The Wolffman’s Bromances

I. “Smorgasbord”

This semester, before the coronavirus caused us to disband from the shared physical space of our classroom, I had the high-school freshmen read the story “Smorgasbord” by Tobias Wolff, from his collection The Night In Question (1996). Even though this was actually the first short story I was assigned to read in my very first fiction workshop when I was in college, I’d never read it with a PVA class before, probably because we usually end up reading Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and I don’t like to double up on a writer, especially a white male. And Wolff is pretty much the quintessential white male literary writer.

Two pairs of freshmen were assigned to summarize “Smorgasbord.” Here’s the first summary:

The unnamed main character is impatiently waiting to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend. He’s invited by Crosley, another boy at the boarding school, who was invited by Garcia, a dictator’s son, to have lunch with him and his stepmother, Linda. Once in the limousine, the main character notices Linda’s beauty and is immediately attracted to her. Garcia then has a fight with Linda about, according to Crosley, money. Garcia stubbornly stays in the limo while the others eat dinner in a Smorgasbord chosen by Crosley. In the restaurant, the main character is distracted by a waitress’ attributes. Crosley and the main character eat a bunch of food while discussing the main character’s impending shift in the relationship with his girlfriend. Garcia, out of frustration, calls them to the limo and they drive away. When they arrive back at the school Linda gives both of the boys 100 dollars after Garcia refuses the money. They converse about what to do with the money and decide to spend it on prostitutes. This causes a breakup in the main relationship 5 months later because “he no longer loves her.”

The chronic tension in the story is that the main character is horny.

The acute tension is the main character meeting Linda and noticing how mighty fine she is.

And the second pair’s summary:

In “Smorgasbord,” we are presented with a private preparatory school student who is feeling insecure and troubled over his financial status. He feels excluded and different because he is not able to go home like the other students. This adds to his insecurity. He travels to dinner and thinks about his misfortune and differences. After eating, he goes back to his room and thinks about this. Soon, his friend Crosley invites him to go out with his other friend Garcia. He has been thinking of ending things with his girlfriend. Crosley and the narrator leave to go in the limo along with Garcia and his stepmom, Linda. They travel to a restaurant and begin dining.
The main character and Crosley return to their table with large plates of food. They start talking with Garcia’s stepmother Linda, and she asks them if they have girlfriends. Crosley says no, but the main character replies yes, and then goes on to talk about his girlfriend Jane with the two of them. He can see that Linda’s “eyes are laughing”, which gives him a flashback to his English class. Garcia then appears at the door, very angry. Linda says that it’s time to go, and the three of them follow Garcia into the car. As they say goodbye, Linda offers all three of them hundred dollar bills. Garcia rudely refuses, but the two other boys accept. The main character returns to his room and tries to go to sleep. Flashforward to a month after he returns and sees his girlfriend, and they break up, because they realize they don’t love each other. Back to present and Crosley returns to the room to see if he has any Tums. Crosley then asks to stay, and the main character hesitantly agrees. They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat. The story ends with the two of them wondering how they should go about buying a prostitute.

If you mix these two descriptions together then you get a better idea of what’s going on here and how the chronic tension is working. There’s really two threads of it, the one the first description focuses on–the girlfriend/sex–and the one the second description mentions at the beginning–his insecurity at the boarding school because of his (lack of) financial status. The acute tension is going to this “smorgasbord” with this attractive woman who is supposedly the wife of a dictator. Neither of the descriptions here quite clearly identifies what the climax of this arc actually is; it’s buried in the first one in the “They converse about what to do with the money” part, and the second one gets a bit closer with “They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat.”

Crosely is an initially obnoxious character who the main character tells us most of their classmates keep their distance from because he’s rumored to be a thief. The narrator has also mentioned how he’s hungry a lot because of not having a lot of money, and during the smorgasbord acute tension, he and Crosley both eat like there’s no tomorrow. As they’re doing this, as the second summary mentions, the beautiful woman (whom their appetites for food are objective correlatives for their lust for) interrogates them about women, and when the narrator waxes poetic about his girlfriend, she makes him feel foolish. Her gift of money to them, which they both accept, is a concrete gesture that symbolically shows a likeness between them (contrasted with Garcia, who refuses it), a likeness elucidated by the conversation they have afterwards: they’re both poor. Crosley confesses in this conversation that the rumors are true and he really did steal from his roommate, a coat that drove him crazy with desire. The real climax of the narrative arc is in this moment:

“Man, did I want that coat. It was ridiculous how much I wanted it. You know?” He looked right at me. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

This is a moment where the main character overtly acknowledges that the two of them are the same in this fundamental way. The smorgasbord acute tension (s)experience has enabled them to recognize this sameness and bond over it. A change has taken place because the narrator was lonely at the beginning and we can now see that he will not be as lonely anymore: in this place full of rich entitled brats like Garcia, there is at least one other person with whom he has something in common.

The resolution or denouement after this climactic moment bears this change out by showing us that the main character was being truthful in response to Crosley’s critical question and by showing them continue their bond in a conversation that explicitly links money to sex. Near the conclusion we see the narrator mentally justifying the idea of buying a prostitute with the idea that it would be specifically for his girlfriend Jane’s sake. By this point we’ve already been told that they’ll break up a month or so later because he doesn’t love her, and we know, or should know, that his justifications for the prostitute are ultimately self-serving bullsh*t. It’s left ambiguous whether he and Crosley actually go through with getting prostitutes or not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the fantasy of getting one facilitates a bond between him and Crosley that we presume will outlast this night (probably it will outlast his relationship with Jane).

So narratively, it works. A specific change happens because of the events specifically described. Perfect story, right? Structurally, I guess you could say that. This story is a pretty good example of using both food and clothes as objective correlatives, as per my previous post–the concrete object of the stolen coat stands in for the longing created by class discrepancy in this elite prep school and facilitates the recognition of an abstract idea of shared likeness. But someone very specific is sacrificed to achieve this structure: the women. The story’s female characters are essentially rendered objects to serve this structure and plot rather than developed as characters in their own right.

First, there’s Garcia’s stepmother, the beautiful Linda, an object of lust whose reaction to his discussion of his girlfriend–another female object–serves to reveal his own delusions to himself, to reveal that he’s really just using her for sex (or the promise of sex at this point), aka using her like an object, and you would think that this realization might make the story self-aware in a way that’s pointing out misogyny rather than engaging in it. The narrator’s hollow justifications for getting a prostitute–the story’s third female object–would also seem to be a gesture of recognizing misogyny, and yet the uplifting, almost giddy tone taken in the story’s final line describing the bond this facilitates with Crosley pretty much undoes all of this:

And so we sat up and took counsel, leaning toward each other from the beds, holding our swollen bellies, whispering back and forth about how this thing might be done, and where, and when.

I didn’t really realize until I looked at this line again how homoerotic it is…which is in service of the point I was going to make anyway: by focusing the acute-tension reversal, the story’s critical change, around the narrator’s relationship with Crosley, this bromance is elevated as the most important relationship in the story, all the female characters narratively used only to develop it in the exact same way the narrator uses his girlfriend and would use both Linda and a prostitute. This relationship hierarchy sends a message: if women are only narratively present to further male relationships, men are implicitly elevated as more important.

When the freshmen discussed the story, some were assigned to be “connectors”–to connect some aspect of the story to other literary texts they’ve read. One pair’s response got at this idea of the female being used as a plot device to facilitate male bonding:

Both “Gilgamesh” and “Smorgasbord” use specific character archetypes to carry the story along and bring two other characters together. In the case of these two stories, the archetype is of the alluring woman. In “Smorgasbord”, the character is Garcia’s stepmother, who is both physically and psychologically alluring. Linda attracts the main character with her scent and good looks. She also attracts him with her mysterious mannerisms (smoking cigarettes and wearing the cape) and gregarious personality. After the dinner, Linda gives both Crosley and the main character a hundred dollars, effectively cementing their friendship. In “Gilgamesh”, the alluring female character is Shamhat, the prostitute at the start of the epic who makes Enkidu more civilized. While she doesn’t directly bring Gilgamesh and Enkidu together, her relationship with Enkidu changed him and thus the plot of the story, bringing together Gilgamesh and Enkidu both physically and emotionally.

That’s not to say you could never have a story about a bromance without it being inherently misogynistic. It’s really ultimately about how the story treats the female characters; even if it is a bromance story and the female characters ultimately exist to emphasize that aspect, you have to hide the fact that this is their primary narrative function and make them feel more human than “Smorgasbord” does.

II. This Boy’s Life

Recently rereading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which begins right after Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of his third or fourth prep school, a passage early on instantly reminded me of “Smorgasbord”:

The week before that, somebody’d stolen my camel’s-hair coat right out of my room, with my fur-lined gloves right in the pocket and all. Pencey was full of crooks.

Salinger of course is another quintessential white male literary writer (one who I also noted in my previous post uses food and clothes as effective objective correlatives), and when his own misogyny and behavior with women was called into question, he was vociferously defended by the establishment, that inherently sexist/misogynist institution unconsciously reflected in “Smorgasbord.”

Having recently finished Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, I gained a little more insight into the cultural and familial forces that molded Wolff in his formative years, and how these were manifesting themselves in “Smorgasbord.” The book is quite captivating, divided into chapters with near short-story arcs but that are each a critical piece in the longer arc of the book as a whole. But as when I re-read “Smorgasbord,” I had feelings that this technical prowess was hiding something darker. Wolff makes you read between the lines with what might be deemed (by the patriarchy) textbook examples of show-don’t-tell, but at times it feels like what he’s showing is revealing more than he consciously intended.

The book begins with Wolff at ten/eleven years old driving across the country with his mother, who’s fleeing a not-so-great relationship. During one of their periodic stops to let their old car cool down, a semi-truck screams past them, and his mother notes it must have lost its brakes. After they get back in the car, there’s a hubbub up ahead where the semi drove over a cliff, and Wolff gazes down at the small and distant wreckage. The conclusion of this chapter-story is foreshadowing what is waiting for them at the end of this trip.

The bad boyfriend his mother was fleeing, Roy, shows back up once they’ve settled in Salt Lake City, and he ingratiates himself to young Wolff with a Winchester rifle. Wolff doesn’t mind when his mother flees Roy again, as long as he gets to take the rifle with him. (Guns are hugely important in the book, both thematically and as a structural device.) When they end up in Seattle, his mother falls into dating a man named Dwight, and it seems serious when Wolff goes to Dwight’s house some hours away in the boondocks and meets his kids for Thanksgiving. Dwight tries to entice Wolff with the promise of a turkey shoot where he can use his rifle, but this turns out to be untrue on two fronts—there’s no turkey, only paper targets, and only adults are allowed to participate. Dwight, we are learning along with Wolff, is largely full of sh*t, only interested in reinforcing his own ego.

Of course, Wolff might be biased in his account of Dwight, but there are ways he slyly reinforces an impression that he’s not exaggerating when it comes to Dwight—he’ll note times that he expects Dwight to fly off the handle, but Dwight surprises him and doesn’t. Another way Wolff undermines a one-sidedness in his account is by showing us that these unfavorably presented traits of Dwight’s are developing in himself. When Wolff returns to school after not getting to participate in the fake turkey shoot, he tells his delinquent friends he blew a turkey’s head off, and when they call him out for his obvious lie, he’s prompted to carve graffiti into one of the stalls in the school bathroom. This leads to his mother being called, an event that is then presented as a catalyst for her decision to send him to live with Dwight–because he’s in need of discipline she can’t provide–and thus also a catalyst for her eventual decision to marry him. (That this marriage is for her son’s sake but turns out to be destructive rather than beneficial for him–this marriage is that semi-truck gone over the cliff at the beginning–is the book’s great tragedy.) Dwight lied, Wolff lied in response to Dwight’s lie, and this is what ends up landing him with Dwight for the long haul…

To continue the gun thread, another significant moment in the development (or rather, deterioration) of Wolff’s relationship with Dwight is when Wolff comes home one day and there’s an ugly dog on the porch Dwight tells him is his, because “you paid for it.” Wolff doesn’t know what he means until he goes in his room and sees his prized Winchester rifle from Ray is gone. This foreshadows another theft that Dwight is already in the process of, having insisted on putting Wolff’s paper-route earnings in the bank for him and not even allowing Wolff to use the money to buy new shoes for himself when he needs them.

The ongoing conflict with Dwight creates a narrative goal for the main character of Wolff to escape, the avenue for which becomes the possibility of going away to a prep school, even though Wolff has terrible grades and is a general delinquent. Before he hears back from the schools he’s applied to—with fake transcripts and recommendation letters—he cuts off the tip of one of his fingers in woodshop class and has to have it surgically reattached. This injury becomes the conduit to finally galvanize his mother to leave Dwight for good, when Dwight, during one of his fairly standard nagging/abusive routines, aggravates the injury:

“Don’t talk to me like that, mister,” he said, and jabbed his fingers against my chest.

He didn’t push all that hard, but he caught me off balance. I stumbled backward, tripping on my own feet, and as I went down I threw my hands out behind me to break the fall. All this seemed to happen very slowly, until the moment I landed on my finger.

This is one of those moments where Wolff reinforces that his account of Dwight is fair and not exaggerated out of bitterness: he acknowledges that Dwight “didn’t push all that hard,” and that even if Dwight had intentionally injured him on other occasions, what happened to his finger here was more or less an accident.

Let’s compare this to the movie version. The setup for this finger-re-injury incident is traded out for an earlier one in the book, Dwight yelling at Wolff for throwing away an empty mustard jar that to his standards hasn’t been scraped out as much as it could be. By this point in the movie Wolff has already gotten his prep-school scholarship, though in the book he hasn’t yet when the finger incident happens that finally enables him to leave Dwight’s. (In the book the mustard incident–which Wolff then calls his estranged brother Geoffrey about, exaggerating what happened–is how he learns about the possibility of attending prep school in the first place.) The conflict is turned into the climax of the film when, instead of Dwight jabbing him lightly and him falling accidentally, the two explode into a full-blown fistfight, during which Dwight ends up biting Wolff’s injured finger extremely intentionally. Dwight then almost strangles him before his mother manages to stop him. (This would seem to be a stand-in for a separate incident in the book where Dwight almost strangles his mother that the movie omits.) Wolff, who already has his fraudulently procured prep-school exit secured, tells his mother she can leave with him, and she agrees, and they run out of the house giddy with joy, and Wolff’s voiceover (via Leonardo DiCaprio) says “It was that easy…”

Well, that’s Hollywood for you. This also reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye, where in the very first paragraph of the book Holden lets you know his feelings about Hollywood via his brother’s career:

Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.

Part of the reason Holden seems to hate them so much is because of the absurd fantasies about life they propagate, and the change this movie adaptation made to Wolff’s book seems emblematic to me about everything Holden hates about the movies. It was hardly that easy for Wolff and his mother to get out even after the finger re-injury incident makes up his mother’s mind that they will. Not even close to that easy. There’s basically a whole section of the book after that point the movie leaves out.

In both versions, we get that after years of Wolff’s working on his paper route, Dwight spent all the money–thousands of dollars–he claimed to be saving for him. The movie leaves it at that. But the book goes further in providing more of a resolution to this injustice, completing a more satisfying narrative arc by using that object(s) I’ve noted has become very relevant in other parts of the book: the gun. We’ve seen Wolff’s mother’s bad boyfriends seduce him with firepower and we’ve seen him fall for its false promises (parallel to the false promises made by the boyfriends). We saw Dwight outright steal two major things from our main character—his prized Winchester rifle and all of his hard-earned money. (Wolff notes that he stole money from his customers on occasion, but that was money that was not given over to Dwight and we saw him lose it to a con artist at a carnival in a sequence that also seems to reinforce a sort of cyclical nature to theft/conning/duplicity. Which means as a reader you’re basically put in the position of feeling Dwight’s theft from Wolff as an enraging injustice even though we know Wolff himself is a thief.)

So the way the book completes the arc of the Dwight conflict via guns is: after Wolff’s mother has finally managed to leave Dwight, Wolff hears from his stepsister that Dwight is planning to go to Seattle that weekend to win her back; while Dwight is gone on this errand, Wolff returns to the house and robs Dwight blind of all of his hunting equipment, including several rifles. He barely gets any money when he tries to pawn them, seeming to possibly symbolize the futility of this cycle of retribution, and yet there was something highly narratively satisfying in his robbing Dwight, of guns specifically, after the role(s) they played in the story. It also seems symbolic that the conclusion of their narrative arc is a disposal not just of one, but an entire arsenal. It seems symbolic of his leaving the machismo culture of this rural part of the country behind, as he is in fact about to do (for the different, if no less problematic culture of the elite prep school…).

The conflict with Dwight is one of the principle ones of the book in a way that you might argue gives him more airtime and character development than Wolff’s mother (and of course Robert De Niro, playing Dwight, gets billing over Ellen Barkin, playing Wolff’s mother, in the movie). But I’m not designating Wolff’s relationship with his abusive stepfather as a “bromance.” The book has another bromance, constituted by Wolff’s relationship with a boy named Arthur. I said that in “Smorgasbord” the main conflict is ultimately about the bromance, using the main character’s relationship to women to develop the bromance, but in This Boy’s Life, the bromance is the relationship that’s being narratively used to develop the narrative’s more primary conflict/relationship with the abusive stepfather Dwight.

The character of Arthur appears in both the book and the movie, and like the arc with Dwight, the movie truncates Arthur’s arc so that it’s not developed with the full satisfying symmetry achieved in the book. Arthur is first introduced when he and Wolff get into a fistfight after Wolff, despite recognizing Arthur as a kindred spirit, calls Arthur a “sissy” (changed to “homo” in the movie, I guess so modern viewers could understand the extremity of the implications). Wolff was encouraged to do so by some friends due to Arthur’s effeminate tendencies, but despite these, Arthur beats Wolff in the fight and makes him take the insult back.

Eventually Arthur and Wolff become friends, and at one point the book almost offhandedly mentions:

One night he kissed me, or I kissed him, or we kissed each other. It surprised us both. After that, whenever we felt particularly close we turned on each other.

In the movie, this is changed to Arthur kissing Wolff on the cheek when they’re playing piano together, after a long shot of Arthur gazing longingly at an oblivious Wolff, implying, not subtly, that Arthur is the gay one while Wolff has no potential leanings in that direction. Arthur’s feelings for Wolff become an implied motivation for something Arthur does that basically changes Wolff’s entire life, completing the narrative arc of the conflict with Dwight because it’s what enables Wolff to finally leave for prep school—Arthur, who works in the school office, is the one who procures the official forms Wolff needs to successfully forge his transcripts and recommendation letters.

In the movie, after Arthur gets Wolff the forms, we never see him again (though there is a note at the very end that he eventually did get out himself and move to Italy). But in the book, immediately after the scene where Arthur gets him the forms and he fills them out and sends them off, it describes them getting into one of the fights they’ve been getting into since the kiss (though the kiss is not invoked directly). A teacher who runs well-attended public boxing matches for a profit—which ought to give you some idea of the culture of this small town—forces Wolff and Arthur to participate as supposed punishment. During the match, Wolff ends up using some moves that Dwight taught him. Arthur’s last appearance in the book is during a description of an uppercut Wolff dealt him, though he notes that Arthur (again) won the fight. The passage with the fight then concludes:

I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I’d struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.

And we never hear of or from Arthur again… Much like the theft of the guns, the boxing match concludes the Arthur arc very symmetrically—Arthur was introduced with a fight and his arc ends with a fight. The viciousness toward his friend provoked by the ritual pretty much embodies what the culture of the town (embodied in Dwight) is doing to him and why he needs to leave. Narratively, structurally, it works, much like “Smorgasbord.”

But the way Arthur is dispensed with after he serves his purpose in the narrative is troubling to me in ways that feel similar to my discomfort with the way Jane is used in “Smorgasbord.” Used by the character, and, more problematically, used by the writer…

Arthur’s potential homosexuality is leaned on pretty heavily:

The weakest part of his act was the girlfriend, Beth Mathis. Though Beth wasn’t pretty she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either, as you would have thought from the way Arthur treated her. He gripped Beth’s hand as they walked from class to class, but he never talked to her or even looked at her. Instead he stared testily into the faces he passed as if looking for signs of skepticism or amusement. No one seemed to notice, but I did. It troubled me. It seemed so strange that I kept my mouth shut.

But aside from the fact that Wolff is cagey about who exactly kissed whom that one time, which is notable, he doesn’t much otherwise implicate himself in any homoerotic feelings, other than the fact that girls are mentioned only in the service of performances of machismo and never because he has serious feelings for them. This type of machismo is expressed in the passage above when he offhandedly says “Beth wasn’t pretty [but] she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either.” Such a description seems to accurately reflect how his conditioned adolescent mind evaluated women at the time, but I’m not seeing much in the retrospective relaying of it to evaluate this evaluation as problematic. Similarly, it seems that when Wolff baldly notes things like how he brazenly stares at his attractive older stepsister Norma, he’s implicitly shaming/rebuking these actions as gross, but other times it seems that not really enough work is done to interrogate these things.

It’s also troubling to me how Arthur’s final appearance is subsumed into “something like love for Dwight”; again, it feels like the passage is written in such a way that we’re supposed to recognize this form of love as sick because it’s constituted by these absurd violent performances of masculinity. But because of its placement, that sick love is linked to his potential love for Arthur, implicating that potential love as “sick” as well. That a sick love for Dwight might be formed in response to a need to eradicate this sick love for Arthur is complicated to say the least; the whole fight is essentially occurring because of their repressed feelings for each other, as the chain of events as presented seems to show: they kissed, they started fighting in response to their feelings of closeness; a teacher caught them during one of these fights, forcing them to transfer it to a public boxing match. Wolff shows the events happen this way without overly explicating them, in accordance with the creative writer’s show-don’t-tell mandate. But he doesn’t show quite enough for me when it comes to wrapping up the Arthur arc, especially in light of the implication that his love for Arthur is as sick as any he might feel for Dwight, and especially in comparison to how he articulates the complexity of his feelings from the retrospective vantage in regards to other male relationships of his, particularly with his friend Chuck, a pretty important character left out of the movie entirely, the friend he goes to live with after the finger re-injury leads to him finally leaving Dwight’s. And this is not the only way Chuck’s character–and Wolff’s feelings for Chuck’s character and what happens to Chuck and the way he describes those feelings and what happens–enters the realm of misogyny.

Chuck ends up entrapped in a situation very different from but with certain parallels to Wolff’s when he impregnates an underage girl and is faced with the choice of marrying her or going to prison. While in certain ways Wolff seems to be showing us a situation that reflects the horrors of small-town life and culture, what exactly is figured as “horrific”about this scenario becomes problematic for me. It’s Chuck’s potential fate of having to marry the girl that’s the horror due to who this particular girl is:

Somebody had knocked her up. She’d kept her pregnancy secret for as long as she could, and she was so fat to begin with that this deception came within two months of bringing her to term. Her name was Tina Flood, but everyone just called her The Flood. She was fifteen years old.

Again, I’m sure this is all an accurate description of how this girl was perceived and treated at school. And Wolff makes some effort to call out his own attitudes toward “The Flood” at the time as problematic, but by the time he does, Chuck’s staunch refusal to marry her even under threat of prison has been figured as heroic. As the reader, Wolff puts you in the position of rooting for Chuck, which was his position. He and Chuck are both trying to escape, after all. And like Wolff, Chuck does end up escaping his potential fate of entrapment when one of his friends who also slept with Tina succumbs to the pressure to marry her:

I was shaking with relief and joy and cruel pleasure, for the truth was I didn’t like Huff and felt no pity for Tina. To me she was just The Flood and now I saw Huff trapped in its grip, paddling feebly on its broad heaving surface, pummeled and smothered, going under and bobbing up again somewhere else with his hairy arms churning and his pompadour agleam.

Here Wolff acknowledges that the pleasure he takes in Chuck’s escape at Tina’s expense is “cruel” in a way that again evokes an impression of honesty—here he is putting all his ugly feelings on display for the reader, and with that “cruel” label seems to be overtly acknowledging their ugliness. But is that enough to compensate for the episode being depicted such that even a feminist reader such as myself is seduced into taking up Wolff’s position of sympathy for Chuck escaping this situation that he got himself into by essentially using a girl like toilet paper? Is that enough to compensate for reducing the female to an object once more, designating her an “it” while the male counterpart that he claims to have the same level of feelings for as Tina gets to retain his human pronoun? The pure poetry dedicated to the description is a specific effort on the part of the retrospective writer, after all, one to capture the problematic mindset, but still.

Wolff again seems to be trying to inject some writerly awareness about how gross this all is from the retrospective position when he circles back chronologically to a moment with Chuck to end the book with. Chuck gets a much more articulated sendoff than Arthur:

He had escaped Tina Flood, he had escaped prison, and before long he would escape me. We weren’t friends any more, but we both had cause to rejoice and this helped us imagine we were friends.

And the final line:

It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.

This is a link back to some references revolving around Chuck’s father, a preacher. The “as if” strikes a note of discord, basically implying they have not actually been saved even if they’ve escaped their immediate bonds and believe this is enough to “save” them. Wolff may have escaped his immediate physical proximity to this culture, but he has not escaped its mark on him. Before returning to this point to end the book on, Wolff has summarized a fair amount of what happens after he leaves the place where he’s spent the bulk of the book, so we know for sure it’s true he hasn’t actually been “saved” in this moment, that just leaving is not enough. That he ends with faux-salvation instead of actual salvation again seems a way to potentially indict rather than excuse a lot of the terrible things he’s done, but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough acknowledgment to me. I’m seeing a pattern of (white) female and gay characters subverted to (white) straight male ones, which would seem to perpetuate the problems of the culture Wolff came from more than address them.

There was one other thing in This Boy’s Life that left a bad taste in my mouth in conjunction with the ending of Arthur’s arc and the depiction of homosexuality. Wolff summarizes the period after he leaves Dwight’s, mentioning that he spends the summer at his father’s, but with his father largely absent, he ends up mostly in the company of his father’s friend:

For two weeks I drove back and forth along the beach and ate TV dinners and went to movies with an acquaintance of my father’s who had offered to keep an eye on me. One morning I woke up to find this man embracing me and making declarations of love. I got him out of the apartment and called my father, who told me to “shoot the bastard” if he came back. For this purpose he directed me to a .223 Air Force Survival Rifle he had hidden in the closet. He waited on the telephone while I fetched the rifle from its hiding place, then instructed me in its assembly.

That night the man leaned against the apartment door and sobbed while I stood in the darkness on the other side, silently hugging the rifle, sweating and shaking as in a fever.

This is the last we hear of this. Of course it’s an interesting call-back to the gun motif, linking it to the homoerotic. I don’t even know what to do with this, though. The quick summaries of this period, his time at the prep school, and his tour in Vietnam (the latter two subjects of other books of his) feel too quick, and we get so little about what happens during this time that it’s interesting this is one of the few details he does include. It seems a microcosm of all the book’s elements, really, the latent homoeroticism in male relationships tied up with guns. But the gay element here is likened to the threatening, to something he’s forced to take up arms against. It’s depicted as predatory. And once again I was reminded of The Catcher in the Rye, specifically when Holden retreats to the abode of a former teacher–“about the best teacher I ever had,” who’s “a pretty young guy,”–who’s revealed to be a “pervert” who tries to take advantage of Holden.

Perhaps my reading these two books around the same time reinforced my queer reading of them, but I’ve become convinced via both Wolff’s descriptions of what happened with Arthur and his narrative handling of him that Wolff is definitely more gay than he’s letting on, and that Holden Caulfield is gay/bi. (I won’t go into the textual evidence for the latter at this point, but at least one other person has picked up on it.)

At any rate, if we’re going to continue to hold up these old white males’ work as examples of technical literary prowess, I think it’s important to interrogate the attitudes that prowess is encoding.

-SCR

“In the Kindergarten” Lit Circle Round 2

Here is the second group of freshmen’s literature circle materials on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Kindergarten.”

Summarizers: Gryphon and Luke

In “In the Kindergarten” we meet a young girl named Shaona living in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Shaona overhears her teacher, Teacher Shen, speaking on the phone with Doctor Niu about paying for her abortion. Shaona does not know what an abortion is, and questions whether it was a place where a baby was held. It is important to know that the story takes place at a time when China’s One Child Policy was in full swing. Here, we are presented with the chronic tension. Teacher Shen requires both money and certain resources to deal with her abortion. Later, the class is told by the teacher that they were going to spend the day picking puslanes, a plant used during port-partum bleeding. They were told that the herbs would be sent to the kitchen and that they would eat them for dinner. Before they left the field with the duffle bag of the puslanes, the teacher drops a third of them off with Uncle Chang, the one in charge of the vegetable fields at this establishment. Shaona is confused, but doesn’t question it. When the children were presented with dinner, they were disappointed due to the fact that there were no purslanes. Shaona recalls seeing her teacher go home with a large green bag and assumed it was filled with laundry, but now she knows it was filled with purslanes. Here is the acute tension. Shaona and the other children are upset with this, and the next day, Shaona urinates in the bag of purslanes while the children and Teacher Shen were chasing a rabbit. The story ends with Shaona eating a large meal and feeling confident in herself. She feels that she is now a “big girl”.

Discussion Directors: Caroline A and Deonna

  1. What is the purpose of the interaction on pages 46 and 47, where the children are arguing?

  2. Why do you think Jin chose to write from Shaona’s perspective instead of the teacher? How would writing from Teacher Shen’s POV affect the story?

  3. What was the significance of Shaona’s conflict with Dabin? How does her giving away her peanuts affect the story?

  4. Why does the author include the detail of Teacher Shen giving a sizeable amount of the purslanes to Mister Chang?

  5. How does Shaona’s arc come full-circle at the end of the story, where she becomes a “big girl”?

Why do you think Jin chose to write from Shaona’s perspective instead of the teacher? How would writing from Teacher Shen’s POV affect the story?

Jin chose to write from Shaona’s point of view in order to portray Teacher Shen’s situation through the eyes of child. This juxtaposition between the way a child’s mind perceived her predicament—as shown in the scene when Shaona overhears her conversation on the phone–and what the reader realizes to be the teacher’s struggle to recover from an abortion, allows the author and the reader to view the situation through fresh eyes. Using the perspective of a mischievous child over a rather serious situation (abortion, theft, abusing labor, etc.) creates interest and tension for the piece, as well as gives us many small details that we would not have gotten otherwise, such as the relations between the children in the kindergarten and the teacher’s outer ward persona, despite her inner conflict.

Lit Connectors: Athena and Jessie

1. The school
2. Smorgasbord
3. Chanice’s Workshop Story
4. Gallus, Gallus
Both stories, “In the Kindergarten” and “The School” had many vibrant and impotant strokes of peculiarity, both involved children, and in both stories those children acting very strangely. In the Kindergarten is similar to the story we read last semester The School in its use of unsavory language by children. We noticed that in In the Kindergarten, although only kindergarteners, the children used curse words that gave an absurd tone to the piece. Likewise, The School was overall a very odd story. In it, the children in one class at a school witness a series of increasingly peculiar events that all involve the deaths of things they have interacted with. It starts small, and ends up going up to the death of a Korean orphan. Throughout it, the children who go to the school start to sound more and more grown-up, which adds to the surreal feeling it gives off. Both of the stories include children that use more adult language to give off an absurd vibe, and emphasize the strangeness of the situation. In The School, this odd situation is the succession of deaths, and in In the Kindergarten, this situation is the teacher’s need to support herself because of her abortion.

Illustrators: Sonya and Isabella

illustrator2

We decided to try and draw a couple of different things from the story and combine it into one image. Firstly there’s the girl/main character in the center who is holding her skirt full of purslanes, as that was a scene from the book. Shaona is holding her skirt to collect them, which is a part of the tension as the teacher later takes them for her own reasons. The teacher, Teacher Shen, is nearby, almost like a shadow supervising her to make sure she is collecting enough to satisfy Dr. Niu. There is description about what Teacher Shen is wearing and what her face looks like, but not as much about the other characters. A big concern for Teacher Shen is being able to exist without confrontation or her secret being released: she wants to get the doctor to keep quiet about her abortion, and to receive more money to assist with her needs; taking care of her and her mother and eating eggs to stay healthy after the abortion. We drew a plane above to signify the tension and possibility of it being a warplane when Shaona notices it and wonders how pilots could fit inside, followed by a childish observation saying ‘only pigeons could fit in them’, showcasing her naivety.

Do you think the chronic tension is Shaona missing her parents, or Teacher Shen being in need of money? Why or why not?

Literary Luminaries: Marie and Sebastian

  1. “What’s an abortion? Shaona asked herself. Is it something that holds a baby? What does it look like? Must be very expensive.”
  2. “[The teacher] used to sing a lot; her voice was fruity and clear. But recently she was quiet, her face rather pallid.”
  3. “The boy would be ‘jailed’, and he might get even with her after he was released.”
  4. “[The children] were shouting out ‘rat-a-tat’ as if the spinning platform was a tank turret.’

Explanation:

Specifically, we thought the quote “The boy would be ‘jailed’, and he might get even with her after he was released.” was an important part of the story. It’s an interesting bit because it, combined with several other quotes describing the children and their interaction with the adults in the kindergarten, lends to the impression that the kindergarten wasn’t a place where safety or kindness was encouraged. In the first place, the fact that the child is going to ‘jail’ and won’t get out for a while, is highly questionable and makes the reader assume that the kindergarten isn’t a fun or morally constructive place to be. The second part is even more concerning. ‘…he might get even with her after he was released…’ is a clause that’s very concerning for multiple reasons and sparks several questions. This is a six-year-old. What can a six-year-old do to seriously get even with another six-year-old? It’s presumed to be a violent action because of his previous behavior, which means that this kindergarten creates very violent kindergartners and is overall not a fun and funky place to be. This is critical to the rest of the story because it establishes the environment that Shaona is living in and the story takes place in.

Craft Terms Experts: Harrison and Gabi

POINT OF VIEW

Example 1:

The lines, “the teacher TO embezzlement” (45) are a great example of the first-person point of view. These lines are Shoana describing her teacher Mrs.Shens appearances and her mannerisms This lets us know as the reader what Shaona thinks about her teacher. This is an important piece of the story because Shaona perspective about her teacher changes latter in the story once her teacher takes the purslanes home. So it is therefore important to know her perspective of her teacher

Example 2:

From “Shanoas mind was racing TO a few purslanes” (48). These lines show Shaona’s hope for eating the purslanes. But then later on on the page form the lines  “she remembers seeing TO harvest home” we see Shoanas understanding that her teacher took the purslanes. This is important because this event cause Shaona to be mad and later then pee on the purslanes.

CHARACTERIZATION

Example 3:

The 3rd to the final paragraph on page 44 is an example of Characterization. The lines give a very in-depth description of how Shaona is distressed in her situation. It talks of how much she misses home and how much she hates the kindergarten’s beds, and how her dismay at her situation has warped her view of the Kindergarten and shows us how happy she was before in contrast to her distress.

DIALOGUE

Examples 4:

From the ending of the page of 46 to 47 dialogue is used in a fight between students. This causes one of the students to be put in a pantry like a place as punishment. This causes Shaoan to like her teacher even less.

 

 

“In the Kindergarten” Lit Circle Round 1

Here is the first group of freshmen’s literature circle materials on Ha Jin’s short story “In the Kindergarten.”

Summarizers: Rey and Angela

The story begins with Shaona, a little girl of around 5 or 6, who is living at a kindergarten with her classmates and her Teacher Shen, who overhears a conversation between her teacher and an unknown person, discussing the painful aftermath of an abortion she recently had. After the call is over, Teacher Shen gathered the children and led them outside, where she told them that they would be picking purslanes, a herb that grew in the schoolyard. After a while of collecting the herbs, Shaona got into a fight with her classmate Dabin, who insulted her for the number of purslanes she had picked. He was taken away by the teachers, and the children continued searching the fields, excited for the purslanes that Teacher Shen had promised they would get for dinner. At mealtime that night, Shaona noticed that their food is what it always was, and gets angry because they did not get to taste the purslanes. After dinner, Dabin was released by the teacher, and in order to keep him from messing with her, she gave him some peanuts she had gotten from her father, who she hasn’t seen for 2 weeks. At recess the next day the children play instead of collecting herbs but continue their labor the day after. While the class is picking purslanes, a wild rabbit runs out into the field, and all the children run after it trying to catch it for their dinner that night. During the rabbit chase, Shaona leaves the class behind and pees on the collected purslanes. She is so satisfied with her attempt to sabotage whoever would be getting the herbs instead, that she doesn’t even get upset when they have the same foods for dinner that evening.

Discussion Directors: James and Elissa

  1. What is the significance of Teacher Shen’s pregnancy?

  2. Did she give Dabin the peanuts to placate him? I doubt he would have gotten away with much with all the teachers around

  3. Why are the Kindergarten children cussing?

  4. Where do you think the story takes place?

  5. Was she selling the purslanes or was she eating them?

In the story “In the Kindergarten”, we (being Elissa and James, students at HSPVA) believe that the story takes place somewhere in Asia, specifically China. The author, Ha Jin, includes tiny small little details about the characters, the food, and the surrounding area that clue the reader in to where the setting may be. For example, the names of the characters are Chinese, Shaona, Dabin, Teacher Chen, Uncle Cheng, Weilan, Luwan, Aili, and Aunt Chef. While ‘Aunt Chef’ may not be explicitly Chinese, I think it’s an Asian thing to call older adults that you know “aunt” or “uncle” because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was able to talk. We have reason to think that this story specifically takes place in rural China, due to the amount of farming that the main characters do. Furthermore, Teacher Shen seems extremely concered about her pregnancy, and even talks about perhaps getting an abortion, which alludes to the one child law in China, which while may or may not still be in affect, was most likely in affect at the time that this was written. Finally, the food that was mentioned also gives helpful clues to the fact that this is in China, specifically the purslanes and fried eggplant which is a very japanese/chinese type food.

Lit Connectors: Edlyn and Quentin

Suffer the Little Children

Miriam

Ms. Interrupter (Gabi’s workshop piece)

The Wolf and the Cherries (Christian’s workshop piece)

We can connect In the Kindergarten to The Wolf and the Cherries because both stories are about a small child facing a challenge. In Christian’s workshop piece it is about a boy taking on a wolf and in In the Kindergarten a girl is struggling in Kindergarten. Both use food to try and win the conflict they are experiencing. The girl uses peanuts, which are then taken from her. The boy uses cherry pits, which were taken from him by the wolf. In both stories the character ends up triumphant, the girl because she got the edge on her teacher who wasn’t giving them the sprouts she promised, and the boy saved his village from a wolf.

Illustrators: Christian and Chanice

illustrator

The first image relates to the story because it depicts a young girl who is (probably) the same age as the girl in the story. Many have assigned the role of protagonist to the little girl and the climax would be when she pees on the parsnips while the rest of the children are chasing a rabbit. The images a whole represent the story and the arc of the story. The story describes children at a boarding school and their life on the daily. The main setting of the story is the schoolhouse. The readers are introduced to the teacher and a conflict with another man. He goes on a tangent about the teacher paying him because her rent is due. She is hysterical. This adds to the tension when the reader finds out that the teacher has used the money she worked for an abortion. The images like the sack of harvest show the fruit that the children picked.

Literary Luminaries: Natalie and Heather

“She felt that from now on she would not cry like a baby at night again.”

“ ‘Say that again, bitch!’ ”

“‘I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live . . . And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperate. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”

“Soon Shaona couldn’t stand playing queen anymore, because she felt silly calling him ‘Your Majesty’ and hated having to obey his orders.”

We chose the third quote to elaborate on. This quote introduces the teacher’s conflict, which is the chronic tension of the story. She recently had an abortion and is now struggling to deal with the finaces and resulting health issues because of it. She remarks about how much blood she lost and needs more nutrients. During this quote, she is on the phone, asking her boss for a raise in order to be able to buy more food, but he continues to refuse. The student, Shaona, who is the main character hears this conversation and is confused about what she is talking about. This leads her to desperate measures where she leads the kids outside to pick the purslanes. Shaona, our narrator and voice of the story, is one of her students who is picking them. She doesn’t understand why she is picking the plants and comes up with her own theories; she initially thinks that they are going to eat them at dinner or some other meal, but is confused why they don’t. This is the acute tension of the story as the younger and innocent mind tries to comprehend the intense and mature situation of the teacher’s abortion.

Craft Terms Experts: Benjy, Lakshmi, Caroline W

Dialogue

  1. “Oh please!” the teacher blubbered on the phone. “I’ll pay you the money in three months. You’ve already helped me so much, why can’t you help me out?’…

“Have mercy on me, Dr. ·Niu. I’ve an old mother at home. My mother and I have to live. … And you know, I lost so much blood, because of the baby, that I need to eat eggs to recuperare. I’m really broke now. Can you just give me another month?’”

  1. “Big asshole,” Weilan said, and made a face at him, sticking out her tongue.

“Say that again, bitch!” He went up to her, grabbed her shoulder, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks. She burst out crying.

  1. “Aunt Chef couldn’t cook those we got yesterday because we turned them in too late, but she’ll cook them for us today. So everybody must be a good child and work hard. Understood?”

  2. He turned away to talk to other children, telling them that purslanes tasted awful. He claimed he had once eaten a bowl of purslane stew when he had diarrhea. He would never have touched that stuff if his parents hadn’t forced him. “It tastes like crap, more bitter than sweet potato vines,” he assured them.

Paragraph:

We chose the first set of quotes. These quotes are present towards the beginning of the story. In this dialogue, Teacher Shen is having a conversation with someone on the phone. It’s in this small portion of dialogue that we understand Teacher Shen’s chronic tension and intentions. Even though the main character, Shaona, is unaware of what an abortion is or how a baby is born, the readers know what is happening. The craft element of dialogue in this case is used to reveal Teacher Shen’s backstory, the fact that she got an abortion and couldn’t afford it because she has to support herself and her mother. It’s this backstory that allows the readers to know what exactly is driving the story. Without understanding that Teacher Shen can’t afford food using this piece of dialogue, we wouldn’t know why the kindergarteners were picking purslanes if they weren’t being cooked, which is what drives the story. There are many different ways to define the chronic tension of a character. In Shaona’s case, her chronic tension is defined through direct narration. That makes sense because she is the main character. The use of dialogue to define Teacher Shen’s backstory, chronic tension, and motives as a character makes sense as a choice of the author because the main character is overhearing this dialogue.

Playing the Game’s Game

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

Summary Part 1: Rey

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

Summary Part 2: Lo 

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

Summary Part 3: Edlyn

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

Analysis Part 1: Rey 

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

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

shows Colby’s living adjustments.

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

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

I got some coffee and sat in the park…

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

Why is he so emotionally indifferent in general?

Why is Colby so resistant to get emotional help?

Analysis Part 2: Lo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said. “So?”

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

Analysis Part 3: Edlyn 

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

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

Don’t Be Nice To Children

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

Summary Part 1: Harrison

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

Summary Part 2: Marie

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

Summary Part 3: Sonya

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

Analysis Part 1: Harrison

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

Analysis Part 2: Marie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what she dreams after Miriam visits:

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Point of View

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

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

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

“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis Part 3: Sonya

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

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

The little girl said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

The Brains Behind “There Will Come Soft Rains”

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

Summary Part 1: Lakshmi

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

Summary Part 2: Heather

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

Summary Part 3: Chanice

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

Analysis Part 1: Lakshmi

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

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

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

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

Annotations:

In the living room the voice-clock sang…

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

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

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

In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At ten o’clock the house began to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Today is August 5, 2026,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annotation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

 

Analysis Part 2: Heather

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

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

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

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

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

Or,

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

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

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

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

Analysis Part 3: Chanice

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

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

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

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

Miss Sidley’s Twelve Dead Children

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

Summary part 1: Benjamin

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

Summary part 2: Caroline A.

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

Summary part 3: Gryphon

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

Analysis part 1: Benjamin

Artistic Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot and Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be taken from this piece

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

Analysis Part 2: Caroline A

Point of View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they went on giggling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Sidley brought the gun to school in her handbag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Style

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

Robert changed.

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

Robert began to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

He looked very pathetic.

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

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

It was Robert.

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

No!

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

No! No, no, no!

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

Which describes Miss Sidley’s final fall into madness.

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

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

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

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

Robert changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert changed.

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

Robert began to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

Analysis Part 3: Gryphon

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I use in my writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

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

“Miriam” Write Up by Angela, Elissa, and Quentin

A presentation on Truman Capote’s “Miriam” by Angela Mercado, Elissa Parker, and Quentin Pham

Summary Part 1: Quentin

Mrs. Miller is a widow who lives alone in her rustic apartment. She lives a very dull life following the same routine and doesn’t really have any friends or family members. One snowy day, while she’s feeling herself, she decides to view a picture playing at a theater and she meets a strange girl named Miriam. Miriam from the start gives an offsetting vibe from both her physical appearance and her personality. Miriam asks Mrs. Miller to buy her a ticket and Mrs. Miller, being the kind woman, she is, buys her one. After having a rather odd conversation in the theater, Mrs. Miller decides to go home and go back to her stale life which continues for a few days until one day as she’s doing her night routine, her doorbell rings and at her front door is Miriam.

Summary Part 2: Elissa

Mrs Miller finds Miriam on her doorstep late at night but is hesitant to let her in, Miriam immediately starts acting as if she owns the house, asking if she can wake up Mrs. Miller’s canary, insisting Mrs. Miller make her something to eat, refusing to leave, breaking her vase, and even stealing Mrs. Miller’s gift from her late husband. The following day, Mrs. Miller stays in bed all day, dreaming eerie dreams about Miriam.   Two days after Miriam’s visit, Mrs. Miller feels compelled to buy all the things Miriam commented about her household lacking and notices a strange old man following her.

Summary Part 3: Angela

While shopping around one day, Mrs. Miller impulsively buys some sweets and cakes that Miriam had been wanting. After arriving at home, Mrs. Miller arranges the flowers and serves the desserts at her table, when Miriam rings the bell, demanding to be let in. Mrs. Miller refuses to open the door, but Miriam tricks her into opening the door, forcing herself into the apartment, where Miriam reveals that she’s moving in with Mrs. Miller and has brought box full of clothes and dolls. Mrs. Miller, shocked and upset, runs down to her neighbors to ask them for help. They search her apartment for the girl, but there’s no sign that she was ever there, everything left like Miriam was never there. Mrs. Miller, questioning Miriam’s existence, closed her eyes to think, and began hearing a strange noise moving towards her. She opens her eyes to see Miriam, standing right in front of her.

Analysis Part 1: Quentin

This story teaches many things ranging from the style of writing to the way you can present ideas. Starting with the conflict, the author makes it clear that the conflict can be presented in a way that’s not just a character encountering something so unknown and plot twisting but rather something we already knew that just clicks. To put it in simpler words, most conflicts are a problem that the character must deal with, then when the climax hits, it’s extremely crazy and something we’re not expecting. However, in this story, we meet Miriam and from the start we know something is wrong with. The audience was probably even predicting that she was going to do something crazy that would make the story so remarkable and that she was the major problem. This isn’t the case. Miriam is rather just strange when appearing at Mrs. Miller’s door and continues to act stranger, but it’s not her increasing level of weirdness that makes the conflict, but actually Mrs.  Miller realizing that she’s alone and she has nobody to turn to. This is presented from the start of the story when the author is describing Mrs. Miller’s lifestyle but it’s not till the climax when she realizes she actually had an internal problem she’s been hiding that she finally recognizes. Sure, some might argue that Miriam was the conflict, but Miriam just played a major factor that helped the character and the audience realize what the conflict really was. One line that really sticks out is

“she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time”.

This is the realizing factor.

Another craft element of the story was its concrete details. These details used the five senses to describe the characters in a way that gave them life and let the audience know the intensity of the situations. It makes the story so great by first characterizing Miriam. Rather than just talking about the abstract details of her, the author uses lines like “silver-white, like an albino’s” to describe her hair and shed light on the beginning of her strangeness (since that type of hair color is rare and unique). It also works to describe the setting of the story by talking about Mrs. Miller’s dull apartment and the boring life she lives ultimately giving off the vibe and structure of the overall story. It also intensifies situations, using the line,

“and swelling in intensity till the walls trembled with the vibration and the room was caving under a wave of whispers”,

to describe Miriam’s appearance as opposed to just telling us she was standing in the room. That level of description appears very attractive and pulls the reader’s attention.

Questions:

How do the sensory details help present the ideas in the story more clearly?

How does the conflict of the story build up to the climax?

 

Analysis Part 2: Elissa

Techniques Tracked:

The Way Mrs. Miller Sees Miriam

Climax

Throughout Truman Capote’s Miriam, the main character, Mrs. Miller gains a different view of Miriam every time she sees her. When she first sees Miriam, Mrs. Miller is captivated and intrigued.

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

Mrs. Miller felt oddly excited, and when the little girl glanced toward her, she smiled warmly.

She welcomes Miriam into her quiet and lonely life, if only for a second. Miriam piques Mrs. Miller’s interest even more when she finds out they have the same first name and considres meeting Miriam somewhat pleasant.

However, when Miriam shows up on Mrs. Miller’s doorstep late at night, Mrs. Miller is more than annoyed at this girl inviting herself into her home. Notice how there is always attention to detail on what Miriam is wearing.

“Stop it,” she cried. The bolt gave way and she opened the door an inch. “What in heaven’s name?”

 “Hello,” said Miriam.

 “Oh…why, hello,” said Mrs. Miller, stepping hesitantly into the hall. “You’re that little girl.”

 “I thought you’d never answer, but I kept my finger on the button; I knew you were home. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

 Mrs. Miller did not know what to say. Miriam, she saw, wore the same plum velvet coat and now she had also a beret to match; her white hair was braided in two shining plaits and looped at the ends with enormous white ribbon.

Miriam immediately starts disturbing Mrs. Miller’s typically calm household by insisting upon things that are not part of routine, and makes off with Mrs. Miller’s brooch, and for some reason, Mrs. Miller is unable to tell Miriam that she cannot take the brooch as she is overcome by how alone is. Mrs. Miller has become angry and annoyed with Miriam, but Miriam is her only companion.

When Miriam returns for the third time, Mrs. Miller refuses to let her in, only to let her in by accident. This time, there is no description of how Miriam looks, showing how Mrs. Miller is no longer awestruck or compassionate towards Miriam. Mrs. Miller completely breaks down when Miriam announces her moving in.

“Because I’ve come to live with you,” said Miriam, twisting a cherry stem. “Wasn’t it nice of you to buy me the cherries…?” 

“But you can’t! For God’s sake go away—go away and leave me alone!”

 Mrs. Miller’s face dissolved into a mask of ugly red lines; she began to cry, and it was an unnatural, tearless sort of weeping, as though, not having wept for a long time, she had forgotten how. Carefully she edged backward till she touched the door.

Mrs. Miller is now terrified of Miriam and no longer sees her as a companion, but more of a presence put there to haunt her.

The climax/conflict of the story is when Miriam visits Ms. Miller for the first time and keeps coming over afterwards. She continues to refuse to leave, practically driving Mrs. Miller insane.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are Miriam’s clothes described visibly every time except for the last?
  2. Who is the real Miriam?

Analysis Part 3: Angela

The first craft element I chose to analyze was Capote’s use of characterization. Miriam’s character is a very unsettling and creepy girl, that is very good at putting on the appearance of a normal and innocent child. She always gets away with what she wants and seems to have a natural ability to manipulate people in her favor. Mrs. Miller is an older woman who lives alone, the perfect victim for Miriam. She lives a very plain and routine life and is very much a creature of habit. When she first met Miriam, she was very nice to her and only wanted to help her, and then when Miriam showed up at her apartment, she was being polite to her, despite being confused and upset. Mrs. Miller is a very non confrontational person, as shown in this paragraph:

He was standing next to an El pillar, and as she crossed the street he turned and followed. He kept quite close; from the corner of her eye she watched his reflection wavering on the shop windows. Then in the middle of the block she stopped and faced him. He stopped also and coded his head, grinning. But what could she say? Do? Here, in broad daylight, on Eighty-sixth Street? It was useless and, despising her own helplessness, she quickened her steps.

She felt scared and uncomfortable, and wanted to say something to the strange man to defend herself, but in the end decided not to, and was ashamed of herself for being so vulnerable and helpless. Miriam and Mrs. Miller have very different and opposing personalities, which to me, is a part of what makes the story’s plot even more rich. Miriam is a strange girl, not like someone her age, as we can see in this paragraph:

Miriam lifted a shoulder, arched an eyebrow. “As you like,” she said, and went directly to the coffee table, seized the vase containing the paper roses, carried it to where the hard surface of the floor lay bare and hurled it downward. Glass sprayed in all directions, and she stamped her foot on the bouquet. Then slowly she walked to the door, but before closing it she looked back at Mrs. Miller with a slyly innocent curiosity.

Miriam knew that she could do whatever she wanted without Mrs. Miller getting angry at her or saying anything and seemed to be testing her limits in this scene. Whenever Mrs. Miller finally gets fed up and tries to stand up to Miriam, Miriam simply ignores her and laughs it all off.

‘”….and the roses and the almond cakes? How really wonderfully generous. You know, these cherries are delicious. The last place I lived was with an old man; he was terribly poor and we never had good things to eat. But I think I’ll be happy here.” She paused to snuggle her doll closer. “Now, if you’ll just show me where to put my things….”’

The characterization of Miriam and Mrs. Miller are an important part of the story that tie into the plot and conflict of this piece. I loved how Capote used dialogue, as well as physical descriptions and vivid language to develop and build up his characters in a very realistic and intriguing way.

Analysis 2-

The other craft element I analyzed was the dialogue used in the story. The author mainly used dialogue to show the relationship between Miriam and Mrs. Miller, and to show how it got progressively more manipulative and how Mrs. Miller’s meek personality was being abused of and taken advantage of by Miriam. Most of their relationship and interactions with each other are shown through dialogue, but Capote keeps it reserved for that, and doesn’t use it unnecessarily to tell the rest of the story, focusing more on using details for that. Since he only uses dialogue sparingly, it has a stronger effect and helps carry across the more off-putting nature of Miriam and Mrs. Miller’s interactions.

“But isn’t that funny?”

“Moderately,” said Miriam, and rolled the peppermint on her tongue.

Mrs. Miller flushed and shifted uncomfortably. “You have such a large vocabulary for such a little girl.”

“Do l?”

“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Miller…

The author also relies on dialogue tags to enhance the effect of the dialogue, adding detail about where the character was looking or what facial expressions they may have made. The exchanges between the two characters weren’t like normal conversations between a little girl and an older woman, who at first seems to take almost a maternal approach to her interactions with Miriam. They are much more complex and advanced, especially coming from a child, and Mrs. Miller is surprised and almost intimidated by this, as we can see from this quote, because she seems to back down and let Miriam control her and take the lead:

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

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

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

Using dialogue and physical expressions of the characters, rather than internal thoughts, the author develops the characters, showing distinct personality traits and their characterization, mainly through the words that they speak. This all shows how powerful dialogue can be, and how, when used correctly, can push a story forward and explore the characters further for the reader.

Discussion Questions-

–          Is there any way of reading and interpreting this story in which Mrs. Miller could be seen as the ‘villain’?

–          What other methods did the author use to characterize Miriam and Mrs. Miller apart from their dialogue?

“Today is August 4, 2026 . . . “

A presentation on Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Natalie Hampton, Athena Haq, and Deonna Ford

Summary Part 1: Natalie

A voice echoes throughout the house, saying the date and time. The house is run by technology; the stove makes breakfast and voices continuing to repeat the date, time, and events happening that day. The garage door opens but shuts when no one comes. The untouched food is scraped away. Robot mice come out of the walls, clean, and disappear again. The house, standing alone in a city of rubble and ashes, is cleaned by technology on the outside. On a black wall, there are the silhouettes of a family of five.

Summary Part 2: Athena

At noon, a skinny, bruised dog walks into the house, looking for his owners, but realized they are gone. It died, and the cleaning robot mice cleaned up its body. As time passed the house was still silent, and everything the house prepared for whoever lived there was untouched. Some parts of the house were pretty broken down, including the nursery. A radioactive glow hung over it. From five to nine o’clock, the house continued with its nightly routine. Then, it asked Mrs. McClellan what poem she would like to hear that night. When there is no response, the house recited her favorite one. The poem, There Will Come Soft Rains, is about how when man destroys itself with war, nature will go on happily without it.

Summary Part 3: Deonna

It’s 10PM after the house recites the poem. The wind picks up, knocking a tree branch into the hearth and setting the house on fire. The house spirals into a frenzy. It sends various robots to try and extinguish the fire – a bevy of mice spewing water, robots spitting a green fluid, mechanical snakes batting the flames with their tail – none of which seem to work and, in fact, make the house more hysterical. All the house’s functions switch on at an insanely rapid rate as the house continues to burn. By the next morning’s sunrise, a voice is heard repeating, “Today is August 5, 2026” through the mass of burnt rubble.

Natalie’s Analysis

The first craft element I identified was sensory detail. Sensory detail was used to convey how dependent the house was on technology and the ruins it was left in, building setting. The lines,

The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave of a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles,

illustrate the state of this dystopian world.

The story was mainly visual sensory details. While the characters were limited as it was a setting driven story, the dog contributed to building the backstory of the world.

The dog, once large and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores, moved in and through the house, tracking mud.

These lines demonstrate the change from a luxurious and joyful life, to an empty one with no humans around. The description of the dog also is used to invoke emotion in the reader, as many people have personal connections with pets and imagine the dog as their own.

Use of visual and sound sensory detail is especially evident as the house is dying and technology is failing.

Ten more voices died. In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, playing music, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud all in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.

The detail there is a sharp contrast to the calmer beginning, with lines such as, “In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh and ejected from its warm interior eight pieces of perfectly browned toast, eight eggs sunnyside up, sixteen slices of bacon, two coffees, and two cool glasses of milk.” These lines show how the house is surviving, while the above paragraph from the end shows how it is dying.

By using sensory detail in my pieces, I can illustrate setting, evoke emotion in readers, and contrast the beginning of my story to the end.

The second craft element I identified was similes. Similarly to sensory details, by using similes in my writing, I can illustrate setting, character, and set the tone/mood of a piece. Similes also engage the reader and help the flow of a story.

There Will Come Soft Rains was rich in similes, several in particular standing out to me.

There, down tubes which fed into the cellar, it was dropped like evil Baal in a dark corner.

This line unique and I’ve never heard it before, immediately drawing my attention and perfectly describing the situation. It fit the overall vibe of the story and added just another layer to the plot.

Another specific line that stood out was,

At four o’clock the tables folded like great butterflies back through the paneled walls.

A lot of the story was spent building a world of ruins with more depressing imagery, but just the word butterfly has a positive connotation and the contrast between a butterfly and ruins is beautiful.

The entire paragraph where the house was burning was filled with similes.

The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air. Help, help! Fire! Run, run! Heat snapped mirrors like the first brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts.

It both personifies the house and uses similes to illustrate as it loses its life and the last home in this area is destroyed. Throughout the story, the house has almost been a character, and the image of it being burned is painted perfectly and the paragraph reads poetically.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the use of sensory details and similes affect the tone and mood of the story?
  2. How does the use of sensory details and similes build a backstory and develop setting?

Athena’s Analysis

One craft element Bradbury used was the passing of time. First, there were voices in the house announcing the hours and what needs to be done throughout the day, such as waking up at seven o’clock,  eating breakfast at seven-nine, and filling the bath at five. The time passing throughout the day also shows the mechanics in the house. No people are left, but no nature is left either. All the “nature” is technology and machines, such as the cleaning mice. He also began the story with, “Today is August 4, 2026”, and ended it with, “Today is August 5, 2026.” This implies that this cycle of destruction is never-ending.

This brings me to the next craft element Bradbury used, irony. The poem that the house recites, There Will Come Soft Rains, is about how nature will live on and thrive when mankind has destroyed itself. For example, this is shown when the poem says,

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly; And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn Would scarcely know that we were gone.

But throughout the story, it is shown that even with man gone, war has destroyed nature. One sign of this is the dog, who is skinny and bruised but was once healthy and plump, dying. Furthermore, nature is almost nonexistent. There’s a radioactive glow hanging in the air, and the closest thing to “soft rains” is the sprinkler running in the backyard.

This story was also very interesting to read because of its progression from the beginning to the resolution. In the beginning, I mostly just got the impression that humans had destroyed themselves, and this is what was left. From the automated house running by itself, to the various robots helping out, to the dog coming in and dying, I learned that in the story man destroyed itself and nature. The way all this was revealed was very compelling, especially with the use of a poem inside of a story. The poem really enhanced it because it revealed the prominent theme of irony with its contrast to what was really happening in that world. As I mentioned when explaining the craft element of time, the resolution of the story is that there isn’t really a resolution, and the last voice of the house repeatedly recites the date, as it will likely do for a long time.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did the use of the craft element of time passing help shape the resolution?
  2. How did the use of the poem in the story reveal the theme of irony?

Deonna’s Analysis

Techniques tracked:

Metaphor

Text-within-the-text

When people in the 1950s spoke of the future, it was always with a hopeful glint in their eyes, dreams of fast-flying cars and robot maids quick to heed to your beck and call. In Ray Bradbury’s case, however, he sees our heavy reliance on technology as a ball-and-chain to society. In his short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” Bradbury follows a house that is the last house in some unknown war that destroyed everything else in the city, people included.

The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles. Ten-fifteen.

Though there are no people in the house, it continues to function as it normally would; it prepares breakfast, it powers up a play area for the children, it washes dishes, and even recites a poem, the story’s namesake, “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale for its past owner. After the poem, the house catches fire, and though the houses tries its hardest to douse the fire, the attempts come to no avail, and the house is destroyed.

Bradbury’s story is itself extended metaphor for the dangerous, cold, and apathetic nature of technology. Early in the story it’s evident that the house is only doing what it was programmed to do – daily, routinely activities such as preparing food, for instance. It can’t detect that it’s doing all of this for no one. On top of this, these are all things that an adult should easily be able to do.

Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!

In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh and ejected from its warm interior  eight pieces of perfectly browned toast, eight eggs sunnyside up, sixteen slices of bacon, two coffees, and two cool glasses of milk.

Bradbury highlights that our society is one of convenience. Technology is something we use to make our lives easier and, in this story, it has gotten to the point where even the most menial of tasks are performed by robots.

Later in the story, as the house lights on fire, it’s clearly not well-trained on handling a situation like this, seeing as the house burns down after many miserable attempts to extinguish it.

The fire burst the house and let it slam flat down, puffing out skirts of spark and smoke.

In the kitchen, an instant before the rain of fire and timber, the stove could be seen   making breakfasts at a psychopathic rate, ten dozen eggs, six loaves of toast, twenty dozen bacon strips, which, eaten by fire, started the stove working again, hysterically hissing!

This may be part of the reason the family living in the house was killed – expecting that technology was going to save them, which didn’t happen to be the case.

The poem included in the story, There Will Come Soft Rains by Sara Teasdale, adds to the theme of non-human things going forth without us. It describes a landscape, still growing and blossoming with beauty even after humanity was wiped out by war, presumed to be World War I as the poem was originally published in 1918, the year the war ended. Lines 10 through 12, in particular, contribute to this:

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,

Would scarcely know that we were gone

A relationship between these three lines can be drawn back to the house still running even though the owners are not there. However, where Earth’s actions are graceful and natural, the technology’s whirring out of control straight after the poem is read can be perceived as a bastardization of this scene.

In summary, the short story There Will Come Soft Rains is a lengthened metaphor of technology’s repetitive, rehearsed, yet dangerous tendencies. The addition of the Teasdale’s poem of the same name flavors the story’s message by describing a landscape of Earth continuing forth even without the presence of man, a nod to the story’s post-apocalyptic premise of a technology-heavy house going through its routine without its owners being there.

DISCUSSION Q’S:

  1. Many of the actions from objects in the story are described with human/”living” verbs – such as sighing, shrugging, and dying. Why is that?
  2. How does the author use imagery of an altar to illustrate the functions of the house?

 

The Cowboy’s Unknowing

A presentation on Stephen King’s “A Death” by Sebastian Kiteka, Gabriela Mejia, and Isabella Jimenez

Summary Part 1: Sebastian

In the beginning of the story, page one says, “Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him,”. This is where Trusdale is confronted and thought to have been the murderer in the story. Throughout the story the question “Where is your hat, Jim?” is mentioned, and Trusdale says back things like I don’t know but on this page (1) he answers, “‘I might have lost it.’” This is his common excuse, but later on in the story it is revealed it is near the dead girl he has killed. King states that the men had gone to town. There intention was to search and jail Trusdale for the time until he went to court. On page 3 it says,“They went to town. It was four miles. Trusdale rode in the back of the mortuary wagon, shivering against the cold. Without turning around, the man holding the reins said, ‘Did you rape her as well as steal her dollar, you hound?’”. This explains why Trusdale is being jailed, and they believe it is him who has killed and possibly raped her because of the evidence of Trusdale’s hat. The townspeople are obviously angered at Trusdale who they think (and know) is the killer of a 10-year old girl. This is mentioned on page 4, “‘Hang that baby killer!’ a man shouted, and someone threw a rock. It flew past Trusdale’s head and clattered on the board sidewalk.” This man has most likely heard the news and I would infer that all of the townspeople think that Trusdale is the murderer. Trusdale is also searched for the silver dollar on page 5, “Trusdale turned, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. Sheriff Barclay winced, sighed, and poked a finger into Trusdale’s anus. Trusdale groaned. Barclay removed his finger, wincing again at the soft pop, and wiped his finger on Trusdale’s undershirt.” Though it is disgusting for both, Sheriff Barclay wants to find justice in the Rebecca Cline case and he is willing to do it at any cost. On the same page, 5, the sheriff arrests Trusdale and locks him up in a cell,  “‘I’m arresting you for the murder of Rebecca Cline.’” The 5th page ends with Sheriff Barclay saying, “‘I feel sorry for you, Jim. Hell ain’t too hot for a man who’d do such a thing.’” and then walking away, leaving Trusdale “questioning” the situation. I interpreted Barclay’s quote as him feeling “sorry” for Trusdale, and there are a lot of criminals in Hell, and it’s willing to add another one.

Summary Part 2: Gabi

Jim Trusdale has been led to jail with mocking accusation of him committing unspeakable crimes. Sheriff Barclay leads him to jail where he then searches every part of Jim for evidence. Time passes with more mocking’s and threats of death. The trial finally arrives where he is prosecuted and judged in process that questions his morality. This section is closed with the meeting hinting at the possibilities of a slow death because of established evidence which involves stealing money and killing a girl.

Summary Part 3: Isabella

The execution has been set for the next day and Sheriff Barclay tells Trusdale he can have anything for his last meal, which leads to a conversation between the both of them to try and help Trusdale remember if he recognized anybody’s face at the bar. Trusdale can’t, and the Sheriff takes his dishes and leaves. The next day, the day the hanging takes place, Trusdale is hysterical and tries to fight back, saying he’ll be good if he can see the mountains one last time. The crowd watching jeers and insults him for being pathetic and horrible even after he is hung. The sheriff goes back to the cell, then his office, until the next morning he is called to the mortuary and sees Trusdale’s underwear on the ground covered in feces, and he and his colleague spot the silver dollar that the little girl had presumably been killed for. The sheriff questions his judgement for thinking the man was innocent and thinks himself a fool for being the only one in the town who believed the murderer.

Analysis Part 1: Sebastian

Character- A figure in a literary work (personality, gender, age, etc). Flat characters are types of caricatures defined by a single idea of quality, whereas round characters have the three-dimensional complexity of real people.

There were many flat characters in the story, “A Death” by Stephan King, including the citizens of the town and Trusdale. The main flat character, Trusdale was shown to be flat, because of his personality never changing. He was confused, “‘What thing?’” meaning that he was unsure of whether he did the crime, and he believed it fullheartally until his death:

Barclay nodded to House. House pulled the lever. The greased beam retracted and the trap dropped. So did Trusdale. There was a crack when his neck broke. His legs drew up almost to his chin, then fell back limp. Yellow drops stained the snow under his feet.

This shows in the ending of Trusdale’s life, and the townspeople are happy he has finally died, which is what they wanted, “The spectators stayed until Trusdale’s corpse, still wearing the black hood, was laid in the same hurry-up wagon he’d ridden to town in. Then they dispersed.” Another quote adding on to the previous is the one on page 14, “Because the Clines knew all along. Everyone in town knew all along. He was the only one who hadn’t known.” The round character in this story is Sheriff Barclay. He is skeptical whether or not Trusdale has committed the crime, unlike his fellow policemen. On page 14,

”You believed him,” Hines said at last.

“Fool that I am, I did.”

“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”

This shows that the sheriff was very wrong in believing the murderer to be a freeman, which a fellow sheriff’s deputy tells him.

Plot- The major events that move the action in a narrative. It is the sequence of major events in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.

The plot in the story is finding out who the girl killer is. Stephan King has convinced his readers that Trusdale is innocent, (along with the Sheriff and the killer himself) yet the town believes (and knows) that Trusdale is the person who should be convicted of being a child murderer. The first major event to the story is taking Trusdale into custody, page 2,

“You need to get in the back of the wagon,” the sheriff said.

This is the beginning to the story. The second major event is searching and convicting Trusdale, page 5,

“Where is it, Jim?”

“My hat?”

“You think I went up your ass looking for your hat? Or through the ashes in your stove? Are you being smart?”

and,

“I’m arresting you for the murder of Rebecca Cline.”

This signifies the only suspect who is at fault for murdering Rebecca Cline. The 3rd major event to the story is the trial of Trusdale, on page 10,

“The jury will retire to consider a verdict. You have three choices, gentlemen—innocent, manslaughter, or murder in the first degree.”

This ends the decision for an execution to Trusdale. The next major event to the story is after Trusdale has died and the men find the silver dollar in Trusdale’s feces. On page 13,

They lay on the floor, mostly turned inside out. Something gleamed in the mess. Barclay leaned closer and saw it was a silver dollar. He reached down and plucked it from the crap.

This indicates when Trusdale has finally been proven guilty.

And the final major event in the story is when the sheriff is looking back on how wrong he really was in thinking that Trusdale was actually innocent. On page 14,

He was the only one who hadn’t known. Fool that he was.

Sheriff Barclay truly feels bad and foolish to believe that Trusdale could’ve actually been innocent instead of guilty.

Discussion questions 1, and 2:

I believe Stephan King used a lot of flat characters because his dynamic, round characters represented the sheriff, and us the readers. Many people thought that Trusdale was actually going to be innocent but instead we were proven wrong as long as the Sheriff. I think the story was a little shorter compared to his longer stories like “It” or “The Shining” because he was going for a shorter, straight to the point kind of story. I like many of his stories, and this story was a pretty horrific story. He did use a little less diction compared to his more spooky or horrid novels, but this story had its own vibe, and was very scary, because we thought Trusdale was innocent, and the way he died, and other factors like that were involved. I believed he did this because when he used more diction it was because of the vile things happening in the story.

Analysis Part 2: Gabi

Point of view: The story “A Death” by Stephen King is written in 3rd person point of view. 3rd person point of view is when the narrator is telling us what is going on in the story. The story shows more of an omniscient 3rd person point of view which is when the narrator knows or has the knowledge of all the feelings or desires of the characters in the book. “A Death” by Stephen King falls under these guidelines because it never mentions the main character referencing throughout the story as if he was telling it. The reader is considered as a spectator and is only filled in with information that the narrator delivers it to us, even though he knows the thoughts and feelings of all characters it does not mean that the narrator has to expose all of them. We can prove this hypothesis with a quote from the beginning of the story stating

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Trusdale said.

This shows the reader the main character Jim is feeling confused, but we don’t have more information to conclude anything else about his feelings. This proves the story is written in a 3rd person omniscient point of view because the narrator is informing us with textual evidence that shows emotions and story plot but not the eternity of the picture.

Style: The story “A Death” by Stephen King is written in a horror/realistic style. When referring to style in a book or novel it means the specific way an author uses diction, use of vocabulary, figurative language and words to immerse the reader scenes in the story. Style also helps portray the mood of the book and helps the reader foreshadow future events because of tension or other created situations. One great example of this in “A Death” by Stephen king is towards the end of the story when it states,

“Let me look at the mountains!” Trusdale bellowed. Runners of snot hung from his nostrils. “I’ll be good if you let me look at the mountains one more time!”

This shows the author’s use of the word mountain to describe life and to continue it instead of dying. Another great example of the diction Stephen King uses use is at the beginning where it states

Trusdale turned, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. Sheriff Barclay winced, sighed, and poked a finger into Trusdale’s anus. Trusdale groaned. Barclay removed his finger, wincing again at the soft pop, and wiped his finger on Trusdale’s undershirt.

Although this is gruesome it shows the reader how eager the sheriff is to find justice or at least evidence in and “inside” of Jim.

Two discussion questions: 1. The hat is used as a specific piece of evidence in Jim’s trail making him come back to the restaurant in look of it but, why did Stephen King choose a hat, and does it symbolize something more?  2.At the end of the story it is mentioned when Jim dies that he expels all the liquid and bodily fluids in his body. They then find the missing coin in his bodily fluids but earlier in the text  it states “There was a bunk and a stool and a waste bucket.” this proves that Jim could have used the restroom and probably did because of the amount of time he was in jail for. So, did Jim must hide the coin during the inspection of evidence and then eat it before the trial?

Analysis Part 3: Isabella

My two craft elements were theme and setting. First, a couple themes I noticed were prevalent throughout the story; Justice and self importance/rationalization.

Justice- the sense of justice is definitely not the same as we think of it now, as in the 19th century the system and process is incredibly fast, rushed to the point of not being thorough or caring about the wellbeing of the suspect- the suspects are practically guilty till proven innocent. This is reiterated at several points in the story that I will mentioned later. The story deals with a horrible crime; the murder and robbery of a 10-year-old girl and starts off by telling the reader exactly who is suspected to have done it, which has the reader thinking that it can’t be him, it’s too obvious and sudden. (which also goes along with the rationalization theme) The entire time law enforcement (mostly Sheriff Barclay) and people of the town argue over justice and making things right for the poor little girl- even though I personally doubt a 10-year-old girl would want the man hung.  It’s a battle of right and wrong and he hurt her, so we better hurt him back. There are several moments that show how biased the law system is against the defendant/suspect, such as when on page 6 it says

There was no lawyer in town to serve as Trusdale’s defense, so Mizell called on George Andrews, owner of the mercantile, the hostelry, and the Good Rest Hotel. Andrews had got two years of higher education at a business school back East. He said he would serve as Trusdale’s attorney only if Mr. and Mrs. Cline agreed.

This is just the first of a series of events that prove the messy justice and legal process in this town and time. There are also quotes such as;

Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.

..no one suggested that it was a bad idea. It had a certain economy, after all.

And

Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning.

Rationalization/Self Importance; as the reader, and as human beings, we often think (unconsciously or not) that we know best and our opinions are irrefutable. So, of course, since the reader is pushed to believe Trusdale is innocent, he must be, and all the gathered evidence and jury ruling are wrong. Stephen King plays on the idea the reader will make up in their head that all the townsmen are vicious, that everyone is mad at a man who did nothing but be uneducated and simple minded. By the end, there is a conclusion, that no, somehow the reader was incorrect (unless you’re one of the few that believed he was a criminal the whole way through) and we see how being in our own minds constantly leads us to think our thoughts and ideas can’t possibly be wrong. Stephen king is trying to prove a point here about people’s self-importance and how it leads to rationalizing facts that were proved wrong with just our human emotion. The lines

“You believed him,” Hines said at last. ‘Fool that I am, I did.”

“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.””

are all reminiscent of what I imagine King is trying to tell the reader. Most of the story is making fun of the human species’ long-time conflict starter- pride, haughtiness, and self-importance. I rather enjoyed the way Stephen King subtly introduced the theme, and very quickly had the reader feeling sorry for the criminal of the story. I’d like to be able to develop complex character’s or at least quick attachment and intelligent storylines and underlying themes and concepts in my writing.

Two things I’d like to know about Stephen King’s thought and writing decisions/process (discussion questions)

  1. How did he come up with the idea/concept for the story and what spurred him to implant the theme of self-importance?
  2. Did King have the idea in his head that Trusdale was going to be guilty the entire time? Was there a point in the story that he realized that would make sense and wrote it, or did he plan it all out/have an idea of the ending he wanted to build up to?