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?

 

 

 

 

“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? 

Interior Deterioration: “The Yellow Wallpaper” Write Up by Caroline Paden

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is the story of an unnamed mentally ill narrator whose husband, a physician named John, has rented a summer home for them as part of her treatment. She is deprived of all stimulation except for the ugly yellow wallpaper that coats her bedroom, only able to write when she is sure no one (either John or his sister, Jennie) will catch her. John is incredibly dismissive of his wife, insisting that her condition is a “temporary nervous depression”, and that after some rest and fresh air, she’ll be as good as new. The months pass, and the narrator is continually agitated by the wallpaper, spending hours at a time examining it as her condition worsens—she claims it shifts depending on the time of day, and eventually asserts that it does this because there is a woman trapped inside who comes out at night to creep around. The last day of their stay, the narrator peels off the yellow wallpaper to trap the woman in the walls, arming herself with a rope and locking out everyone else by throwing the room key out the window. When John returns, the narrator tells him where the key is. When he unlocks the door, he faints—the narrator is creeping around the room on all fours, believing herself to be the woman in the walls.

The chronic tension is the narrator’s mental illness, and the acute tension is the narrator being trapped in a room with nothing except ugly yellow wallpaper to look at.

The first technique I tracked was plot progression as shown through the writer’s personal opinions (in pink on the highlights). Since the story is in first-person, obviously a large portion of the story is the narrator’s inner monologue; however, I restricted my highlights to thoughts the narrator would want to conceal or descriptions of her worsening condition, specifically. The narrator leads a very restricted life to treat her illness, the theory being that rest and fresh air could cure her nervous troubles. This under-stimulation and forced rest was a real treatment many women in the nineteenth century went through, including the author, Charlotte Gilman—this story is based in part on her experience. Because the narrator is so closely monitored for signs of progress, it is only in her journal that she can safely express her feelings about her condition and her husband’s ideas. At first, her disagreements are with her husband concerning the efficacy of her treatment:

Personally I disagree with their ideas. Personally I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do? I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal— having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus— but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it  always makes me feel bad.

The narrator longs to write and meet with other people, but her husband refuses. As the narrator is more and more upset by and fixated on the wallpaper, however, her private thoughts focus more on the wallpaper than her treatment—she believes she is improving, despite the fact that she doesn’t sleep at night and is seeing people walking through the grounds where there are none. She views John with more suspicion (that’s focused on in the next section) and guards her observations about her room very closely for fear of institutionalization. Bluntly, her private thoughts become much more paranoid and delusional as the story progresses.

I’m feeling ever so much better! I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments[.]

I don’t like the look in [John’s] eyes.

But I am here, and no person touches this paper but me—not alive!

The second technique I tracked was the characterization of the narrator’s husband, John, through her descriptions of him—and how that characterization changes throughout the piece (in green on the highlights). At first, the narrator is incredibly deferential to John (even if she does disagree with his ideas), refusing to contradict him or acknowledge her own resentment of him as valid. She sees him as her knight in shining, pragmatic armor.

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. […] he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.

John is incredibly controlling of his wife, all in the name of treating her illness. He uses his authority as a physician to prevent his wife from getting what she wants, and she has no way to combat this due to her condition and her place as a subservient wife. One of the reasons I tracked this technique was because it struck me as odd my first read-through that this narrator, who seems so confident (at least at the start of the story), would be so deferential towards someone who obviously never takes her seriously. John treats his wife like a petulant child instead of a grown woman, going so far as to call her a little girl at one point

“What is it, little girl?” he said. “Don’t go walking about like that— you’ll get cold.”

Ironically, this militant you’re-going-to-get-better-because-I-say-so attitude leads directly to the narrator’s deterioration—he ignores his wife’s pleas to get rid of the wallpaper, and she ends up fixating on it to the point of insanity.

At first he meant to re paper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

As the narrator grows more paranoid because of the wallpaper, she is more suspicious of John’s intentions, though he is ostensibly the same skeptical pragmatist he was at the start of the story. The more the narrator hides from her husband, the less she trusts his judgment.

I believe John is beginning to notice. I don’t like the look in his eyes.

He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn’t see through him!

I think Gilman’s use of her protagonist’s relationships to other people, as well as her relationship to herself, is a brilliant way to subtly guide the reader through the story without overloading them with exposition or heavy-handed dialogue. By the time the narrator states her mistrust of John outright, the reader is already primed to agree with her because of Gilman’s skillful characterization. The narrator’s whimsical, willful personality is apparent from paragraph one, which is what led me to pick this story in the first place—a cursory glance at the first page completely drew me into the story. I love it when narrators talk directly to the reader (probably a byproduct of my being raised on several Snicket-esque children’s series), and Gilman also used it as a way to explain the narrator’s secrecy around writing—in a way, the reader becomes the narrator’s confidant.

Writing exercise: Write a story using a narrator who believes that they’re something they actually aren’t.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is John written more as a misguided physician or an abusive husband?
  2. How does Jennie serve the story? Is she more or less sympathetic than John or the narrator?
  3. Why did the writer make a point to mention John and Jennie examining the wallpaper, too?

Faith and Rage: “The Murder” Write Up by Miguel Hugetz

The Murder” opens with an orthodox religous service at a train station, where Matvey Terehov participates joyfully in the church choir, singing with great enthusiasm. When the service is over, Terehov, a middle aged man, goes to the station’s bar and tells the waiter, Sergey Nikanoritch, about his old tile factory’s choir and their skill. He reminisces about days gone and reflects on the current state of his current household, where he lives with his older cousins Yakov Ivanitch and Aglaia, as well as Ivanitch’s daughter Dashutka. Terehov laments that Ivanitch has taken to prayer and religious service with his sister only at home, scorning the clergy and involvement in the church. Terehov sees this isolation as a prideful sin, and tells his cousins to repent daily. Terehov goes home and reads a book borrowed from his police friend, Zhukov, before going to sleep. In the morning of Annunciation Day, Terehov returns to the station bar and tells Zhukov and Nikanoritch of his earlier religious experiences, where he strayed from normal church attendance and entered extreme piety until he was rebuked for becoming prideful and being a backslider from the church. Terehov describes Ivanitch as being in a similar state right now, despite his repeated attempts to get him to call off that way of life. Zhukov and Nikanortitch mostly ignore this and discuss how Ivanitch is rich and has screwed Terehov out of some inheritance. Meanwhile, Ivanitch reflects on his misery and troubles since Terehov returned from the factory and the way his cousin’s repeated insistences are beginning to undermine his thoughts and faith. Terehov is rebuked by Aglai for sending what money he had after leaving the factory to his former lover. Ivanitch calls her away to pray with him, and while they are praying Zhukov and Nikanoritch come to visit Terehov. Nikanoritch asks a baffled Terehov for money, prompting him to ask his cousin for money and a horse to leave town. Ivanitch considers it but decides that his money, wrapped up in banking and merchantism, is not available to him to lend. Ivanitch continues to question his religious faith while Nikanoritch and Zhukov continue to visit Terehov for money. After one visit ends and Ivanitch presumes Nikanoritch to have left, he begins his personal religious services but is interrupted by Terehov. This encounter causes Ivanitch to leave the room in anger. Terehov eats oil on a fasting day while the rest of the family watches, causing Ivanitch to angrily yell at him. In response, Terehov loses his cool and declares Ivanitch a heretic and backslider from God. Ivanitch and Agaila physically assault Terehov, accidentally killing him while Nikanoritch, revealed to still be in the house, witnesses. He initially flees the house but is bribed by Ivanitch to go along with the murder coverup. Ivanitch and Dashutka take his body away from the village and dump it on the road. Soon enough, the police catch up with the culprits and arrest them. At trial, the murderers are subjected to variously lengthening sentences of prison in labor camps. Ivanitch is sent to East Siberia, where after misery and a brief lack of faith he discovers what he believes is true faith and reflects tragically that he wishes he was able to attain it without so much early suffering. The story ends as Ivanitch works with other convicts in Siberia.

The acute tension is the increasing conflict between cousins Yakov and Matvey, while the chronic tension is the two’s majorly divergent religious practices which operate at the cores of their self-identities and internal struggles.

While on the surface Chekhov’s narrative is about a family feud that leads to a tragic death and its consequences, “The Murder” is a story that concerns itself with religious faith. Matvey and Yakov’s disparate religions drive the two cousins to deep conflict with each other, as the former’s persistent attack on Yakov’s beliefs drive him to fundamentally question his personal values and identity. 

Chekhov uses this internal confusion to build tension as the story escalates, raising the reader’s anticipation of violence with each detailing of Yakov’s declining mental state and faith. This tension works in tandem with the story’s title- “The Murder” is a clear declaration of what the reader ought to expect, and as the story progresses, our anticipation of it grows higher.

When Chekhov begins to show the reader Yakov’s perspective, he reveals his religious perspective early on. Faith is central to Yakov’s identity and belief about the world, as is shown by this passage:

Man cannot live without religion, and religion ought to be expressed from year to year and from day to day in a certain order, so that every morning and every evening a man might turn to God with exactly those words and thoughts that were befitting that special day and hour. One must live, and, therefore, also pray as is pleasing to God, and so every day one must read and sing what is pleasing to God–that is, what is laid down in the rule of the church.

Yakov’s faith is extremely strong, but he commits to it on his own terms, viewing the local clergy and church as improperly devoted to God and sinful. Unfortunately for Yakov, his views closely mirror those that his cousin once held dearly but has since given up. Matvey’s own personal experiences cause him to have a particularly strong view of Yakov’s relationship with God, which he sees as inherently prideful and thus full of sin. Matvey acknowledges Yakov’s criticisms of the church, but views those flaws as being aspects of human nature, and thus part of God’s intended life. His cousin’s adherence to strict regimen alienates him to other members of the community, which to Matvey is far more dangerous and against god then drinking milk on fasting days. Matvey’s continual needling of Yakov leads to ruptures opening up in the latter’s mind, as his internal devotion to faith proves less firm then he thought.

But yet he was troubled and could not pray as before. As soon as he went into the prayer-room and opened the book he began to be afraid his cousin would come in and hinder him; and, in fact, Matvey did soon appear and cry in a trembling voice: “Think what you are doing, brother! Repent, brother!”

Though he regarded his cousin’s words as nonsense, yet for some reason it had of late haunted his memory that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, that the year before last he had made a very good bargain over buying a stolen horse, that one day when his wife was alive a drunkard had died of vodka in his tavern…

Matvey’s continued assaults on Yakov’s faith take their toll on him. And as Yakov’s mental state declines, the tension of the story rises.

…little by little the broodings settled like a burden on his mind, his head burned and he could not sleep.

Yakov begins to question his own religious beliefs when he witnesses his own daughter and neighbors’ lack of faith, but this questioning does not lead to positive revaluation of his own belief, but instead shakes him to his core.

He kept shaking his head, as though there were something weighing upon his head and shoulders, as though devils were sitting on them; and it seemed to him that it was not himself walking about, but some wild beast, a huge terrible beast, and that if he were to cry out his voice would be a roar that would sound all over the forest and the plain, and would frighten everyone.

Yakov’s deep faith is replaced by deep anger, mainly directed against his cousin and the doubts his presence has engendered within him. Tension is now reaching its critical boiling point.

He was afraid Matvey would come in, and was certain that he would come in, and felt an anger against him which he could overcome neither by prayer nor by continually bowing down to the ground.

It was clear to him now that he was himself dissatisfied with his religion, ant could not pray as he used to do. He must repent, he must think things over, reconsider, live and pray in some other way. But how pray? And perhaps all this was a temptation of the devil, and nothing of this was necessary? . . . How was it to be? What was he to do? Who could guide him? What helplessness! He stopped and, clutching at his head, began to think, but Matvey’s being near him prevented him from reflecting calmly.

Yakov’s anger eventually spills out into physical violence, leading to tragedy and tearing his family apart. Tension breaks with his religion, and as the story comes to rest at a less agitated tempo, Yakov loses and then rediscovers comfortable faith. Religion in Chekhov’s story is tied not only to its characters and themes, but to the pace of the narrative itself. 

If Yakov’s primary conflict comes from his struggle with religious faith, Matvey’s comes from a more general dissatisfaction with his life. He constantly yearns for his former life at the factory, laments his inability to change his cousin’s ways, and feels constrained by illness and malady. Matvey reminisces on his former factory life often, and wishes to return to it.

“It is true we began St. Andrey’s prayers and the Praises between six and seven, and it was past eleven when we finished, so that it was sometimes after midnight when we got home to the factory. It was good,” sighed Matvey. “Very good it was, indeed, Sergey Nikanoritch.”

…he could hear that Matvey, too, was awake, and continually sighing and pining for his tile factory.

Matvey, hungry and melancholy, sat reading, or went up to the Dutch stove and slowly scrutinized the tiles which reminded him of the factory.

This attachment to his former life is noticed by the other members of his family, and Aglaia often attacks him with his factory experiences as the main subject of her bitter mockery.

Matvey wishes greatly to escape his living situation, believing his home to be a miserable place of resentment and anger. He asks Yakov for a horse so he can get away, which Yakov himself desires, but is unable- or possibly just unwilling- to spare the materials that will make that possible.

“Brother,” said Matvey, “I am a sick man. I don’t want possession — let them go; you have them, but give me a small share to keep me in my illness. Give it me and I’ll go away.”

Matvey’s dissatisfaction brings him into conflict with his cousin, as it partially motivates him to attack his cousin’s more rooted and sustained lifestyle and religion.

As far as what I’d like to learn from Chekhov’s writing and this story in particular, I think his method of building tension through internal reflection and a character’s crisis of faith is extremely skillful. The story builds and builds without much even happening for most of it, as most of the conflict occurs within Yakov’s and to a lesser extent Matvey’s minds. It is on the abstract level that most of the thematic and narrative events occur until Matvey’s murder, and even this viscerally physical act is only a final expression of Yakov’s previous internal problems. Chekhov’s dialogue is also very good, and his style of short but narratively important character discourse is something I’d very much like to take from. Hardly a word is ever wasted or expended pointlessly, and it creates a very sharp flow between characters that moves the story along effortlessly while still being captivating on its own merits.

Questions:

  • Why do you think Chekhov choses to open the story with two sections exclusively from the point of view of Matvey, leaving Yakov for later?
  • Who do you think Chekhov places primacy on as the main character- Matvey or Yakov? Does the story end with either of their religious perspectives as triumphant?
  • Does the story portray Matvey and his actions in a positive light? Do you think he’s any better than his cousin, or is he a hypocrite?

Deceit, Purslanes, and Children: “In The Kindergarten” Write Up by Mariah Adeeko

“In the Kindergarten” by Ha Jin explores a mature approach of character development and his fictional kindergarten setting conditions through eyes of elementary protagonist Shoana. The story shows through Shoana that this atypical kindergarten contains deeper problems than blatantly presented: lies, forced labor, extreme forms of punishment, and more. While these might not be all the problems that the “boarding school” seems to face, they are the ones that Shoana realizes and attempts to comprehend.

Shoana is a lonely kindergartener who longs to be back home with her parents and new baby brother. Adjusting to kindergarten life has been hard, having to conform to iron beds, disgusting meals, and new authority. One day her teacher, recently going through divorce and abortion, has the kids pick purslanes: something they’ll get to eat for dinner if they work hard. While picking, one of Shoana’s classmates – Dabin – boasts about having more purslanes and ends up in a fight with another one of their classmates. The result of this fight has the teacher punishing him: banishing him to a cupboard where he may or may not be forgotten about. In the end, the children don’t get to eat the purslanes; only Shoana is the one who sees the teacher heading away keeping the purslanes to herself. Later that day, Shoana and Dabin make up. She gives him some peanuts – collateral collected when she saw her parents outside of the kindergarten. The next day, Shoana spends her time on the rainy field playing court with her classmates, getting muddy. The mud on all the children’s clothes causes the teacher to wash all their clothes, confiscating Shoana’s peanuts as she does, leaving the toddler devastated. The next day, the teacher sets the kids out to pick out more purslanes, saying that they will get to eat them for dinner tonight for sure. As they do so, a rabbit breaks out from the area and the teacher commands everyone to chase after it. As they chase for the animal, Shoana pees in the duffel bag where the purslanes have been being accumulated in. With new confidence, she joins the rabbit chase. That evening, Shoana happily eats the gruel given to her and even plays the boys “as if she had become a big girl”. Her new mindset hints that she’ll adjust to the kindergarten, exposing her to a new level of maturity.

Regarding chronic tension, it would be Shoana’s adversity adjusting to kindergarten. For acute tension, it would be Shoana noticing her teacher taking their harvest for herself (or, debatably, the beginning of the rabbit chase).

The first technique that I tracked was “descriptions and conditions of the kindergarten” because the reader easily gets enamored by the elementary setting. We must adjust, just like Shoana, as the setting forces our perspective to go through a distortion of understanding (from having gone through (a presumably) normal kindergarten experience ourselves).

Through the setting, we see that the students don’t have lots of freedom. They are trapped inside the kindergarten through cases of physical barriers set by authority.

The children were excited, because they were seldom allowed to go out of the stone wall.

The rules didn’t allow her to eat anything after she had brushed her teeth for bed.

However, their freedom is sometimes literally stripped from them too. When we see Dabin go through punishment, it is a jarring description that the reader can be glad is fictional.

The boy would be “jailed”, and he might get even with her after he was released. On the second floor of their building was a room, the kitchen is only for storage, in a corner of which that three bedside cupboards. Sometimes a troublesome boy will be locked in one of them for hours.

Lastly, the nutritional conditions in the kindergarten are questionable. The food is gross enough to challenge prison food, serving as one of the reasons the children are eager to pick purslanes. It’s because their regular food is bad enough that they’re willing to work for anything else. Later, as we see this food has a spandrel effect on Shoana’s attitude, it turns out the school’s horrible gruel serves to be tolerable after all.

For the first time in the kindergarten she ate a hearty meal – three sweet potatoes, two bowls of corn glue, and many spoonfuls of fried eggplant.

The conditions of the kindergarten make the story surreal but tangible. It helps ground the story to something that the reader can access, but still have somewhat of a distance from. Shoana is the overall connecting piece for the setting as her perception and preexisting knowledge of the place helps fill the reader in on details that would have normally slipped by.

Transitioning into the second technique I tracked, “character development and changes” was something I ended up expanding to a range of changes. I realized just how many changes there were in the story, minor and major, that added to the core of the plot. At first, it was “internal/external” changes. I then realized that the story’s kinetic called for “emotional” changes too. Finally, I gave into the and added in “physical” changes because the debate of whether character actions were as important as their emotions arose. Jin masters this technique through expanding development to every single character mentioned (mainly Shoana, of course, but most of hers is near the end). Ones that are more initial, like the teacher’s, required events that already happened (such as her divorce, abortion, accumulating debt, etc.). However, the ones that focused on the students would all have to take place later after an incident has already happened. For examples…

Shoana, at first hating the desolate kindergarten, changes the most when she gathers the courage to not conform into the rabbit chase and take on her own desired course of action.

Shoana was not with them because she wanted to pee. Looking around, she saw nobody nearby, so she squatted down over the duffel, making sure to conceal her little bottom with her skirt, and peed on the purslanes laying inside the bag. Then with a kicking heart, she ran away to join the chasers.

We also see this technique through character disputes that are flippant and can be solved, such as interactions Shoana has with minor characters, like Dabin. After she gives him the peanuts as a peace offering, he demands…

“You must be nice to me from now on. Remember to save lots of goodies for me, got it?”

Stemming off emotional changes, this extends to Shoana’s realizations throughout the story. Most likely the most heartbreaking example coming from Shoana being the sole witness to her teacher’s flight with the purslanes.

Now she understood, their teacher took their harvest home.

Lastly, there were physical changes too. As mentioned above with Shoana’s taste changing through her adrenaline, examples of physical changes would often lead to different perceptions and outlooks. For dinner, it was for the better. However, in less cheerful examples, we see how physical changes can lead to emotional changes too.

They elected her the queen…she had to sit on the wet ground all the time. She got up from the ground, shouting, “I quit!”

Also…

He went up to her, grabbed her shoulder, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks. She burst out crying.

Some crafts I would like to take from this story would be Jin’s descriptions and skillful use of dialogue. He, like Antonya Nelson, use dialogue to enhance the story instead of fuel it. It’s not excessive to the point where it’s filler, but where it’s a piece you must pay attention to in order to have a further familiarity with their story. Jin’s descriptions can be subtle revelations (i.e. Aunt Chef), while others are jarringly blatant (i.e. the iron beds the kids must sleep on). Both, when used to their full potential, will help escalate the reader’s attention the whole readthrough. If I were to come up with a writing exercise for this story, it would be to write a story where a character is presented with several dilemmas that seem insolvable. It will be up to the author or not as to whether these dilemmas are solved, unsolved, or like Shoana, solved through one decision that has a later domino effect.

Discussion Questions

  • How does the rabbit scene affect the chronic tension?
  • How does the teacher’s problems affect the kids? Physically? Emotionally?
  • How do you think, according to the snip-it descriptions, the kindergarten affects the adults?

 

 

“The Cost of Dehaunting” Write Up by Laura Mercado

In “The Cost of Dehaunting,” by Dominica Phetteplace, Petra is at a job in a super expensive condo, hired to dehaunt it. There’s nothing wrong with the house, though, just a crooked floor, so she walks around to waste time. We move onto her next job, a house that will soon be demolished but the owner wants it dehaunted to fetch a higher price for the land. There are ghost cats in the kitchen so Petra puts them in a bag instead of passing them over into the ghost world. Petra gets a third call, to go dehaunt some apartments. Turns out there’s no actual ghost and it’s a ruse to evict the people living there. She wants to connect with the tenants but is rusty in her Spanish. She has flashbacks to her relationship with her friend Corazon, which she kind of relates to, her and her mother, which she minimally relates to. Then, she goes to her therapist Joanna’s office. She talks about being a Latina but mostly talks about the other country, which her therapist doesn’t fully believe. Petra lets the cats out and the therapist kind of starts to believe, but not fully until Petra pulls a ritual to out the cats away that doesn’t work as well as it should because she uses a simpler, rusty technique. The cats cause maybe but finally get absorbs in a gem of Petra’s. Joanna finally fully accepts Petra’s story and sits down for Petra to tell her tales.

Petra is technically Latina. She’s Morena and her name is as Spanish as it gets; anyone can tell by looking at her she has a Hispanic background. Petra’s sphere she works in, however, is majority millionaire of Anglo descent. The only recognizable part of Petra to her customers is designer Mansur Gavriel bag, and she catches a realtor, Wendy, “eyeing the bag” as she performs ghost rituals. It’s the only part about her appearance and her rituals the Anglo clientele can immediately relate to. There are two main worlds in this story: this dimension, and a magical other world she refers to as “the other country”. It is from this other country she gets her wealth from, though she must reside in this dimension. Similarly, there are two cultural spheres Petra alternates between: her Mexican background, and her American present. Petra looks right at home in her Mexican background, but her core- the culture she knows best and was surrounded by her whole life- is that of her American present. She lives in a state of in-between, never able to completely cross over into one culture or the other. Some of the ghosts we see her deal with in this piece, primarily the cat spirits, live in a similar state of not quite passing over. Petra affords the high-class life she leads only due to the gems she gathered from the other country; additionally, she is only able to successfully complete the ghost rituals through a mix of Mexican rituals. Both of these instances show that Petra would not be who she is today without her backgrounds, both in culture and in the “other country”. It shows that the magical land of the “other country” is a physical manifestation of her Mexican culture, which Petra prefers to reside in but must pay the price of isolation. Petra attempts to get over this feeling of isolation by talking to her second generation Latina therapist, Joanna. She talks to Joanna about things she cannot talk to her mother or her friend Corazon about: her adventures in the other country. Joanna’s mother, fully Latina, cannot understand the struggles of juggling two cultures. Corazon, being mega rich, of light skin, and living solely in this American culture cannot understand Petra’s struggle. Joanna the therapist is the only person in Petra’s life with some form of connection to both cultures, although even she does not fully understand Petra’s struggle (Joanna is also of light skin, has a totally American last name, and has a first name that can be pronounced in both Spanish and English, depending on the situation. She is able to seamlessly cross over cultures). Petra feels anger upon Joanna’s attempts to relate her struggles of identifying as a Latina to her own, due to the privilege of having a transferable name and genetics that allow for a smoother cultural transitioning; she internally explodes in a similar way the spirit cats do when Petra attempts to gather them from Joanna’s office in a non-traditional manner. The cats are Petra; Petra is the cats. Ironically, it is the ghost cats’ anger that finally leads to Joanna accepting Petra’s struggles in fitting in from the other country, or other culture, to this one; it is once the cats almost destroy all that Petra finally has her struggles listened to and fully understood by someone, what she wanted all along.

I want to copy how deeply the metaphor of the ghosts and cats represented Petra’s conflict with living in two cultures. The chronic tension is incredibly intertwined with the acute, and in a literal manifestation.

Exercise: Pick an object and write a scene with it. Put that paper away. Pull out new paper. Pick a character and write a scene with them having an internal conflict. Then cut up each line from both pieces of paper and collage them together, making a new story with the object intertwined with the internal conflict. Then take this idea and write a more fluent, cohesive scene with it.

Questions:

  • Was there a villain/ bad guy in this story? Who was the bad guy to y’all?
  • Thoughts on writing two cultures in one piece? Was they way the author switched between them confusing to anyone?
  • Satisfied with the ending? Did it feel like a cop-out or was it wholesome?