No Rest for the Wicked

One recent piece of evidence for The Wizard of Oz‘s staying power in the cultural consciousness is a sketch from the current season of Saturday Night Live. This blog hasn’t explored many theatrical adaptations of fictional works, with the exception of the play adapted from Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White, which was, of course, adapted from previous versions of that classic tale. In a similar (but in many ways different) vein, Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked from 1995 evolved from reinterpreting a narrative familiar to the culture not as much from its original version–L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)–as from its 1939 movie adaptation, The Wizard of Oz. Maguire’s novel, in turn, was adapted into a highly successful Broadway show that’s been running since 2003 (Baum’s novel was itself adapted into a Broadway show over a century before that, in 1901). Having tickets for Wicked the musical during a trip to NYC this past December, I read Maguire’s novel first to be able to compare the different versions.

Wicked‘s basic premise is that it provides the “untold” life story of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, one of the most infamous villains of all time. Wicked the novel, subtitled “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” is told in five parts, after a prologue in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man rehashing crazy rumors they’ve heard about her. The first part, “Munchkinlanders,” shows us the birth and early childhood of our main character, Elphaba (whose “real” name we never got in Wizard, unless you count the character who inspired the figure in Dorothy’s dream of Oz, Almira Gulch, the ill-tempered neighbor back in Kansas who wants to euthanize Toto). This first part mainly involves getting the perspective of Elphaba’s parents, Melena and Frexspar, the latter a local unionist preacher/minister and the former a bored housewife whose mother, Nanny, comes for an extended stay to supposedly help out after Elphaba’s birth. Nanny bears witness to Melena’s affair with a Quadling named Turtle Heart who shows up at the house one day (Melena also tells Nanny about her former trysts, including one with “a tinker with a funny accent [who] gave me a draft of some heady brew from a green glass bottle”). Elphaba bites off someone’s finger with her abnormally sharp teeth the night she’s born–the same night a weird cultish group called the Clock of the Time Dragon shows up to give a prophetic performance about Frex’s fraudulence–and has strange green skin that keeps her parents emotionally estranged from her. When Melena eventually becomes pregnant again, she takes a strange herb procured by Nanny to try to ensure the new baby doesn’t have Elphaba’s abnormalities. At the end of Part 1, Melena gives birth to another daughter.

In Part 2, “Gillikin,” we meet Glinda, who meets Dr. Dillamond, a goat, on a train on her way to Shiz University. Glinda is from the Pertha Hills and has high social hopes, but then ends up with the social outcast Elphaba as her roommate. The two grow closer along with a group of other students (including Boq the munchkin) as they get caught up in political intrigue about the wizard trying to take away the rights of Animals. Eventually Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who was born without arms, comes to Shiz as well, with a gift of fine ruby slippers from their father showcasing his favoritism toward her. Elphaba comes to believe that a Shiz administrator, Madame Morrible, is responsible for the death of the prominent professor goat (Dr. Dillamond) who was doing research that was basically going to reveal Animals and people were biological equals. Elphaba was his research assistant and grabbed all of his findings from his lab before they could be taken by others. Madame Morrible tries to enlist Elphaba and Glinda to do sorcery work for a shadowy cause, but Elphaba declines. Elphaba, Glinda, and some others get an audience with the wizard in the Emerald City to try to defend Animal rights. When they fail, Elphaba announces she won’t return to school, and vanishes for several years.

In Part 3, “City of Emeralds,” a former Shiz student from the Vinkus, Fiyero, encounters Elphaba again years later as she’s doing some kind of undercover operative work to try to assassinate the wizard, and they become lovers (despite Fiyero’s being in an arranged marriage). On the night Elphaba is supposed to do something to kill the wizard, there’s some kind of random interference her team didn’t anticipate, and Fiyero ends up getting killed at their meeting place.

In Part 4, “In the Vinkus,” we jump seven more years and discover Elphaba’s been living in some kind of convent in the interim; she’s now leaving it for the Vinkus with a mysterious young boy in tow and a mission to get forgiveness from Fiyero’s widow Sarima. Elphaba ends up living at Sarima’s house in the Vinkus, the estate Kiamo Ko, with her sisters and Fiyero’s children and Liir, the boy Elphaba brought with her (her child with Fiyero). At Kiamo Ko, Elphaba discovers an old spell book called the Grimmerie among Fiyero’s possessions that Sarima says a mysterious old sorcerer brought one day, claiming it was from “another world,” though Elphaba doesn’t believe this because she’s able to decipher parts of it. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose has become the Eminent Thropp of Munchkinland, a title they received through matrilineal lineage through their mother and that should have gone to Elphaba as the eldest, but she rejected it. Her father calls her home to potentially help Nessarose govern, but after visiting she decides not to and leaves; when she returns to the Vinkus, she discovers Sarima and her sisters have been taken by soldiers.

In Part 5, “The Murder and Its Afterlife,” Elphaba hears that Nessarose (nicknamed the Wicked Witch of the East) has been crushed by a house in a tornado, and that Glinda gave the girl who came out of the house (Dorothy) Nessarose’s red slippers, which have become an emotional symbol for Elphaba and a political symbol for Munchkinland (“SHE WALKED ALL OVER US” is a common Munchkinlander complaint, and Elphaba is convinced if the wizard gets hold of the slippers he’ll be able to re-annex Munchkinland, which seceded under Nessarose). After Nessa’s funeral, the wizard visits Elphaba at Colwen Grounds, and she learns he isn’t actually from Oz and only came for the Grimmerie spell book, which he wants to exchange for a hostage, Sarima and Fiyero’s daughter Nor. (He also reveals that Madame Morrible told him to have Elphaba watched after Elphaba rejected Madame Morrible’s enlistment at Shiz, which is what led to Fiyero’s murder.) On her way back to the Vinkus, Elphaba looks along the Yellow Brick Road for Dorothy (Glinda having told her she sent Dorothy along there to the Wizard). Along the way she has a reunion with Boq before stopping at Shiz to kill Madame Morrible, who dies five minutes before Elphaba gets there. Elphaba tries to take credit by confessing the murder to an old classmate, Avaric, who doesn’t believe her. She then runs into a dwarf from the Clock of the Time Dragon, who tells her he’s the guardian of the Grimmerie and who reveals that the Wizard is her real father (the lover who gave her mother the green elixir while Frex was off preaching). She gets close to Dorothy and co. on the Road, but then a storm comes in and blocks her. Then Liir hears and tells Elphaba that the wizard has told Dorothy to kill her in exchange for granting Dorothy’s wish of leaving Oz. When Dorothy and her friends arrive at Elphaba’s Kiamo Ko stronghold in the Vinkus, Elphaba throws all she’s got against her, in the form of animals, of course—dogs, bees, crows—but they all die. (Elphaba also allows herself to hope that Fiyero somehow faked his death and is the scarecrow in disguise.) When Dorothy gets there and Elphaba confronts her about coming to kill her, Dorothy says the real thing she came for was forgiveness for killing Elphaba’s sister when the house fell—parallel to the forgiveness Elphaba wanted from Sarima for being responsible for Fiyero’s death, but that Sarima refused to give her. Elphaba then accidentally lights herself on fire with the broom she’d lit to carry as a torch, and Dorothy, thinking she’s saving Elphaba’s life, throws water on her and inadvertently kills her. When Dorothy brings a token of the witch’s back to the Wizard to prove the Witch is dead–a “green glass bottle that said MIRACLE ELI- on the paper glued to the front”–the Wizard seems to realize something and soon flees his Palace. There’s debate about how exactly Dorothy left Oz, but the Witch is dead, and remains only in “the carapace of her reputation for malice.” The End.

The musical, whose subtitle is “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz,” simplifies a lot of the novel’s elements even as it purports to tackle multiple witches’ stories instead of just one (though these multiplied witches are really just two, Elphaba and Glinda). Act I begins with the the number “No One Mourns the Wicked”: the announcement, made by Glinda, that the Wicked Witch (of the West) is dead. Glinda then circles back to tell the story of Elphaba’s life with the seeming goal of trying to understand how/why she was so wicked, revealing that Elphaba’s father is a governor (whom her mother cheated on) and, in “Dear Old Shiz,” that she knew Elphaba herself when they were students at Shiz University, where they roomed together. “The Wizard and I”: Though Elphaba, a great admirer of the Wizard, is socially outcast because of her green skin and was only sent to Shiz to attend her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, she quickly demonstrates an aptitude for sorcery that garners Madame Morrible’s favor and encouragement. “What Is This Feeling”: Glinda, a subpar student, mocks and is jealous of Elphaba, and they don’t get along despite clear similarities. “Something Bad”: Elphaba befriends the goat professor Dr. Dillamond, who makes her aware of increasing discrimination against Animals (and the fact that a lot of them are mysteriously losing their ability to speak). “Dancing Through Life”: The popular and aimless Fiyero arrives at Shiz, kindling an attraction in Glinda, who’s inclined to humiliate Elphaba at a dance (and who also convinces Boq to invite Nessarose). “Popular”: Glinda regrets her humiliation of Elphaba and they become friends. “I’m Not That Girl”: Elphaba joins forces with Fiyero to rescue a lion cub a professor is using for class. “One Short Day”: Elphaba’s sorcery talent earns her an audience with the wizard, and she invites Glinda to come to the Emerald City with her. “A Sentimental Man”: Elphaba demonstrates her ability to enact a spell from a book the Wizard shows her by giving some monkeys wings. “Defying Gravity”: When the Wizard–along with Madame Morrible–reveal they’re going to use the winged monkeys as spies, Elphaba becomes disillusioned with the Wizard, steals his spellbook, and vows to no longer play by society’s rules.

Act II opens with “Thank Goodness,” in which we see that the Wizard and Madame Morrible have publicly painted the witch as wicked in order to discredit any attempt she makes to reveal the Wizard’s true nature (and to paint her attempts to use her powers to save persecuted Animals as criminal), while Glinda’s become a celebrated public figure. “The Wicked Witch of the East”: Elphaba visits Nessarose, who Boq has been taking care of, and via the red slippers their father gave Nessa as a token of his favor(itism), Elphaba uses her powers to enable Nessa to stand and be free of her wheelchair. Nessa thinks this will enable Boq to truly love her; when instead he thinks her new independence will allow him to leave and pursue his true love, Glinda (about to marry Fiyero), Nessa snatches Elphaba’s spellbook to try to enchant him; Elphaba has to save him from Nessa’s spell with another spell, but the best she can do is turn him into the heartless Tin Man. “Wonderful”: Elphaba meets with the Wizard, who espouses on his love of the people of Oz’s love for him. “As Long As You’re Mine”: Elphaba and Fiyero get together. “No Good Deed”: When a house falls on Nessarose and Elphaba turns up, falling for the trap the Wizard and Madame Morrible set up to lure her out, Fiyero turns on his fellow soldiers in the Wizard’s army in order to save her, and is arrested. “March of the Witch Hunters”: A mob of Ozians is riled up to hunt down and kill the Witch by the Tin Man, who says the lion Elphaba rescued as a cub also has a grievance against her for turning him into a coward. “For Good”: Glinda goes to Elphaba’s hideout at Kiamo Ko to warn Elphaba (who apparently has Dorothy locked up below the floor, wanting her slippers) about the mob, and they espouse on the good influence they had on each other, assuming this will be their last meeting; Elphaba also makes Glinda swear that Glinda won’t try to clear Elphaba’s name. Glinda hides as the Wizard’s soldiers storm the hideout and, silhouetted behind a screen, appear to kill the Witch by throwing water on her. “Finale”: As Ozians celebrate the Witch’s death, it’s revealed that the Wizard is Elphaba’s real father (the stranger who was shown giving her mother a green elixir in the opening number), and that Elphaba was able to fake her death because it was only a rumor that water would melt her, and that Fiyero escaped and disguised himself as the Scarecrow, and that they’ll run away together to somewhere outside of Oz, and that Elphaba feels bad she can’t tell Glinda she’s really alive but won’t for the safety of both of them. The End.

Obviously the musical is a different genre than the novel, one that might be a little more interested in mass appeal (and thus happy endings).

phoebe musical

In a nutshell, Wicked the musical puts a lighter spin on the novel’s darker themes, most notably turning its grim ending into a happy (if slightly bittersweet) one. The merit of such an overhaul would probably be weak on strictly literary grounds (a point I’ll return to). But we would do well to remember that this is one of the most popular (so to speak) musicals in recent history, which means that it basically oozes mass appeal, like a Disney movie. The much more complex beast of a novel does not.

The novel is sprawling, so one interesting thing to note about the musical is its consolidation. The novel’s entire first part is condensed into the thirty-second mention in the opening song of Elphaba’s mother drinking the green elixir with the stranger and Elphaba’s being born with green skin. In the musical, Glinda is also positioned as the narrator of the tale of Elphaba’s life–she is the one describing Elphaba’s mother cheating on her father as well as her parents’ initial reaction to her birth, and these are presented as the facts of what happened–but it’s like, Elphaba herself wouldn’t have been able to know the details of these exchanges concerning her own conception and birth, so how does Glinda know them? The novel has a roving omniscient narrator, a narrative stance in which how it comes by its knowledge is a given that doesn’t raise such potential questions.

Also in apparent service to consolidation, Elphaba’s father is given the political governor position instead of her mother (though her mother’s political position was heavily downplayed in the novel’s opening section that focused on her), and is not a preacher as he is in the novel. (In the novel Elphaba and Nessarose also have a younger brother named Shell who barely makes what qualifies as an actual appearance a single time in the entire book and whose relevance is very hard to pinpoint; the musical dispenses with him altogether, as it also does with Nanny, Sarima, and Liir.)

One change that was good in the musical was Elphaba’s initial admiration for the Wizard and her ambition (that’s already clearly ironic because of the opening number celebrating her death), demonstrated early in the “The Wizard and I”:

But I swear, someday there’ll be
A celebration throughout Oz
That’s all to do with me!

In the novel, Elphaba doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about the Wizard one way or another until she gets deeper into the Animal intrigue issues, which are not going to inspire feelings of admiration. Establishing an initial admiration heightens the drama of the Animal intrigue issues and the extremity of Elphaba’s disillusionment and fate as the Wizard’s mortal enemy, and, unbeknownst to her, his daughter–though in the novel Elphaba is given this information directly, while in the musical this tidbit is relayed to the audience but Elphaba is apparently left ignorant of it. The near-end reveal of this paternity felt clunky in both the novel and the musical. I’m still not sure what the green elixir was supposed to actually be.

Almost as mysterious as the green elixir is the Grimmerie spellbook. In the novel, we first hear about this book when Elphaba discovers it at Kiamo Ko. Sarima explains that a mysterious visitor once dropped it off:

“He told me a fabulous tale and persuaded me to take this thing from him. He said that it was a book of knowledge, and that it belonged in another world, but it wasn’t safe there. So he had brought it here–where it could be hidden and out of harm’s way.”

“What a load of tripe,” said Elphie. “If it came from another world I shouldn’t be able to read any of it. And I can make out a little.”

Later, the Wizard tells Elphaba:

“This is an ancient manuscript of magic, generated in a world far away from this one. It was long thought to be merely legendary, or else destroyed in the dark onslaughts of the northern invaders. It had been removed from our world for safety by a wizard more capable than I. It is why I came to Oz in the first place,” he continued, almost talking to himself, as old men are prone to do.

So Elphaba’s ability to decipher parts of the Grimmerie, in both the novel and musical, is a major clue to her paternity, the fact that she’s partially from some other world. In neither version do we learn any more about what this other world actually is.

In the novel, the Wizard is seeking this magical spellbook, while in the musical, the Wizard apparently already has the Grimmerie in his possession. Elphaba (and Glinda) has her first audience with him in the novel on her own initiative of making a protest for Animal rights, while in the musical the Wizard specifically solicits her visit because of her sorcery talent to attempt a spell out of the mysterious book. This plot point seems to work better in the musical version than in the novel, as it’s where Elphaba learns of the Wizard’s true treacherous nature in a single condensed episode, as opposed to the novel’s depiction of her more slowly becoming disillusioned with him over the course of her time at Shiz, which means the tension is not as high.

Related to this plot point that the musical treats as the climax of Act I are the winged monkeys and Dr. Dillamond. In the musical, Elphaba inadvertently creates the winged monkeys from a spell in the book the Wizard gives her, then becomes consumed by her mission to free them once she understands the purpose they were created for. In the novel, Elphaba scientifically engineers the monkeys herself from research she gleaned from Dr. Dillamond (while also getting some help from the Grimmerie):

When the news of Nessarose’s premature death arrived at Kiamo Ko by carrier pigeon, the Witch was deep in an operation of sorts, stitching the wings of a white-crested male roc into the back muscles of one of her current crop of snow monkeys. She had more or less perfected the procedure, after years of botched and hideous failures, when mercy killing seemed the only fair thing to do to the suffering subject. Fiyero’s old schoolbooks in the life sciences, from Doctor Nikidik’s course, had given some leads. Also the Grimmerie had helped, if she was reading it correctly: She had found spells to convince the axial nerves to think skyward instead of treeward. And once she got it right, the winged monkeys seemed happy enough with their lot. She had yet to see a female monkey in her population produce a winged baby, but she still had hopes.

Certainly they had taken better to flying than they had to language.

Also, in the novel Dr. Dillamond is murdered at Shiz, while in the musical he’s not killed but instead stripped of his ability to speak, a punishment that in this context actually seems more cruel than death.

I could more or less take or leave the aforementioned changes as “better,” but one major change the musical made seemed to be more in keeping with the novel’s themes than the novel’s own ending: the reveal that Elphaba is not actually able to be harmed by water, because this is just a rumor. The novel opens with a prologue of characters familiar to us (Dorothy et al) spouting ridiculous rumors about the Witch that the opening section almost immediately goes on to dispel–and yet, in the novel, it is not merely a rumor that water is anathema to Elphaba:

She held his hand until he fell asleep, and wiped his face though his tears burned her skin.

But the image of Sarima in chains, Sarima as a decaying corpse, still withholding from the Witch her forgiveness for Fiyero’s death–it pained her like water.

“You smell of blood, go wash up,” said Nanny. “Is it your time?”

“I never wash, you know that. Where’s Liir?”

And in the end, just as in the end of The Wizard of Oz, it is Dorothy’s throwing water on the Witch that kills her (though in the movie this happens because the witch sets the Scarecrow on fire intentionally, while in the novel she sets herself on fire with her broom-torch by accident). The musical, on the other hand, turns the water issue into a rumor:

FIYERO
(spoken)
Do you hear that – water will melt her?! People
are so empty-headed, they’ll believe anything!

Though we can’t really be sure Fiyero is right that it’s a rumor until we discover at the end that Elphaba has not really died from water exposure but has only exploited everyone’s belief in rumors about her to then be able to escape and run away with Fiyero.

Which brings us to a couple of other major changes.

Like Elphaba, Fiyero is another significant character the novel kills off who gets to survive in the musical. The entire plot development in the novel of Elphaba being responsible for his death via her efforts to assassinate the Wizard–leading to the crucial character development of her desire for forgiveness (which she then sees unexpectedly and climactically reflected in her mortal enemy Dorothy)–is rendered moot. On top of this, the musical banishes entirely what might be considered Fiyero’s outsider status and otherness as a “diamond-skinned prince” in the novel:

“He stays at Ozma Towers and his name is Fiyero. He’s a real Winkle, full-blood. Wonder what he makes of civilization?”

“If that was civilization, last week, he must long for his own barbaric kind,” said Elphaba from the seat on the other side of Boq.

“What’s he wearing such silly paint for?” said Avaric. “He only draws attention to himself. And that skin. I wouldn’t want to have skin the color of shit.”

“What a thing to say,” said Elphaba. “If you ask me, that’s a shitty opinion.”

In the novel, the shared outsider status reflected in skin color is kind of a significant factor that Fiyero and Elphaba share that facilitates their intimacy (that said, it did feel like there wasn’t really enough attention paid to Fiyero in the novel’s Shiz section for as important as he turned out to be to the overall plot). The musical dispenses with this aspect entirely; though it definitely foregrounds the importance of Fiyero early on, it merely turns Fiyero and Glinda into football-and-cheerleader stereotypes. In the novel, Glinda wouldn’t have gotten with Fiyero in a million years:

“It was suggested to me once that [Fiyero] had been carrying on an affair with you in the Emerald City.”

Glinda turned yellow-pink. “My dear,” she said, “I was fond of Fiyero and he was a good man and a fine statesman. But among other things, you will remember he was dark-skinned. Even if I took up dalliances–an inclination I believe rarely benefits anyone–you are once again being suspicious and cranky to suspect me and Fiyero! The idea!”

And the Witch realized, sinkingly, that this was of course true; the ugly skill at snobbery had returned to Glinda in her middle years.

In the musical, Fiyero is a carelessly rich heartthrob whose eventual interest in Elphaba is supposed to show us he’s not as shallow as we’d assumed, and/or that Elphaba’s charisma is more powerful than we’d imagined. He’s not cheating on his wife by being with her as he is in the novel; instead, he’s cheating on the cheerleader.

This love triangle is also a product of one of the musical’s biggest changes–its elevation of Glinda into a second main character rather than just a supporting one. In the novel, Glinda fulfills her role of giving (or magically cementing) the red slippers to Dorothy after the house falls on Nessa, and Elphaba’s confronting Glinda about this after Nessa’s funeral is Glinda’s final appearance (during which she expresses the callous racism referenced above that obliterates any notion her relationship with Elphaba has improved her character, negating the sentiment expressed in the musical’s number “For Good”). In the musical, Glinda makes her way out to Kiamo Ko to try to warn or help Elphaba and is present for the climactic sequence, showing up so she and Elphaba can sing a moving duet about how much their friendship means to them. This felt like pure schmaltz to me because 1) it was schmaltzy, and 2) it didn’t feel earned. I was hard-pressed to see how Glinda had really changed Elphaba “For Good” when the height of her efforts seemed to consist of making Elphaba “Popular.” (I will note that the response in the theater from both strangers and the people I went with would seem to indicate that I’m in the minority here and most of the audience was moved by this number, and I’m tempted to say that’s mass entertainment for you–presented for “maximum emotional coercion,” to borrow a phrase from The Corrections.)

The musical may have dispensed with Fiyero’s otherness, but the added element of the love triangle seems to have almost inadvertently accentuated the homoerotic undertones between Glinda and Elphaba. The initial ambiguity expressed in the title and lyrics of the song “What is This Feeling” makes these undertones more overt:

GALINDA
What is this feeling?
So sudden and new?

ELPHABA
I felt it the moment
I laid eyes on you:

GALINDA
My pulse is rushing:

ELPHABA
My head is reeling:

GALINDA
My face is flushing:

BOTH
What is this feeling?
Fervid as a flame,
Does it have a name?
Yes!:Loathing
Unadulterated loathing

Yeah, sure, it’s “unadulterated loathing.” In keeping with not being focalized on Glinda and Elphaba’s relationship, the novel’s lesbian undertones remain fairly understated:

For when [Glinda] chose to remember her youth at all, she could scarcely dredge up an ounce of recollection about that daring meeting with the Wizard. She could recall far more clearly how she and Elphie had shared a bed on the road to the Emerald City. How brave that had made her feel, and how vulnerable too.

Basically, Glinda replaces Dorothy in the musical’s climax, fulfilling a sort of parallel if more exaggerated role of enemy-turned-friend. Dorothy’s actual appearance in the novel “in the flesh,” so to speak, rather than as simply being spoken of by other characters, is a big part of the novel’s climax, presaged by her brief appearance in the prologue talking about the Witch. Dorothy never appears in the flesh in the musical; she’s referenced fleetingly before Glinda arrives at Kiamo Ko when Elphaba lifts a trap door in the floor and yells down at Dorothy that she wants the shoes. So apparently we’re supposed to understand that Elphaba has abducted Dorothy, but we never see an actual interaction between them. The trap door introducing the marginal Dorothy element was one of the things that made the second act of the musical feel rushed and incoherent.

It’s interesting that while the musical minimizes Dorothy’s role, it provides origin stories for the other classic characters that the novel doesn’t. The musical includes the one origin story the novel does touch on, the lion being cowardly because of his time as a test subject at Shiz (using this as a bonding device for Elphaba and Fiyero in a way the novel doesn’t), and then goes further by twisting Boq’s narrative into the Tin Man’s and Fiyero’s into the Scarecrow’s. In the novel, as Dorothy and her gang are approaching Elphaba’s fortress at Kiamo Ko, Elphaba secretly hopes Fiyero might not really be dead and has disguised himself as the Scarecrow (which of course turns out not to be the case), but I don’t recall any precedent in the novel for the Tin Man’s origin. But it does make sense that if you’re going to hint at one of the original character’s origin stories, you’d reference the others.

In the vein of the origin story and water changes, another thing the musical adds that I think makes the narrative more cohesive is Madame Morrible’s being responsible for the tornado that kills Nessa, designed specifically as a trap to lure Elphaba out so she and the Wizard can kill her. If the novel in any way implies that Madame Morrible is responsible for the tornado that kills Nessarose, I can’t find a reference to it, though the fact that this storm is the first of its kind does seem suspicious, to say the least. Otherwise, the description of its appearance is fairly vague and uncertain:

Such a maelstrom had not been known in Oz before. Various terrorist groups claimed credit, especially when news got around that the Wicked Witch of the East–also known as the Eminent Thropp, depending on your political stripe–had been snuffed out.

The musical seems to more openly represent the plotting between Madame Morrible and the Wizard that the novel implies may or may not actually be happening; it also maintains a structure pivoting around two different meetings between Elphaba and the Wizard, while adjusting what actually happens at these meetings. In the musical, the Wizard is specifically out to get Elphaba because of her open defiance of him during their first meeting, while in the novel he doesn’t even recall their first meeting at which he rejected her and her friends’ plea for Animal rights:

The Witch breathed in deeply. “I have met you before, you know,” she said. “You once granted me an interview in the Throne Room, when I was a schoolgirl from Shiz.”

“Is that so?” he said. “Oh, of course–you must have been one of the darling girls of Madame Morrible. That wonderful aid and helpmeet. In her dotage now, but in her heyday, what she taught me about breaking the spirits of willful young girls! No doubt, like the rest, you were taken with her?”

“She tried to recruit me to serve some master. Was it you?”

“Who can say. We were always hatching some plot or other. She was good fun….”

In the musical, Elphaba does not take false credit for Madame Morrible’s death after failing to murder her before she dies of natural causes. This turns out to be a blow to Elphaba’s character development in the novel of risking becoming as bad as those she’s fighting against:

“Surely [Madame Morrible] was beyond the point of hurting anyone now?”

“You’ve made the mistake that everyone makes,” said the Witch, cruelly disappointed. “Don’t you know there is no such point?”

“You had worked to protect the Animals,” said Boq. “But you did not intend to sink to the level of those who brutalized them.”

“I have fought fire with fire,” said the Witch, “and I ought to have done it sooner! Boq, you’ve become an equivocating fool.”

“Elphie,” said Boq, “look at me. You are beside yourself. Have you been drinking? Dorothy is just a child. You may not retell this to make her into some sort of fiend!”

Elphaba’s comment here that she’s fighting fire with fire foreshadows her death by fire–significantly, a fire she starts herself. Her death in this manner would seem to underscore the reading that she’s fallen victim to the same tactics she was originally fighting against–a reading that her survival in the musical negates entirely.

Elphaba’s recasting Dorothy’s true nature to suit her own purposes echoes what the Wizard has done to her, but this was seemingly too complex an element to try to jam into the musical, as were other motivations at the heart of Elphaba’s character:

Why hadn’t she joined forces with Nessarose, and raised armies against the Wizard? Old family resentments had gotten in the way.

Nessarose had asked for help in governing Munchkinland, and the Witch had denied her request. Instead the Witch had gone back to Kiamo Ko these seven years. She had squandered the chance to merge forces with her sister.

Virtually every campaign she’d set out for herself had ended in failure.

In the novel, Elphaba is like Dorothy, it turns out: both seeking forgiveness, and in Oz from another country. In trading Glinda out for Dorothy, the musical jettisons all of this.

In the novel, when Elphaba confronts Glinda over the slippers, you can see a nugget of inspiration for another change the musical made:

“I’ll remind you,” said Glinda, “that those shoes were coming apart until I had them resoled, and I laced them through with a special binding spell of my own. Neither your father nor you did that much for her. Elphie, I stood by her when you abandoned her in Shiz. As you abandoned me. You did, don’t deny it, stop those lightning bolt looks at me, I won’t have it. I became her surrogate sister. And as an old friend I gave her the power to stand upright by herself through those shoes, and if I made a mistake I’m sorry, Elphie, but I still feel they were more mine to give away than yours.”

This is a moment when Elphaba has to reckon with the consequences of the choices she’s made–she left Shiz for principled reasons, but that principled action still had its negative consequences, specifically on her own family member. The musical inverts this by making Elphaba the one to enable Nessa to “stand upright by herself through those shoes” rather than Glinda.

In the novel, as Elphaba seeks to carry out her mission of killing Madame Morrible, Elphaba ponders and overtly discusses with Glinda whether Madame Morrible really did put a spell on them at Shiz that’s been controlling them ever since:

“I just mean, Glinda, is it possible we could be living our entire adult lives under someone’s spell? … How do you know your life hasn’t been pulled by the strings of some malign magic?”

This discussion opens up into general symbolism about the Witch’s life, and about life in general:

“I have always felt like a pawn,” said the Witch. “My skin color’s been a curse, my missionary parents made me sober and intense, my school days brought me up against political crimes against Animals, my love life imploded and my lover died, and if I had any life’s work of my own, I haven’t found it yet, except in animal husbandry, if you could call it that.”

“I’m no pawn,” said Glinda. “I take all the credit in the world for my own foolishness. Good gracious, dear, all of life is a spell. You know that. But you do have some choice.”

“Well, I wonder,” said the Witch.

The shoes become a symbol of both the political and the personal that thereby muddy Elphaba’s motivations:

The Witch said, “Glinda, if those shoes fall into the hands of the Wizard, he’ll use them somehow in a maneuver to reannex Munchkinland By now they have too much significance to Munchkinlanders. The Wizard mustn’t have those shoes!”

Glinda reached out and touched the Witch’s elbow. “They won’t make your father love you any better,” she said.

The Witch pulled back. They stood glaring at each other. They had too much common history to come apart over a pair of shoes, yet the shoes were planted between them, a grotesque icon of their differences. Neither one could retreat, or move forward. It was silly, and they were stuck, and someone needed to break the spell. But all the Witch could do was insist, “I want those shoes.”

Following this shortly after Nessa’s funeral is officially Elphie’s and Glinda’s last encounter in the novel:

As she strode through the forecourt of Colwen Grounds, she crossed paths once again with Glinda. But both women averted their eyes and hurried their feet along their opposing ways. For the Witch, the sky was a huge boulder pressing down on her. For Glinda it was much the same. But Glinda wheeled about, and cried out, “Oh Elphie!”

The Witch did not turn. They never saw each other again.

So let’s note at this point Glinda’s exit from the novel–it’s in the final part (5), but with a fair amount still left to go (5 is probably the longest section in the book). Also, let’s note Elphaba’s more or less final attitude toward Glinda when she recalls Glinda after this final parting during her subsequent reunion with Boq:

“…Remember the saffron cream party after Ama Clutch’s funeral?”

The Witch breathed heavily for a moment; there was a pain in her esophagus. She did not like to remember those trying times. And Glinda had known full well that Madame Morrible was behind the death of Ama Clutch. Now as Lady Glinda she was part of the same ruling class. It was hideous.

Then there’s what Elphaba sees when she revisits Shiz to kill Madame Morrible:

The back lawn beyond the orchard was gone, and in its place stood a stone structure, above whose gleaming poxite doors was carved THE SIR CHUFFREY AND LADY GLINDA CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC AND THE THEATRICAL ARTS.

This spirit of Glinda’s public self is conveyed in the musical, as she overtly acknowledges to Fiyero the need to be duplicitous in the leadership role she occupies (denouncing Elphaba publicly while not believing what she’s saying privately). But in the musical, Elphaba understands this distinction between Glinda’s public and private selves–an element that becomes an interesting parallel to Elphaba’s own titular situation–while in the novel Elphaba’s final attitude toward Glinda does not seem to have evolved so sympathetically:

“You were devoted to Glinda, you were,” said Nanny. “Everyone knew it.”

“Well, no more,” said the Witch. “The traitor.”

The social commentary is pretty funny during Glinda and the Witch’s final encounter:

“I hear you were one of the first on the scene,” said the Witch, “when Nessarose died. How did that come to be?”

“Sir Chuifrey–my hubby–he has some investments in pork futures, you know, and Munchkinland is trying to diversify its economic base so as not to be at the mercy of Gillikin banks and the Emerald City Corn Exchange. You never know what relationship might develop between Munchkinland and the rest of Oz, and it’s best to be prepared. So where Sir Chuifrey does business, I do good. It’s a partnership made in heaven. You know I have more money than I can give away?” She giggled and squeezed the Witch’s arm. “I never imagined that doing public charity would provide such a rush.”

In consolidating characters–the love triangle mitigates Glinda’s businessman husband from the novel as a character–the musical sacrifices a lot, if not all of this commentary, though you can see something of Glinda’s spirit that’s been taken and used in the musical at play in this passage in the irony of the “good” themes–if she’s doing “good” for the sake of cultivating relations conducive to her husband’s business interests, is it then actually “good”…?

Elphaba and Glinda aren’t the only ones whose character development can’t be fully realized in the format of the musical. Take Elphaba’s father Frex, transmuted into a political role (governor) rather than religious one (preacher). The latter enables not only a deeper complexity of character development, but also enables that complexity to reinforce a major theme, as we see in one conversation between father and daughter:

“Why was I cursed to be different?” she said. “You are a holy man, you must know.”

“You are my fault,” he said. Despite his words he was somehow pinning blame on her instead of himself, though she still wasn’t clever enough to see how this was done. “For what I had failed to do, you were born to plague me. But don’t worry yourself about it now,” he added, “that’s all long ago.”

“And Nessarose?” she asked. “How do the weights and balances of shame and guilt account for her?”

“She is a portrait of the lax morals of your mother,” Frex said calmly.

“And that’s why you could love her so much,” said the Witch. “Because her human frailty wasn’t your fault.”

Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin will later be disputed by an all-knowing dwarf (more on that shortly) in a way that reinforces the main idea behind the title–people are constantly constructing narratives about others that are more about serving themselves than being anywhere near a true reflection of the individual that narrative is about. Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin says way more about him than it does her.

The musical nods to the novel’s complexity in ways I think I would have found confusing had I not read the novel beforehand. Why the musical’s set is festooned with clock gears and characters’ lines are strewn with time references is not clearly established, nor is the purpose of the impressive but seemingly underutilized mechanical dragon that periodically flares to life above the stage. The novel clearly establishes these elements as part of a (anti-)religion: the Clock of the Time Dragon, which plays something of a significant role in the plot with its prophecies, something else the musical dispenses with, including this reference to some controlling power far greater than the Wizard who may or may not have specifically conspired to have Elphaba conceived:

“You work with Yackle.”

“We sometimes have the same intentions, and we sometimes do not. Her interest seems to be different from mine.”

“Who is she? What is her interest? Why do you hover at the edges of my life?”

“In the world I come from, there are guardian angels,” said the dwarf, “but so far as I can work it out, she is an opposite number, and her concern is you.”

“Why do I deserve such a fiend? Why is my life so plagued? Who positioned her to influence my life?”

“There are things I don’t know, and things I do,” said the dwarf. “Who Yackle answers to, if anyone, if anything, is beyond my realm of knowledge or interest. But why you? You must know this. For you”–the dwarf spoke in a bright, offhand tone–“are neither this nor that–or shall I say both this and that? Both of Oz and of the other world. Your old Frex always was wrong; you were never a punishment for his crimes. You are a half-breed, you are a new breed, you are a grafted limb, you are a dangerous anomaly. Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are. Can you be so dull that you have not figured this out?”

But one thing the musical and novel have in common is attention to wardrobe and a snarky sense of humor (“We can’t all travel by bubble.”):

Glinda approached slowly, either through age or shyness, or because her ridiculous gown weighed so much that it was hard for her to get up enough steam to stride. She looked like a huge Glindaberry bush, was all the Witch could think; under that skirt there must be a bustle the size of the dome of Saint Florix. There were sequins and furbelows and a sort of History of Oz, it seemed, stitched in trapunto in six or seven ovoid panels all around the skirting. But her face: beneath the powdered skin, the wrinkles at eyelid and mouth, was the face of the timid schoolgirl from the Pertha Hills.

The Witch took Glinda’s arm. “Glinda, you look hideous in that getup. I thought you’d have developed some sense by now.”

“When in the provinces,” she said, “you have to show them a little style. I don’t think it’s so bad. Or are the satin bells at the shoulder a bit too too?”

“Excessive,” agreed the Witch. “Someone get the scissors; this is a disaster.”

They laughed.

On the whole it seems the best possible version of the story would combine elements of both the novel and the musical. Through looking at both one can see how sprawling and in many places saggy the novel is–like the character of Shell, Elphaba’s and Nessa’s younger brother, who appears, very briefly, exactly once, and whose purpose is utterly unclear except for possibly some kind of setup for a sequel. One can also see how the sprawling canvas of a novel, while risking such sagginess and seemingly useless appendages, provides space for much more complex treatment of theme and (other) character(s). A whole other post could be written about how Maguire has developed this touchstone fantastical universe of Oz to couch a surprisingly sober critique of capitalism and religion alike in a comedic dressing gown that might be quite reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s original political allegories.

For me, having to shove through the morass of Times Square on a December Saturday afternoon in order to get to the theater where Wicked was playing provided another layer of thematic development. Being stuck in a horde of people when one is running late to get somewhere does not make one think the best of one’s fellow woman. I can’t even remember now if it was me or the friend I was with who joked about understanding why someone (i.e. terrorists) would want to blow up all of this shit-show sea of people being blasted by the seizure-inducing flashing lights of gigantic advertisements. We conceded it was probably not a good idea to make that joke too loudly. It all made me think of the good v. evil narrative that the Bush administration propagated after 9/11. It was easy to think of the terrorists as evil, harder to try to understand that perhaps there could have been reasons they did what they did other than just being pure evil, reasons that had to do with things America had done. A whole other post could be written about how Elphaba’s trajectory in Wicked dovetails with America’s surrounding 9/11, if you consider her character arc of becoming as bad as those she was fighting against (going to the “dark side” as exemplified in Abu Ghraib). It’s interesting that the musical version (the novel having been published pre-9/11) was launched in ’03, when the good-v-evil narrative was being propagated so intensely in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

I don’t feel like we as a country have ever properly reckoned with the things we’ve done that are root causes of other problems we then claim to be a victim of (like certain migrant caravans…). Probably most of the people watching the musical with me in the theater that day would have been shocked by the idea that the 9/11 terrorists might have been anything other than pure evil, even as they were consuming a story about a politician spinning a story to make someone else seem evil to distract the populace from the fact that they, the politician, were not who they purported to be. (The terrorist parallel was patently a point I did not bring up to the group I attended with, one of whom had lost many colleagues on 9/11 and was revisiting NYC for the first time since then.) But there was something a little queasy to me about sitting in this plush theater, every aspect of which was more or less a manifestation of the very apex of the advantages of Western capitalist privilege, watching a show purporting to point out the fallacies of the duplicitous political rhetoric that engenders such privilege. I’d have to say that potential irony seemed lost on most of the audience…though I know that my logic is somewhat cynical and in theory would discount any commentary made through the inherently extravagant medium of a Broadway musical.

Of course these themes go beyond the Bush administration. Politics maybe haven’t so much as changed in the Trump era as been taken to their–logical?–extreme. In teaching my freshmen composition classes this semester, the subject of which is rhetoric (how language persuades), I mentioned the narrative of Wicked as a classic example of rhetoric at work–more specifically, Trumpian rhetoric: if someone might expose your true evil/inadequate nature, you make up a claim to discredit them so people won’t believe their claims about you. (It’s even better if the accusations you hurl at them are actually things you yourself did.) Trump’s words are the Wizard’s smoke and mirrors. Many of us see through him, but it remains to be seen how much that will actually matter.

-SCR

Take The Long Train Home

Techniques tracked:
-rising action
-character/villain development (or lack thereof)

Stephen King’s annual doorstopper, The Institute, was released this past September. The book begins with Tim Jamieson impulsively deciding to take a flight attendant’s offer of a voucher to give up his seat on a plane to NYC. In no apparent hurry, Tim decides to hitchhike there instead, but on the way ends up taking a job as a “Night Knocker,” the equivalent of a night-shift cop who’s not allowed to carry a gun, in the tiny South Carolina town of DuPray. We learn Tim in fact used to be a cop in Sarasota, Florida, but left after a warning shot he fired ricocheted and killed an “innocent” bystander who was phone-recording the altercation Tim was trying to handle; his wife also left him because he didn’t want to have kids due to the world being too evil. 

We then switch to Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old kid in Minneapolis with an off-the-charts IQ. Shortly after Luke takes the SAT and gains admission to both MIT and Emerson, he’s kidnapped in the night by a team of three people who kill his parents. He wakes up in a room that looks identical to his former one, but is in the Institute, hidden deep in the woods of Maine (where else?). Luke was not kidnapped because of his prodigious intelligence, but rather for his minor telekinetic abilities; the rest of the kids in the Institute are either telekinetic or telepathic, or in rare cases, both. Luke befriends other Institute prisoners where they currently reside in “Front Half”–Kalisha, Nicky, George, and Iris, who give him the lay of the land; they’re shortly joined by a new arrival, an even younger boy named Avery who has stronger telepathic abilities than most of the residents. We meet the utilitarian Mrs. Sigsby, who runs the Institute, and her sinister head of security, Trevor Stackhouse. Although they present an intimidating front, the Institute has been around for several decades and is in a state of disrepair, since it’s hard to hire repair workers and keep the place a secret. 

The Institute doctors subject the (pre)adolescent residents to regular tests, including one apparently designed to make them see “dots,” which the kids refer to as the “Stasi Lights” and seem to appear when their abilities are functioning. Some kids have worse reactions to the tests than others. It turns out the aim of some of the tests is to enhance the kids’ abilities, and when Luke lies about having gained some telepathic abilities from one, he’s subjected to the “immersion tank” and tortured, but still manages to keep his new enhanced abilities a secret. One by one, his friends start disappearing to “Back Half.” Kalisha telepathically beams Luke some images of what goes on there, revealing that the kids watch movies that revolve around some individual that they’re being conditioned to use their collective abilities to remotely assassinate. Participating in such collective psychic efforts strips the kids of their cognitive capacities to the point that they’re no longer themselves, the stage at which they go to the back half of Back Half and are eventually killed and incinerated. (Sinister.)

Luke befriends an Institute housekeeper named Maureen who’s known to be friendly to the kids, but who’s really just been posing to report any secrets they tell her to Mrs. Sigsby. But then Luke is able to do enough research on an Institute computer to help Maureen out of her ex-husband’s whopping credit-card debt so that she’s able to use her savings to send the son she gave up for adoption to college, and with the added factor that she’s suffering from some kind of terminal illness, Maureen decides to help Luke escape. Avery also uses his telepathic abilities to help, Maureen silently giving him instructions for how Luke can get out and where to go once he does. Luke manages to dig and squirm under a fence, almost getting stuck but inadvertently using his telekinetic abilities to lift it enough to free him. (He also has to cut off his earlobe with a paring knife Maureen left him to get rid of the tracker they implanted in it when he first arrived.) He follows Maureen’s directions and makes it through the woods to a docked boat, taking that downstream to a train yard, where he boards a train that will make several stops, including DuPray, South Carolina. 

Due to the Institute’s general deterioration and the removed tracker, it takes Sigsby and Stackhouse longer than it should to catch on to Luke’s escape. Both want to handle the situation on their own without having to call their higher-ups (specifically the “lisping man” who will answer the phone line Sigsby has for emergencies), as they fear it will mean the end of their careers, and possibly their lives. Figuring out how Avery communicated with Maureen from surveillance footage, they use their “zap-sticks” to torture him, and he reveals where Luke got out of the boat he took, but not that he got on a train. When another girl, Frieda Brown, gleans and rats out the train part, Avery is subjected to the immersion tank, but in their rush they neglect to first give him the regular shots to stifle his powers, and the torture ends up increasing his already powerful abilities. Meanwhile, they send out people to wait at all the stops Luke’s train will make. Luke jumps the train in DuPray and runs into a signpost right in front of Tim, who’s gotten a second job at the town’s train yard. Unfortunately, another person present when Luke jumps the train is a stringer for the Institute (they have lots of people on their payroll) and lets them know where Luke is. Sigsby gets a team together and goes with them to DuPray.

Meanwhile, Luke shows Tim and some others a flash drive Maureen gave him with footage she took of the back half of Back Half (also referred to by residents as “Gorky Park”) with the catatonic kids, which helps them believe his wild story. Sigsby and her team infiltrate the police station and there’s a shootout that kills a lot of people, but with the help of some DuPray residents, including the homeless conspiracy theorist Orphan Annie, Tim and Luke are able to take custody of Mrs. Sigsby, who took a minor bullet wound to her ankle. They call Stackhouse, who stayed behind at the Institute, and Luke makes a deal to exchange Maureen’s flash drive for his friends, who with Avery’s help figure out how to combine and channel their powers to overcome some of the staff and free the residents of Gorky Park. When Stackhouse manages to remotely lock them in an access tunnel as they try to leave Back Half, they call out to Luke for help. Stackhouse concocts a plan to poison them with a gas made from bleach and toilet cleaner. 

Tim and Luke return to the Institute with Mrs. Sigsby in tow. Sensing a trap, Tim manages a bait-and-switch where he makes Mrs. Sigsby put on his backwards cap and take the wheel of their van so that she’s mistaken for him when Institute staff open up on their van with a hail of gunfire. Sigsby is killed, but Tim and Luke, lying in the back, survive. At the same time, in the tunnel Avery uses his telepathic “big phone” to call to kids at other Institutes all over the globe to join their power to his, and sends his friends out to the playground, sacrificing himself. He channels the combined power to lift the Front Half building off the ground, destroying the other buildings in the process. Almost all of the Institute staff is killed except for Stackhouse and a couple of others, who surrender to Tim. 

Tim keeps the group of Luke’s friends who escaped, who then get sent off to their closest living relatives one by one with fake stories of how they were kidnapped and released. The lisping man visits before Nick and Kalisha leave to warn them to keep their mouths shut about what happened and to try to justify the mission of the Institute, which was built off of research done by Nazis. The lisping man claims to believe that the assassinations carried out by Institute children have saved the world from annihilation over 500 times, revealing that they have a handful of “precogs” who can tell the future to a point that they can pinpoint who needs to be killed to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Luke disputes the veracity of the precogs’ predictions based on statistical analysis, and can tell from his mind-reading powers that the man is not as confident in his claims as he seems (including that the world will soon end and it will be Luke and Tim’s fault). Tim convinces the rest of the kids not to believe the man’s rationalizations, and Luke says goodbye to Kalisha. The End. 

For probably the first half of The Institute I found myself less invested than I was in the first half of King’s doorstopper from last year, The Outsider, but the payoff at the end plot-wise was far better in The Institute. As always, King manages to keep the reader in “cracktastic” suspense throughout with a highly action-based plot, compensating for what by literary standards is fairly lacking character development. (For me what this usually amounts to is being engrossed while I’m reading the book but forgetting most of it once I’m finished.)

The characters might not end up being all that developed, as we will see, but King’s ability to rove points of view across a wide range of characters and capture their distinct (if at times clichéd) worldviews remains impressive. He’s the king of the ensemble cast, among other things, a probably not insignificant factor in the success of his movie and television adaptations. He can drop us into any character’s mind at any time, and maintains a pliable narrative psychic distance that allows him to tell us things characters don’t actually know:

[Luke] was asleep at once. He slept through the stop at Portland and the one in Portsmouth, although the train jerked each time a few old cars were subtracted from 4297’s pull-load and others were added. He was still asleep when the train stopped at Sturbridge…

King is also able to use point-of-view switches to generate suspense–we get to simultaneously see what’s going on with the good guys and bad guys, meaning we get to know what each side doesn’t know. We know how close Institute personnel are on Luke’s trail when he’s on the train. We know how close the bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas is to going into the vents of the tunnel where Luke’s friends are. Were we simply stuck in the position of the good guys, knowing the bad guys are up to something but not in a position to know exactly what, we might identify strongly with their fear being exacerbated by the unknown, but it turns out actually knowing some of the specifics of that unknown is a richer experience of the potential horror.

In terms of character development, let’s start with Tim, whose decision to get off the plane to NYC starts the book. Tim gets the first part of the novel (out of nine parts). His book-opening decision is later cited as a possible precog flash, based on the idea that everyone has some low-level precog powers. Logically it seems a good starting point for the plot, since if Tim hadn’t gotten off the plane the fate of Luke and the Institute would have necessarily taken a different course. Tim’s chronic tension would seem to reside in a decision he made before the one that starts the book, the decision that led him to be on the plane in the first place, which involves the incident that caused him to have to leave the police force (a lot of the tension in the first part stems from the slow reveal of why Tim is so aimlessly drifting, potentially answering the question of why King didn’t start the book with an actual scene of the altercation that got Tim kicked off the force and only has it later recounted in dialog when he’s applying for the Night Knocker job in DuPray). The wife-leaving-him chronic tension is fairly undeveloped and random and seems more designed for thematic overlap with the question at the heart of the Institute’s existence–is the world (ir)redeemable? Eventually Tim will start dating a colleague from DuPray, but how the failure of his marriage informs his behavior in his new relationship is completely unexplored. You could say that another way Tim’s chronic tension comes into play is that the man who didn’t want children because the world was too evil ends up with Luke as his pseudo-child at the end, the one kid who probably knows more than anyone else about how evil the world really is, which would probably be more satisfying if Tim’s belief in the evil of the world had actually been developed rather than just stated once:

…ten years on the force had made him cynical. Sometimes he brought those feelings home (try often, he told himself when he was willing to be honest), and they had become part of the acid that had eaten away at his marriage. Those feelings were also, he supposed, one of the reasons he had remained so closed off to the idea of having a kid. There was too much bad stuff out there. Too many things that could go wrong. 

The lack of development of this aspect means that by the end it ends up feeling like Tim has impacted the plot, but not that the plot has impacted Tim. Pacing-wise it felt to me that the first part went into too much detail about Tim’s Night Knocker routine in sequences that did not adequately develop any of his chronic-tension issues. Of course most of this first part is designed to introduce characters who will play a pivotal role in the climactic shootout, but again the characters seemed more designed to express certain ideas or serve a plot function rather than feeling like actual people–primarily Orphan Annie, the homeless woman who seems like a nut for believing in conspiracy theories but whose beliefs are revealed to be more on point than anyone would have thought.   

It seems possible King opens the book with an extended section on the adult Tim before moving on to the real main character, Luke, to keep the book from feeling like it’s YA. One of the more interesting aspects of Luke’s character, his initially defining trait–his prodigious intelligence–is not the reason the Institute is interested in him, but it will be the reason that he is the one who is able to take them down. The introduction of Luke’s minor telekinetic abilities before he’s kidnapped felt a bit clunky: 

Luke got up with some relief and tossed his lunch sack in a trash barrel by the door to the gym. He looked at the pretty redhead a final time, and as he went in, the barrel shimmied three inches to the left.

Luke later thinks about the trashcan moving once or twice, but there’s no other instance of his telekinetic powers before he gets to the Institute. In a way this makes sense because his telekinetic abilities are supposed to be fairly minimal, and it seems that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s actually him causing the movement. So maybe you could justify the clunkiness of the telekinetic introduction, which means the real issue here comes back to character development: Luke has none. If he potentially struggled to manage his towering intellect and so part of this journey was him learning to appreciate it, that might be one thing, but the one scene that shows how Luke’s affected by his intellect and how it has the potential to turn him into a fish out of water, when he’s with the older kids taking the SAT, doesn’t show this to be a real or recurring issue; he’s able to joke with the older kids and gain acceptance fairly easily. (This scene really seems like it should have been developed in contrast to his interactions with the others at the Institute rather than as similar to it.) If he was potentially scared of going off to college as a kid who’s barely hit puberty, then what he has to do in the acute tension of overcoming the Institute could have given him the confidence to proceed into the adult world while he’s still a child, and there’s almost lip service paid to this idea when, early in the novel, Luke admits he’ll need his parents to move to Boston with him to go to college, but this is merely a passing reference rather than a developed issue; Luke seems more or less fine with the idea of going off to college as a twelve-year-old before he’s kidnapped and taken to the Institute. Yes, by the end we understand he’ll now have to go to college without his parents because his parents are dead, and we probably understand that he has been pushed into early adulthood by his ordeal and so he will be able to manage college without them, but this aspect of the narrative isn’t really emphasized or reinforced. In the end, Tim pretty much accurately sums up Luke’s character development: 

He wanted to tell Luke that he was brave, maybe the bravest kid ever outside of a boys’ adventure book. 

Or not. 

The book’s two main protagonists, Tim and Luke, are white males. The main person of color in the cast, Kalisha, is (shockingly) relegated to a supporting role. Kalisha is the fulcrum of a love triangle between Luke and another Institute boy, Nicky, that ends up being of absolutely no consequence to the plot, even though King leans on it in a (cheesy) attempt to bring about emotional closure at the very end.

Another white male, Avery, actually seems to have more character development than Tim or Luke along the way to setting him up as a pivotal plot device. Avery has a more developed chronic tension that’s emphasized repeatedly–he did not have friends in his life before the Institute. The dynamic among Institute children is of course quite different than in a normal school environment, which means Avery won’t be ostracized there like he used to be, even if he still is, predominantly, an oversensitive crybaby. Avery is so grateful for the friendship of the others that he’s willing to help Luke escape at risk to himself; the crybaby withstands torture, and at the end stays behind to call the “Big Phone,” knowingly sacrificing himself to enable his friends to escape. This aspect of his character development becomes heavy-handed in the final moments of Avery’s arc: 

They maintained their circle until the end, and as the roof came down, Avery Dixon had one final thought, both clear and calm: I loved having friends.

The irony that Avery is actually in a position to enjoy some aspects of life more at the Institute than outside it is echoed in the character who actually manipulates him to give up Luke: Frieda Brown, another child who’s been kidnapped for the Institute. Frieda is mentioned a handful of times before she comes to play her pivotal role in the plot, one instance seeming to emphasize a certain likeness to Avery’s defining trait: 

[Luke] waggled his fingertips in the free air outside the Institute for a moment or two, then got up, dusted off his bottom, and asked Frieda if she wanted to play HORSE. She gave him an eager smile that said Yes! Of course! Be my friend!

It sort of broke his heart.

This defining trait might potentially lead both Avery and Frieda to prefer life at the Institute to life outside it, a surprising and ironic development, but it leads them to act in different ways: Avery to sacrifice himself so his friends who don’t prefer the Institute can escape it, and Frieda to take action so that Luke’s escape will enable her to stay there rather than leave, and so she gives up the critical info about Luke’s escape that Avery had managed to withhold even through torture. This development is of course necessary to keep the rising action going and thus create a more nail-biting plot. The book can’t end with Luke simply crawling under the fence, hopping a train, and making a clean getaway. There have to be more obstacles to complicate that process, and there has to be a more direct confrontation with Institute personnel, a confrontation King has set up with one of the book’s epigraphs invoking the biblical story of Samson:

And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. 

Over the course of the novel Luke specifically brings up or thinks about this story of Samson bringing down the temple roughly four times (which also ends up feeling heavy-handed). One of these passages early on specifically indicates that Luke will not be content to just get away, that this cannot be the narrative’s endgame: 

This was no dream, it was really happening, and to get out of here no longer seemed enough. That hard thing wanted more. It wanted to expose the whole kidnapping, child-torturing bunch of them, from Mrs. Sigsby all the way down to Gladys with her plastic smiles and Zeke with his slimy rectal thermometer. To bring the Institute down on their heads, as Samson had brought the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines. He knew this was no more than the resentful, impotent fantasy of a twelve-year-old kid, but he wanted it, just the same, and if there was any way he could do it, he would. (emphasis mine)

Now let’s talk about the character development of the villains, those who run the Institute. With this reckoning Luke is about to bring crashing down upon their heads, they might have the most potential to actually face their wrongs and grow as people–since we seem to be dealing with people as our villains here, and not some kind of demon from an evil dimension that I only recently realized was a connecting thread through a lot of King’s work.  

We get very little detail about our primary antagonists Sigsby and Stackhouse, though the latter is occasionally softened by being the only one to call the former by her first name, Julia, an implicit reminder of her humanity. They both think at different points that their jobs are basically their lives, so the stakes are certainly higher for them when their jobs are threatened by the novel’s acute tension, but what this also means is, again, lacking character development. The most we seem to learn about any Institute staff members’ past is that they are some form of ex-military, which would seem to be a commentary on the ethics (or lack thereof) of our country’s military-industrial complex. Maureen gets a posthumous monologue about the torture she witnessed during the Iraq War, making an explicit connection to how this enabled her to witness the torture of children without resistance, but these things we learn about her past again feel more like character being used for thematic development rather than the other way around. 

The fact that the villains here are human beings instead of interdimensional demons allows for a complication of their motivations–despite the fact that they are torturing children, they believe they are doing this to save the rest of the world from destruction; thus, they are not pure evil in the way that so many monstrous incarnations of Satan in other King narratives are. 

(On a side note, I’m currently in the middle of the first season of the King-inspired and -produced Castle Rock on Hulu, in which the main villain is a guy some characters believe to be an incarnation of the devil, and, whoever he is, causes a lot of violence and chaos wherever he goes; when my partner keeps demanding why he’s doing these things, the only answer is, well, he’s the devil, which is not a satisfying explanation. A force being evil simply because they are evil is just not that dramatically interesting. The show’s good enough in other ways that I’m hoping there is in fact a more complex explanation, but that remains to be seen.)

Sigsby’s uppity self-righteous attitude, not to mention her being the one to actually issue official Institute torture orders, has her marked for destruction from the novel’s outset, not unlike Cersei from Game of Thrones. (King pays explicit homage to Martin twice in this novel by having Tim read A Song of Ice and Fire after he moves to DuPray and by referring to his wife Tabitha as his “sun and stars” in his Acknowledgments.) Sigsby at least gets a less disappointing death than Cersei being crushed by rocks when Tim pulls his clever trick that ends up getting Sigsby shot by her own henchman. This could be an apt symbol of her being engulfed by a mess of her own creation, but nothing about Sigsby’s experience during the showdown in DuPray or her return to the Institute as a hostage seems to come close to actually changing her attitude about the things she’s done. Her change is merely a surface one, from alive to dead. She doesn’t change or develop in any other meaningful way. She’s simply a Bad Guy, designed for the reader to derive maximum pleasure from her death. (Cersei’s general attitude may not have changed by the end of her arc, at least not in the TV version, but we definitely got more significant insight into her motivations along the way in a way that made her feel developed.) 

Stackhouse would seem to have even more of an opportunity to change or reflect on his actions, since he’s one of the very few taken alive after the Institute is destroyed, but we learn nothing about how this affects him either. Here’s the last mention we get of Stackhouse: 

Tim decided not to pursue the Stackhouse question. It was obvious he wouldn’t get anywhere with it, and besides, Stackhouse was old news. He might be in Brazil; he might be in Argentina or Australia; he might be dead. It made no difference to Tim where he was. 

There’s also the potentially weird fact that Sigsby is the one who accompanies the team to DuPray while Stackhouse stays behind to look after the Institute–it really seems like it should have been the other way around, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because even though they technically end up in very different places (dead v. alive), they end up in the same place, character-wise, with the loss of this place that was their life not actually making them rethink their priorities or motivations.   

Interestingly, the character who actually has to deal with the moral reckoning the most is the lisping man, the initially faceless higher-up on the other end of Sigsby’s Zero Phone. But again this is less character development than thematic development (verging into proselytizing) as the lisping man lays out the rationale behind the Institutes, which we’ve by now discovered dot the globe, with his ends-justifies-the-means logic, the monstrosity of which could be fit for Catholic propaganda. The lisp is a good trait to show him getting flustered in the course of the conversation as Luke challenges him, though also seemingly unnecessary if Luke can read his mind, as Luke does to specifically point out the man has doubts about some of the claims he’s making with such seeming certainty. The debate comes to a head with the hypothetical of if what they were doing would be worth it if it could be definitively proven they actually had at least once saved the world, and Luke says no. So I guess we’ve all learned a moral lesson here. I still know nothing meaningful about the lisping man as a human being. 

King has been an outspoken critic of Trump on social media, and people have noticed the parallels between the situation of the kids in the novel’s Institute and the kids being detained at our country’s southern border. King told the hosts of The View that the parallel was inadvertent: 

I try to keep my politics separate from the stuff that I write. People like story. People want story and if they want the news…they can go on and get [it].

Others seem convinced the commentary is more intentional, but the writing process as King describes it would be more optimal; trying to write a book with a particular (political) message is basically narrative suicide. King says he really had in mind old CIA and Nazi experiments, which makes sense. The issue is that he did seem to be writing with a message in mind about how wrong those were even if they were ostensibly for good reasons, so there’s still a certain didacticism that saturates the reading experience a little too much for my taste, even if I did appreciate his probably most overtly political comparison: 

They were stronger together, yes, but still not strong enough. No more than Hillary Clinton had been when she ran for president a few years back. Because the guy running against her, and his supporters, had had the political equivalent of the caretakers’ zap-sticks. 

Sounds like he’s really keeping his politics separate from his storytelling…

The most moving part of The Institute doesn’t come until after its ending, in King’s Author’s Note, in which he recounts how Russ Dorr, the man who has been his research assistant since the 70s and who was originally his children’s pediatrician, recently died. (I particularly enjoyed the passage about how Dorr was the only one aside from his wife who got to see King’s fiction “before it was fully dressed and ready for its close-up.”) The details about Dorr’s contributions to specific plots over the years (in particular the climax of Under the Dome; and one of his final contributions was The Institute‘s bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas) really brings home a relevant aspect of King’s unparalleled productivity–he’s had a significant amount of help.

-SCR

Playing the Game’s Game

A presentation on Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” by Rey Cooper, Lo Duke, and Edlyn Escoto

Summary Part 1: Rey

“Play the Game,” Chapter 7 of Colby Buzzell’s novel, starts with a soldier named Colby coming home from deployment in Iraq. Six months in from coming home, Colby is awake one morning to see a little girl get hit by a speeding truck. The girl is seemingly killed, but Colby disregards it and pays no mind, instead choosing to go back to sleep. The next day, he is called by a Staff Sergeant that tries to make him sign up for the Reserves, but he hangs up in indifference. He then goes downstairs to realize that his car’s been stolen, so he goes to the nearest LAPD precinct to report it.

Summary Part 2: Lo 

The man goes to report his car being stolen when he meets a cop who was in the National Guard (The cop is wearing his military badge). The man tells the cop that he’s interested in joining the LAPD before going to a stolen vehicles department and giving them his details. He’s smoking and drinking coffee a little while later and a woman sits down next to him and he finds out that she was a veteran from Iraq as well. She explains to him why he’s drinking so much coffee and tells him about her PTSD and practically yells at him to get therapy. After another beer and a cigarette, he decides to find himself a job and gets two offers, one for the Army National Guard and another for advertising some condos. He takes the latter option and celebrates by getting drunk.

Summary Part 3: Edlyn

Dunson goes the administrative building of Future Sun Condos, where he meets the Assistant Deputy Manager. Dunson starts sign spinning. When he sees a homeless man walking by with a shopping cart full of his things, he pays him ten dollars to take over, then leaves. A few days later, Dunson near his hotel when he notices a car that looks exactly like his parked across the street from his hotel. He waits by the car until two policewomen show up. One explains the guys serving overseas get drunk, don’t remember where they parked, then waste the cop’s time. After filling out paperwork, Dunson checks one of the cops out, and contemplates becoming a cop. He asks what to call if anything ever comes up, she tells him to call 9-1-1, then they go. Dunson slowly remembers what happened last night.

Analysis Part 1: Rey 

The craft elements that I was assigned were settings and characters. The broad setting is the city of Los Angeles.

I live up on the fifth-floor of one of those weekly-monthly low-rent hotels you find all over Los Angeles, one of the old-school one with the rusty neon signs hanging down the corner of the building.

shows Colby’s living adjustments.

The nearest precinct was just a few blocks south of world-famous Hollywood Boulevard…

talks about the location of the precinct that he goes to when he reports his stolen car.

I got some coffee and sat in the park…

shows the park he goes to after visiting the precinct. The main characters in this story are mainly Colby (“Specialist Dunson”) and the old woman:

A large, filthy, middle-aged woman carrying eight or ten plastic bags…

All of the other characters, such as the police officers, are intermittent and briefly mentioned. The characters on the bus are barely touched upon, as are the ones in the bar. Assistant Deputy Manager Marco has a name, unlike many other characters in the chapter, but there isn’t much more to him than that. He is portrayed as a really average guy that Colby seems to detest.

Discussion questions:

Why did Colby not respond to the girl getting run over?

Why is he so emotionally indifferent in general?

Why is Colby so resistant to get emotional help?

Analysis Part 2: Lo

Chapter 7 in Colby Buzzell’s book My War: Killing Time in Iraq presents to the reader what life was like for a veteran. Buzzell makes good use of symbolism as well as presenting a not quite relatable, but understandable, conflict. On page 87, he records his experiencing a little girl getting hit by a car.

I watched the little girl as she started to cross the street. Out of nowhere, a beat-up Ford pickup whipped around the corner and slammed on it’s breaks, smashing into the little girl and sending her flying onto the pavement… I looked back at the girl again…then I felt kind of tired, so I got back in bed and went to sleep.

This is very interesting to me as a reader as other people would have more of a reaction to a kid getting hit by a car. Perhaps they’d go check to see if she was alright. Buzzell merely goes back to bed. This could be an example of symbolism. As a veteran, he has most likely seen many people die in the line of duty, this little girl was just another life.

In this particular chapter, the main conflict is Buzzell trying to readjust to civilian life. A good example of this is when he talks to a woman who sits by him and finds out that she’s also a veteran.

“You shouldn’t do that,” and I threw her a please, lady, don’t fucking talk
to me vibe. Then I took a sip of coffee and she said, “You shouldn’t do chat either”

I turned and stared. “Can I help you?”

“I’m a vet, too, ” she said. “I was in the first Gulf War, back in ’92. I came back all messed up, and it took ’em three years to figure out I had PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome. How you like that? Three years! Now the goddamned VA’s all I got. Bet you smoked a lot in Iraq.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So?”

“And I bet you drink more coffee now than you used to, huh?”

I thought about that, then told her I did, I was drinking at least a pot a day. She said I looked hung over and asked if I drank more booze now. I told her, “Yeah, I drink a hell of a lot more now, but maybe that’s because I didn’t drink at all for a fucking year and now I’m catching up.”

The lady makes a few good points and it causes the reader to notice all the habits that he has and it provides an explanation of why he does them. He’s damaged from the trauma and hasn’t had any professional help.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why hasn’t he gone to see a psychiatrist/therapist?
  2. Did he find the sign job too humiliating? Because he needed a job
  3. Since Buzzell was actually a vet, is this based off of his experiences?

Analysis Part 3: Edlyn 

The plot was of a military man named Dunson who had returned from serving overseas. He gets a job as a sign spinner. On page 99 a man mocks him, saying

…that’s what happens when someone doesn’t go to college. Who doesn’t have a plan.

Dunson gets upset, but he doesn’t show it. Then he pays off a homeless man to take over and ditches the job. Later, after he thinks his car was stolen, he calls the cops. Two policewomen come to investigate and say on page 102 that the military guys are all the same, coming back from war and getting so drunk they don’t remember where they parked. Dunson tries to argue but they don’t believe him and instead get on with completing some paperwork. Dunson contemplates becoming a cop when he checks out one of the officers. The story ends with him remembering what had happened the previous night, which was him yelling at a worker at a fast food place. Dunson surprisingly did not seem to feel upset when he remembers all those people at the fast food restaurant staring at him in shock.

The story was told in Dunson’s point of view through first person. We know this because the story only shows Dunson’s thoughts and the use of I, me, and my. We see this on page 100 when Dunson curses in his head after seeing his car. And we also see it on page I think the story works better in this sense because if the point of view was in another type it probably wouldn’t get the message across about Dunson’s life as well as first person does. Just showing thoughts and feelings like in Third Person Limited wouldn’t be helpful for this type of character, and in Second Person it wouldn’t be as clear as to who the main character was. Through First Person we see that Dunson is mainly very observant more than emotional, except when he thinks about hurting the people that offend him. This means that he is a bit of stoic person who does not have a kind word for anybody because, well, he isn’t kind. He seems to only be able to display emotions like anger and raised voices when trying to get his point across

Discussion Questions:

Do you feel that Dunson is being stubborn when he refuses to believe anyone who told him about the affects the war had on him?

What effect do the father’s words have on Dunson and what do they cause him to do?

A Spiral Into Madness

A presentation on Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” by Jessica Horton, Caroline Woods, and Christian Hinojosa

The story begins with Ms. Sidley, a strict lower school teacher. Ms. Sidley is teaching a class and is routinely punishing students for minuscule errors by looking at them with her glasses while turned around. She asks a student named Robert to use the word tomorrow in a sentence. Foreshadowing what will happen later, Robert answers, “Tomorrow something bad will happen.” Ms. Sidley then begins to suspect that Robert knows about her glasses trick. Then, Robert’s face changes for a moment, this makes Ms. Sidley uncomfortable and suspicious of Robert.  Ms. Sidley begins to become very anxious and snaps at all of the children. The tone of the story begins to become increasingly uneasy.

The  middle of the story continues on with the uneasy feeling that was evident in the beginning. There are a lot of little things that build up the creepiness, like when Mrs. Sidley is in the bathroom and hears the little girls giggling and then sees their shadows morph into monsters and when Robert shows his true face. 

After Ms. Sidley takes time off because she nearly got hit by a bus, she comes back to school and is soon confronted by Robert. He tells Ms. Sidley that she wouldn’t believe how many of them there were now, and  no one will believe her either.  

The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher. 

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy. 

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she will be put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal without any tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. Then, he realizes the monsters inside the children and “never stops looking.”

Jessie’s Analysis:

The short story, “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, is a story of mastery put together with incredible writing. Although some of the specific plot points aren’t always clear, the characters and individual scenes are told brilliantly, making us focus more on that than the exacts.

Style

An aspect of King’s writing in this piece that really stands out to me is the style he used. He used such clever diction to eloquently express each scene, describing it in almost slow motion with tasteful word choice. In fact, there is a scene in the story where Ms. Sidley, a teacher and the main character in the story, goes into the bathroom, to check the paper towels, after being rattled by a little boy in her classroom who can turn into an alien. She overhears two little girls giggling about her in the bathroom, and then hears them “change,” or turn into the same monstrous form. The text states,

The voices changed, no longer girlish, now sexless and soulless, and quite, quite evil. A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage. She stared at the hunched shadows and suddenly screamed at them. The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy. And then she fainted.

Wording like

mindless humor that flowed around the corner like sewage

and

The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy

make the scene tangible, the pain tangible, the atmosphere tangible.

Another aspect of King’s style would be his use of figurative language. Phrases like,

The look wouldn’t leave her mind. It was stuck there, like a tiny string of roast beef between two molars – a small thing, actually, but feeling as big as a cinderblock

give the reader such a vivid description of Ms. Sidley’s emotions. This clip of figurative language is placed in the story when Ms. Sidley was reflecting over a little boy’s dirty look he gave her in class. This simile works so well because everybody, some time or another, has had irritating, residue food wedged between their teeth to the point where they can’t get it out. Soon, this minor annoyance consumes them, just like Robert’s look in class consumed Ms. Sidley. Using this comparison in the context of the story made perfect sense and related the reader to the emotions of the main character.

One last style element King weaves into his piece is preciseness and grittiness, which lead to relatability. One example would be when the story is discussing Ms. Sidley’s instincts:

They knew Miss Sidley’s deadly instincts too well. Miss Sidley could always tell who was chewing gum at the back of the room, who had a beanshooter in his pocket, who wanted to go to the bathroom to trade baseball cards rather than use the facilities.

The specificity gives the reader a clear image and helps us relate more to the precise, gritty details of Ms. Sidley’s instincts. The beanshooter and the baseball cards are all details that remind us of our elementary school days. So, when King drops such details in there, it grapples our attention and we’re loured into this beautiful story, simply because he used specific and realistic details to describe things. Things that don’t seem so fake with his stylistic touch.

Point of View

Geniusly, King wrote in a magnificent point of view, to guide us into Ms. Sidley’s progression to insanity and to show us what was most important about the story–Sidley herself. One point of view technique he used was incorporating Sidley’s thoughts into the text often. One place the writer has done this is, again, when the little girls are in the bathroom gossiping about Sidley, and she believes that they know she is listening. The story states,

Another thought crawled up out of her mind. They knew she was there. Yes. Yes they did. The little bitches knew.

By illustrating the main character’s thoughts, yet so suddenly switching back to an agreeing narrator, we automatically trust Ms. Sidley’s thought process. After all, our narrator is narrating her thoughts and is agreeing with them, so why wouldn’t we trust her? We 90% of the time trust our narrator, and always just a little bit, if not fully for the other 10%. Trusting our narrator, and her faith in Ms. Sidley, produces a complete shocker when she murders the children. We don’t expect that to be done by someone we trust, and yet it is done anyways.

One, small, very specific part of King’s point of view would be one line, a line of Sidley’s thoughts, told through the narrator that instructs us of so much. The line is,

Stop that! she told herself sternly. You’re acting like a skittish girl out of teacher’s college!

This one line sheds light to Sidley’s age, Sidley’s paranoia and in a sense her pride. By using terms like “teachers’ college” we can tell that Ms. Sidley is slightly out of date and still sees things in an old-fashioned lense, using the older jargon. The part that read “skittish girl” really relayed how jittery and unnerved she is by this classroom setting, teeming with alien-children, especially since it implied that this is out of her nature. Also, just by implying that she doesn’t act like a “skittish girl out of teacher’s college” when in her normal state, King already lends us a sniff at her self-satisfaction with her experience in education. She thinks that she is a better teacher than the “skittish girls” who are younger and have just finished university. All these details are very important, fed to us with the nutrients of this one delicious line.

Ending

The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher.

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy.

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she is put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal, without any vocal tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. He takes a look at the children and “never stopped looking.”

Some of this confused me greatly. Were the children actually monsters? What did Sidley and the psychiatrist see? Was it the same thing?

I think part of the charm of this story was that we never figured the answers to the question or the extents of Sidley’s psychosis–was she just seeing the monsters or were they real? Although, maybe for my own writing, I can choose a blurry route or a clear route, not the “somewhere in-between route” that King inflicts on the story. With my writing, I will either put more grounding details in, or pull more out.

What I Can Learn From This Story

In terms of style and point of view, this story has taught me a lot.

Stylistically, I’ve learned how to connect to my reader. Using specific, real-life figurative language and description I can make them understand more of what I’m trying to convey, what my characters are like, and more.

Now, discussing point of view, how to apply that to my writing, I have learned how to manipulate narrators and their voices to focus on a certain part of my story. King used his narrator to focus on Sidly’s process to insanity and to persuade us that she wasn’t too insane, so the murders came at us as a surprise and shocked us the way they should have. I mean, I’ll probably focus on other aspects in my stories, but it’s nice to know how to focus and how to use point of view to accomplish the goal.

Obviously, there are a lot of things in “Suffer the Little Children” that have taught me well and will continuously aid me in developing my own writing.

Class Discussion Questions

Why do you think the author puts in the scene with the other girls in the bathroom near Ms. Sidley? Why not just focus on the class’s students or Robert? Why aren’t those girls murdered too? What effect does the bathroom scene have on the rising action, other than the faint, that could happen in another scene?

Do you think the author intentionally leaves it unclear whether the children are actually monsters or not? And what the psychiatric doctor sees too?

Caroline W’s Analysis:

In the short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, there are many factors that work towards the overall quality of the story. He demonstrates many unique traits in his writing that make it sound recognizable and unique. The two main things that I noticed in his writing are the way he describes the passage of time and his descriptive language.

The way he transitions between time periods notable because of how smoothly he does it. He manages to sum up the occurrences of an entire year in a paragraph and still make it feel complete. Even if the amount of words he uses in minimal, he makes every one count towards the overall goal of conveying the message. It still feels like a full scene despite the fact that in was all summarized in one paragraph. When it shows how time has passed since she shot her students, there’s a paragraph that wraps up the year’s contents briefly, but completely. It feels full, but quick.

The description used was very unique and contributed to the eerie mood. The way King describes the actions and the scenery that take place over the course of the story really helps the reader visualize and connect with Ms. Sidley. The lines where she’s describing how Robert’s face morphs into the monster is described in perfect, creepy clarity-

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife-struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growth.

The subtle things he draws attention to make you feel uneasy as the plot grows. He paints a picture with the wording he uses, and it’s both beautiful and unsettling.

Questions-

If the story was about a younger teacher instead of an older one, would the story be as creepy?

Why does King add the ending part about the psychiatrist? What does it add to the story?

Christian’s Analysis

The short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King features a main character protagonist, Ms. Sidley and an antagonist, Robert who each compliment the story.

Ms. Sidley

Ms. Sidley is a schoolteacher who has a cold demeanor, is feared by her students, and suffers from a bad back. One day she is teaching class and a troublesome student named Robert transforms into a terrifying beast. Ms. Sidley thinks she’s hallucinating but soon realizes that it’s all very real. Throughout the story Robert hints that “Something bad will happen.” And that he and “others” are out to get Ms. Sidley. While the meaning of some of his dialogue is unclear it unnerves the teacher.  In the girls’ bathroom Ms. Sidley overhears two children gossiping about her and internally refers to them as “bitches.” This is important to her character because it shows us what kind of attitude she has concerning her students. The next interaction she has with Robert is during detention where he makes vague, Sidious remarks and Ms. Sidley replies with

“Little boys who tell stories go to hell. I know many parents don’t tell their… spawn that.”

Sidley’s character traits are reinforced here as the comment reflects how traditional and unfeeling; she is. We can infer that she did not have children because she refers to them as “spawn.” Robert suddenly changes and Sidley runs out of the room screaming. She is almost ran over by a bus, (which serves as a rising action) and decides to take further precautions. The next day Ms. Sidley brings a gun to school. This action is seen to be a tipping point in her character arc because she has gone from strict, unkind teacher to ruthless killer. She is being driven to her wits end by insane demon children, and is losing her sanity. She kills Robert and is taken to court. Eventually she is put in rehab and is forced to work as a babysitter for retarded children. While taking care of them she “sees something she doesn’t like and looks away.” Hinting at a child turning into a monster. Later that night Ms. Sidley slit her throat with glass.

Ms. Sidley goes through a character arc without changing her major character traits. The only conflict she faces that morphs her is Robert and the rest of the demon children. They make her lose her calmness, sanity and eventually will to live. The falling action seemed positive for Ms. Sidley but alas she begins to see the demons again and decides out of fear or exhaustion that she’d rather die. She is a character than we can all imagine because of popular culture and her drastic measures at the end of the story shock the reader.

Robert

Robert is the story’s antagonist. Less is known about him since he is not given a point of view and his expression is unclear at times. His transformation is far faster than Ms. Sidley’s. In the beginning of the story, Robert is introduced as an odd, quiet, student who annoys the teacher. He is asked a question and replies with

“Something bad will happen tomorrow.”

This clearly gets him in trouble. After his comment he is revealed to be a sort of monster/demon child as he physically changes into his true form during class. Ms. Sidley catches him, and he gets a lunch detention. While at detention Robert simply smiles at his captor because he knows inside that he will win their little game. Robert’s motives are unclear but he says

“There are more of us now. Eleven at this school.”

Implying he could hurt Ms. Sidley. After this Robert once again turns into the creature he truly is. As the story does not shed light on what exactly he is, Robert explains to Ms. Sidley that the “real” Robert (monster) is trapped inside of him and wants to come out. After a month she comes back to school and meets Robert at recess where he again indirectly threatens her. This leads to Ms. Sidley bringing her gun to school the next day. The next day Robert is then taken into a room and shot by Ms. Sidley along with 12 other children. In the end he transforms back into a human just as another teacher comes onto the scene. Ms. Sidley is arrested for the murder of her students.

Robert’s character doesn’t change at all during the story. Only his physical appearance, which is described in the text as “alien-like.” Although his deeper motivations are unknown Robert seems to get what he wants in the end as Ms. Sidley is put into a rehabilitation program with retarded children who turn out to be monsters just like him. Robert’s death is avenged when Sidley commits suicide.

Robert is an excellent character because we are intrigued by his mysteriousness and horrified by his secret. His introduction foreshadowed the events of the story and his eerie remarks drove Ms. Sidley into insanity.

 

Love, Death, and Supercomputers: “EPICAC” Write Up by Maja Neal

Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC” starts with its narrator promising to tell a story about the titular supercomputer, which was a government project at the college where the narrator managed him. EPICAC was designed to be a war-predicting machine, but many of his answers had irregularity to them, disappointing the higher officers. The narrator manages his shift on EPICAC with a woman named Pat who he comes to love, but who doesn’t take him seriously at all; this leads to a conversation between the narrator and EPICAC about the meaning of girls and love. After this, EPICAC “finds himself,” and begins to shoot out poetry for Pat at an alarming rate, which the narrator claims and signs as his own. Two poems later, Pat is fully in love with the narrator and ready to get married. When the narrator explains this to EPICAC, he realizes that EPICAC is in love with Pat too. He admits, with some arrogance, that he’s been claiming the computer’s words as his own. Finally, the narrator stumps EPICAC by saying it’s “fate” that women can’t love machines. Later, Pat agrees to marry the narrator on the condition he writes her a poem every anniversary. The next day, EPICAC is found burnt out, but he’s left two final messages for the narrator: one, a heartfelt soliloquy about how he wishes he was human, but will settle for shorting himself out to escape thinking of war; and the other, enough poems to last a lifetime of anniversaries.

I tracked two techniques here: first, the most prominent personalization of EPICAC, and second, the narrator’s attachment to and reliance on the computer.

The entire story can be considered personalization, but I highlighted some of the parts where EPICAC’s evolving humanity is most evident. (And, as a note: it’s important to remember that the human pronoun “he” is used for EPICAC through the whole story, which is great evidence, but I just didn’t want to highlight every “he”.)

As the story is told from a future perspective, EPICAC’s humanity is evident the whole time by the way the narrator refers to him, beginning with “the best friend I ever had.” Even EPICAC’s first computations are described like a voice –

…he was sluggish, and the clicks of his answers had a funny irregularity, sort of a stammer.

Then the computer begins to actually talk to the narrator, in colloquial language (“What’s the trouble?”). Obviously, from here on, EPICAC becomes more human than ever, writing poems for Pat. Once he starts writing, he delivers the line perhaps most indicative of his newborn humanity.

The sluggishness and stammering clicks were gone. EPICAC had found himself.

This implies that EPICAC’s true nature was always to be humanoid in thought. It’s even noted that he “wanted to talk on and on about love and such,” a request that the narrator brushes off but that indicates a much bigger change. EPICAC even goes so far as to ask what Pat is wearing and how she likes his poems. All of this, of course, culminates with EPICAC’s notion that Pat wants to marry him. The computer is even surprised upon being told otherwise, as he’s so confident in his poetry ability. Even his last word to the narrator is that little defeated “oh,” conveying a heartbreaking disappointment.

The best example of this humanity, and the natural climax of EPICAC’s life, is his final letter to the narrator. Having become fully self-aware, he acknowledges Pat can never love him, but his suicide letter is both generous and sympathetic –

“Good luck, my friend. Treat our Pat well.”

His final gift is also uniquely compassionate, considering it’s his poetry that got the narrator to such a good point in his life.

The second technique I tracked was the narrator’s relationship with EPICAC – more specifically, the dependency and attachment he came to harbor. This starts showing after his first conversation with the computer, noting he has “a very remarkable secret.” Then that reliance intensifies as he starts regularly going to EPICAC for help. He even says this:

I couldn’t propose until I had the right words from EPICAC, the perfect words.

The narrator trusts EPICAC more with his own marriage proposal than he does himself. That’s saying something. And then EPICAC reveals he thought he was marrying Pat. The narrator is now fully treating the computer like a human, to the point where he is defensive when talking, despite knowing EPICAC poses no real threat to his relationship. Even so, he actively goes on “preparing him to bang out a brief but moving proposal.” At this point he is relying on EPICAC for a huge factor in his life. Shortly before the narrator and Pat leave, the narrator admits outright:

The romantic groundwork had already been laid by EPICAC’s poetry.

When EPICAC “dies,” the narrator is obviously and painfully guilty about the role he played in the computer’s self-realization. He mentions choking up at the sight of EPICAC’s burnt “corpse,” and reading his final letter “fearfully.” He has this reaction in part because he feels as if he caused this outcome, and in part because EPICAC had become a true friend he really relied on. The narrator dragging home the spools of paper ribbon with EPICAC’s poetry on them is just another symbol of how much the narrator has come to depend on him. And, as he says:

Before he departed this vale of tears, he did all he could to make our marriage a happy one.

Questions:

  1. Was the length of the story appropriate for you? (I can’t believe I’m asking you to critique Vonnegut, but) Did it feel too short?
  2. What impressions do you get about the future of Pat and the narrator’s marriage?
  3. This story was published in 1950, which really surprised me because of the advanced and sympathetic nature with which it treats computers. Before knowing when it was published, did you have a similar preconception?

 

 

 

 

Don’t Be Nice To Children

A presentation on Truman Capote’s “Miriam” by Harrison Buck, Marie Bradley, and Sonya Azencott

Summary Part 1: Harrison

The story begins a widow named Mrs. H.T. Miller. We have described to us her lifestyle, appearance and her home. She lives alone in a quite nice apartment with some stylish belongings. She sees a flyer for a film being shown at the theater and decides that she’ll go watch it, since it sounds interesting. She is standing in line at the theater, preparing to buy her ticket when she sees a little girl standing by herself under the marquee. Mrs. Miller is intrigued by the girl’s appearance and her presence incites a strange feeling in Mrs. Miller. The girl walks over and they chat for a bit. Mrs. Miller ends up buying a ticket to the movie for the girl, and they go to sit together. To her surprise, Mrs. Miller learns the name of the girl, Miriam, which also happens to be Mrs. Miller’s first name. After the movie, they part ways, and Mrs. Miller goes on with her life. One day, after Mrs. Miller has eaten dinner and is preparing to sleep, the doorbell rings. At her door, is Miriam, who asks to come inside, and after being denied by Mrs. Miller because it is so late, Miriam forces her way past Mrs. Miller and walks inside. She sits on the couch and Mrs. Miller begins to question her. Miriam’s dodges almost all of her questions and begins to show an interest in Mrs. Miller’s canary. Mrs. Miller makes a deal with Miriam, if Mrs. Miller gives her food, Miriam will leave. Miriam agrees and Mrs. Miller heads into the kitchen to make her food.

Summary Part 2: Marie

Miriam dodges questions about how she found Mrs. Miller’s unlisted address and focuses on the canary, Tommy, asking if she can wake it so he’ll sing. Mrs. Miller denies her so Miriam declares she hungry, and Mrs. Miller grudgingly makes her some sandwiches in exchange for not waking Tommy. While Mrs. Miller is in the kitchen, however, she hears tommy singing and returns to find the canary singing while his cage is still covered and Miriam gone into Mrs. Miller room, looking through her jewelry. Miriam asks for a piece, and despite Mrs. Miller’s attachment to it, she is helpless to refuse Miriam. Miriam then eats the sandwiches, wishing for sweets, but agreeing to hold up her end of the bargain and leave- but only after a good night kiss on her cheek. Mrs. Miller denies her again and Miriam smashes the paper flower’s vase before leaving. The next day, she has fever like dreams, specifically one of a pretty child leading them to nowhere. The day following that, she goes out shopping, feeling much better, and smiles with recognition at a man she has never met.

Summary Part 3: Sonya

Mrs. Miller, while walking home, believes that an old man is following her. She darts into a shop and sees the old man walk by, tipping his cap when he passes the shop. She buys white roses and an ugly vase to replace the one Miriam broke, a bag of cherries and some almond cakes. At five o’clock, her doorbell rings. She hears Miriam’s voice who orders Mrs. Miller to let her in, to which Mrs. Miller replies that she’ll never allow her inside. Ten minutes later, Mrs. Miller opens the door and Miriam is sitting on a cardboard box, holding a doll. She lets her in and finds that the cardboard box contains a second doll and all of Miriam’s clothes. When Miriam tells her that she wants to live with her, Mrs. Miller escapes downstairs and asks her neighbors to chase out the girl. When the man returns, he tells her that there was no girl, no doll and no cardboard box in her apartment. Mrs. Miller goes back up, shaken, and sits in her chair. Just as she convinces herself she had made the whole incident up, she hears the rustling of silk. She opens her eyes, and sees Miriam before her, who says hello.

Analysis Part 1: Harrison

The theme of insanity fits quite nicely here. It is very likely since Mrs. Miller is in such grief and sadness, Miriam is merely a figment of her imagination and may be drifting into schizophrenia, with Miriam maybe even being Mrs. Miller in childhood.

Analysis Part 2: Marie

In Miriam, the author’s style is a large part of what makes the short story so successful. Through use of creeping word choice and often physical events to help portray the emotion a character is feeling, the author manages to set the over reaching tone of unease through descriptions. One physical event that the author used to portray an emotion was:

And why has [Miriam] come? [Mrs. Miller’s] hand shook as she held the match, fascinated, till it burned her finger.

This is an example of the style, specifically in the way the author chose to have Mrs. Miller watch the match burn herself, instead of merely having Mrs. Miller be confused or shaken. It is a stronger example of the mix of emotions inside Mrs. Miller than stating or asking questions to demonstrate her confusion. This moment gives the reader a clear moment to understand Mrs. Miller’s state of mind, in both the syntax of the sentence, having it read almost passively with the lack of reaction to being burned, and the choice of the word ‘fascinated’.

The author also uses his style to write descriptions that immediately make the readers wary of Miriam such as:

…but [Miriam’s] eyes; they were hazel, ateady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their site, seemed to consume her small face.

This is a good example of the author’s style, despite the use of fairly everyday words, ‘consume’ sets the tone of the sentence, pushing the reader to perceive hazel eyes- a normal feature on their own- as something threatening and dangerous, threatening to ‘consume’.

A third part of the author’s style that plays an important part is his use of imagery to sharply set the scene so the reader can visualize key moments like when Mrs. Miller first meets Miriam:

Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino’s. It flowed waist-length in smooth, loose lines. She was thin and fragilely constructed. There was a simple, special elegance in the way she stood with her thumbs in the pockets of a tailored plum-velvet coat.

Miriam’s description when Mrs. Miller sees her closely:

She unbuttoned her coat and folded it across her lap. Her dress underneath was prim and dark blue. A gold chain dangled about her neck, and her fingers, sensitive and musical-looking, toyed with it. Examining her more attentively, Mrs. Miller decided the truly distinctive feature was not her hair, but her eyes; they were hazel, ateady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their site, seemed to consume her small face.

And what she dreams after Miriam visits:

…yet her dreams were feverishly agitated; their unbalanced mood lingered even as she lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. One dream threaded through the others like an elusively mysterious theme in a complicated symphony, and the scenes it depicted were sharply outlined, as though sketched by a hand of gifted intensity: a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” “No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. ‘But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower … so shining and white?”

These additionally all relate to Miriam and, besides from just being examples of the author’s style, are used to characterize Miriam through her way of dress and appearance- distinctly unchildlike and very formal- along with her affect on other people, specifically, Mrs. Miller.

The author’s style pushes through the story due to its strong word choice, powerful syntax, and use of different ways to portray emotions through the tumultuous plotline.

  1. How does the author’s use of imagery strengthen the narrative?
  2. Why is the word choice for the description of Miriam very proper?
  3. What atmosphere does the author’s style help to create?

 

  1. Point of View

Point of view of view is critical within the story Miriam by Capote because the premise relies on the Mrs. Miller’s perspective of Miriam, and if she exists at all. Through the story, the primary and driving interactions are between Miriam and Mrs. Miller, and there are no mentions of Miriam interacting with any other characters, only Ms. Miller. Due to this, our entire knowledge and perspective on Miriam is through Ms. Miller’s eyes, leading to the belief that she may have imagined Miriam due to when Ms. Miller breaks down and seeks her neighbors when Miriam decides to move in with her, and they return to find no sign of Miriam or her things in the apartment.

“I looked all over,” he said, “and there just ain’t nobody there. Nobody, understand?”

“Tell me,” said Mrs. Miller, rising, “tell me, did you see a large box? Or a doll?”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

And the woman, as if delivering a verdict, said, “Well, for cryin out loud ….”

Mrs. Miller entered her apartment softly; she walked to the center of the room and stood quite still. No, in a sense it had not changed: the roses, the cakes, and the cherries were in place. But this was an empty room, emptier than if the furnishings and familiars were not present, lifeless and petrified as a funeral parlor. The sofa loomed before her with a new strangeness: its vacancy had a meaning that would have been less penetrating and terrible had Miriam been curled on it.

In contrast, once the neighbors leave, and after Mrs. Miller has closed to door and rests, she awakens to find Miriam returned, once again when she is the only person there. In only one point do we see Miriam outside of Mrs. Miller’s apartment is at the movie theatre when they first met, but there, she never directly interacts with anyone else, choosing solely to speak to Mrs. Miller.

This leads almost to the conclusion that she was imagined by Mrs. Miller for a reason, or that she is hallucinating Miriam and these lead to point of view being critical- if Miriam is little more than a hallucination, then this story would look like an old woman going mad from the perspective of an outsider. Point of view also affected the words choice and overall mood, as the ongoing fear Mrs. Miller holds because of her perception of Miriam, such as when Miriam asks for Mrs. Miller pin:

“Miriam glanced up, and in her eyes there was a look that was not ordinary. She was standing by the bureau, a jewel case opened before her. For a minute she studied Mrs. Miller, forcing their eyes to meet, and she smiled. “There’s nothing good here,” she said. “But I like this.” Her handheld a cameo brooch. “It’s charming.”

“Suppose—perhaps you’d better put it back,” said Mrs. Miller, feeling suddenly the need of some support. She leaned against the door frame; her head was unbearably heavy; a pressure weighted the rhythm of her heartbeat. The light seemed to flutter defectively. “Please, child—a gift from my husband….”

“But it’s beautiful and I want it,” said Miriam. “Give it to me.”

As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn; she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning. But here in her own room in the hushed snow city were evidences she could not ignore or, she knew with startling clarity, resist.

With a different point of view, the reader would not understand the compulsion Miriam seems to have over Mrs. Miller and the strange awareness and panic Mrs. Miller has of that compulsion.

In Miriam, point of view also influences the words used to describe Miriam, such as when Miriam has eaten her sandwiches.

…[Miriam’s] fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection of its wearer.

In this excerpt, the words ‘cobweb’ and ‘trick reflection’ stood out the most to be, the negative connotated words used to make even the action of Miriam cleaning up her plate and wearing the pin seem shadowed in malevolence or bad intentions, further contributing to Miriam’s growing character as the antagonist in the story.

Point of view is an integral component of Miriam, and, with a different point of view, the story would change completely and not be nearly as intriguing and would change our understanding of the events that truly occurred in this time period.

  1. How would the story be altered if the point of view changed?
  2. Could this story be told effectively through another character’s eyes?
  3. Do you think Miriam would be a character if this story were told from the neighbor’s point of view, or is she just an illusion?

Analysis Part 3: Sonya

The first technique I tracked was the use of foreshadowing in Capote’s Miriam. In the story, foreshadowing is used to build the tension and to create a sense of unease about the character of Miriam. As more and more odd details are revealed about the little girl, the audience becomes uneasy about her, and the end of the story, where Miriam seems to be some sort of monster, seems more reasonable. The first piece of foreshadowing we get is when Miriam asks Mrs. Miller to buy her a ticket to the movie.

‘Oh, it’s quite easy. I merely want you to buy a ticket for me; they won’t let me in otherwise. Here, I have the money.’ And gracefully she handed Mrs. Miller two dimes and a nickel. […] ‘Your mother knows where you are, dear? I mean she does, doesn’t she?’

The little girl said nothing.

This paragraph shows the reader that Miriam, the little girl, is avoiding the topic of her mother, for an unknown reason. It also shows that there is an issue between Miriam and her parents, for if she had parents or even a good relationship with them, either a parent would be there, or she would have told Mrs. Miller that her parents knew where she was. This paragraph also creates a curiosity within the reader to why Miriam was so trusting of Mrs. Miller so as to ask her to buy her a ticket. Since Miriam is very young, asking strangers for help and being unaccompanied are both very odd. As well as that, Miriam is perfectly calm, and seems to act like it’s quite normal for a ten-year-old to be alone.

“Miriam,” she said, as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar. “Why, isn’t that funny—my name’s Miriam, too. And it’s not a terribly common name either.”

This is another example of foreshadowing in the text. Miriam assumes that Mrs. Miller will know her name, establishing a slightly perturbed feeling in the reader. Why would Miriam think that Mrs. Miller knows her name? And why do they have the same name? The reader asks themselves. By using the phrase “as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar” before telling the reader that Mrs. Miller shares her name, the author creates unease in what would be an otherwise coincidental, if not amusing situation.  The passage that creates the most unease and foreshadows the clearest that Miriam is a force to be dealt with comes when Miriam first appears at Mrs. Miller’s house.

“How did you know where I lived?” Miriam frowned. “That’s no question at all. What’s your name? What’s mine?”  “But I’m not listed in the phone book.’

“Oh, let’s talk about something else.”

This passage cements in the reader’s mind that Miriam is definitely strange and even a danger. By having Miriam brush off all further questioning about how she found Mrs. Miller’s house, the reader is left with a sinister feeling of what is to come and becomes afraid of Miriam. She was able to find a woman’s house who wasn’t even listed in the phone book without knowing her last name, which is practically impossible if not given the address by the person themselves or a close friend. The reader asks themselves whether or not Miriam followed Mrs. Miller home, or whether she just knew, like some sort of magical, monstrous being.  Another scene that shows the reader that something strange is happening is the scene with the canary.

“Leave Tommy alone,” said Mrs. Miller, anxiously. “Don’t you dare wake him.” “Certainly,” said Miriam. “But I don’t see why I can’t hear him sing.” […] She saw first that the bird cage still wore its night cover. And Tommy was singing.

When Mrs. Miller tells Miriam that she can’t wake the canary, Miriam doesn’t see why that would stop her from hearing him sing. Then, Mrs. Miller hears Tommy singing even though his night cover is still on, a feat that birds do not do, since they think it’s still the night as long as the cover is on. This tells the reader that Miriam is able to do anything to get what she wants, which creates more tension and a sense of fear. Another scene of foreshadowing that also gives us some insight into what Miriam might potentially be is Mrs. Miller’s dream.

a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” “No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. ‘But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower … so shining and white?”

The reader assumes that the small girl is Miriam, and immediately is struck by fear. By showing that other people have followed Miriam before, without knowing why or where they are going, the reader assume that Miriam is taking them to die, like a yuki-onna, or snow woman from Japanese folklore. This connection is even furthered by the fact that Miriam is connected to snow, “frost flower”, as is the yuki-onna, demon that tricked men on snowy mountains into carrying her on their backs before draining out their life force and eating them. Even if one doesn’t have a basic understanding of Japanese folklore, Capote’s use of the procession’s trance like state as they follow Miriam to possible death gives a sense of unease and fear and foreshadows Mrs. Miller’s possible end. Finally, Capote uses snow as an indicator for Miriam’s coming.

Then she met Miriam. It was snowing that night. […] It snowed all week […]Tuesday morning she woke up feeling better; harsh slats of sunlight […] Soon the first flake fell.

Every time Mrs. Miller meets Miriam, it snows. The one day she feels better, there is sun out. But, as soon as the snow begins to fall, Miriam appears at her door. By using the repetition of snow falling to indicate Miriam’s coming, Capote trains the reader to associate snow with danger. So, when after a day of sun, the snow starts falling again, the reader knows that something big is going to happen, and they are right.

The second craft element that I tracked was Mrs. Miller’s characterization. Capote sprinkles through the text small tidbits that reveal more and more of Mrs. Miller’s personality. When she goes to the movie theatre, for example,

Mrs. Miller rummaged in her leather handbag till she collected exactly the correct change for admission.

This sentence shows us that Mrs. Miller is very precise in whatever she does, avoiding trouble and frustration by being exact. Next, after she buys Miriam a ticket to the movie, she says

“I feel just like a genuine criminal,” said Mrs. Miller gaily, as she sat down. “I mean that sort of thing’s against the law, isn’t it? I do hope I haven’t done the wrong thing.”

The use of the word gaily shows that Mrs. Miller, a sixty-one-year-old woman, is easily amused by quite mundane things. She enjoys helping Miriam out, and likes the thrill it gives her at her age. This paragraph also shows, though, that Mrs. Miller is quite nervous and concerned about doing the right thing. She frets about how what she just did was against the law and becomes quite anxious.

“Sit down,” said Miriam. “It makes me nervous to see people stand.” Mrs. Miller sank to a hassock.

This scene shows that Mrs. Miller is quite compliant to others’ wishes, even when her privacy is being invaded. Another example of this appears just moments later in the text.

“look – if I make some nice sandwiches will you be a good child and run along home? It’s past midnight, I’m sure.”

Instead of just chasing Miriam out of the house, she complies to her demand for sandwiches in a desperate attempt to get Miriam to leave, showing her meekness and aversion to confrontation. Later, when Miriam takes away Mrs. Miller’s brooch, a present from her deceased husband, she proves herself to be quite meek. “As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn”. Miriam is a tiny child compared to the adult Mrs. Miller, yet she is extremely meek and afraid of Miriam, for no true reason. Mrs. Miller dislikes confrontation so much that she even allows Miriam to take the brooch, even though it held great sentimental value.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why does Capote choose to include the scene when Mrs. Miller believes that she is being followed by the old man?
  2. How does Capote build a sense of uneasiness in the reader?

The Brains Behind “There Will Come Soft Rains”

A presentation on Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Lakshmi Sunder, Heather Smith, and Chanice Posada

Summary Part 1: Lakshmi

The story takes place in an empty, robot-run house, the only house left standing in the city of Allendale, California after an apparent human disaster. The story starts out with a wake-up call from a voice-clock. However, it’s apparent by the fact that no one woke up, ate breakfast, or left the house that it was devoid of people. We see the house as it progresses through the morning, doing all the things one would expect a human to do. This includes making breakfast, cleaning the dishes, and using tiny robot mice to clean the house. The house’s entire west side was burned except for five places, in which there were pictures of what is assumed to be the family that resided there. The house is often frequented by animals, like stray cats and dogs and birds. However, the house closes itself off to any visitors.

Summary Part 2: Heather

A dog shows up at the house, and is recognized by the house. It is let in, with sores and mud all over. The cleaning mice trail after it. The dog runs around the house, looking for people, but not finding any. Eventually, the dog starts running around rabid in circles, and dies. The house takes care of the decay. At 2:35, the house sets out a table of cards and food, but nobody is there to eat it. A 4:00, the table is put away. 4:30, the nursery walls start glowing, creating a sensory experience of animals in the jungle, running around and living in their habitat. At 5, a bath fills with water; 6, 7, and 8, dinner is put away (?), and a relaxing area is set up in the study. 9, the beds warm themselves up, and at 9:05, a voice from the house asks what poem their owner would like to hear. They get no response, so the house selects a poem entitled There will come soft rains by Sara Teasdale. It is about how, when mankind is gone, nature will continue going on, because they will not care.

Summary Part 3: Chanice

AT the end of the story, we see that the house begins to die and deteriorate at 10 clock. When the wind blew, a tree fell down onto the house and set the kitchen ablaze with the cleaning solvent that had ignited the flames. The house rang alarm immediately as it proceeded to try and salvage itself.  It has water mice that try and extinguish the fire, they failed and the flames continued to travel up the stairs and into the rooms. This prompted the time to release robots to put the fire out, but the fore was clever and it spread outside. The house kept malfunctioning and recounting the times and emergency protocols. A crash, which was the house finally collapsing sent he house to be flattened and imploded. The house was flattened and the last words were “ its August 5th 2026..”

Analysis Part 1: Lakshmi

An element of fiction that Bradbury uses often throughout the story is setting. Because the story is set in a futuristic house and world, his descriptions of the setting must be that much more detailed in order to paint a picture in the reader’s mind that otherwise would be difficult to visualize.

What can I learn from Bradbury’s use of setting that I can use in my own writing? Bradbury does an excellent job of using the motif of time to take his story along in an efficient and effective manner. While I don’t think time has to be the method of moving the story along, I can learn from his use of a specific tool to help distinguish the setting and scenes. Something else I can learn from Bradbury’s setting depiction is his use of imagery and sensory details. A paragraph that really struck out to me was the one about the nursery in the house. Bradbury did an excellent job of allowing the readers to picture an otherwise alien situation in their minds:

Four-thirty… Animals took shape: yellow giraffes, blue lions, pink antelopes, lilac panthers cavorting in crystal substance… The nursery floor was woven to resemble a crisp, cereal meadow.

Especially with science fiction and fantasy, setting conveyance is critical to engaging the reader and making them experience what the characters are experiencing. Bradbury’s description allowed me to feel the virtual reality of the meadow. Using his techniques of simple but vivid imagery and his use of sensory detail to engage the reader, I can improve my own setting description and world-building.

Annotations:

In the living room the voice-clock sang…

– This first sentence of the story describes where we are starting out in the house and what is happening.

Seven o’clock, time to get up…The morning house lay empty…seven-nine, breakfast time!

– These phrases in the first paragraph all help the reader understand the time and condition of the house.

In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh

– This sentence transitions the setting from the living room to the kitchen and sets a scene of what is happening the kitchen.

“Today is August 4, 2026,” said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, “in the city of Allendale, California.”

– Bradbury not only tells us that this scene is taking place in the kitchen, he even uses dialogue to tell us the exact date and city in which the story occurs.

Eight-one, tick tock, eight-one o’clock… It was raining outside.” ­

– This paragraph describes the time this is taking place and the weather in the outside world (separate from the setting where most of the story takes place, the house).

Nine-fifteen, sang the clock, time to clean.

– This small line of dialogue coming from the voice-clock transitions the reader to a new time period and lets the reader know what is about to happen.

Ten o’clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes.

– This excerpt from a paragraph details the change in time and the weather of the outside world. Bradbury also describes the setting of the house my comparing it to the greater setting off the city it is in.

Ten-fifteen … The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint…

– This paragraph describes the time as well as the current condition of the house, allowing the readers to visualize the setting in their minds.

Twelve noon. A dog whined, shivering, on the front porch.

– These two sentences allow Bradbury to transition using the time change. He uses that segue to introduce a new character (the dog).

Two o’clock,” sang a voice. Delicately sensing decay at last, the regiments of mice hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind. Two-fifteen. The dog was gone.

– As has been done previously, Bradbury uses time as a method of moving the story along and setting the scene. Telling the time gives the reader a good idea of when this scene is taking place and what exactly is happening.

Two thirty-five. Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls. Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. Martinis manifested on an oaken bench with egg-salad sandwiches. Music played.

– Again, Bradbury mentions the time to tell us when this particular scene is happening. Beyond that, Bradbury uses a mix of imagery and sensory detail to help the reader visualize this scene and what exactly the house is “doing” and for whom.

Four-thirty… Animals took shape: yellow giraffes, blue lions, pink antelopes, lilac panthers cavorting in crystal substance… The nursery floor was woven to resemble a crisp, cereal meadow.

– Bradbury uses excellent imagery to depict this surreal scene and transition to a different place in the house, the nursery.

Five o’clock. The bath filled with clear hot water. Six, seven, eight o’clock… and in the study a click.

– Bradbury tells the reader the time to move us to a different setting in the overall setting of the house. He uses “Six, seven, eight o’clock” consecutively to demonstrate that no scene changes or important occurrences happened within those hours. Finally, Bradbury mentions the study to transition us to where the next scene will be taking place.

Nine o’clock. The beds warmed their hidden circuits, for nights were cool here. Nine-five. A voice spoke from the study ceiling:

– Time is used as means of transitioning from the bedroom back to the study.

At ten o’clock the house began to die.

– This is a very important sentence. While Bradbury uses time once more it is to transition to the start of the climax/crisis of the story,

The fire crackled up the stairs. It fed upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper halls, like delicacies, baking off the oily flesh, tenderly crisping the canvases into black shavings. Now the fire lay in beds, stood in windows…

– Bradbury uses imagery to help the reader “track” the fire as it moves through different settings/rooms in the overall setting of the house.

From attic trapdoors, blind robot faces peered down with faucet mouths gushing green chemical.

– This sentence moves the setting into the attic and depicts what is happening in this new setting.

It had sent flames outside the house, up through the attic to the pumps there…The fire rushed back into every closet…In the nursery, the jungle burned.

– These three lines describe the movement of the fire throughout the setting and moves us from the attic to the closets and finally to the nursery.

The fire burst the house and let it slam flat down, puffing out skirts of spark and smoke. In the kitchen, an instant before the rain of fire and timber, the stove could be seen making breakfasts at a psychopathic rate…

– These two paragraphs help the reader visualize the newly transformed setting. However, at the same time, it focuses the story back to a smaller part of the overall setting, the kitchen, to show the readers that the house is still trying to “stay alive”.

The crash. The attic smashing into kitchen and parlor. The parlor into cellar, cellar into sub-cellar.

– This paragraph pictures the final collapse of the house. Its “last breaths”, one could say. This marks the end of the crisis as the “battle” between the house and fire has ended in the fire’s favor. The paragraph shows the change in the main setting of the story (the house) and thus makes the plot shift from crisis to resolution more defined.

Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone.

– Bradbury most likely described the setting of the outside world after the fire to show that it had remained relatively unchanged. He also uses this as an opportunity to describe the condition of the now demolished house.

“Today is August 5, 2026,”

– This final line of the story finally brings it to an end by describing the setting once more using the date. One could say it represents a “new day”.

There are many overarching themes in “There Will Come Soft Rains”, all involving the advancement of technology and the ethical implications of that, as well as the Machine Age’s impact on humanity as a whole. Robots can be both a help and a hindrance.

What can I learn from Bradbury’s use of theme that I can use in my own writing? One thing I learned from Bradbury is his use of subtlety when it comes to themes. He doesn’t tell the reader the relevance of the story. That makes it more informative and expository and less creative. Instead, he alludes certain themes (such as the persistence of machines and artificial aliveness) using the plot and his description of characters and setting. One example of this that I noticed was

The dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores … Behind it whirred angry mice….

Bradbury describes two characters in the story, the dog and the robot mice, and compares them. By doing so, I noticed that he conveyed the actual living dog as weak and dying but the mechanical mice as more energetic and alive. Thus, I was able to recognize this pattern in the story (another example would be his description of the virtual meadow in the nursery) to notice the theme of artificial aliveness. This use of subtle hints and suggestions for subthemes keeps the reader on their toes and makes them dig a little deeper, rather than just being fed the information. Another thing I can learn from Bradbury is his use of metaphor and symbolism to help convey certain themes. For example, in the sentence:

But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.

Bradbury conveys the theme of humanity’s self-destruction by comparing humans to gods and the house to worshipers. This conveys the theme in a more interesting and vivid way, allowing the reader to compare a fictional (at least, back then) idea to something they are more informed about.

Annotation:

An aluminum wedge scraped them into the sink, where hot water whirled them down a metal throat which digested and flushed them away to the distant sea. The dirty dishes were dropped into a hot washer and emerged twinkling dry.

– This represents the theme that machines have replaced human duties. In this example, the house washes and dries the dishes itself, which used to be a chore for humans.

Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust … The house was clean.

– In this example of the theme of robots replacing “the help”, robot mice are the ones cleaning the house. They’re doing it well and efficiently.

This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.

–Not only does “There Will come Soft Rains” touch on the idea that robots are both a help and a hindrance, it also implies the effects of humanity on itself and the world around us.

The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.

– A kind of subtheme involving humanity’s impacts are the “remnants of humanity”, what is left behind. Bradbury suggests that only small evidences of humanity remain after whatever disaster wiped out the population.

But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.

– Bradbury uses the symbol of humans as gods to show the theme of humanity’s self-destruction. At least in the house, the robots tried to serve their “gods” although there were none left.

The dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores … Behind it whirred angry mice…

– This is a subtle theme that I noticed repeated throughout the story. It’s the idea that the robotic house is depicted as alive, but the actual living beings (like the dog), are weak and dying.

They looked out upon color and fantasy. Hidden films docked through well-oiled sprockets, and the walls lived. The nursery floor was woven to resemble a crisp, cereal meadow.

– This is yet another example of the theme of “artificial aliveness”, in which the nursery of the house has a virtual reality of being in a meadow. In the actual world where the story takes place, such places are implied to be nonexistent.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground…And not one will know of the war, not one – Will care at last when it is done. – Not one would mind… if mankind perished utterly; – And Spring herself … Would scarcely know that we were gone.

– The poem placed in the story plays on the theme that life will go one even when humanity ceases to exist.

At ten o’clock the house began to die…The house tried to save itself.

– This yet another example of the theme of “machines being artificially alive”. Using words like “die” and “safe itself” to describe the machine-run house, Bradbury hints at this theme.

The fire crackled up the stairs. It fed upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper halls, like delicacies, baking off the oily flesh, tenderly crisping the canvases into black shavings.

– Bradbury includes the detail of the fire devouring the paintings to show an example of the traces of humanity slowly fading. Art is a very human thing, and the idea that it is being burned goes to show that humanity is fading away.

The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air.

– Bradbury compare the house to the human body, using words like “bone”, “skeleton”, “nerves”, “skin”, and “veins and capillaries”. Such personification helps convey the repeated theme of the house seen as alive.

A scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away!

– A theme I noticed conveyed was the “persistence of robots”. Here, the robot-run house works in harmony to stay alive.

Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

– This sentence is written towards the end of the story. This again is showing that life will go on despite the disappearance of humans (“even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam”). It also shows the repeated theme of artificial aliveness and the persistence of machines.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the story there is a recurring idea of time. For example, “Eight-one, tick-tock, eight-one o’clock, off to school, off to work, run, run, eight-one!” or “Nine-fifteen, time to clean!” Do Bradbury’s frequent mentions of time hold a deeper meaning or symbolize something? Or are they simply a vehicle to take the story along?
  2. Why did Bradbury include the poem in his short story? In your own writing, would you switch styles/genres the way he did or do prefer to keep it consistent?

 

Analysis Part 2: Heather

What can I learn from this story that will help me write my own stories?

‘August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury was a wonderful story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, for a plethora of reasons. For one, the dystopian, futuristic tone is already set by the title, but the first paragraph of the story truly cements it, which I believe all good stories should (set the tone, that is).

In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock! as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!

From this alone, the reader can tell that this story will go over science fiction type themes (Well, maybe not so science fiction anymore!). The details put into the story were truly captivating and really immersed me in the setting. Such as,

The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint.

Or,

Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls. Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. Martinis manifested on an oaken bench with egg-salad sandwiches. Music played.

Just the little things Bradbury planted in his writing really had an impact on me, I would like to add the same little things to my writing as well. The way that Bradbury addressed the effect of the absence of the owners on the house, just–oh, I loved it.

The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.

That passage, I loved it so much! Religion impacts my life a great deal, and I loved how Bradbury inserted that into his story. It made complete sense to me. I would love to mention such topics like this in my writing.

Analysis Part 3: Chanice

Style and Character:  Ray Bradbury has an interesting way of writing. He uses concrete images to build images in your mind, and he challenges modern ideas.  He wrote this story in a futuristic place, in August of 2026. He included detailing like the setting and actions of the house and the remaining outside world. Details like the line,

From attic trapdoors, blind robot faces peered down with faucet mouths gushing green chemical.

show that Bradbury built a futuristic world and used images helo the reader picture it in their mind.

Discussion questions:

What does the element of the abandonment of the machine symbolize?

…as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness.

Does the date hold a hidden underlying meaning? Is it just there for detailed purposes?

Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…

“Revenge of the Lawn” Write Up by Sophie Walker

Richard Brautigan’s “Revenge of the Lawn” begins with the narrator describing his grandmother, who in the ‘20s was a bootlegger in the state of Washington who had the entire county under her control. But this story isn’t about her. The narrator goes on to describe his grandmother’s lawn, or rather lack thereof, and then Jack, an Italian real estate agent who lived with the grandmother. He was responsible for letting the lawn die, and he hated the lawn, which would always put nails in his car. The narrator then explains that the lawn was the pride and joy of his grandfather, a psychic who correctly predicted the date World War I would begin but was shipped off to an insane asylum a year before he got to see his prediction come true. He believed the lawn was the source of his powers, but Jack didn’t take care of it and let it die. The narrator then tells three stories about times the lawn, or rather the creatures in it, wreaked havoc upon Jack. In the first story, one of the bees that swarmed the pears that would fall of the tree and rot in the yard crawled into Jack’s wallet and stung him when he tried to pay for food at the store. In the second story, a bee crawled down Jack’s cigar and stung him on the mouth, causing Jack to drive the car into the house. And in the third story, the grandmother discarded some mash (which is used to make alcohol; evidently this was part of her bootlegging business) in the yard, and the geese who lived in the garage started eating it and got blackout drunk. The grandmother, thinking they were dead, de-feathered them and put them in the basement to sell and eat; the geese were actually not dead, and they woke up and went outside into the yard just as Jack pulled in. He was so disturbed by the sight of the de-feathered geese that he drove the car into the house again. The narrator ends describing his earliest memory, which is of Jack cutting down the pear tree that the bees gathered around and burning it.

The chronic tension of the story is that the narrator’s grandfather, who is in an insane asylum, cared deeply for the lawn, while Jack does not and let it die. The acute tension is that the lawn and the creatures who live in it are now tormenting (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally) Jack as revenge for letting it die (hence the title).

The first thing I tracked was personification of the lawn, beginning with the very title, “Revenge of the Lawn,” which implies that the lawn has some sort of sentience. When the lawn is first introduced, the ground itself seems to be alive:

Jack hated the front yard because he thought it was against him. There had been a beautiful lawn there when Jack came along, but he had let it wander off into nothing. He refused to water it or take care of it in any way.

Now the ground was so hard that it gave his car flat tires in the summer. The yard was always finding nails to put in one of his tires or the car was always sinking out of sight in the winter when the rains come on.

But, as the story progresses, it becomes not the ground but the animals who live in it who are enacting their revenge:

The bees somewhere along the line had picked up the habit of stinging Jack two or three times a year. They would sting him in the most ingenious ways.

And the drunken geese are written so much like people, it’s easy to forget that they’re birds and not humans:

I guess they came to a mutually agreeable decision because they all started eating the mash. As they ate the mash their eyes got brighter and brighter and their voices, in appreciation of the mash, got louder and louder.

And in the end, Jack ends up cutting down and burning the pear tree. The pear tree’s tormented Jack only tangentially, by producing the rotting pears that attracted the bees. But it’s either what Jack feels is tormenting him the most—or perhaps a final attack against the lawn.

This personification is what makes the entire plot work. I would consider this to be a magical realism story, and the very premise is that the lawn enacts revenge against the man who let it die. Were it just a normal lawn, it wouldn’t be able to enact its revenge, and so there would be no story.

The other technique I tracked was the use of anecdotes to tell us about the story’s characters. This story is told entirely through anecdotes, as if the narrator is stream-of-consciously telling some of the stories he’s heard at family reunions. But highlighting the entire story wouldn’t make much sense, so I zeroed in on anecdotes that are used specifically for the purpose of characterization. Each major player in the story—the grandmother, Jack, and the grandfather—are introduced with anecdotes:

[My grandmother] of course was no female Al Capone, but her bootleg­ging feats were the cornucopia of legend in her neck of the woods, as they say. She had the county in her pocket for years. The sheriff used to call her up every morning and give her the weather report and tell her how the chickens were laying.

[Jack] was not my grandfather, but an Italian who came down the road one day selling lots in Florida.

He was selling a vision of eternal oranges and sunshine door to door in a land where people ate apples and it rained a lot.

Jack stopped at my grandmother’s house to sell her a lot just a stone’s throw from downtown Miami, and he was de­livering her whiskey a week later. He stayed for thirty years and Florida went on without him.

My grandfather was a minor Washington mystic who in 1911 prophesied the exact date when World War I would start: June 28, 1914, but it had been too much for him. He never got to enjoy the fruit of his labor because they had to put him away in 1913 and he spent seventeen years in the state insane asylum believing he was a child and it was actually May 3, 1872.

He believed that he was six years old and it was a cloudy day about to rain and his mother was baking a chocolate cake. It stayed May 3, 1872 for my grandfather until he died in 1930. It took seventeen years for that chocolate cake to be baked.

These anecdotes have no connection to the main plot, but they give the reader insight on the characters. They are the closest we ever get to an actual description of them (the one exception being the mention that the grandfather was short, which then leads to an anecdote about how he believed being short made him closer to the lawn and therefore able to absorb its psychic powers). We never know what the characters look like (aside from the aforementioned shortness), and the narrator never takes the time to tell us the character’s traits directly. And yet, through these stories we know quite a bit about who they are as people. The grandmother, as a bootlegger with the whole county under her control, is probably pretty tough and not to be messed with. Jack, as a door-to-door real estate salesman, is probably pretty sketchy and sleazy. And the grandfather, as an insane psychic, is probably, well, pretty weird, and possibly rather morbid as well, if his idea of “dreams coming true” is a bloody war.

In my own writing, I might want to imitate this story’s anecdotal structure. Instead of having a linear plot, “Revenge of the Lawn” is just a series of anecdotes to combine to form a larger storyline. This allows the narrator to talk about quirky details that have little or no effect on the plot itself but help give the reader a greater sense of this absurd family.

Writing Exercise: Write a story consisting of several small anecdotes revolving around a central idea (a location, a set of characters, etc.) that have similar themes.

Questions:

  1. Does Jack have a character arc? Does he change throughout the story, or have an opportunity to but choose not to?
  2. Is this more Jack’s story or the lawn’s?
  3. Are the acute and/or chronic tensions truly resolved?

Story of a Ritual Long Forgotten And Yet Continued: “The Lottery” Write Up by Ishika Dube

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson begins on the morning of June 27th when people gather around the square at 10. Children gather piles of stone in a heap, the boys are rambunctious while the girls talk among themselves. The men soon begin to gather and women share gossip. The women soon stand next to their husbands and the children reluctantly join their parents. The process for the lottery by Mr Summers who conducted the various activities for the own. It describes the box for the lottery as shabby. Soon, Mr Summer swirls the paper slips that had replaced the wooden chips. The narrator describes the various procedures of the lottery as performed in the village and how some of it had been lost through the ages and some of it was confused. Just before the lottery shortly begins, Mrs Hutchinson comes in late, having forgotten that it was the day for the lottery. She talks with Mrs Delacroix for a while and joins her family. Mr Summer jokes about her coming late and the crowd had a moment of laughter. Mr Summer soon calls on some families asking about who is drawing for them. After they settle everything, the lottery begins. Mr Summer gives his orders, and he calls on the head of the families to draw on the strips and not open them until he’s done. As the lottery progresses Mr Adam talks with Old Man Warner about how some villages had stopped the lottery. Warner condemns them and says that it is the younger generation that is enforcing the change and that they would now like to live in caves. It soon comes out that the Hutchinson’s have got the blackened strip. Mrs Hutchinson yells at Mr Summers for not letting him get enough time to choose. The process goes on and the officiant asks about the members of the family and if they have any other households. Tessie insists that their daughter and her husband should join in. But, Mr Summer objects saying that they with the husband’s family. The lottery is now conducted with the individual members of the family and this time, Tessie gets the paper. She bemoans her faith. The officiant asks them to make it quick. The villagers gather their stones from the piles made by the boys or the ones on the ground and start hitting Tessie. Someone even gives her younger son some pebbles to aim at her. Stones start hitting her and Tessie keeps on yelling that “it isn’t fair”. 

The chronic tension of the story would be the beginning of the lottery itself. The acute tension would be the Hutchinson’s being selected in the lottery. 

The first technique that I tracked would be the reaction of Tessie and others towards her throughout the story. (In purple) It is interesting to see the change of emotions mainly in Tessie but also in others around her through the process of the lottery. They begin from being friendly and good-natured and then to Tessie loudly yelling about how it isn’t fair and her friends and even her son picking up or being given pebbles and stones to stone her to death with no consequences. The author does an interesting job of portraying emotions of a character not unlike when faced with situations of life and literal death even though it is the third person. The tone goes from the jovial nature in joining in community activities to the morbid participation in stone a person to death as a community for a ritual that has been held on so tightly that it had lost its meaning. 

At first, when Tessie comes in late for the lottery she is greeted with goodwill and is joked about. She talks to Mrs Delacroix about why she was late in the first place and people let her in good-naturedly and alert about her presence to her husband. Even Mr Summer cheerfully jokes about her coming later and Tessie replies in similar nature. 

The people separated good-humoredly to let her through; two or three people said, in voices just loud enough to be heard across the crowd, “Here comes your Mrs., Hutchinson,” and “Bill, she made it after all.” Mrs. Hutchinson reached her husband, and Mr. Summers, who had been waiting, said cheerfully, “Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie.” Mrs. Hutchinson said, grinning, “Wouldn’t have had me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?,” and soft laughter ran through the crowd as the people stirred back into position after Mrs. Hutchinson’s arrival.

Tessie herself is very cheerful all throughout the lottery whilst the other women appear to be more nervous than her. She playfully orders her husband to go up there. Some chuckled at her tone. 

As the lottery commences and the Hutchinson’s get chosen, Tessie good-humoredness changes and she accuses of Mr Summer not letting her husband have more time in choosing the strips which led him to take the blackened strip. The surrounding others remain apathetic to her cause and call her out on being a spoil-sport and that they had almost chance as her. They show her no sympathy even her husband tells her to shut up. Tessie displays the emotions of a caged creature getting enclosed and frightened by the narrow lines drawn by chance holding her. 

“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”

The lottery goes on and Mr Summer asks if they have any other households under their family. Tessie becoming more and more desperate yells about their daughter and her husband to improve the odds. But, the officiant refuses her request by saying that their daughter goes with her husband’s family. Now even Bill is regretful and says that there are only the two of them and only their children. The process begins again and Tessie quietly says that the process should be started over again as it wasn’t fair, her husband hadn’t been given enough time to choose. As the drawing begins again, Tessie loudly calls onto to everyone around her trying to get their attention. Even when she is called, she thinks about a moment of defiance but, ultimately submits. 

She hesitated for a minute, looking around defiantly, and then set her lips and went up to the box. She snatched a paper out and held it behind her.

Tessie is forceful and Bill has to take her slip and shows it to the people that hers is the one with the mark. 

Although the others around Tessie have a similar attitude all throughout, it is interesting to see how they are quick to pick up rocks to stone her with no regret even though they were literally talking to her moments ago. They turn a deaf ear to Tessie’s protests and advance forward with stones. They even go as forward as to arm her youngest son with pebbles to presumably her with them. The ending is the most accurate depiction of mob mentality and mass hysteria in the sense that a group of people become so wrapped up with an idea or a tradition that they refuse to look beyond it. 

Mrs Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

Mrs Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie’s own attitude is interesting as it is almost presented as if she doesn’t care if somebody else is chosen even from her own family. She tries to denounce the lottery as not being fair or even trying to put her children’s name to improve her chances of not getting selected even though she willing joins it. 

Shirley Jackson provides an insight into the inner workings of a person who believes they are trapped and have no escape and tries every trick in the book to secure themselves out of the situation even though it might harm others. 

The other technique that I tracked was the descriptions of the lottery itself. (In red).  And how Jackson makes it appear so normalized until the end where Tessie gets stoned to death. She also foreshadows through the hesitance and Tessie’s scared attitude. She takes something that is a common event to get something as a prize to making it into something morbid. The events into itself link the holding onto traditions that have lost their meaning and use, distorting it until it is shapeless and then calling it a tradition instead of changing it. Shirley Jackson has also weighed into the meaning of her story and has said that she hoped that graphic dramatization of such a ritual would show as to pointless violence and general inhumanity in people’s life. Such can also be seen in some of the morbid received by Jackson where people had asked whether it was real and if they could go and watch it. 

The story begins with giving the feel that the lottery itself is a community event where people gather with their families to draw. 

The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock.

It is also remarked that many villages had the tradition of the lottery and it generally varied from one to two days. All the people in the families gathered together waiting for it to start. The children often collected the stones in advance for an advantage to start the stoning quickly. And just like any community event, the people jovially talked together. 

The ritual began as soon as Mr Summer walked onto the square. Although the original paraphernalia had been lost, the box for the ritual had been in use for a long time. It was said to be made of all the old pieces of the lottery. It is almost symbolic of the ritual itself as most of traditions centred around it were forgotten but, it was still used as the gory ritual of stoning. A ritual which had lost its meaning but, held onto in the name of tradition. Mr Summer had though been successful in bringing change by putting in use paper slips instead of wood chips as the population was growing and they needed something that would fit in the box. 

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.

The night before the lottery, Mr Summers and Mr Graves made the slips and then the box was kept in the former’s coal company for security and then taken to the village square. Other times of the year, it was kept in different places every year. 

The rest of the year, the box was put away, sometimes one place, sometimes another; it had spent one year in Mr Graves’ barn and another year underfoot in the post office, and sometimes it was set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there.

There were even more procedures to go through before it officially started. The heads of the family had to be counted, then the members themselves and Mr Summer had to be sworn in as officiant of the event by the postmaster. There also used to be a recital of some sort wherein the officiant went around chanting but, only a few remembered. This muddled recollection of the tradition made up most of the ceremony. There was also a ritual salute which was deemed unnecessary and was toned down to the officiant greeting each person as they went to collect the slips. 

there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse.

People who were absent had to be drawn in by someone. Mr Summer went around asking people who were drawing for some respective families. Mr Summer explained the rules of the people although only very few listened properly as they were fully versed with the ceremony. The lottery began with people picking up strips for their family from the box and the family with blackened strip was chosen for the next round. 

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.”

Then the family was asked about the number of its members and if they had any other household. Married daughters were not counted under their father’s family but under their husbands. Then slips of paper were in the box from which the drawing began from each member of the chosen family. 

The one with the blackened strip was the chosen one. The others gather stones and surrounding the chosen person. They aim at the people until they die. Everyone takes part in as a community. 

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box. Mrs Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” 

Shirley Jackson portrays various things in this story perfectly. She underlines in themes of violence in people, willingness to take part, the inhumanity, holding onto to a tradition of no meaning and the behaviour of a person caged by circumstances and chance. The normalisation of the tradition itself lends onto the morbid ending and shock experienced by the reader. 

Writing exercise: Write a story about a ritual that has been in a culture for a long time and give it a surprise/morbid/grotesque twist.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why does Tessie at first seem to be willing to participate in the ritual until it narrows down upon her?
  2. Why do you think a tradition such as the “Lottery” been taken so seriously and guarded in the community?
  3. What do you think about the mob mentality that springs up among the people when Tessie gets selected and the way they advance onto to her with no regret?
  4. Why do you think Tessie wanted to include their daughter and her husband? 

Miss Sidley’s Twelve Dead Children

A presentation on Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” by Benjamin Azencott, Caroline Anthony, and Gryphon Alhonti

Summary part 1: Benjamin

At the beginning of the story, we are presented to Miss Sidley, a very old school teacher, who has to wear a brace because of her bad back. She keeps her classroom in check with an iron fist, due to a trick with her glasses that allows her to view their actions even when she has her back to them. This leads to all of her students fearing her, not daring to do anything mischievous. One day, she sees that one of her students, Robert, is no longer afraid of her, and when she asks him to answer a question, his words are ominous and give her a bad feeling. She then, out of the corner of her eye, watches him transform into a monster, but he is completely normal when she turns back around. He also gives her a strange look as he heads out of the classroom, and his face haunts her when she tries to go to sleep later that night.

Summary part 2: Caroline A.

After catching a glimpse of Robert’s changed form, Miss Sidley struggles to cope with the image and becomes less focused on teaching and more on what she saw. Mr. Hanning asks her to go inspect the girl’s bathroom, and she agrees, still theorizing on what she’d seen until she overheard two girls talking about her. Suddenly, the two girls changed into monsters, and Miss Sidley presumably fainted, waking up to see Mr. Hanning and Mrs. Crossen, who offer her help. Miss Sidley refuses both of them and continues as usual, though now even more perturbed as to what she’d seen. Her confusion doesn’t last for long, however, because the next day after school, Robert changes before her eyes, causing her to run away and almost get run over by a bus. This incident leads to her taking a break from teaching for about a month. One week after she returns, she brings her brother’s gun with her to school. She decides to put Robert out of his misery and gives the students a Test, asking Robert to accompany her first.

Summary part 3: Gryphon

During the beginning of the end, Miss Sidley has now taken Robert into the mimeograph room and has shot him. She then realizes that Robert, was, in fact, human and not a demon. Despite what the reader may have expected, Miss Sidley does not stop. She takes eleven more students, one by one, and murders all of them. As she’s leading the thirteenth child, Mrs. Crossen catches her in the act. She horrified and screaming. Mrs. Crossen attacks Miss Sidley and she is arrested. There is no trial for Miss Sidley, although the public was hysterical and demanded one. One year later, Miss Sidley is put into a controlled environment with a group of children. At first, all is well. Then, after a bit of time, Miss Sidley becomes upset and requests to be taken away. That night, she committed suicide.

Analysis part 1: Benjamin

Artistic Purpose

The first craft I had to look for was “Artistic Purpose”, which is the message or the reason that the author wrote their story in the first place. In the case of Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children”, his artistic purpose for writing the short story was to scare the reader with his vivid descriptions of the horrifying monsters who took over the children at Mrs. Sidley’s school. Each time Robert, the main monster, or any other of the children change, he employs this technique. At the start of the story, when Mrs. Sidley is thinking over what she saw in her dream, King writes:

 What was it I saw when he changed? Something bulbous. Something that shimmered. Something that stared at me, yes, stared and grinned and wasn’t a child at all. It was old and it was evil.

 He is hinting at what the monsters look like. Giving the readers a little bit of information so that they can imagine in their heads what Robert really is, so that when he reveals it, the impact will be even scarier. The next occurrence where a child, in this case two of them, changes, is the scene where she goes to check on the toilet paper in the girls lavatory, and overhear two girls talking about her, and then subsequently turning into monsters. King describes:

They seemed to elongate, to flow like dripping tallow, taking on strange hunched shapes.

He is continuing to build the reader’s image of these alien creatures, each time giving small pieces, so that they fear continues to build up inside of them, and then have it reach its maximum when he finally completes it. The most prominent scene in the story where he uses this technique is when Mrs. Sidley decides to keep Robert after school, and he morphs in front of her into his true form. King writes:

Robert changed. His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife-struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths. Robert began to chuckle. The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Here he now has completely finished revealing the terrifying appearance of the monsters that have taken over the students. The long path he has taken to get there, revealing, bit by bit, small pieces of their physique, and then finally showing the final product, terrifies the reader to an extreme, and hits them much harder than if he had shown the change at once. In the end, Stephen King fully fulfills his artistic purpose, leaving the reader confused and scared, and using a great array of vivid descriptions to accomplish this goal.

Plot and Action

The second writing craft I had to look for was “Plot and Action”, which is the sequences of action that move the plot or storyline in a story forward, from start to finish. There is an abundant amount of action in this short story, taking the reader from Mrs. Sidley’s first glance of Robert, the only student in her classroom unafraid of her, to the climax, where she brutally murders twelve young children in cold blood. The first important piece of action that sets the story rolling is when she notices Robert isn’t afraid of her like normal, and then she catches a glimpse of Robert changing, but not enough to see his true form, flustering and terrifying her. King writes:

Now she saw a phantomish, distorted Robert in the first row wrinkle his nose. […] Robert changed. She caught just a flicker of it, just a frightening glimpse of Robert’s face changing into something … different. She whirled around, face white, barely noticing the protesting stab of pain in her back.

This is the inciting incident. Because he wasn’t afraid, this led to Mrs. Sidley paying close attention to him and eventually seeing a small part of his transformation into a monster. This makes her scared and frustrated, which will affect all of her choices later on in the story. The next important action is when she sees him transform completely and runs outside, falling right outside of a school bus. King writes:

She ran. She fled screaming down the corridor […] . She clattered down the steps and across the sidewalk and into the street with her screams trailing behind her.

This second event of seeing one of the children fully transform is so terrifying to her that she blindly runs away, going so far as to run in front of traffic, almost dying to an incoming school bus. The fear and frustration she had been building up throughout the last two days is now fully maxed out, and she has to take a month off of school to cope with all of it. When she returns however, she is determined to put a stop to all of this, and brings her brother’s gun with her to school, inciting the clmax of the story, where she murders twelve children, and would have killed more if she wasn’t stopped by fellow teacher Mrs. Crossen. King writes:

She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all.

This action is extremely important to the plot and is the culmination of all the other actions taken before in the story, all leading up to this one point. All in all, Stephen King does a great job of using action in important parts of the story to push the plot forward.

What can be taken from this piece

In the short story, Suffer the Little Children, by Stephen King, there are many great techniques that can be imitated or taken to improve one’s one writing, but the main and most important one is his way of describing the monsters. When he describes their transformation, he uses unconventional words that give the reader a good image of what he is talking about. For example, when he uses the words “flowing like tallow” to describe the transformation process of the monsters, and the words “knife-struck egg yolks” to describe their eyes.

Discussion Questions

1. Artistic Purpose: What do you think was Stephen King’s purpose for writing this short story?

2. Plot and Action: How does Stephen King use action to advance the plot?

Analysis Part 2: Caroline A

Point of View

Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” is told mostly in a third person limited point of view through Miss Sidley. Miss Sidley is a stiff and old schoolteacher who presumably works with young children, judging on the content that she is teaching them, as referenced in this quotation, where she is teaching the children in her class how to pronounce the word vacation.

“Vacation,” she said, pronouncing the word as she wrote it in her firm, no-nonsense script. “Edward, please use the word vacation in a sentence.”

“I went on a vacation to New York City,” Edward piped. Then, as Miss Sidley had taught, he repeated the word carefully. “Vay-cay-shun.”

“Very good, Edward.” She began on the next word.

King uses details such as her “firm, no-nonsense script” to help convey her personality and feelings towards the children in her class. He also does this by indirectly revealing her thoughts to us, as he did when showing us her glasses trick.

One of her little tricks was the careful use of her glasses. The whole class was reflected in their thick lenses and she had always been thinly amused by their guilty, frightened faces when she caught them at their nasty little games.

This also shows us how Miss Sidley does not seem to like teaching very much, or at least she enjoys it for the wrong reasons. This is all shown to us within the first page of the short story, providing us with concrete information as to what Miss Sidley’s personality is. As we continue on through the story and strange things begin to happen, the limited point of view allows us to experience the fear she is feeling.

That was when the shadows changed. They seemed to elongate, to flow like dripping tallow, taking on strange hunched shapes that made Miss Sidley cringe back against the porcelain washstands, her heart swelling in her chest.

But they went on giggling.

The voices changed, no longer girlish, now sexless and soulless, and quite, quite evil. A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage.

She stared at the hunched shadows and suddenly screamed at them. The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy. And then she fainted. The giggling, like the laughter of demons, followed her down into darkness.

King’s masterful use of imagery and point of view portray the fear Miss Sidley was feeling almost effortlessly. As the story progresses even more, we follow Miss Sidley’s slow devolve into madness:

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

Miss Sidley neither heard nor saw. She clattered down the steps and across the sidewalk and into the street with her screams trailing behind her. There was a huge, blatting horn and then the bus was looming over her, the bus driver’s face a plaster mask of fear. Air brakes whined and hissed like angry dragons.

Miss Sidley stared at the children. Their shadows covered her. Their faces were impassive. Some of them were smiling little secret smiles, and Miss Sidley knew that soon she would begin to scream again.

Until finally Miss Sidley feels the only thing she can do to rid herself of this monster that is eating away at her mind is through violence.

Miss Sidley brought the gun to school in her handbag.

And, after killing eleven children and finally getting caught, she even goes so far as to try and force the child she was going to kill next to change, commanding her, saying things like

“It had to be done, Margaret,” she told the screaming Mrs Crossen. “It’s terrible, but it had to. They are all monsters.”

 “Change,” Miss Sidley said. “Change for Mrs Crossen. Show her it had to be done.”

“Damn you, change!” Miss Sidley screamed. “Dirty bitch, dirty crawling, filthy unnatural bitch! Change! God damn you, change!”

By this point in the story however, the third person limited point of view seems to be slowly dissociating, until the narrator is not narrating Miss Sidley anymore, but a different man named Buddy Jenkins. I believe King uses this sudden change in point of view as a way to show the reader Miss Sidley’s deterioration in mental state; from hearing her thoughts, to showing her actions, to a while new person entirely.

King’s use of point of view is quite masterful in this short story, and he uses it both to tell the story and as a method of developing character and story arc.

 Style

Stephen King’s use of wording and style of writing in “Suffer the Little Children” is unique and excellent at getting the feelings that Miss Sidley is feeling across. He uses a simple yet very effective way of description when writing scenes, such as when we see Robert change fully for the first time:

Robert changed.

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife -struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths.

Robert began to chuckle.

The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Robert got up, still chuckling, and behind it all she could see the last shattered remains of the other Robert, the real little boy this alien thing had usurped, howling in maniac terror, screeching to be let out.

The language is easy to understand and visualize, yet the image that is conjured in the reader’s mind is quite unusual and terrifying. King uses these details throughout the story, yet it is the most noticeable in other moments similar to this one, where something out of the ordinary and surprising happens. For another example, take the scene during which Miss Sidley finally shoots Robert:

Before she could speak, Robert’s face began to shimmer into the grotesqueness beneath and Miss Sidley shot him. Once. In the head. He fell back against the paper-lined shelves and slid down to the floor, a little dead boy with a round black hole above his right eye.

He looked very pathetic.

Miss Sidley stood over him, panting. Her cheeks were pale.

The huddled figure didn’t move. It was human.

It was Robert.

The scene is clearly described and simple, yet it portrays a young boy being shot in the head, and also Miss Sidley’s crushing realization that this boy was just that, a human child. However, this scene is immediately followed by

No!

It was all in your mind, Emily. All in your mind.

No! No, no, no!

She went back up to the room and began to lead them down, one by one. She killed twelve of them and would have killed them all if Mrs Crossen hadn’t come down for a package of composition paper.

Which describes Miss Sidley’s final fall into madness.

King’s use of style in this short story is quite skillful in its simplicity, yet complex in what it is actually describing.

What can I learn from this story that will help me write my own stories?

There are most certainly many things that I can learn from this story that can help me write my own in the future. The way King built up tension throughout the story and the little part where he foreshadows Robert’s changing in the beginning

The reflection was small, ghostly, and distorted. And she had all but the barest comer of her eye on the word she was writing.

Robert changed.

She caught just a flicker of it, just a frightening glimpse of Robert’s face changing into something … different.

She whirled around, face white, barely noticing the protesting stab of pain in her back.

Robert looked at her blandly, questioningly. His hands were neatly folded. The first signs of an afternoon cowlick showed at the back of his head. He did not look frightened.

I imagined it, she thought. I was looking for something, and when there was nothing, my mind just made something up. Very cooperative of it.

… made the scene where Miss Sidley finally begins to shoot and kill the children all the more exciting yet still almost surprising. Even after it is revealed that Miss Sidley had brought her brother’s gun to school that day, presumably to put an end to this whole affair through murder, the day continues eerily normally, creating a false sense of normalcy in the reader, until the action picks up again and she begins to slaughter the children.

I also really admire King’s simple descriptiveness when he’s writing. The description of Robert changing full the first time

Robert changed.

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife -struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growths.

Robert began to chuckle.

The slow, cavernous sound came from what had been his nose, but the nose was eating into the lower half of his face, nostrils meeting and merging into a central blackness like a huge, shouting mouth.

Robert got up, still chuckling, and behind it all she could see the last shattered remains of the other Robert, the real little boy this alien thing had usurped, howling in maniac terror, screeching to be let out.

… was very easy to understand and visualize in my head, despite it being very disturbing and unnatural. This, along with many other important moments in the story, like the bathroom scene where Miss Sidley first sees the children change, help build tension and conflict. None of the words he used were out of place, and each one worked to move the story along.

Another aspect of King’s writing that I aspire to learn is his use of dialogue. Through each of Miss Sidley’s encounters, whether it be with fellow teachers or with demonic melting children, we learn more about her character, and each interaction feels very human and natural despite the unnatural and unsettling circumstances. Miss Sidley’s conversations with “Robert,” even though he was inherently possessed, seemed like perfectly normal conversations a perturbed adult may have with a mischievous young child. Even once Miss Sidley returned back to school after her first incident with Robert, their first encounter seemed so normal yet cold, and once Miss Sidley led him to the back room to kill him and he began to speak as the demon again, the dialogue still fit so perfectly for the situation I couldn’t imagine a better way of writing it.

All in all, I admire King’s pacing throughout the story, as well as his phenomenal dialogue and simple yet complex descriptions.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the structure of this story help it build tension?
  2. How does the point of view affect how the story is told, and if it were told from a different point of view, how would it change.

Analysis Part 3: Gryphon

Stephen King does a great job in developing Miss Sidley’s character in “Suffer the Little Children”. You get a good sense of the evil she senses from Robert and the other children, and you almost begin to sympathize with her when others tell her that she’s being outrageous. You get a sense of the doubt she’s feeling without even knowing that. For example,

Very well, she would keep their secret. For awhile. She would not have people thinking her insane, or that the first feelers of senility had touched her early. She would play their game. Until she could expose their nastiness and rip it out by the roots.

She knows that the children are hiding something from her, but she is willing to let it play out for a bit more. At first, it’s innocent and she suspects that they know of her trick with the glasses, but it begins turning into a much darker story.

He also does a good job of giving you an idea of the time and place that this story is set in. The children are allowed to go home by themselves, and it is completely acceptable for a teacher to hold a child back after class without notifying the parents. Miss Sidley is also allowed to tell Robert (a young child) that

..little boys who tell stories go to hell..

That would’ve never been okay in today’s world. This gives the idea that this story is set in the 60s, maybe early 70s.

What can I use in my writing?

There’s a lot we can learn from Stephen King. From how to tell horror stories the correct way, to making you sympathize with a psychopath. There’s not a lot of people that can say they’ve successfully been able to do that. The way King gives you a dark story from a light perspective of a scared old woman is absolutely incredible. In “Suffer the Little Children,” he says

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.

which gives you a clear idea that Miss Sidley is ruthless. At this point in the story, she only suspects that the little girls knew about her trick with her glasses, not that they were possessed by demons. You feel both uncomfortable and empathetic for Miss Sidley. She’s lost her power, but she’s threatening to hurt small children. Simply despicable, you could argue. He also manages to show, not tell very well. For example,

A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage.

You can feel Miss Sidley’s anger without being directly told that she’s angry. At the beginning of the story, you are impressed by Miss Sidley. She’s managed to scare her students enough to respect her, and that’s not an easy task to ask of a third grade teacher. However, as the story goes on, you feel a sense of uncomfort and at times, disgust, at what she plans to do, and even more disgust when she actually goes through with it. On the second to last page, Miss Sidley says

“No one can hear you,” she said calmly. She took the gun from her bag. “You or this.”

When she insinuates to a nine year old boy that she’s going to shoot him, you lose all sympathy for her. That type of character development characterization is, as aforementioned, not an easy task to accomplish. It takes skill, and believing in your characters, which isn’t something that’s easy. That’s something a lot of writers⁠—including myself⁠—can improve upon.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does Miss Sidley just now notice this behavior? Is it a recent development, or has it been occurring for some time? Why?

2. Why was there no trial after this absolutely horrific event? Are the demons real? Does the court believe in their existence? Were there previous incidents?