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Analyses of five more random short stories.

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

1. “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In “Winter Dreams,” the reader observes the American dream in action. Dexter, a young man from humble beginnings, moves up the ranks of the economic and social ladder under his own power due to his strong sense of motivation to better his life. Dexter began as a caddy in his young teen years. Dexter did not do this to make his living, rather to make pocket money.  This leads the reader to believe that Dexter was not poverty stricken, but he was definitely not born with the silver spoon in his mouth either. Although Dexter only caddied for spending money, he took his job very seriously. This shows a strong work ethic in the boy from the beginning. During his time spent caddying, Dexter has the opportunity to meet Judy Jones. Jones exemplifies the life of exuberance and extravagance. She was only eleven at the time of their initial meeting, but Dexter notes that “there was a general ungodliness in the way her lips twisted down at the corners when she smiled and in the−Heaven help us! −in the almost passionate quality of her eyes. Vitality is born early in such women” (2187). This was Dexter’s first glance into the fantasy world that Jones lived in. As he grew older, he decided to attend a prestigious college on the east coast. At the conclusion of his studies, he moved back home and opened a laundry that specialized in the cleaning of golf socks. Soon Dexter was moving in the same circles in which Judy Jones also circulated. They met and had a very dysfunctional relationship that spanned several years. Although Dexter was well-to-do at this point in his life, he never felt like he truly belonged to the social circles within which he moved. He was an outsider looking in. Judy Jones was Dexter’s gold ring. He knew that if he could gain her then he would not have to second guess himself any longer. Dexter invested years into chasing Jones only to be left in the end. Dexter did not love Judy Jones, but he did love the idea of high society and social grace and Judy Jones embodied these qualities. Therefore, Dexter deceived himself into believing that he loved the woman. If Judy Jones had not been the out-of-reach, golden ring, Dexter would not have pursued her as doggedly. The truth is that Dexter’s pursuit of Judy Jones is a reflection of the chase within his life to put his own feelings of inadequacy to rest. Jones was nothing more than a trophy that Dexter pursued to finally feel like part of the in-crowd. In the end, Dexter did not win Judy Jones’ affection and finally had his dreams shattered when he realized that the ideology of his own success and acceptance that he projected on the vivacious Judy Jones had passed away never to return.

2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In the story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman adeptly uses the concept of altered perception for the narration of the tale. The story is focused on a young housewife and her descent from post-partum depression into utter madness. The young woman is confined to an upper room that is decorated with yellow wallpaper. The use of altered perception is objectified within the wallpaper. As the story begins, the narrator is a “normal” housewife suffering from a bout of post-partum depression, which they call a “nervous disorder.” She takes her “treatment” regimen as prescribed by her physician husband, John, which basically consisted of doing nothing and being left alone to contemplate her current life situation. As the story continues, there is subtle change in the narrator’s point of view. At first, she absolutely detests the yellow wallpaper. She asks her caregiver and her husband if they could remove it, but both state that would be impractical since they are only renting the house for a short time. As time passes by, the narrator becomes fascinated by the wallpaper, watching its lines twist and turn and “commit suicide.” Then as the descent into utter madness begins, she notices a woman trapped behind the wallpaper trying to get out.  “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (1961). Then the descent continues finally culminating into a confrontation between the narrator and John. As John tries to get into the room where the narrator is, he finds the door to be locked and the key thrown outside. When John finally retrieves the key, he enters the room to find his beautiful bride “creeping” around the edge of the room. John faints and that is where the story ends. The most beautiful thing about the way this story is written is the fact that the reader is able to follow the narrator’s change step by step from a prim and proper housewife into a creeping crazy person. If Gilman would have chosen another writing style, the story would not have effectively communicated what she was attempting to convey to the reader. When reading the first person altered perception, the reader is forced to put himself or herself directly into the shoes of the narrator. The reader is not reading a story about a descent into madness; rather, the reader is experiencing firsthand the change that the narrator is going through. It was extremely effective when the story was published and this story is seen as one of the first and most important examples of feminist literature.

3. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway uses vivid imagery to define death. The whole story is based upon the main character, Henry, and his struggle to rediscover who he is and the happiness of his youth on a safari to Africa. During the trip, Henry had been scratched by a thorn and developed gangrene in his leg. During his last days of life, Henry wrestles with the regrets of his life and his unfulfilled ambitions. Within the story, Hemingway uses several different things to symbolize both physical and spiritual death. The journey had been planned to be a spiritual journey. One that was supposed to rekindle what Henry had lost. Hemingway begins the story telling a legend about a leopard frozen in place on his trip to “the house of God.” Henry envisions himself as the noble leopard, on a vision quest to redefine his life, but after he is stricken with the raging infection, Henry comes to a dastardly conclusion about himself. Catching the scent of his rotting flesh, the scavengers emerge. Hemingway specifically brings the hyena to the forefront. The imagery of the hyena represents the spiritual death that Henry had incurred when he sold out everything that he had been for the easy life. He literally became the scavenger. “And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it” (2251). Upon the cot which became his death bed, Henry realized that he had departed the path of the noble leopard long ago and had embraced the very countenance of the hyena and he despised himself for it. This is the symbolism of his spiritual death; the death of the man that he once was and the unfulfilled potential of his life. The physical death in the story is personified as Henry lay on his cot.  “Because, just then, death had come and rested it’s head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath…It had moved up on him now, but it had no shape any more. It simply occupied space…It did not go away but moved a little closer…It moved up closer to him still and he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tired to send it away without speaking, but if moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest and while it crouched there and he could not move, or speak, he heard the woman say, ‘Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent.’ He could not speak to tell her to make it go away and it crouched now, heavier, so he could not breathe. And then, while they lifted the cot, suddenly it was all right and the weight went from his chest” (2257-2258). Then Henry was dead. Hemingway uses symbolism and personification to describe both spiritual and physical death within this short story. However, the theme of spiritual death is the most salient and most likely the theme that Hemingway wanted to convey as a caution to the reader to always stay true to oneself so that when physical death comes, one would be able to rest in the assurance of the legacy that the person is leaving behind and to pass away in the comfort of a fulfilled life.

4. “After Apple-Picking” and “The Death of the Hired Man” by Robert Frost

In the poems Frost is speaking of death. In “After Apple-Picking,” the narrator is speaking of a life of hard work coming to an end. Within this poem he laments about missed opportunities within his life when he states, “Beside there may be two or three apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. But I am done with apple picking now” (1958). This is a way for the narrator to convey to the reader about missed opportunities, but it would seem that the narrator is not necessarily upset about the path that he has chosen or the decisions that he made with his life. Toward the end of the poem, the narrator speaks of apples that were bruised or spiked with stubble which went to the cider heap. This is also a metaphor for opportunities take that were either botched or not productive for his life. The poem concludes with the narrator pondering whether the sleep that he is about to undertake will be the long sleep of death, or just another human sleep. Contrasting the first person style of “After Apple-Picking,” “The Death of the Hired Man” is written in third person, however, the theme of the poem is similar. This particular poem is about the death of an old and trusted farmhand that had betrayed the plantation owner by leaving during haying season for another farm that promised him more money. Old Silas had come home to die. The narrator suggests through the story of the old farmhand that it is natural for those who are dying to want to go in a place that is familiar with people that they consider family. Mary and Warren discuss the life of Silas and the reader sees a man who was proud to do the task in his life at which he excelled which was tying up hay bales. As Silas is entering the time right before his death, he begins recount to Mary the things in life that for which he had regret. Silas had attempted to teach a younger man the finer points of haying, but their relationship ended abruptly and on uncertain terms when the young man left for school. This particular encounter seems to have plagued Silas. “He thinks young Wilson a likely lad; though daft on education−you know how they fought all through July under the blazing sun, Silas up on the cart to build the load, Harold along beside to pitch it on. Yes I took care to keep well out of earshot. Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream” (1956). The narrator is giving insight into the last moments before we pass on in this life, how regret and sorrow play out in our final moments. Perhaps it is a warning to live life without regret in order to enjoy our final moments of this life. In “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the narrator expresses his longing for rest.  Whether this is the rest of death or sleep, the narrator stresses the desire to stay awhile in oblivion and solace to ponder the greater mysteries of his life. However, his horse brings him back to reality with a shake of his harness, questioning the duo’s sudden stop in the middle of the forest. As much as the narrator longs for rest, there is no rest to be had because he “has miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep” (1963).

5. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Naturalism implies a philosophical position that contrasts the realist writers who focus on the literary technique. “The Open Boat” is a strong example of naturalism. The story pits four men who survived a ship wreck against the impassive forces of nature, which in this case is the ocean. Another aspect that brings out the naturalism technique within the story is the fact that there is no way that the men inside the boat can exercise free will. They are at the extreme mercy of nature. During the story, the men make several attempts to run the surf as they are approaching land, but each time they were unable to make the beach due to the instability of the craft in which they were sailing. This exemplifies the futile struggle of men against nature and fate. The story ends when the four sailors take matters into their own hands. Deciding against spending another moment on the boat, with the strength of the oarsmen waning, the men make one final drastic attempt to best nature. As the ship presses into the surf, the craft capsizes and breaks up. The men jump clear of the boat to make their gallant attempt to best nature and reach the shore. One by one, the men make it to shore and it would seem that man had bested nature, but tragically, one of the four could not make the final swim emphasizing the naturalistic principle that it is futile for man to struggle against fate.

Works Cited

The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008.

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Bygone Innocence: A Reflection on “Going to Meet the Man”

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Going to Meet the ManFor many individuals, the relationships that exist between family members are the strongest and most influential human connections that the person will ever experience within his or her lifetime. These bonds, formed in early psychosocial development, have the potential to permanently define how a person views his or her world. Often, children hold fast to the values and social stigmas that sprout from early family interactions and relationships for the remainder of their lives, regardless of whether the values go against the true moral norm or not. However, even within the confines of these tight family bonds, free thinking can be achieved and it is possible for a person to break free from recycled family values. It takes an extremely courageous person to challenge social and societal wrong in any case, but even more so when the moral aberration is the majority opinion within your present societal situation and reinforced within the value system of the intermediate family.

In “Going to Meet the Man,” the reader is presented with one of the most horrific, gut wrenching torture and murder scenes in literary history. This scene casts a pall over the remainder of the story. It is almost so grotesque that the reader misses the most important theme within the story. It is a story of racism, bigotry, hatred, and murder, but the most astonishing and, perhaps, the most amazing element is the eye opening transformation of an innocent young child into a stereotypical Southern bigot. Through this amazing example of storytelling, Baldwin manages to climb inside the brain of a corrupt, racist Southern police officer to relay the story of how this man came to hate.

Jesse hated them. He hated those “black stinking coons.” They were the problem. They caused all this strife. They were his problem now. Why wouldn’t they shut that singing up? Jesse was the law. It was his job to maintain order. Big Jim C barked out the orders and Jesse carried them out. Generally speaking, Jesse did not have too much of an issue keeping them in-line, but things had begun to get out of hand recently. One of the most appalling side effects of this “colored uprising” was the recent influx of all those Northern folks coming in and blemishing the town’s good name. It was time to for Jesse to take matters into his own hands and this colored prisoner would be the one that bore the brunt of Jesse’s frustration.

Jesse put the [cattle] prod to the young man. “‘You make them stop that singing,’ [Jesse] said to [the prisoner], ‘you hear me?’” (2559). Jesse put the prod to him again−once, twice, a third time− but the prisoner would not stop the singing. Over and over, Jesse sent intense jolts of electricity through the young man until he had passed out from shock. As the encounter with the young man went into an interlude, Jesse began to tremble as an intense and peculiar joy washed over him. Something deep from within his memory was resurfacing, but the overall detail of the scene eluded him.

Baldwin uses this particular encounter to show the utter elation that a person can experience when an event occurs that is strangely related to a past pleasurable experience. The particular incident from Jesse’s past within this short story is an extremely graphic and gruesome depiction of a public torture and murder of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Upon first encountering the grotesque depiction of the scene, the reader is completely overwhelmed by a feeling of intense disgust. The feeling of disgust is so strong that many of the subtle nuances of Baldwin’s tale regarding the loss of a young boy’s innocence are completely consumed in wave after wave of nauseating revolt.

While finding beauty on the surface of this story might be a difficult task, the reader can certainly appreciate the lengths to which Baldwin went in order to show how any person in any situation can become the victim of twisted family values and societal expectations. This story is a stretch into the fantastic as Baldwin exaggerated the particular scene within the story. It is likely that he combined many elements of particularly gruesome, unlawful attacks on black people during the civil rights era and the period of history prior to this. However, this hyperbolic writing is most certainly effective as the experience of the reader goes beyond mere words on a page. The reader actually sees what a young Jesse saw and feels what Jesse felt on that fateful day that forever changed his life and perception.

Jesse had not always been the bigot that he was standing in the cell with that broken and bleeding black man. There was a time when Jesse was just a boy and the other boys his age, regardless of color, were just boys. “He had a black friend, his age, eight, who lived nearby. His name was Otis. They wrestled together in the dirt” (2663). Here, Baldwin highlights the simple fact that Otis and Jesse were friends. Regardless of race, creed, or religion, they were just boys who liked to play together. However, in the very next line, the reader begins to see the first signs of the transformation of young Jesse. “Now the thought of Otis made him sick. He began to shiver” (2563). There was something afoot. Jesse did not quite understand the details of what was happening, but he was sharp enough to understand that an event had happened that had somehow driven the racist wedge deeper, further dividing the perilous crevice between black and white.

Jesse also knew something was about to happen. A rash action was about to take place in the light this new development within the atmosphere of the racial strife that permeated the air of the town in which Jesse lived and he knew it. In his innocence, Jesse questioned his father regarding the recent scarcity of his friend. “‘We didn’t see Otis this morning,’ Jesse said. He did not know why he said this. His voice, in the darkness of the car, sounded small and accusing. ‘You haven’t seen Otis for a couple of mornings,’ his mother said. That was true. But he was only concerned about this morning. ‘No,’ his father said, ‘I reckon Otis’s folks was afraid to let him show himself this morning’” (2563). Jesse’s response to his father’s statement indicates that Jesse was concerned about the well-being of his colored friend. “‘But Otis didn’t do nothing!’ Now his voice sounded questioning. ‘Otis can’t do nothing,’ said his father, ‘he’s too little’… ‘We just want to make sure that Otis don’t do nothing’” (2563). The statement from Jesse’s father leaves the boy with an ominous feeling regarding the event that is about to occur and further colors the boy’s perception in regards to the societal expectation of race relations within Jesse’s small sphere of existence.

Upon waking the next day, Jesse is confronted by a group of people in his front yard dressed as if they were about to head to Sunday service. The crowd was engaging in conversation that revolved around the capture of a black man accused of a “crime” against a white woman. Jesse’s family made quick preparation and headed off after the convoy that had already begun the journey to Harkness−the location of the day’s excitement. “Where are we going? Are we going on a picnic?” (2565). Again, Jesse’s innocence is evidenced by his child-like lack of understanding. “‘That’s right,’ his father said, ‘we’re going on a picnic. You won’t ever forget this picnic−!” (2565). Jesse’s father makes this statement very knowingly. It is as if he is assured that the event that Jesse is about experience will forever solidify his perception and value system.

It is evident from the story and the historical period in which the story takes place that Jesse had grown up in an extremely racist society.  It can be assumed that he experienced elements of racism and prejudice on a daily basis from the attitude that his father expresses toward the black race as a whole throughout the story. Startlingly, however, Jesse is presented in the light of childish innocence prior to the event at the Harkness. Jesse was just another boy, understanding the basic expectation that society held him to as a member of the white race, but eschewing this expectation for childish games and camaraderie with anyone regardless of race, religion, or any other divisive factor. Jesse just wanted to play and enjoy life. His carefree world was about to change forever.

The car ride seemed to stretch on and on. Jesse noted the strange, cruel curve of his father’s lips. Details of his father’s appearance began to materialize dramatically in his perception. “He was terribly aware of his father’s tongue, it was as though he had never seen it before. And his father’s body seemed as big as a mountain” (2565). The car finally stopped. Jesse stepped out of the vehicle to see a mob standing before a spectacle that had them cheering and had raised the level of excitement to an almost tangible level. The tingle in the air was almost too much for Jesse to bear. He couldn’t quite make out what was going on as he was much shorter than the rest of the crowd, but his father quickly remedied this and placed the young boy on his shoulders. He didn’t want Jesse to miss a thing. The first aspect that Jesse noticed about the scene unfolding in front of him was the gleaming chain.

At this point in the story, the scene changes from an innocent gathering to the disgusting picture that becomes burned into the reader’s consciousness. Baldwin now uses extremely strong language to describe both the scene unfolding before young Jesse and the personal awareness of a boy about to be forever changed by one animalistic act against another human being by a bigoted mob. The most intriguing aspect of this scene is not the inhuman act carried out against the captured man. While the crime committed against the man is certainly the most disturbing aspect of this scene, the act itself is not the point. It becomes a vivid punctuation to the cementation of bigotry within young Jesse’s value system.

Jesse witnesses first hand the unjust torture and murder of a man based solely on race and perception. The grotesque scene culminates in a gruesome mutilation followed by the captured man being beaten to death by the unruly mob. While the murder is taking place, a strange excitement arises in Jesse. It is as if this is the pinnacle of Jesse’s existence. Every racist sentiment that he had been taught throughout his life became tangible. Not only was this excitement present deep within Jesse, but it was also evident in the rest of the crowd. Jesse especially notes his mother’s reaction throughout the ordeal. “He watched his mother’s face. Her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he and ever seen her, and more strange” (2567). What effect did his mother’s reaction have on the young boy? “He began to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watched the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then. One of his father’s friends reached up and in his hands he held a knife: and Jesse wished that he had been that man” (2567).

In a matter of mere minutes, Jesse had gone from an innocent young boy to bigoted white boy. His perceptions regarding the differences between the races that he had developed over the course of his young life came rushing to the forefront of his mind and he was forever changed. Gone was the young boy who rolled in the dirt with Otis, for Otis was no longer the same. He was now a colored boy. Rushing in to take the place of his childish innocence, set aside in the in the brief moments of watching a man be tortured and murdered, was a hatred that would rule the remainder of Jesse’s life.

This “picnic” was the consolidation of all the bigoted values that Jesse had been taught and had seen modeled by his society throughout his life. This brought Jesse to a point in his life where he was susceptible to a life-altering experience which occurred while he was in attendance of this abhorrent event.  Simply, it was a traumatic experience that finally confirmed all of the racist attitudes and beliefs that the boy had been exposed to throughout his life. It was empirical evidence that reinforced the family and societal values in which Jesse had been indoctrinated. Jesse was unsure of how exactly to react to the situation at hand; therefore, he looked to his family in order to learn what was expected of him. First, his father impressed the young boy while driving to the Harkness. “His [father’s] eyes, which were grey-green, looked yellow in the sunlight; or at least there was a light in them which he had never seen before” (2565). Jesse first notes that his father was changed. He somehow was different and more alive than he had ever been before. This established the emotional tone for the encounter that Jesse was preparing to experience. Then, during the awful scene, Jesse notes his mother’s reaction. This also lends to the way in which Jesse processes this experience. The rest of the mob also plays a crucial role in young Jesse’s perception of the murder as he joins in the mob’s blood-curdling, involuntarily scream as the captured man in finally mutilated and murdered.

Could this have been prevented if the societal norm or Jesse’s family values were different? This is the heart of the question that Baldwin is proposing. He actually presents Jesse’s life as the tragedy within the story. Of course, the torture and murder is absolutely appalling; however, the real tragedy of the story occurs when a young boy was forever lost to the plague of racism due to the conformation to societal norm and expected family values no matter how opposite these values are in regards to true morality. The story is a bold statement that transcends the festering sore of racism on the face of American history and cries out for the reader to examine all of the values to which he or she subscribes and to honestly appraise the foundations on which these beliefs have been constructed. Belief systems based on values that are faulted lead to societies that are broken and, ultimately, to individuals that are horridly misshapen by hatred and selfishness. This is the most prevalent downfall of modern society, and, if the problem is not remedied, it will lead to society’s ultimate demise.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Going to Meet the Man.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Shorter 7th

Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton Company, 2008. 2557-2568