“Everyday Use,” or Why Emma Should Be Allowed to Wear the Crown Jewels

  • a write up by Emma Bennett

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker follows a family of three: Mama, and her two daughters Maggie and Dee. The story opens with Mama and Maggie waiting in the yard for Dee’s arrival. Mama reflects on dreams she’d had about their reunion, similar to TV shows where a child who has “made it” is presented to their parents and tears ensue. Mama then reflects on the reality on her life, which is much less glamorous than on TV. Maggie’s tentative arrival interrupts her thoughts; Mama mentally compares her child to a lame animal and remembers when their first house burned. Maggie was burned and now bears scars that make her self-conscious and timid. Dee hated their old house, and Mama used to think she hated Maggie as well, until Mama and the church raised money to send Dee to school. Dee’s education separated her from Mama and Maggie, who found it hard to keep up with her.

Dee arrives, wearing a bright dress, and with her hair styled in a way that appears unusual to Mama and Maggie. She greets them with a phrase neither of them understands, as does the man accompanying her. After telling her mother not to get up, Dee takes a camera from the car and snaps some photographs of her family and their house. Only after she’s finished does she kiss her mother on the forehead. When Mama greets Dee, Dee tells her that she is no longer Dee, but Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. When Mama asks why, Dee tells her that she doesn’t want to be named after her oppressor, to which Mama responds by pointing out the family ties to the name. This doesn’t change Dee’s mind, so Mama tries pronouncing her name, but can’t manage her companion’s, who tells her to call him Hakim-a-barber.

The four of them sit down to eat traditional southern food, though Hakim-a-barber won’t eat collards or pork. Dee is delighted by everything, including that her mother is still using benches her father made when they couldn’t afford chairs. After they eat, Dee takes the butter dish, remarking that she wanted to ask if she could have it. She asks for the butter churn top and dasher as well, and after she’s wrapped them up, Mama holds the dasher and ponders how you can see the marks that years of use have left on it. Dee asks next for two quilts, made by Grandma Dee from a collection of cloth scraps from various times in the past. Mama tells her that she promised to give them to Maggie when she marries. Dee is scandalized; she tells Mama that Maggie won’t appreciate the quilts, and might do something stupid like use them. When Mama remarks that she hopes Maggie will use them, Dee points out how priceless they are, and says she would hang them instead. Maggie comes into the room and tells Mama that Dee can have the quilts. Mama is struck by how resigned Maggie looks, and all of a sudden snatches the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie. Dee storms out, and when Mama and Maggie come to the car, tells Mama she doesn’t understand her heritage. She then tells Maggie to try to make something for herself, and leaves. Maggie and Mama sit in the yard together, “just enjoying.”

“Everyday Use” introduces two different perspectives on culture and heritage through Dee and Mama (and by extension Maggie). Dee has traced her culture back to her African roots and has sought to learn more about them. She adapts her life to her new knowledge by changing her name and clothing style, and using Luganda phrases. She holds this form of her culture in such high esteem that she unwittingly rejects a culture much closer to her: that of her immediate family, and their simple lives. Dee sees the quilts as relics of the past, meant to be treasured and observed; she sees their place in history more than in everyday life. In addition, she wants the butter churn top and dasher for “artistic” purposes, ignoring that Mama and Maggie still use them, and know their history better than she does. When Mama refuses to give her the quilts, Dee is openly affronted and even condescending, commenting that Mama doesn’t understand her heritage. Though Dee believes she is doing the right thing for her heritage, she understands little about her immediate culture, and possibly even little about the Ugandan culture she emulates. Dee has spent a lot of time trying to leave the country life her mother and sister lead, but is willing to return and bear their trapping when it suits her. She wants the image of that life, but not its substance. Similarly, Hakim-a-barber claims to believe in the ideals of the Muslim community that lives down the road from Mama, but rejects their labor-intensive lifestyle. He, like Dee, is willing to take on the image and ideas of cultures and faiths he doesn’t fully understand.

Mama has a different take on culture and heritage. She focuses more on the here and now, and what she and Maggie have made of their lives. Dee’s attempts to incorporate their more distant culture confuse her; she doesn’t speak whatever language Dee greets her with, is struck by the impracticality of Dee’s clothing, and questions why Dee would change her name when it has importance within the family. Mama has very specific memories of using the butter dasher, showing a more hands-on relationship with her personal culture. While Dee sees putting old quilts to everyday use as “backward,” Mama doesn’t understand the point of not using something for its intended purpose, no matter how old it is. She even comments that if the quilts are worn out, Maggie can make some more; this indicates that quilting, an aspect of Mama’s cultural heritage, has been passed down to Maggie, and lives in her. While Dee views the destruction of these specific quilts as the destruction of the past, Mama seems to favor the view that the past lives in people; the quilts are a less important part of their heritage than Maggie is.

“Everyday Use” is set in the 1960s or 1970s: either the decade of the Civil Rights movement, or the decade following it. Either way, racism took more severe forms than in modern times, and black Americans as a whole were trying to define and control the many different facets of their collective identity. Though “Everyday Use” is not a story about racism, that social issue is ever-present in the background. Dee, unlike her mother and sister, is able to look a white man in the eye; her comment about not wanting to be named for her oppressors, though potentially misguided, points out the position of black Americans in society. Mama herself can recall a time when black people asked less questions, and Dee’s efforts to trace her roots to Uganda show that she, and the young generation as a whole, are likely asking many questions. The disparity between Mama and Dee’s ideologies can be linked to generational differences as well as personality differences.

Things to steal:

  1. Characters representing philosophical views
  2. A physical object symbolizing the roots of an argument
  3. Have a character’s ingrained expectations/life paradigm be shifted

Questions:

  • What is your opinion on cultural heritage? Should it be treasured or put to use?
  • Do you think issues of race deserved a bigger role in the story?
  • Why do you think the details of the burned house and Maggie’s scars were included?
  • Why do you think Dee took pictures of her mother and sister with their house?
  • How much of Dee’s character do you think is influenced by her education? Would Mama and Maggie think differently if they had her level of education? What do you think Alice Walker is saying about education?
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“Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” Write Up by Edward Clarke

-Summary-

The story “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” by Karen Russell concerns itself with the greyhound Djali, and her owner, Emma Bovary. It begins with a scene of the two walking through a frosted forest. Emma is weeping (which is one of her favorite hobbies), and try as she might, Djali cannot get her to cheer up. Emma’s marriage to her wealthy husband, Charles, is the main source of her unhappiness, and though Emma’s downtrodden demeanor often saddens her pet, Djali finds each meeting with her owner utterly wonderful, and draws great happiness from Emma. However, as the months draw on, and Emma still is unresponsive to the poor dog, it too grows unhappy, and finds little meaning in the fantastic world around her. Emma begins to cheat on her husband, and pay even less attention to the dog. Djali becomes unruly, forgets her house training, cowers underneath beds, and has sudden spasms before the fireplace. Then one day, only a few days before the Bovarys move to a new town, Djali escapes into the forest and finds there the boundless freedom of a predator. She learns all the woods should offer but after several weeks becomes tired, and lonesome, and hungry. During a rainfall one day, she leaves the cave in which she has been living and slides down a mud bank into a rocky ravine. Her fall has taken her leg, and she believes she is dying. Back in the home of the Bovarys, Emma’s affair has been ended. As the greyhound is lying in the dirt, a games warden finds her and nourishes her back into health. He gives her his own name, Hubert, and there she lives in happiness for several years, before Hubert and little Hubert have a chance run in with Emma, who no longer recognizes the dog.

-Compelling Elements-

While this story is based off the novel Madame Bovary, I have not read that novel, so I will not take any of that wish-wash into account while analyzing the story, and will operate as if the story is a stand-alone piece of short fiction.

The story itself allows a very compelling arc, presenting the dog Djali at first happy, and entranced with life, and the reader, after these beautiful, gorgeous, passages of the dog’s happiness and contentment, is met slowly with the dog’s sadness and depression as Emma Bovary begins to drift away from her. Then, the reader sees a victory for the already ingratiated dog. However, this leg of the dog’s life has its own even more threatening problems.

The story was also compelling because of the sheer and utter beauty of almost every phrase. The language is stunning from the beginning of the piece to the end, with images like “wild circuses” when discussing fleas, or a “spray of champagne-yellow birds” when talking about startled finches, or “a spill of jeweled rot like boiling cranberries” when describing the putrid rotting head of a decapitated deer carcass. I would feel compelled read this story solely for the language itself, completely regardless of the plot.

-Thievery for my own writing-

This story has a lot of very interesting elements that one could possibly steal for his or her own writing. The most blatant is, of course, the absolutely drop-dead stunning descriptions mentioned in the previous section of this presentation. I think much of the description was interesting not only because it was beautiful but because it was seen through the eyes of a dog, which functioned as a sort of naïve narrator, and allowed much of the surreal imagery to be glossed quietly with a thin believability. The complication of the canine narrator also brought up another hurdle which the story surmounted with ease; a communication black out. The dog is unable to speak or communicate sufficiently with any of the humans in its life, and this forces the story to communicate with Djali some other way. It did this through the massive amount of description in this story, which, in turn, necessitated the beautiful language of the piece to keep the reader interested through paragraph after paragraph of sheer description. Dialogue breaks these blocks very infrequently.

I also thought the comparisons between Djali the greyhound and Emma Bovary were a particularly interesting addition to the story, as they both had many of the same emotions at the same time (sadness, desire to escape, loneliness) but expressed the emotions very differently, and, while this should have been obvious to the reader seeing as how one of the characters is a human woman and the other is a dog, I found it interesting that those differences and similarities were played upon so heavily in the story, and I want to try to use more comparisons similar to the ones found in this piece to help flesh out characters in my own writing.

-Questions-

  1. Was this a happy ending, or a sad ending?
  2. Why did the story end there? Why not earlier, or later?
  3. Did the story stand alone, or do you think more reference to the book would have been helpful?

“2BR02B” Write Up by Kenneth Moreno

The story of “2BR02B” by Kurt Vonnegut begins in a hospital of sorts, not that hospitals are needed all too much anymore considering that humanity has essentially solved death and dying. Diseases have been indefinitely cured, and aging no longer poses a serious threat on us mortals. In this hospital are a few characters, each with some interesting personalities. First to be introduced is Wehling Jr., whose wife is about to giving birth to triplets. Also in the cast is an orderly and a painter, whose character traits somewhat clash with each other.

Wehling seems to be waiting on something, at first we are not sure what. When the orderly arrives, he watches the painter create a mural, one that is immortalizing a staff that is practically immortal already. The mural depicts Dr. Hitz at the center of a glorious garden, one that has been well kept. Around him are figures in purple attire, getting rid of any old and unnecessary plants in the area. The orderly is admires the mural and compliments the painter, but the painter is less than happy with it, as it does not truly represent what he sees life to be. The orderly tells the painter that if he is not happy with life, he may just make an appointment with the Federal Bureau of Termination and end his life to make room for others. The painter would rather take his own life, as life is too perfected and calculated for his taste.

Then arrives a service worker from the FBT, Leora Duncan. She is there to take a picture with Dr. Hitz and to help terminate a life. The painter tells her she is going to be immortalized in the mural, and asks her to pick a body. At first, she does not care but then chooses one that fits her job. Dr. Hitz now arrives to the scene, ready to take his picture. Leora is very excited to see him, but Wehling is not. Wehling, while excited to have triplets, must provide three volunteers to end their lives or else the children will not be allowed to live. Wehling only has one.

Hitz goes on a brief spiel about the importance of population control, and how limiting birth and encouraging death provide a balanced and sustainable future. He feels accomplished by his statements, yet that feeling is short-lived as Wehling pulls out a revolver and shoots Hitz. He also shoots Leora, and then himself, making way for the three babies. The painter, having seen all this, decides that it is his time to end his life and calls the FBT, scheduling an appointment for as soon as possible. The worker on the other end thanks him for his generosity and thanks him for future generations.

One of the most captivating things to me about this story has to be the questions that is poses. This world has been literally engineered to be perfect; disease has been cured, crime has been stopped, aging has been solved, and peace has been achieved. However, is such a perfect life one worth living? Throughout the piece, we’re shown how this world is perfect. The steps taken to achieve such a world, though to the average reader may seem somewhat drastic are treated like they are normal. The people in this world have become so accustomed to death and lack thereof that they don’t question the means to immortality. This leads to a few different reactions, most prominently from the painter and Wehling. Dr. Hitz, Leora Duncan, and the orderly are all fine with the way the world functions, as they are members of the system. However, when you look to the others, we can see more dissatisfaction and frustration with it. The painter, though having benefitted from the seeming immortality, is unhappy with the world. He does not believe it to be perfect and beautiful. He considers it more like a dropcloth, as mentioned in the story. Wehling also is unhappy, though his frustration is more for personal reasons. He is unhappy because the laws of this society require three people to die for his children to live. The risk of losing his children drives him to murder and suicide.

It is this juxtaposition that I believe we can use in our own writing. Vonnegut uses the painter and Wehling to show us what is wrong with a world where everything is perfect. While the 2BR02B system seems fair, we’re shown the outside implications of it through Wehling. Is it really fair to have life require death? Should someone have to die in order for someone to be born? Yes, someone has chosen to die, but what about the loved ones? What about those around them? They are not the only ones affected by the choice to die. As mentioned previously, those who work with the Bureau are perfectly fine with the system, but those affected by the system are not. The juxtaposition of this brings deep complexity to the story, one that, again, poses a question that may have at first seemed like an easy answer.

Another thing that I enjoyed about this story were the absolute disturbing statements that were treated as normalcy. While Vonnegut used normalcy a lot, these particular statements were so absurd and off-putting that it really drives home the idea that this system is wrong. The most noteworthy one in my opinion is the song that the orderly is quietly singing. The song is one of a disturbing love. The lyrics talk about someone being denied a kiss, and as a result contemplate suicide, as they would rather make way for another baby than live without their love. It is these tiny details of absurdity that I so often see in Vonnegut’s work that I absolutely love and try to implement in my own whenever it is fitting.

  • Do you think the 2BR02B is a fair system of life and death?
  • Is the painter a likable character? If not, what didn’t you like about him?
  • How do you see the story of Hamlet in the lens of this story?

“Voiceless” Write Up by Joanna Zhou

In “Voiceless” by Emily Smith, main character Kanya is 31 years old and a social media influencer. In the beginning, she’s about to share a picture of a mouthwatering sandwich. After posting the picture, she watches the “hearts roll in”, which are probably synonymous to likes on a social media platform. Rather than eating the meal after posting, she instead puts the wine back into the bottle and scrapes the meat into the trash can. Her meals for the day will consist of the bread from the sandwich (sans meat) which she’s cut into tiny pieces.

Kanya sees a post from her friend Tayla, who is at the beach. Kanya notices the ring on Tayla’s toe in the picture and notes how its sole purpose is to be in the picture and that Tayla probably took it off afterwards. Kanya gets a message from her mother, since her mother doesn’t follow her or anyone else, despite this world being steeped in social media.

Kanya then goes to work, although she works from home. Her job is to provide customer support, and when she does well she gets points that she can spend on shopping. All of her clients live “by the water,” a place where only the richest or most successful and well-known seem to live. Kanya herself desperately wants to reach the water.

She reveals that she is at the same weight she was when she was 12 years old and puts a lot of work into maintaining that weight, including intensive workout videos. This is because “everyone loves watching a tiny girl eat fat food,” and so Kanya diets excessively and does high intensity workouts to maintain this weight. Instead of yoga, which she posts about sometimes despite not actually doing it, Kanya’s workouts include a large man screaming at her to “get down then get up” repeatedly.

Naylen, Kanya’s boyfriend, then messages her about how he liked her post. Although she is fond of Naylen, she’s concerned that he’ll get 15k followers before her and make it to the water–if this happens, it’s implied Kanya will break up with him.

Towards the end of the story, a follower has tracked down Kanya to her small apartment. He wants to have dinner with Kanya but she refuses. He breaks down her door and then takes photos of her in her apartment, showing her life in all its truth: the scattered paint cans, the desperate bursts of pastel on the walls like patchwork, Kanya herself making a noise like “the cry of an unknown animal.” The follower scene could also be interpreted as a hallucination due to Kanya’s malnutrition though.

She later wakes up in the hospital. Her mother is there and tells her that they are bringing her back to life. Kanya thinks back to her apartment where the evidence of her superficial lifestyle resides.

The chronic tension is Kanya’s desperate desire for validation.

The acute tension is Kanya’s obsessive follower accosting her at the end, though I think this could be argued against since it’s also the climactic scene and happens near the very end.

This story takes place in a dystopian future where social media rules people’s minds. That’s what first grabbed me. It is so real, as if written in present 2018 or even earlier, perhaps back to when Facebook or Myspace was making its rounds as something revolutionary. Social media has invaded this society to its core, but the funny thing is you don’t get a sense of this being a dystopia or too far in the future because the subject matter is so current and believable.

The only overt sci-fi element is a marginal mention to “the Bot” that brings Kanya’s purchases to her door, and that isn’t even that high-tech. There’s almost a George Saunders feel to this story–words that normally wouldn’t be capitalized are capitalized, like Food, Travel, and Music, much like  Saunders’ weird product names that he uses to worldbuild.

That’s kind of the beauty of “Voiceless”’s world. It does not need to be explained because we are already in it. I can clearly see the social media influencers of today following almost exactly in Kanya’s path, from the fake yoga aspirations to not eating the delicious but fattening foods she posts to not even harboring genuine emotions for her equally social-media obsessed boyfriend.

I love stories like “Voiceless” that make you realize something off about society, something unsettling, and I guess this is me hearkening back to Saunders and how he too makes unsettling worlds that, behind the vast veil of sci-fi tech and terminology, are deeply familiar to us 21st century readers.

Onto the things we can steal:

The first craft technique I chose was how Smith uses “the water” as a mechanism for social advancement in her story. Throughout “Voiceless,” Kanya thinks of the water. She wants to reach it so desperately, even crying at her first 1k followers because that goal of the water finally seems attainable. The water is a distant almost abstract concept. Smith doesn’t write about what the houses by the water are like or how it’s better than Kanya’s current circumstances.

We instead read between the lines. The water is probably more luxurious, full of people who are high class with high-maintenance needs, people that complain to customer support to solve their problems because it takes away from time they could be using to putz around on the toilet. The water probably has nicer apartments than Kanya’s Maker space, which is sparse and almost institutional in the uniformity of Kanya and the 13 other Makers in the building.

The water is a symbol for something more than moving to a nicer place; it represents moving up in society so Kanya can maybe live a life similar to the one she posts about. This is ironic because those that live by the water probably have to work even harder than Kanya and her 13 fellow Makers to maintain their follower count and in turn maintain their place by the water.

The second technique I chose was using food as a way to highlight artifice. The first few words are about food, setting up a situation that the reader later realizes is not at all what it seems. Instead of being delicious, something to be desired, food is instead treated as a means to an end. It loses its sustenance and becomes calories to maintain a low weight. What ends up on the screens of Kanya’s followers differs vastly from what she actually consumes, and sometimes she doesn’t eat any of what she posts. Sometimes what she posts isn’t even edible, such as the lemon lavender glaze. At first this seems absurd. Who would go to such lengths?

But even today there is this artifice in advertising, so is it so far of a stretch to imagine it pervading social media spaces? Most milk in milk commercials isn’t milk. It’s glue. A lot of those fresh vegetables aren’t vegetables; they are models of vegetables–wax, paper, and glue. Kanya’s yoga mat goes unused. Her candles are lit for mere seconds before being snuffed out again. This sounds like some weird chef adage, but the food highlights the fakery. Yes, fakery is a word.

Fun fact before the questions: one of those crackpot baby naming sites says people named Kanya have a “SoulUrge Number” of 2. This means that they have a “deep inner desire for love and companionship” or something.

Questions:

  • Is the story too preachy for making the social issue of social media oversaturation a central focus?
  • What was your interpretation of what happened in the ending?
  • Is Kanya a sympathizable character? Is she just a caricature of a social-media obsessed millennial or instead a well-rounded character you can relate to? How excusable are her flaws?

“The Maker” Write Up by Laura Mercado

SUMMARY

The unnamed character in this section of “The Maker” by Jorge Luis Borges has lived through a lot in his life, and throughout these experiences he has collected memories full of details in all of the five senses, but especially sight. He most vividly remembers visiting a mythic like town with whimsical mountains, the type which might be inhabited by satyrs. The character is the type of person who believes in stories without regard for their reality. The character begins to go blind; he can no longer clearly make out the natural environment around him and begins to lose himself. He breaks down once he realizes he is losing his sight, and begins to imagine the loss of the world around him. He wakes up one day and suddenly comes to peace with his deteriorating condition; he accepts his near blindness and welcomes the unknown future with an air of adventure. He digs into his memory, then, and recalls when he was little and another child bullied him. The character had complained to his father, who sat there and seemed to ignore everything. At the end of the young main character’s vent, the father handed him a bronze dagger (which the child had wanted since forever) and tells him to prove himself as a man. The memory continues with the child challenging the bully to a fight, pulling out the knife, and coming back home with a bloodied blade. Another memory, him finding his way with eyesight through a maze for a woman he desires, follows the first. He wonders why these, of all memories, came to him. Suddenly, he understands- in the journey of blindness he is about to embark on, lives love and danger. His life will not cease to be just because he can no longer see. He compares his impending descent to the epic journeys of Greek heroes, and soon falls into irreversible darkness.

AND INTO THE ANALYSIS STUFF WE GO…

The piece starts out with a bold statement of how the character is the type to believe whimsical stories thoroughly and fully. Through the piece, he compares his experiences to those of the fabled greats found in mythology. To him, this has all occurred before; he takes solace in the fact that greater people than him, his childhood heroes, have been through worse and got through life’s struggles by living them as an adventure. The main character is still a child at heart, and has not stopped believing in the reassuring messages of these myths. He directly compares his upcoming experience in a world without sight as a Greek hero embarking on an adventure. He therefore sees himself as going on a journey of trials and trivial misfortunes, each misstep making up a bigger scope of an epic adventure. Although this is an optimistic view, the main character believes everything will turn out OK not because he genuinely believes that his situation will end up OK, but because the characters he sees himself as turn out OK in their adventures. His mechanism for coping with his loss of sight is viewing his life as nothing more than a story, with himself as the hero for which life will inevitably turn out alright. The ironic part of this is that while most Greek heroes do survive epic adventures, most of them eventually died painful deaths, and usually separated from their love interests. Thus, the main character’s solace in his descent to “love and danger” is a lie, as blindness in his old age will most likely not lead to a romantic representation of either of those. This highlights the important distinction in life between stories and life, truth and fiction, delusion and reality. It is vital to hold both in one’s mind, as hope lives within the could-be’s of fiction, but it is important to continue grounding oneself in reality to be prepared for the future.

Through the gradual blinding of the main character, we can see him lose his sense of self and continuously adapt a Greek hero-type view of himself, thus gradually losing touch of reality. While he is losing reality and the world around him, however, the main character becomes increasingly enriched in his own mind. The descent to darkness of the real world in turn represents a journey into the self, as the character’s dreams and fantasy-infused memories of his experiences are the only things he is able to view, in the end.

My favorite part about this piece is that it is an autobiography. The main character is Borges, the author, who struggled with losing his eyesight piece by piece from the age of 55 until he became fully blind. He has infused himself into the piece as the main character; his memories, his struggles, his delusions became that of the character. I would like to “steal” this openness in Borges’s writing, as I feel like his willingness to spill his soul on paper is what made this piece feel so humanistic and wholesome. It felt real. I’d like to begin creating this feeling of real in my writing.

 

“Reunion” Write Up by Evan Sherer

Summary:

In the short story “Reunion” by John Cheever, a boy named Charlie meets his father for the last time. The story, set in New York, starts at the information booth of wherever the father works, or perhaps owns, where Charlie and his father have planned to meet. He is extremely excited when he sees his father again, who he hasn’t seen since his mother divorced him three years prior. He sees himself in him, and thinks about how he wanted to be just like him.

The father takes Charlie to four different bars. At each bar, the father is awfully rude to their waiters, calling them names, and just being extremely condescending. He’d call them over in four different languages, always ordering a Gibson Beefeater in the most obnoxious way possible. Most of the story is the father making fun of the waiters and then storming out with his son when they weren’t served.

After the last bar, Charlie says he needs to catch his train. The father says he was “terribly sorry,” and offers to get him a paper for his trip. At the booth, he does the same thing, just being terribly condescending to the newspaper salesman, and asks Charlie to wait so he can watch him “get a rise” out of the guy. Charlie says goodbye and does not wait for a response.

The acute tension is Charlie and his father meeting and the chronic tension is the distance between the two, and also perhaps the father’s evasion from connecting with his son.

What makes the story compelling?

One thing that made this story interesting to me was the sheer rudeness of the father. When they went to the first restaurant, I was not expecting the father to be so disgusting to the employees. Because of Charlie’s idolization of his father in the beginning, I got the sense that he would be a good, hardy, self-respecting, honest man, but both Charlie and I were so wrong. After the scene he made at the first restaurant, even though he did not show any guilt, I still was not expecting to be as rude as he was again. But I stand corrected. As the story goes on, I got the sense that the father just really does not want to talk to his son, and would rather distract himself with fussing with the waiters. Because, how could a successful man (a man who goes to the Club and has a secretary answer all of his calls) have made it this far in life by being the biggest prick alive? Surely he could not be so successful if he wasn’t even able to get a drink at a bar. In the end, he doesn’t even say goodbye to his son, instead getting distracted himself with the newspaper salesman.

Another thing that I found really interesting about this story was its disbalance of description. Normally, if the beginning is packed with description and imagery and inner dialogue, and the end is not, it can give the impression that the ending was not given the same amount of attention as the beginning, or it can feel rushed and not as important. However, for me, the lack of description following the beginning served the story very well. It helped to highlight how the father dominated their afternoon together, and how Charlie just didn’t matter to his father. It also shows how empty Charlie probably feels after having such high hopes for his father be crushed. After the first restaurant, you can tell that Charlie is just waiting for their time to be over.

Also, one more thing: the first sentence. It’s great. It immediately poses a dramatic situation: a father and son’s relationship dies, and we are about to hear the story of how that came to be.

What can we steal for our writing?

So a concrete technique that I think can be applicable for a lot of stories is how John Cheever frames the story. I just mentioned how good the first sentence is, but I didn’t point out how the last sentence and the first sentence are almost identical. I think this could be useful to employ if an ending feels incomplete, or if the story doesn’t feel tied together. For me, it just made the story feel whole. All you have to do is say what happens in the first sentence–you’re not really spoiling it, because you’ll have to explain how you got to that conclusion, and the reader will probably forget what you said in the first sentence anyways.

Another thing that I just really appreciate about this story is how Cheever really lets the story do the work. What I mean by that is, Charlie doesn’t explain to us that his father is a huge snob, that he regrets meeting him again, and he is forced to accept the fact that he has a terrible dad. We get all of this ourselves through some pretty easy-to-understand dialogue, in just over two pages. While this may not be something that you can just steal, I think it’s good to recognize how briefly Cheever told this story, yet it’s packed with underlying themes of alcoholism, fatherhood, family and grief.

One last thing: repetition. Having a character do or say the same things over and over again is a great way to engrave a character in the reader’s mind.

Questions:

  1. Do you think the father is an ass to avoid talking to his son, or because he’s just an ass?
  2. How did you feel about the silent inner dialogue of Charlie following the beginning?
  3. Do enough things happen in this story? Does it seem too short?

 

 

“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” Write Up by Leni Negron

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell begins with a pack of children being sent to homes by their werewolf parents. The girls get sent to St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and at first are wild. They find it difficult to break their old wolf tendencies, but the nuns are patient. They give them all new culture names, and the speaker is called Claudette. Eventually, they mostly all realized that they must adapt to the new culture, because if they went back they would have to face their angry and dissatisfied parents, who sent them away in the girls’ best interests. The youngest, Mirabella, resisted the new culture and had trouble learning. Jeanette, the oldest, thrived under the new culture and was hated by the other girls. Claudette says she could have been as good as Jeanette if she had wanted to. She gets paired up with Mirabella to feed the ducks and Mirabella won’t leave her alone, so Claudette has to return to her wolf side for a moment to scare her off. Claudette is separated from her sisters for a little while. They meet non-wolf raised girls who play games with the wolf girls and are frightened of them and let them win. The nuns decide to throw a dance with the boys home so that the girls would be incentivized to learn how to dance. Claudette finds Jeanette crying. When the dance arrives, Mirabella is still not adapting to human life. No one is prepared for the dance and everyone feels uncomfortable. Claudette talks to Kyle and the dance that she has tried hard to learn comes on, but she can’t remember the steps and Jeanette won’t help her. Mirabella, who was tied up in the corner, senses that her sister is in danger and breaks free to help her. Claudette, who is thankful for her sister, throws her under the bus and Mirabella is sent away. The rest of them graduate from the home. But before they graduate, Claudette is able to visit her parents and wolf family, where she feels uncomfortable and out of place.

Chronic tension: They were raised by wolves and aren’t “civilized”

Acute tension: They have to adapt to human culture

Something interesting and stealable is the sections of the stages set at the beginning of each section. They kind of prefaced the section and gave a sense of what the girls would be experiencing or what they were expected to experience.

The first thing that I noticed was the descriptions of the girls and how they are only described in terms of animalistic tendencies. Especially in the beginning of the story the choice of words, like “pads of fists” which give the image of paws, helps blur the line between the girls and wolves. The word choice was very deliberate and added to the idea that these girls identified as wolves. Throughout the story, Karen Russell continued to use animalistic description, especially the word “growled” for sentences that usually wouldn’t have been growled, like “‘My stars!’ I growled. ‘What lovely weather we’ve been having!’” Even as the girls progress through the stages, the descriptions like “my sisters panted, circling around us, eager to close ranks” remain, reminding the reader of where the girls came from and who they were before they came to St. Lucy’s.

Another aspect of the story that was really apparent to me, especially as the story progressed, was that the story served as a metaphor for the story of immigrants or the children of immigrants. There is a clear struggle between the old (wolf) culture and the new (human) culture. At first, they resist the new culture but eventually come to accept it. I thought the most interesting part was when they even began to denounce the wolf culture that they came from, with thoughts like “How can people live like they do?” right before Stage 3 even though they lived that way for most of their lives. They were taught to think that their old culture was barbaric and uncivilized. They come to almost resent the old culture, which is embodied by Mirabella. By not adapting and staying true to the old culture, she is a nuisance. Even when she saves Claudette and Claudette is thankful, she has to act annoyed so that the rest don’t turn on her. She betrays Mirabella and her old culture, proving how she has dedicated herself to the human life that she was thrown into.

But even as they become more civilized, they don’t quite fit in. Jeanette, although she is the top girl in the home, is said to have a “a harsh, inhuman, barking sound” as a laugh. They make a lot of progress, but still have trouble in the new culture. The ballroom to them, even after most of the stages, was “a very scary place. Purple and silver balloons started popping all around us. Black streamers swooped down from the eaves and got stuck in our hair like bats.” They will always struggle with human culture and will always have to repress the things that they learned as wolves.

This story could also be read as a coming of age story, about young girls being put into society for the first time and having to learn difficult customs. They are thrown a debutante, which are classically balls thrown for young girls emerging in society. The way they act before St. Lucy’s could be seen as them still being childlike, before they are taught they ways they are expected to be when they are older and in society.

Questions:

  1. What did you think of the steps listed out before the passages? Were they helpful or did you not pay attention to them at all?
  2. What did you think of Mirabella and Jeanette? Why were they important? What about the main character?
  3. Did the motivations of the characters make sense? Were you able to suspend disbelief for parts where it was needed?