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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions:

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

 

 

 

 

Don’t Be Nice To Children

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

Summary Part 1: Harrison

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

Summary Part 2: Marie

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

Summary Part 3: Sonya

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

Analysis Part 1: Harrison

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

Analysis Part 2: Marie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what she dreams after Miriam visits:

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Point of View

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

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

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

“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis Part 3: Sonya

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

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

The little girl said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

The Brains Behind “There Will Come Soft Rains”

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

Summary Part 1: Lakshmi

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

Summary Part 2: Heather

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

Summary Part 3: Chanice

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

Analysis Part 1: Lakshmi

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

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

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

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

Annotations:

In the living room the voice-clock sang…

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

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

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

In the kitchen the breakfast stove gave a hissing sigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At ten o’clock the house began to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Today is August 5, 2026,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annotation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

 

Analysis Part 2: Heather

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

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

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

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

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

Or,

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

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

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

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

Analysis Part 3: Chanice

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

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

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

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

“Revenge of the Lawn” Write Up by Sophie Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

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

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

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

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

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

After that, there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr Summers, holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion questions:

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

Miss Sidley’s Twelve Dead Children

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

Summary part 1: Benjamin

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

Summary part 2: Caroline A.

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

Summary part 3: Gryphon

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

Analysis part 1: Benjamin

Artistic Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot and Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be taken from this piece

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

Analysis Part 2: Caroline A

Point of View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they went on giggling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Sidley brought the gun to school in her handbag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Style

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

Robert changed.

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

Robert began to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

He looked very pathetic.

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

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

It was Robert.

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

No!

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

No! No, no, no!

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

Which describes Miss Sidley’s final fall into madness.

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

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

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

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

Robert changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert changed.

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

Robert began to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

Analysis Part 3: Gryphon

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I use in my writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

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