the power literally cut out of her. Roxy flees to the mountains and ends up rescuing Tunde when a gang of women are about to kill him after he discovers that the female friend he’s been sending all his reports and photos to has been publishing them under her own name, having reported him dead. Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who’s never had very much of the power until Allie wakes it in her, almost dies trying to take out Roxy’s brother Darrell once he has Roxy’s skein implanted in himself. Darrell thinks the women working for him–Roxy’s former gang–will respect him when they see what he’s capable of, but instead they turn on him and kill him. Roxy tries to talk Allie, the new ruler in Tatiana’s stead, out of going through with the war, but Allie is convinced that “‘the war of all against all'” is “‘the one way to put it right.'” She agrees with Roxy that the spiraling worldwide war will drive them all back to the Stone Age, but thinks that after this the women will come out on top, so it’s the necessary path. 

In an attempt to convince her otherwise, Roxy advises Allie to look up the wife of the man Allie killed for raping her before she fled to become Mother Eve. Allie finds that this woman (who always clearly knew about her husband’s abuse) is running a children’s home for the New Church–Mother Eve’s church. The woman, Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor, claims they did what they had to out of love for Allie and in order to discipline her, essentially taking credit for making Mother Eve and her church what they are. Allie realizes this means that “[h]er own roots are rotten.” When she tells the voice in her head she can’t tell good from bad, the voice tells her it’s “more complicated” and that there’s “never been a right choice.” Allie decides to call on America to support them in the war, and Margot, in the wake of Jocelyn’s injuries, assents. The End of the narrative within the frame. 

The book’s arc essentially explores what would happen if women instead of men were the physically stronger gender, and seems to imply that women would do the same thing to men that men have done to women–oppress them and use their physical advantage to exert dominance rather than to work for harmony. (The fact that women are doing this in response to having once been oppressed by men complicates things.) The Bessaparan regime under Tatiana becomes increasingly oppressive, at one point enacting laws that forbid men to be outside if they’re not escorted by a woman. Women are also capable of rape, able to shock a man into a condition where he’s able to consummate against his will. 

Roxy’s arc specifically explores how showing mercy in this world is dangerous. When she lets her father go after finding out he was behind her mother’s murder, he returns to have her skein cut out of her, stripping her of her power. Roxy and her father actually get the last scene of the book (aside from a coda from the Book of Mother Eve), an uneasy peace established between them as Roxy mentions that she’s met a bloke (Tunde) and might have grandchildren; whether the advancement of the race is a happy ending is at this point certainly questionable. Roxy’s thread of the altercation with her family could be read as a smaller scale version of the book’s larger men-versus-women conflict, and that she still advocates to stop the war after what she’s been through is a small victory of the human spirit. (That the violence happens anyway is a noticeable contrast to the Kings’ Sleeping Beauties, in which the men pass the climactic test to not engage in more violence after already having engaged in considerable violence.) 

Strewn throughout the text are images of objects discovered hundreds of years ago, reminding you that the text is historical and describing a period apparently long in the past. What the present looks like in the wake of this distant past moment is only disclosed in the letters between Naomi and Neil, when Naomi refers to the war Neil’s writing about as the “Cataclysm” and essentially reveals that men and women have fully switched roles; women are the aggressors, men the peacemakers, and “’what it means to be a woman’ is bound up with strength and not feeling fear or pain” to the extent that Naomi finds it difficult to read a portrayal of woman as the opposite. 

Naomi is also skeptical of the idea that, shortly before this period, women didn’t have skeins. She also voices a kind of ironic double inverse of the book’s premise: 

I feel instinctively – and I hope you do, too – that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.

Here the real Naomi Alderman seems to be cleverly addressing potential criticism of her own premise–that if women were in charge, as they become with the gaining of the power, things would be peaceful instead of escalating to war as they do in this narrative; she’s calling attention to the oversimplification of this assumption. Neil’s response:

As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women … that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? Just asking the question.

They debate the historical accuracy of the book and thus thematically call into question the accuracy of our understanding of history in general, which is certainly something to think about. The narrative device of this frame is really what pushes Alderman’s novel from great to mind-blowingly great. It helps her truly show the far-reaching consequences of the Cataclysm that Neil tackles in his narrative, that it’s caused history as we know it to be repeated with the gender roles reversed, which means the new society of the present isn’t actually any better, but is, in fact, essentially the same. But Neil, firmly cast in the female role, seeking the more powerful Naomi’s approval, isn’t portrayed as a pure visionary:

Some of the worst excesses against men were never – in my opinion anyway – perpetrated against women in the time before the Cataclysm. Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. …there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed’. This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.

Except we know it did…as the final paragraphs of their exchange end the book, the device of the narrative frame comes to symbolize gender itself: 

[Neil:] Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.

[Naomi:] You’ve explained to me how anything you do is framed by your gender, that the frame is as inescapable as it is nonsensical. 

In the book’s final line, Naomi then goes on to suggest Neil publish the book under a woman’s name, in the service of the book reaching “the widest possible audience”–a suggestion that implicitly maintains the current system under the auspice of challenging it, which seems appropriate and familiar, coming from the dominant party in the power structure. 

The conceit of the “power” itself and what it leads to is a reminder that humans are machines: 

So she puts her palm over his heart and gathers the handful of lightning she has left. She sends it into him right there, in the place where human beings are made of electrical rhythm. And he stops.

As such, the conceit of the electric power that propels the narrative feels more organic to the subject matter of the power struggle between men and women–with the frame revealing that to have power is to abuse it, that this is human nature rather than a trait specific to one gender or the other–than Sleeping Beauties‘ conceit of women falling asleep and sprouting moth-like cocoons. Another important difference between these two novels is that the conceit in The Power gives the women agency to decide how to use their physical dominance over men, while in Sleeping Beauties when the women gain the capability of savaging men via their cocoons being torn off, they necessarily have to use it, stripping them of any complicating moral culpability.  

The specificity of the details is in large part what pulls off The Power‘s conceit, as is the case with any conceit that stretches the bounds of realism. It’s a nice touch that the origin of the power that leads to this cataclysmic war itself has origins in war as part of the scientific explanation for it: 

“Says in the Wall Street Journal this morning that a multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It’s changed the human genome. All girls born from now on will have the power – all of them.”

Although Guardian Angel had been forgotten after the Second World War, it continued to concentrate and magnify its potency in the human body. Research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women. / Any woman who was seven years old or younger during the Second World War may have skein buds on the points of her collarbones – although not all do; it will depend on what dose of Guardian Angel was received in early childhood, and on other genetic factors. These buds can be ‘activated’ by a controlled burst of electrostatic power by a younger woman. … It is theorized that Guardian Angel merely amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome.

It seems worth nothing that Alderman wrote this novel as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, through which Margaret Atwood selected Alderman as her protégé. In the novel’s acknowledgments, Alderman also thanks female sci-fi writing legends Karen Joy Fowler and the late Ursula Le Guin. She is apparently in good company.

-SCR