The Undertaking of an Artist

Summary Part 1—Pearl

“The Young Painters” by Nicole Krauss starts off with the main character addressing a judge. She is recounting the story of a dinner party she attended at the home of a magnificent dancers home. She admires his home greatly.  She glances inside his room on the way to the bathroom and notices a beautiful painting. Before she leaves she asks the dancer who created it. He tells her it was painted by a childhood friend who was later killed along with his sister by their own mother, who gave them sleeping pills and then drove them out to the woods, setting the car on fire.  On the taxi ride home the main character continues to think about the dancers story.

Summary Part 2—Vera

The narrator uses the story she heard from the dancer in a story she wrote and got published. The narrator also writes a novel about her father’s old age. She knows that he would have strongly disliked it if he’d been alive to read it because it depicts the loss of his prized dignity as he loses capability. It also includes his shortcomings, which he would have disliked too. When interviewed, she denies that it was autobiographical in any way and explains that the writer must have freedom. She has that freedom now, especially since a sizable number of people are buying her books. She believes that the artist must serve their higher artistic calling and maintain artistic freedom, but there is less freedom in one’s personal life. The narrator, several years after having heard the story at the party, runs into the dancer. They catch up on each others’ lives.

Summary Part 3—Emma W

The speaker writes a story about the children who died in their mother’s burning car and publishes it without telling the dancer. She later writes a novel heavily based off of the mistakes and shortcomings of her recently deceased father, and defends writing so cruelly about him by saying that the writer should not be expected to always write an autobiography and should have the creative liberties to write in fiction, morals be damned. The speaker sees the dancer years later one day.

Chronic Tension: the artists obsession with taking stories from other people, even at the cost of demeaning others

Acute Tension: the dinner party where she hears the dancers story

Pearl’s Analysis

Vera’s Analysis: Artistic Purpose/Theme

This story is a reflection on what it means to be a writer, which is, of course, applicable to all of us here. It raises a lot of questions that are important for us to consider as we create. Also discussed in this section is this theme’s impact on the work itself.

The main character in this story is defending herself in a “court,” having been convicted of the crime of stealing other people’s stories. Though she has few qualms about her thievery in the name of devotion to art for most of her career, this changes when she hears a child’s cry at a playground. The cry gnaws at her psyche for some time to come.

And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.

This was a genuine moment of humanity that perturbed the narrator. There are a few ways to interpret this; it ties back in with her earlier discussion of potentially having children with S, and it also brings us back to the children burning in the car in the forest. Whatever its significance, it causes her to feel guilty about her thievery.

The narrator is emotionally affected by the story when she first hears it, but as time passes, she seems to be more focused on getting her story about the children published than she is on the human impact of the event she is describing.

…after the story was published I stopped thinking about the mother and her children who burned to death in a car, as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.

She is also unconcerned about the emotional impact this could have on the dancer, who had been childhood friends with the deceased child. Since she is so eager to use this story, she seems to have lost sight of the fact that it took a toll on real people.

In the book written about her father, the narrator uses her writing to paint a demeaning portrait of him, through both a description of his old age and of his personal flaws.

I paraded his faults and my misgivings, the high drama of my young life with him, thinly disguised (mostly by exaggeration) across the pages of that book.

She was able to justify this with the following philosophy-

…the writer serves a higher calling, what one refers to only in art and religion as a vocation, and cannot worry too much about the feelings of those whose lives she borrows from.

She feels a little bit of guilt about this book, but it seems to be negligible as she was defending herself using the aforementioned philosophy.

…a sickening feeling sometimes took hold of me and dumped its blackness before moving on.

However, note that the narrator respects privacy in some cases that are special to her. She never divulges the name of her husband except for the letter s. We don’t even learn her name. She seems to have a bias towards things she has a closer emotional connection with (she seems not to have an extremely close connection with her father, seeing as she attacked his faults in her book). The cry makes her react emotionally, and she rethinks her philosophy and experiences the internal turmoil present at the end of the story. Before this point, the narrator seemed emotionally distant from what she was writing about.

What we can take from this as writers is that we should not be telling other people’s stories in an insensitive way or in order to get revenge. We need to maintain an open hearted, emotional connection to our subjects, as cheesy as that sounds. We should not see other people’s stories as a means to get our work published, as happens in this story, and we shouldn’t use them for shock value. We also need to consider multiple perspectives in our work. All of the factors that caused a situation or person to be the way they are need to be considered if we want to use a story in our work. We also should not use our art to settle scores such as the one that the narrator seemed to have with her father just because doing that is petty and not nice. It’s pretty obvious that that’s bad, but it can be a tempting thing to do for some people.

Another thing to consider is that insensitive writing or writing that was produced to get revenge is generally of lower quality. If there is an emotional detachment from the story, it is probably going to be less affecting. Readers want something that is genuine, and a story written to check off a box on the writer’s resumé is not going to do the trick. Unless a reader mistook your book for a tabloid, they don’t want to read about you getting back at someone in your personal life. Stories written for revenge can turn out self-pitying and righteously angry. Turns of events can become illogical due to the passion involved, and characters can be made one dimensional as they are vilified.

This piece also raises another issue—should we be able to take stories and people to use in our work and to what extent? Writers use elements of real stories in their work all the time. Without a few lines of dialogue overheard at a coffee shop or without that one strangely dressed person on the sidewalk, a lot of stories would not be the same. Our life experience tells us what is plausible and what isn’t. But how much of this is too much? Can there be too much? Do we need permission from the people whose lives we take the stories from? These are questions that different writers will have different answers to, but they are worth considering.

The presence of this theme engages the reader because they are given the opportunity to evaluate the narrator’s actions. Its thought-provoking nature makes it memorable.

This theme also ties together all of the events of the story, which would be disparate without it. There isn’t an obvious connection between the cry, the painting, and the book about her father. In order to compile several events like these into one work, they need to have something in common.

Note that very few details are provided in this story, as discussed in the setting section. There isn’t anything extra to analyze that will distract us from the thematic content. We don’t even get the narrator’s name, and we don’t know a whole lot about her personal life aside from her work other than her dithering desire to have children. The lack of detail also makes this story universal-the narrator could be anyone.

Analysis: Setting

The first setting we see in this story is the dancer’s apartment.

The apartment was small and filled with the dancer’s unusual possessions, things he had been given or had found on the street or during his tireless travels, all arranged with the sense of space, proportion, timing, and grace that made him such a joy to watch onstage.

Specific things in the apartment are not pointed out here, but what is indicated by this description of the setting is the narrator’s mindset—she is making judgements about what she is seeing rather than just seeing the things themselves. Stories are projected onto every object as she imagines the dancer finding each object.

She also puts everything she sees in this apartment through the filter of being a dancer. The placement of a book or a coaster has to have some dance-related significance. The narrator goes on to lament that the dancer is moving normally through his house rather than dancing, indicating that she really wants his home life to be an idyllic dance-related world.

Next, we see the painting that inspires her story.

…in the hall I passed the open door of the dancer’s bedroom. The room was spare, with only a bed and a wooden chair and a little altar with candles set up in one corner. There was a large window facing south, through which lower Manhattan hung suspended in the dark. The walls were blank except for one painting… [in which] several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and again topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down…It was a strange piece of work…

The setting here is stark and simple, leaving room for the painting to be the main item. The painting itself is described, but not in extreme detail. The detail provided, however, is strange enough that it catches our attention just as it catches the narrator’s. The image of upside down faces wearing hats emerging from a bog is pretty striking.

The next part of the story is essentially a summary of things that go on in the following years in the narrator’s creative life. The next time we see a concrete setting is when we get to her walk through New York, where she meets the dancer again.

…I was out walking and came to a bookstore near Washington Square Park. Out of habit, I slowed as I reached the window to see whether my book was on display.

She is still very focused on the success of her work at this point. At this point, she sees the dancer and they have a somewhat awkward conversation. Something notable setting-wise that is mentioned here is the AIDS epidemic, which has killed one of the dancer’s close friends. This is yet another thing that has a real human cost and is juxtaposed with the narrator’s detached attitude towards the death and pain she writes about.

Finally, we come to the park.

As I walked, I happened to pass a playground. It was already late in the afternoon, but the small fenced in area was full of the children’s high-pitched activity…I’d always noticed that in the last half hour before dusk the children’s voices seemed to get louder.

This is where the narrator hears the child’s cry that disturbs her to such a great extent. This setting description is not very detailed, though it does include the section about the children’s voices getting louder before dusk. This detail is rooted in sound, which prefaces the cry well. It is also such a specific detail that we can imagine the rest of the playground around it.

The setting descriptors throughout the story are very simple, leaving room for the thematic elements to come forward. Nothing extraneous is there to distract us. What we can take away from this is that, when you have a somewhat complicated theme to convey, you should try to make everything else simple so people can understand everything more easily. If this had been a more detailed story, we would have had a lot more trouble figuring out what the point of all of it was.

Though they use few words, the setting descriptions are still vivid enough that we can imagine where the narrator is. Two good examples of this are the detail about the voices getting louder as dusk approaches and Lower Manhattan hanging suspended in the dark. These are both poetic yet concise, which serves the simplistic approach to setting taken here.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author make the choice to have the narrator defend themselves in court?
  2. Why did the author choose to have the narrator and nobody else notice the cry?

Emma W’s Analysis

Character Analysis

As writers, to analyze our nameless protagonist in Nicole Krauss’ “The Young Painters” is to invite self-evaluation, to scrutinize our own behaviors as storytellers that have most likely, in one way or another, invoked the lives or actions of real people we have known. Our protagonist has done something I have an extremely hard time believing any of us have never done, that being having incorporated a real person’s story in our written work. The protagonist in “The Young Painters” starts the story at a party, hosted by a dancer who is a loose acquaintance of the protagonist (or at least they are not close friends), which ends with the dancer telling our protagonist a story of two sibling childhood friends who died burning in a car along with their mother who had started it. The story was told completely casually, and it unsettled the protagonist:

It may have been because I had my coat on, and the apartment was warm, but suddenly I began to feel lightheaded.

And it stuck with her:

In the taxi ride home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children, the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale face of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails.

It affected her strongly, and we see that she soon writes a story about the dancer’s childhood friends, but with her own artistic liberties in the addition of small details. And so begins her practice of using other’s stories. She is able to publish the story in a magazine, and doesn’t tell the dancer about it. At this point, she only feels a few moments of guilt that are soon overshadowed by her pride at getting her work published, and slowly the children in the story faded from her mind. Also of note is that she speaks of her failure to have a child. Her failure to even have the chance to be a mother makes her look at this story of a mother burning herself and her children a different way. She missed her chance, but this mother burns her blessing. This screws with the protagonist’s head.

Next she writes about her father after his death. She writes cruelly about him, not only describing his shameful loss of dignity in his final days and stopping there, no,

-I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

She is absolutely brutal, tearing at his entire life in highly personal detail, and the insult is added to injury because she’s his daughter. And in the lowest moment for her, after she’s stolen a story in probably the harshest way you can imagine, she starts throwing up the defenses. She assures over and over that it’s fiction, she’s a writer and that should come with assumptions that liberties will be taken. She is very defensive about this instance of her using a person’s story, and says to the judge that she’s been talking to the entire time:

In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.

And so begins her spiraling. After this, she finds the dancer again years later. She is uneasy, but the dancer is friendly; she finds that he’s taken down the painting, and they part with the dancer gently tapping her cheek. The protagonist initially takes it as friendly, but she begins twisting it in her mind, finding hostility where there was none. She thinks he is belittling her, and thinks this is unfair because of the nature of his telling her the story. On edge, she passes by a playground and hears a terrified child’s scream, but cannot see where it’s coming from. She would hear the child’s scream occasionally when she writes or wakes up, and she soon began to read an undertone of mockery in the scream too; she claims it haunts her.

The twisting of the scream and the dancer’s words and actions all points to a deep guilt that the protagonist feels in light of stealing the burning children story. Interestingly enough, we never know why the protagonist is speaking to a judge and what particularly she is on trial for. We don’t know if maybe the dancer sued her, we literally don’t know. But the judge gives a deep impression that she feels guilty, maybe she’s putting herself on trial in her own mind for the things she did. She’s defensive at first, but it slowly drives her mad. Using the stories of a two burning children and her ashamed defective father incites a guilt in her that messes with her mind more deeply then let’s hope it ever affects any of us.

One of my favorite details though, is that even with all the stealing of stories she’s doing, even with all the exposing of deeply personal stories at that, she never says what her husband’s name is, referring to him as S. She had a lot respect for him.

Questions:

What did the framework of the protagonist speaking to a judge do to affect her characterization?

Does the writer portray her actions in a negative way or not? How if yes or no?

Plot (rising action) Analysis

The plot is a build-up of increasingly more drastic forms of using other people’s stories, as well as the decline of the protagonist’s mental being and emotional stability. It begins at the dancer’s party, where the dancer casually tells the protagonist the story of two childhood friends of his that died in a burning car lit by their mother. She writes the story and publishes it in a major magazine, only feeling slightly guilty but defending herself by saying that he said the story so casually that she doesn’t think he would mind her using it. This is a pretty low level stealing of a story, and in this point of the plot, she does not feel to guilty about it. There is the slightest tension that the dancer will actually care about her using the story of his dead childhood friends, but our protagonist doesn’t seem to hung up about it, thus the audience doesn’t feel too hung up about it. She then takes a huge step by writing a novel about her father after his death describing in great detail his failings and mistakes.

I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

This is completely slander. Here she defends herself much more desperately and forwardly. She says a writer is expected to write fiction and take their own creative liberties, that she in no way did something wrong and the book shouldn’t be taken as a biography or her actual feelings about her father. She says that writers shouldn’t even have to think about the feelings of those whose lives she’s borrowed from. The ante has definitely risen. There is a harsh defensiveness here, and the leap from borrowing a story mentioned at a party to exposing her father’s flaws bare and in great detail serves to rise the tension considerably. There’s no turning back. So when she sees the dancer years later, she’s on an edge. The audience is just as on edge as well, we don’t know how the dancer is going to react too her. But he seems nice and friendly, the only hinge being that he says he took the painting down because of a reason he doesn’t give, which adds tension because of the possibility of it being because of our protagonist. He strokes her cheek affectionately and leaves. And this is where the protagonist enters a spiral of mistrust. She grows suspicious of him and his odd gesture, thinking that it was not as genuine as it seemed. She then happens to walk by a playground, where she hears a child’s scream. She cannot identify the location of the child though, implying she imagined it. Her later mention that she sometimes hears the scream when she writes further solidifies her deteriorating mental health, as well as her emotional instability with the phrase

Other times, I’d hear the cry just as I crossed over into wakefulness or departed from sleep, and on those mornings I rose with the feeling of something wound around my neck.

The rising action consists of the transformation from the protagonist using a story that she’d heard casually at a party, to losing her mind over the guilt.

Questions:

How did the jump from the protagonist writing about a story she’d heard at a party to writing about how sucky her father was built the tension?

How did the climax tie the story together and provide a conclusion to the narrative?

Pearl’s Analysis

Scene vs. Summary:

In The Young Painters Krauss uses scene and summary to convey the passage of time and to focus in on the most important details. The passage and pausing of time are very important to the story for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it helps add more weight to the final meeting with the dancer.

I read everything you write. Do you? I said, surprised and suddenly agitated. But he smiled again, and it seemed to me that the danger had passed—the story would go unmentioned.

In this instance summary and scene work together to evoke tension and emotion. The
reason summary improves this scene is because it helps explain character motivation. When we first hear this line, we are prepared for the writer to be confronted. To be put in  her place in some shape or form. But we realize that so much time has gone by since her story on the dancer’s past was published that any confrontation on the dancer’s part has been dismissed. The large amount of summary in the middle of this story zooms through years of life that the reader only gets a glimpse at. If this scene had taken place a week after the story was published, then it probably would’ve happened differently. The dancer might have been more vocal, or at least might have addressed what the author did. The fact that in the actual scene the dancer is only able to do this through a vague comment, makes the meeting a lot more powerful. It makes the reader further question the morals of the main character and causes us to be frustrated that she hasn’t learned her lesson after exploiting so many people. Which makes the end more satisfying when she finally does learn a lesson. (even if it was indirectly) The author’s use of summary helps add more gravity to the story they are telling.

The authors use of scene is also very important. The author only picks out a handful of
important moments to put into scene, summarizing the rest. The moment I’ll focus on is the final scene in the story, where the writer is walking after meeting the dancer and hears a child scream in terror.

until a cry rang out, pained and terrified, an agonizing child’s cry that tore into me, as if it were an appeal to me alone. I stopped short and jerked around, sure that I was going to find a mangled child fallen from a terrible height. But there was nothing, only the children running in and out of their circles and games, and no sign of where the cry had come from.

This seems like a small detail. Something that would probably jar the average person but
wouldn’t stick with them the way it stuck with the writer. The fact that the author put that moment into scene shows how significant that moment was to the main character. The child’s scream was described in intense detail, but the aftermath of the event is completely summarized. I believe that the reason the author did this was to only focus on the most important thing. Everything that happened after the scream was a product of that scream, so the scream should be given the most focus. The summary afterwards also conveys that this was a slow process. It took a while for the trauma to sink into her and to cause her to, “distrust herself.”

Acute and Chronic Tension:

The chronic tension is the underlying problem that existed before the story starts. In The
Young Painters the chronic tension is the writer’s obsession with other people’s stories,
which is caused by her selfishness. This seems to be a large character flaw and is probably what led into writing in the first place. She even admits to her obsession stemming from dissatisfaction with her own life.

“All the same, once I got used to this and began examining his many little collections I had the elated, otherworldly feeling I sometimes get when entering the sphere of another’s life, when for a moment changing my banal habits and living like that seems entirely possible, a feeling that always dissolves the next morning, when I wake up to the familiar, unmovable shapes of my own life. “

This is a deep-rooted personal struggle that has obviously plagued her for many years which then led to her obsession. The reason I believe the obsession is the chronic tension and not the dissatisfaction is because most people feel unhappy with their lives at some point but not all of them become as obsessive or cruel. These decisions come from the writer’s selfishness.

The acute tension in the story is the writer discovering the dancer’s painting.

The walls were blank except for one painting that was tacked up with pins, a vibrant picture out of whose many bright, high-spirited strokes several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and then topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down, as if the painter had turned the page around or circled it on his or her knees while painting, in order to reach more easily. It was a strange piece of work, unlike the style of the other things the dancer had collected, and I studied it for a minute or two before continuing on to the bathroom.

This is what reveals the writer’s obsession to us. Before maybe we thought she was a bit of a snoop but now we know the truth of her nature. Without her seeing the painting the story never would’ve been set into motion and the chronic tension would’ve never been revealed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does the author have the main character tell this story to a judge?

2. How does the author use summary to set the mood of the story?

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