“The Red Fox Fur Coat” Write Up by Evan Sherer

Summary:

So “The Red Fox Fur Coat” by Teolinda Gersão starts off with a bank clerk (I’m gonna call her Sheila for the rest of this presentation because I like that more than “the bank clerk”) making her way home one day after work. She walks by a furrier’s shop and is immediately entranced with a red fox fur coat. But the shop is closed, so she eagerly waits until the next morning to try it on. The saleswoman remarks that the coat could have been made for Sheila. Unfortunately, the price is five times what she can afford, but the saleswoman says that she can spread out the payments. She quickly decides to work over the holidays so she can buy the coat.

From then on, Sheila would visit the shop at night and look at the coat through the window. She knew it would look good on her, but she didn’t really care about that. She felt a sense of “harmony” with the coat, a deep connection that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She also noticed something strange happening–she was suddenly more agile and energized. All of her senses were heightened. She became interested in nature and started studying animal encyclopedias, and thinks a lot about the word ‘predator.’ She also got hungrier; not for her favorite things like cheese and coffee, but for fruits.

Then, Sheila gets invited to a party. Now, this is really exciting for her. She paints her nails scarlet, and notices that her nails are growing. Her smile is “feline;” her face, triangular. At the party she goes after the roast beef, devouring it with just her mouth, and maniacally laughs and dances. The next morning, she finally buys the coat, and can barely contain her inner fox as she drives to the forest. Once she gets there, she takes off on all fours, shaking her tail and howling for joy.

The acute tension in this story is when Sheila spots the fur coat in the window. The chronic tension is the suppression of Sheila’s inner-fox.

Compelling, Interesting Elements of the Story:

I think that the transformation of Sheila from woman to fox is by far the most gravitating part of the story, just because of how essential it is to the plot and the increasing severity of her transformation. In the beginning, her metamorphosis is subtle:

It was as if the rhythm of her breathing had changed, had grown calmer and deeper. She realized too, perhaps because she no longer felt tired, that she moved more quickly, that she could walk effortlessly now, at twice her usual speed.

These are things that anyone can go through. But near the end of the story, she’s basically a fox in a human’s body:

Ah, she thought, the taste of almost raw meat, the action of sinking her teeth into it, of making the blood spurt, the taste of blood on her tongue, in her mouth, the innocence of devouring the whole slice, and she took another slice, already sensing that using her hand was now a pointless waste of time.

The author sets our expectations low, and then blows them out of the water by the end.

Something else that I found myself invested in were the clear thoughts that Sheila had where it was evident she was knowledgeable of the changes she was going through. For example:

Everything about her was lighter, quicker; her back, shoulders, and limbs all moved more easily.

It must be all the keep-fit I’ve been doing, she thought, because for some reason she had started taking regular exercise.

Here, we see Sheila’s ability to look at her own evolving in a more objective way–she recognizes the fact that something is a little off. But, again, just like with her physical transformation, her opinions grow in magnitude:

She burst out laughing and began to dance, waving her bloodstained hands in the air, feeling her own blood rise, as if some tempestuous inner force had been unleashed, a malign force that she could transmit to others, a plague or a curse, but this idea was nevertheless sweet, quiet, almost joyful, she felt.

I think these rare, conscious thoughts are important because they humanize Sheila; she can at least make judgments and form opinions about the changes she is going through. Humanizing the main character in this story is particularly important to up the transition of human to animal. The close third person POV also lets us watch the transformation from the inside. Watching her emotions and temptations surge gives the story more weight.

Things to Imitate in Your Own Writing:

I think the biggest thing we can take away from this story is how the author uses imagery to heighten the transformation and enforce the close 3rd POV. There is so much warm, fiery red imagery throughout the entire piece, and it doesn’t just come in descriptions of the fur coat. She eats red apples and grapes. She paints her nails with scarlet nail polish before she goes to the party. The roast beef stains her hands with blood. These subtle details make the story more vivid and thorough. There are also images that only Sheila imagines, such as when she thinks about how her senses are keener and she notices

…a lizard scurrying through the leaves, an invisible mouse making a twig crack, an acorn falling, a bird landing on a bush.

These small descriptions plant the reader further into Sheila’s world and make her metamorphosis all the more sensory.

I also think it’s interesting that there is only one important character in this story, since the saleswoman just facilitates the plot basically. We have an entire story about the transformation of one character, with nobody else inhibiting her progress (unless you count the saleswoman). The conflict in the story is completely man vs. self. Teolinda Gersão reminds us that that is enough. This naturally made the story feel allegorical. It is easy to take off the devices of storytelling here; at the heart of the story, man goes through a journey of transformation to become one with nature. Focusing on one character can make it easier to draw meaning.

Questions:

  1. What do you think the fur coat represents, if anything?
  2. Did you want more characters or bigger obstacles for Sheila to overcome to get the coat?
  3. How did this story leave you feeling? How is this feeling different than how stories with more action/characters/conflict/exposition leave you?
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“The Bats” Write Up by Shelby Edison

“The Bats” by Chitra Divakaruni starts with a young girl explaining how her mother cries at lot at night and how that scares her very much. The girl notices a bruise on her mom’s face from her abusive husband, who beats them both. The next day, the mother asks the girl if she would like to visit her grandfather, but she cannot tell her father. They arrive at her grandfather’s house, whom the girl calls “grandpa-uncle,” unannounced but he takes them in. The girl becomes close with grandpa-uncle and she helps him with chores, except disposing of the bat carcasses that had to killed because they ate all the mangoes. They also go fishing together, where they find a ring inside of a fish. When they return home, the mother has a letter from the father, whom she had written to. She decides to go home with the girl, who is very upset. The father is still abusive and they must flee many more times, but they always return to the father. At the end of the story, the girl lost her ring from her grandfather after fleeing.

One technique that I tracked in this story was the use of point of view. Because the story is told through the little girl’s eyes, she doesn’t fully understand the severity of her situation. When her mother and herself first flee their home, the girl is just excited to be able to go on a train and refers to the day as magical, when it is a day with high-risks.

This was surely a magic day, I thought, as I tried to picture what traveling on a train would be like.

Another example of when the point of view is used through the girl’s narrow understanding of her situation is when the mom decided that they will leave her grandfather. The girl is just plain mad at her mother for taking her away from her grandfather and doesn’t understand that they will be going back to her abusive father.

I kicked at our bags which she had packed even before Grandpa-uncle and I had returned from the lake. I tried to find words for all the things boiling up inside me. But all I could shout was ‘I hate you! I hate you!’

I would love to use this technique of creating the point of view from a character who doesn’t fully understand the situation in more of my own writing. It lets the reader think more to determine what is fully going on and provides insight that wouldn’t be included in the story if told through a different point of view.

Another technique that was used frequently was symbolism. The biggest symbol in this story was obviously the bats. They served as a symbol for the mother returning to her abusive husband. When the little girl and Grandpa-uncle see all the bat carcasses, the little girl wonders why they wouldn’t just leave to go to somewhere safer instead of returning to a place where they will only get hurt.

You would have thought that after the first week the bats would have figured it out and found another place to live. But no. Every morning there were just as many dead bodies. I asked Grandpa-uncle about this. He shook his head and said he didn’t understand either. ‘I guess they just don’t realize what’s happening. They don’t realize that by flying somewhere else they’ll be safe. Or maybe they do, but there’s something that keeps pulling them back here.’

This perfectly represents the mother’s situation. By staying with the grandfather, she will be safe from harm, but if she returns to her husband, she will only be hurt, which she is aware of. Comparing the bats to the mother gives the little girl a pathway to somewhat understanding what her mother’s situation is. Although she is young and doesn’t understand why people return to those who hurt them, although nobody is quite sure of that, the bats give her some insight into what exactly is happening. The girl doesn’t realize it at the time, but after the reader re-reads this part, it is quite apparent.

There is one other symbol that I noticed in the story. It is a little harder to spot and I noticed it on my second or third read through. The ring that the girl and Grandpa-uncle find in the fish is also a symbol. Grandpa-uncle says that it can grant wishes and holds magic powers.

“This must be the magic ring of the sorcerer of Kalodighi, the one that grants all wishes.”

The reader can infer that the girl’s wish would be to stay with grandpa-uncle. When the narrator and her mother return home and must leave home again, the ring becomes lost.

I looked for the ring everywhere. But it was gone.

This is a symbol for how the girl and her mother will most likely stay with the father and not leave to go to Grandpa-uncle again. The ring was the girl’s sign of hope and connection to her grandfather, and without it, she will most likely lose hope and not return to him.

This technique of symbolizing elements of the story to attempt to better explain it to a character, in the case of the bats, is something that I had never seen before. Usually, symbolism is used to explain things to the reader, not the character. Having the symbolism be for the character’s own discovery can make the reader feel closer to the character. I would like to try and include this in my own stories to add another element that would set it apart from other fiction pieces.

Questions:

  • If you were writing this story, would you keep the same first-person point of view from the girl as the story does or change it? If change it, what didn’t appeal to you in the point of view in the story? If keep it, why did you enjoy this type of point of view?
  • Do you feel that the mother’s reaction of guilt by writing the letter and returning home was irresponsible to her daughter?
  • What other symbols did you notice in the story? What do they represent?

 

 

 

 

 

“Woman Hollering Creek” Write Up by Valentina Avellaneda

“Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros begins with the main character, Cleófilas, remembering her father’s words of support as she gets married, but just now recalls them, as she is in a new country and with a child of her own. In her town of Monclova, Coahuila, she often spent her time watching the latest telenovelas, as she had no mother, only six brothers and a father. She aspired her marriage with Juan Pedro would be filled with love and passion, just like on the endless episodes she watched. After the two got married, Cleófilas left her friends and family behind to move to Seguin, Texas, on the other side of the border. Behind her new house lies a creek, called “La Gritona,” which means Woman Hollering, yet no one knows why, and this fascinates her. As their life in a new country begins, Juan Pedro begins hitting Cleófilas, but as she wished to respond like the women on the telenovelas, she instead does nothing. He’s far from her ideal husband, yet she takes care of him and their children. At times, Cleófilas wishes to go back and escape the reality, but she’s afraid a town overcome with gossip will await. When she’s pregnant with their second child, she begs Juan Pedro to take her to the doctor; she promises she’ll cover up the bruises. When at the checkup, her doctor calls a friend when she notices that Cleófilas is a victim of abuse and is isolated from all her friends and family in Mexico. She asks her friend, Felice, to take her and her baby to a bus station in San Antonio to escape her husband and, eventually, return home. As a truck arrives to pick Cleófilas up, she is shocked to find that it’s Felice’s own truck, that she works and succeeds without a husband. At last, as they cross the creek, La Gritona, Cleófilas screams after Felice, with a sense of pride for having left and the freedom that awaits.

“Woman Hollering Creek” is a modern twist on a Mexican folktale, la Llorona. In this famous story, a woman named Maria who was left alone by her husband, drowns her children as a form of revenge to take away his prized possessions. After leaving her, he would often visit, but would never speak to her, only their children, causing her to fill with rage and resentment towards them, leading her towards their death. The fact that the creek behind Cleófilas’ house is named La Gritona, resembles the similarity between this story and the folktale. As included in “Woman Hollering Creek,” no one knows if the woman cried in anger or pain because, and as told, after the original La Llorona ended her children’s life, she realized what she had done and regretted it, so she then drowned herself and now is said to wander the river hollering for her children.

La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that’s what they called the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain.

The aspect of using certain names to symbolize a part of the folktale is one of the techniques I tracked. When Cleófilas moves to the other side of the border, she becomes friends with her neighbors, Soledad and Dolores, mainly because of her restriction to leave the house. The names Sandra Cisneros chose for this story play a significant role in the identification of how Cleófilas feels and the representation of her new life. In Spanish, Soledad means solitude and Dolores means sorrow, which greatly represent her state as she adjusts to life without her family nearby and resemble much of how La Llorona felt when her husband left her. Also, since both of the neighbors have a history of family separation, they become characters with whom Cleófilas can easily identify.

Felice? It’s me, Graciela.

No, I can’t talk louder. I’m at work.

Look, I need kind of a favor. There’s a patient, a lady here who’s got a problem.

Furthermore, when Cleófilas finally persuades her husband, Juan Pedro, to take her to the doctor, she quickly notices the conditions Cleófilas is living under (even though Cleófilas promises to keep the bruises a secret), with the assumption that many women living there also immigrate and face similar marital situations. At the beginning of the phone call, we find out that the doctor is named Graciela, which means grace and is pretty much the only reason why Cleofilas was able to escape her cruel husband. The doctor is literally Cleofilas’ saving grace because she calls a friend to take her and her baby to a bus station, forcing her to leave her house and begin her path towards her normal life. Also, her friends name is Felice, which signifies the happiness that Cleófilas was able to begin feeling after crossing the creek, for the last time, with Felice. These two characters are the story’s path to resolution and because of their involvement, Cleófilas’ situation was peacefully resolved.

The town of gossips. The town of dust and despair. Which she has traded for this town of gossips. This town of dust, despair.

Although at times Cleófilas did think about running away, she was scared to await her hometown filled with gossip and despair, even though her father has his open arms out for her there, but not realizing that her new town was already filled with despair, that she was trapped with nowhere to go under her husband’s “rule.” The reason for which Cleófilas chose to leave everything behind, in the first place, was to live a better and happier life, but she was sadly surprised to find herself in an even worse situation: lonely and abused.

Another use of symbolism through the story is the use to the telenovelas as a representation of the life Cleófilas wished she had. Growing up, she never had a female role model which caused her to spend much of her time watching telenovelas and dreaming that, one day, her life would resemble the countless episodes she watched.

Cleófilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela, only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight.

Cleófilas saw the women on the telenovelas as her inspiration and when she married Juan Pedro, she thought life would present her with the ideals seen on TV, but slowly learned that acting is different from real life and her life would never be near close to that of a telenovela’s. She also used the telenovelas as an excuse to stay with her husband, with the “as seen on TV” hope that everything would resolve itself without her standing up. Lastly, Cleófilas’ name herself is a symbol of the many (Hispanic) women that also struggle with mental and physical abuse in a relationship. When the doctor describes her name to Felice, she even says it as if it was a normal part of life in this part of Texas and shows how Mexican culture often admires women who suffer, as Cleófilas admired the women on the telenovelas.

The second technique I tracked was the use of setting to help convey a message. Throughout the story, Cleófilas’ life just keeps on getting worse and worse and by using Seguin, Texas as the main setting, it helps us understand that it wasn’t easy for Cleófilas to walk out of her abusive relationship, as she was trapped in a new country, without attracting attention in her hometown, and her husband noticing. Because of this, the setting is extremely important in the story and is where it unfolds. I think what’s really sad is how common this is in our modern society: that women leave all they’ve ever known in search of a better future for themselves and their children, but end up in a worse situation and trapped because they can’t easily escape it. The creek is also an important setting because it acts as the road that Cleófilas never took since its origin is unknown, as is the path she could’ve taken and possibly had a better life. Another thing the use of a distant setting does is, it allows us to feel is sympathy for the tough turns Cleofilas’ life took and the desperate conditions she was in to escape it.

Seguin. She had liked the sound of it. Far away and lovely. Not like Monclova. Coahuila. Ugly. Seguin, Tejas.

She thought this when she sat with the baby out by the creek behind the house.

As in a lot of Sandra Cisneros’ stories, Hispanic women are dominated by men and the factor of displacement adds on to the difficulty of being a woman in society. For example, in The House on Mango Street, the main character, Esperanza, often says she doesn’t belong or fit in with where she lives and wishes she could just leave, as does Cleófilas in Seguin, Texas after the abuse begins. A major theme within the story is the issues that many Hispanic women raised in an older family encounter as they age. Cleófilas had to deal with the pain and suffering in a patriarchal and male dominated society throughout her journey and faces the reality that in most situations, there’s no way out, but to run away and leave everything behind, once again. This prejudice was common in most households in older times, when women were controlled by their husbands and only lived to “serve” them. By Cleófilas choosing to leave Juan Pedro, she’s breaking a stereotypical rule and standing up for herself. At the end of the story, when Cleófilas learns that Felice works, has her own truck and does it all without a husband, she’s fascinated with the idea of starting a life alone in which she can be successful.

Personally, what I think one can take from this story and use in their own writing is the use of imitating an old tale, using a bigger picture, but adding their own twist to minimize it. One of my favorite things about this story is that, even though this story is based off the “la Llorona” folktale, Sandra Cisneros converted the sad tale into an uplifting and inspiring story about the strength women have and their capabilities, even in a male-dominated society. I think the biggest difference between both stories is that as La Llorona spends her days hollering in pain, Cleófilas screams in happiness and pure joy that she’s now free as she crosses the creek, La Gritona. Another thing that could be taken from the story is the use of another language to add emphasis and strengthen the conflict (plot). From now on, I’d like to choose character names more carefully, so each represents something important to the story’s plot, instead of what I usually do, just choosing a name I like or comes to mind.

Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think would’ve occurred if the doctor hadn’t discovered the bruises on Cleófilas and asked Felice to rescue her?
  2. What were your impressions of Cleófilas as you read the story? Were there times when you sympathized or disagreed with her?
  3. How does the character Maximiliano show any importance? What did Cleófilas’ perception of him tell us about her?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Wilde Ride Up Here: “The Remarkable Rocket,” as written by the spirit of “Rocket Man” Oscar Wilde (and interpreted* by the physicality of Melissa Alter)

AND I THINK IT’S GONNA BE A LONG LONG TIME SUMMARY

(except not really because the point of a summary is to be concise)

Oscar Wilde’s “The Remarkable Rocket” begins with a prince and a princess meeting each other days before their wedding. The prince compliments her appearance, and the young page makes a humorous comment that causes the king to double his salary (which is completely useless, since the page isn’t paid at all, and twice nothing is still nothing. The king should have tripled his salary instead.) The two royals get married and drink from a crystal chalice, which prompts the page to make another pun, and the king once again doubles his nonexistent salary. In honor of his son’s wedding, the king summons the Royal Pyrotechnist, who prepares a firework show to go off at midnight. In the hours leading up to the show, the fireworks begin to talk to each other. A Squib is proud of himself for traveling, and the Roman Candle corrects him, saying that the king’s garden is not the world. A Catharine Wheel interjects, reminiscing on her past love and thinking about how romance is dead. The Rocket, who is a smidge pretentious, demands everyone’s attention before announcing that the prince and princess are very lucky that their wedding day happened to coincide with the day he was being let off. The Squib tries to correct him, but the Rocket ignores him. He continues discussing himself and how amazing he is, scolding a Cracker for not thinking about others – namely, himself. He prides himself on being important and degrades the other firecrackers as mundane. The other fireworks emphasize the importance of staying dry, but the Rocket ignores them and starts crying. When midnight comes, the Royal Pyrotechnist starts the firework display. All of the firecrackers go off except the Rocket, whose tears have made his gunpowder too wet to ignite. When the maintenance crew comes the next day, one of them says that the firecracker is a ‘bad rocket’. The Rocket is mortally offended, until he realizes that the man actually said ‘grand rocket’ (an easy mistake to make, I’m sure). The rocket is tossed from the walls of the castle and falls in the mud. A frog hops by and starts talking over the Rocket, who is very offended that he can’t get a word in. The Rocket points out that the frog is selfish for only talking about himself, when all the Rocket wants to do is talk about himself. A dragonfly comes by and points out that the frog has left, and the Rocket is talking to himself; the Rocket replies that it is not his fault the frog is missing out on a wise conversation. A white duck paddles by and asks the Rocket how he serves a practical purpose in life; the Rocket responds that he doesn’t need to be useful because he has “certain accomplishments, and that is more than sufficient.” When the duck leaves, the Rocket initially calls her back, but then decides he is glad she is gone. Next, a couple of boys come across the Rocket and mistake him for an old stick (luckily, the Rocket soon realizes that the boy meant to say ‘gold stick’. A mere slip of the tongue). The boys decide to use him as firewood and put him in the pile of sticks to burn. It takes a while, but eventually the Rocket’s gunpowder dries and he goes off in a shower of sparks. Unfortunately, nobody witnessed his explosion (but it was amazing, let me tell you. Big crowds, he had the biggest crowds, what a turnout). When the Rocket comes back down, he is pleased with his sensational success before finally going out.

‘TILL TOUCH DOWN BRINGS ME ‘ROUND AGAIN TO FIND THE CHRONIC AND ACUTE TENSIONS

The chronic tension is the Rocket’s desire to be admired.

The acute tension is the royal wedding of the prince and princess.

I’M NOT THE MAN THEY THINK I AM AT HOME; OH, NO, NO, NO (I’M WAY MORE COMPELLING THAN THAT)

Two of my favorite things about this story were the ways that Wilde used humor and personification to poke fun at the upper classes. Wilde starts with the “human” side of the story, where he takes advantage of the numerous opportunities to lightly insult the king. He makes fun of the pointless, yet widely acknowledged, actions of the royals, as when

…the King gave orders that the Page’s salary was to be doubled. As he received no salary at all this was not of much use to him, but it was considered a great honour, and was duly published in the Court Gazette.

Having the Page’s salary doubled twice emphasizes the humor of this moment; although nothing is ultimately changed, the king’s actions are praised nonetheless. Additionally, Wilde satirizes the sycophants in the Court. The king himself

…only knew two airs, and was never quite certain which one he was playing; but it made no matter, for, whatever he did, everybody cried out, «Charming! charming!»

The utter insanity of these circumstances serves a dual purpose of being humorous and making fun of those who pander to the elite.

The personification of the firecrackers, namely the Rocket, is also used to make fun of the nobility. The Rocket’s convoluted notions of what constitutes ‘good behavior’ parallels the ignorance and braggadocious[1] nature of the Court, as exemplified when he notes that everyone else

“…should be thinking about me. I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everybody else to do the same. That is what is called sympathy.”

There are several instances where the Rocket employs faulty logic to explain his actions. For instance, when the duck leaves, he initially cries for her to “Come back! Come back!” but in the next line decides that he is “glad that she has gone,” for “she has a decidedly middle-class mind.” The Rocket changes his mind to suit the circumstances throughout the course of the story, and each occurrence further develops Wilde’s mockery of the upper class.

I’M A ROCKET MAN AND I STEAL THE SHOW: SO HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN STEAL FROM ME

Using humor and personification are light, gentle ways to poke fun at the upper class, which is a good technique to convey your message without getting arrested (or beheaded, depending on who exactly you’re satirizing). Structurally, the story begins with the humans and then transitions to the firecrackers, where it proceeds to follow the Rocket’s perspective. In a way, this fulfills his desire to be a prominent figure, as Wilde forces the readers to focus their attention on the Rocket. Choosing to focus on either an attention-seeking character or a shyer one can impact the reader’s sympathies.

Although the reader gets a sense of the king as a bumbling ruler, each of the firecrackers is characterized more than the humans. Much of the characterization, for both firecrackers and humans, is done through dialogue or the author’s asides; personally, I like the narrative interjections as a way to give context for the character’s actions (such as the side note about Page having no salary).

Using a third person point of view allows the reader to get insight into both the humans’ and firecrackers’ worlds. For this reason, third person is practical, although it also permits for a more satirical story. Writing this in first person from the Rocket’s perspective wouldn’t have allowed the reader to understand the humans’ perspectives and might have only ostracized the reader further from this character. Because it’s written in third person, we understand from the moment we meet the Rocket that he makes false justifications (such as when he states that the prince and princess happen to be getting married on the day of his explosion, and that their marriage was not the cause for his explosion). This knowledge shapes how the reader will view the Rocket for the rest of the story and hints that we will have to take everything the Rocket says with a grain of salt.

ROCKET MAN, BURNING OUT HIS FUSE UP HERE ALONE (SO I’LL INVITE YOU TO JOIN ME BY ASKING Y’ALL SOME QUESTIONS)

  1. Why are the firecrackers characterized more than the humans? Did the lack of characterization for the humans bother you? How much characterization is necessary on the part of both the humans and inanimate objects?
  2. Why was there no character change anywhere in the story?
  3. Was the Rocket given a redeeming quality? Why/why not? Did this character work for you or just annoy you?
  4. No one ended up watching the Rocket’s moment of glory – did that diminish it?
  5. Was this an effective method of satirizing the upper classes?

* Any similarities this bears to the work or words of Oscar Wilde, Elton John, Donald Trump, or any other prominent figure, is not intended to violate copyright.

[1] Copyright Donald Trump

“The Passenger” Write Up by Eli Johns-Krull

Techniques tracked:

  • Use of concrete details
  • Use of flashbacks/narrative breaks

“The Passenger” by Marisa Silver begins with the narrator, Babe, explaining to the audience some about her life as a taxi driver, including her dispatcher Ruthanne, before it describes how she takes a job from LAX. Next, it explains what her life is like and introduces her mother who lives in a spiritual community, before describing the scene at the airport where she picks up her two passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Chin, who refuse to place their black suitcase in the trunk. It then goes on to talk about the first time Babe’s mother tried to kill herself, explaining that she called Babe to tell her before trying to take her own life with sleeping pills, which she failed to do because she threw up. Next, the story describes how Babe drifts off into her memories before she gets stuck in a traffic jam. The story then recounts an incident from when the narrator lived in Cleveland, explaining how the narrator and her mother ate with a man and a girl slightly older than the narrator where she and her mother left after eating, despite the daughter asking why they didn’t pay, to which the mother responds that they did. The story returns to Babe in the traffic jam, where it is revealed that it was caused by a fatal crash. The Chins begin arguing after speaking with a cop, which results in them leaving the car, abandoning their suitcase. Babe drives off, and, after opening the suitcase, discovers a baby that she takes to the hospital, where she is taken away because it is suspected that she mistreated the child. The story breaks off, detailing when her mother attempted to slit her own wrists. The narrative returns to the detention room of the hospital, where a police officer questions Babe, and the opening of the suitcase proves her innocence. The story then retells when Babe helped her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, before concluding with Babe’s thoughts in the hospital parking lot.

The first element I tracked in this story is the way that Silver uses concrete details to build scene and to convey ideas about her characters. One of the examples of this that really stuck out to me is when she describes the guards, saying

Two guards in uniforms stand behind her, their hands casually crossed in front of their stomachs.

At first glance, this seemed like a simple description of a character with a relatively small part in the narrative, but as I continued to think about it, I imagined the character more clearly. With the information that their hands were crossed in front of their stomachs, I got a feeling of honesty and fairness from these cops (the idea that people are less likely to be hiding something if you can see their hands), and because their posture was described as casual, my mind envisioned to guards who were very relaxed and more understanding and kind towards the “criminals” they were responsible for controlling. As I read this story, I realized Silver has a gift for giving the audience the right amount of information so that they can imagine a situation without the descriptions feeling as if they are dragging on. Another example of this is when the traffic outside the washer is described to sound

…like the rubbery sounds you hear underwater.

This conveys to the reader not only the idea of Babe’s detachment from the noise and the hectic environment surrounding her, it also serves to further the idea that is present throughout the story of Babe’s general detachment from her own life, which is further showcased through her thoughts about her job (it’s only what she did for now) and where she lived (every city would be essentially the same).

The second elements I tracked in this story was Silver’s use of flashbacks and narrative breaks. One of the most prominent examples of this is when Babe describes a memory she has from when she and her mother lived in Cleveland, and specifically the time the ate dinner with an unfamiliar man and a girl who is most likely his daughter. This scene introduces a character that the mother is most likely familiar with but Babe doesn’t know, and its conclusion, the mother saying

“We paid all right.”

introduces the idea that the mother thinks the man is indebted to her. This is tied back into when Babe is helping her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, and the daughter considers these two people to be among those

…she must have dropped along the way.

This idea is very important to me, because the way the mother has been dropping people, combined with the fact that the mother has continually tried to remove herself from her daughter’s life (and life in general) really tie into the idea of the last paragraph, specifically the quote

…she thought her baby would do better without her…

because it seems as if Babe has stopped speaking about the baby and is instead thinking about her mother’s own attempts to give Babe a better life, despite the cost to the mother. The mother is trying to help her daughter find paradise, even though it causes her suffering, and almost resulted in her death on several occasions.

I think that I will take the idea of providing enough information to create a visual or a sensory feeling in the reader without it seeming to over descriptive or becoming boring to the reader. Another element of this story I want to be able to imitate in my own writing is to be able to intertwine external information or scenes with a narrative so that they both lead to the same conclusion and ending, making the final lines and the closing scene or climax more powerful. A third element of this story I really enjoyed was the fact it had several small mental reversals that changed the audience’s viewpoint, and that Silver seems almost self-aware of this fact (for example, when the story starts with the narrator describing her nose ring, gives the audience just enough time to begin forming assumptions on her, and then states that the audience’s assumptions are false).

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think the flashbacks were impactful/important to the story? Why (not)?
  • Why did the narrator choose to use selling a child to introduce the idea of giving up a child so they can have a better life?
  • Do you think that the story is about giving up children so they can have a better life? If not, what do you think it’s about?

“EPICAC” Write Up by Kenneth Moreno

EPICAC is a very short story about a mathematician who befriends (befriend is a word used lightly here) a robot named EPICAC. The mathematician is in love with one of his coworkers, Pat, but she does not love him back because he is too calculated and logical manner of thinking. She wants someone who can be romantic with her, and the mathematician is not the one for the job. One night, the mathematician develops a code to speak to EPICAC. He tells him about girls and love and poetry. EPICAC begins to write poems, which the mathematician steals as his own, unbeknownst to EPICAC. The mathematician has now decided to prepare to propose, and when he goes to ask EPICAC for the words, he discovers the EPICAC is in love with the same woman. The mathematician tells EPICAC he can never be with the woman because he is a robot, and fate would not allow it. After the mathematician dupes EPICAC, it writes hundreds of poems for his beloved and short circuits himself.

Easily one of the most fascinating things about this story is the way that it compares EPICAC’s humanity with the mathematician’s cold personality. There are interjections that remind the reader that EPICAC is in fact a computer, but throughout the piece Vonnegut constantly describes its actions and reactions as that of a person. One of the most heartbreaking reactions was EPICAC’s “Oh.” The mathematician on the other hand, is definitely described in a more robotic, selfish way. This is, of course, if we give humanity the benefit of the doubt and say that to be human is to be kind and caring of others. Constantly, we are only given strands of humanity on the mathematician’s part, though even then the reasoning for the emotions that he shows is still selfish. He addresses EPICAC as his friend, but we never see any form of friendship between the two. EPICAC is always working to solve a problem or write poetry. Like the mathematician said, “Machines are built to serve men.” The relationship between the two is, at most, strictly professional. EPICAC only calls the mathematician his friend near the end because he is the only one he could speak to. Meanwhile, the mathematician only feels for EPICAC because he can no longer ask him to write things for him.

I really think the main thing to take away from this story is the way that Vonnegut characterizes EPICAC and the mathematician. From the beginning, EPICAC is referred to as a he, which immediately makes him seem more human. Vonnegut doesn’t try to hide the fact that this is a computer either. It’s addressed from the beginning, emphasizing that he costs taxpayers a very large sum of money. He’s been designed by a doctor, and seen as a machine by many. But throughout the story, Vonnegut instead emphasizes the more humanistic traits of EPICAC. He’s described as sluggish and not perfect- words that have more connotations with an uninspired person than an imperfect computer- until he finds a passion in poetry. EPICAC’s exposure to communication with the mathematician and the poetry for Pat is the way he becomes human. Suddenly, he begins actually feeling the things he writes about. He cares about Pat, and cares about what Pat thinks of him and his work for her. He is more than willing to get married to her, an unexpected action from a computer, and yet the fact that he is a computer is still there. He is still faster at processing numbers than the mathematician is. The way EPICAC dies is interesting, as it showcases the humanity within the computer: he kills himself because he cannot be with the woman he loves, and thus cannot fulfill a purpose that he has assigned himself. EPICAC isn’t told to fall in love, it’s something he does himself. I think we can definitely use that balance of humanity and the artificial programming that makes EPICAC the interesting character that he is in our own writing.

  • Do you think EPICAC is more human than the mathematician?
  • Do you think the EPICAC genuinely considers the mathematician as his friend, or is it just because he is the only one that he could really speak to?
  • What do you interpret Vonnegut’s stark contrast of the two main characters to mean?

“Suffer The Little Children” Write Up by Aanisah Johnson

Techniques Tracked:

  • Using Sidley’s decreasing mental state to progress
  • Using straight forward sentences to convey character and tension

Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” begins with a simple characterization of a teacher Miss Sidley and the no nonsense and seemingly omnipotent attitude that she uses to control her students by comparing her to God. She is going through her daily routine of punishing anybody who chooses to step out of line when during a Vocabulary Check through the reflection of her glasses which she uses to oversee the class, she sees a student’s, Robert, face change into something frightening. She questions him and dismisses it and the class. The next day during class, she is angry and skittish. She dismisses the class and soon after another teacher, Mr. Hanning, asks her to check the paper towels in the girl’s lav. As she checks the dispenser, she hears two little girls giggling and screams and faints when their voices and shadows distort. The next day, she keeps Robert back and he tells her there are more of him and changes form. She runs out of the classroom and almost ends up being hit by a bus. She takes time off and when she’s back they push her to bring a gun tomorrow. She shoots the children and gets caught and sent to therapy where she kills herself after reading to children.

King takes a simple and normal setting and transforms it with a horror twist that immediately catches your attention. He doesn’t flesh out the characters to make the story compelling, but rather focuses on the supernatural aspect of the children and Miss Sidley’s reactions. He takes straightforward sentences and thoughts and uses them to create moments of tension, character, and importance like when Robert changes and Miss Sidley takes the gun to school. He sums up these moments and then proceeds to go in more detail. He uses these sentences at just the right time so the reader feels the shift in the tone.

Robert changed.

It was human.

It was Robert.

He also uses Sidley’s rapidly decreasing mental state to move the story forward. They show this through her thoughts towards her students. Her paranoia causes her to make Robert stay after class and he shows his true form. This causes her mind to down spiral even further. The actions taken by the children push her until she is so crazed she shoots them. This helps us reach important moments in the story.

She would shake them. Shake them until their teeth rattled and their giggles turned to wails, she would thump their heads against the tile walls and she would make them admit that they knew.

She felt no qualms; he was a monster, not a little boy. She must make him admit it.

What I believe we can take from this story and use in personal writing is that overblown detail is not always needed to make a story suspenseful. Sentences need to be used to tell the story. Detail can sometimes cover up the fact that the author has no story to tell. If detail is necessary to the story than it should be used as such. Stephen King uses something seemingly simple as a change in thought process and uses it to make major impacts on the story. Less can be used to create more for the story.

Questions:

  • Do you think it was a hallucination in Miss Sidley’s mind or a real event?
  • Do you think that she took the necessary precautions to ensure her safety? What would you have done?
  • If this was just a hallucination, what do you think it represents?