An Essay on Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Prompt: At what point in the story do you first begin to make assumptions about the race and class of the two main characters, Twyla and Roberta? Why? Do you change your mind later in the story? When and why so – or not? What is the significance of Morrison’s choice both to withhold information about the characters’ race and class and to have Twyla narrate the story?


I made an assumption about the characters’ race rather early in the story. In paragraph 2, Twyla, the narrator, says that her mother had told her that people of Roberta’s race “never washed their hair” and “smelled funny”. This caused me to assume that Roberta is black and Twyla is white. I am a black woman, and I grew up in a suburb that was almost completely white. As the only black child in my class for several years, I had to endure complaints from the other girls about how oily my hair was, and when they found out I didn’t wash my hair daily or every other day like they did they declared that was gross. They didn’t understand that the texture of my hair meant that it needed to be washed less often or that the oil in my hair was not dirty buildup but oil that I had intentionally put there to moisturize my hair and scalp. They also commented on the smell of the products that I put in my hair. So, even though I know that Toni Morrison’s intention when she authored the story was for the reader to never be able to tell which girl is white and which is black, my own personal experiences led me to make an assumption that I feel pretty confident about.


I actually didn’t change my mind later in the story. As the story went on, I tried to let go of my assumption, because I knew that Morrison intentionally left out racial information, but my assumption seemed to fit the story as I continued to read. Twyla’s description of marrying a firefighter and with a “big loud family” (par. 54) reminded me of my idea of middle-class, blue-collar white people. Her description of a comfortable life with her husband, James, made me think of the old-fashioned, close knit small towns in America that are mostly white.


There were a few more details in the story that made me doubt, though. When Twyla is recalling the time that she and Roberta spent in the orphanage where they met, she brings up an instance where their mothers came to visit them. When Roberta’s mother meets Twyla’s mother, she refuses to shake Twyla’s mother’s hand (par. 31). That made me think of a white person refusing to shake a black person’s hand. I had already decided, though, that Roberta’s mother was black, so it was confusing to have this doubt. In my mind, I found myself wondering if a black woman would also refuse to shake a white woman’s hand. As I did this mental exercise, I realized that this must be exactly what Toni Morrison wanted the reader to have to do as they read the story.

An Essay on Barn Burning by William Faulkner

Prompt: At one point in Barn Burning, Sarty thinks that “maybe” his father “couldn’t help but be” what he is (par. 40). What is Abner Snopes? What desires, motives, values, and views – especially of justice – seem to drive and explain him? What does the story imply about how and why he has become the man he is? What might be admirable, as well as abhorrent, about him? How does the narrative point of view shape your understanding of, and attitude toward, Abner?


Abner Snopes is an arsonist. He’s not just an arsonist. He’s a serial arsonist. In the story, after the judge in the town where the Snopes family is living has ordered Abner to get out of town and the Snopes family is traveling to the next town, it is mentioned that Sarty, Abner’s son and the central consciousness in the story, “did not know where they were going” (par. 25). This is followed up by the fact that none of the members of the family “ever did or ever asked” (par. 25). So, we see that this is not the first town that Abner has been run out of, not the first time the Snopes family has had to uproot their lives and start over somewhere new because of something terrible Abner has done.


Sarty’s thoughts about his father give us more information about Abner’s character. First, Sarty cannot bring himself to admit what his father has done. When he is called upon in court to tell the truth about whether or not his father burned a neighbor’s barn, he feels “frantic grief and despair” (par. 7). He knows that his father wants him to lie. He doesn’t want to lie, but he is prepared to do so out of feelings of loyalty to his father. Luckily for Sarty, the judge decides not to question him. Later, though, Sarty can’t even silently admit the truth to himself in his own thoughts. “Maybe he’s done satisfied now, now that he has…,” Sarty thinks (par. 20). Sarty’s thoughts break off, before he can even acknowledge in his mind that his father burned the barn. The same thing happens again in Sarty’s thoughts several paragraphs later.


So, Abner is the kind of father who can inspire such fear and loyalty in his son that he doesn’t even want to admit his father’s wrongdoing in the privacy of his own mind. We can discern from this that Abner Snopes is an extremely harsh man and one who has an adversarial view of the rest of the world. He sees his family as something like a small kingdom where he is the ruler with absolute power. Anyone outside of this kingdom is an enemy who is not to be trusted. When the judge calls Sarty forward in court, Sarty even thinks, “Enemy! Enemy!” (par. 10), not noticing that the judge seems to be sympathetic toward him, a child obviously caught in a toxic family situation. Abner Snopes has such power over Sarty that the boy is willing to ignore his own sense of right and wrong and do whatever is necessary to please his father. He has been trained to believe that his father’s will is what is most important.


This shows that Sarty does not have a defiant character and that the character of Abner is an expert at understanding and wielding power. Abner knows who he has power over, how to maintain that power, who has power over him and how to strike back at those who have power over him.

An Essay on Puppy by George Saunders

Prompt: What is the effect of the way the narrator refers to real consumer products by using their brand names (Game Boy) and discusses (in some detail) entirely fictional ones like the games “Noble Baker” and “Bra Stuffer”? What do these details contribute to the story, especially in terms of our attitudes toward the various characters and their world (or our own)?


In the short story, Puppy, by George Saunders mom Marie is driving her two kids, Abbie and Josh, to go and look at a puppy that they are thinking of buying. Marie is trying to make conversation with her two kids about what a beautiful day it is, but they are intent on ignoring her, particularly Josh, who is busy playing on his Game Boy. The game Josh is playing is called “Noble Baker”. Even though Josh is ignoring her for a game, Marie is just relieved that he isn’t playing the game “Bra Stuffer”, which was a game he had originally asked for but did not receive (par. 2).


Game Boys are real products that exist in our world outside the story, but the games “Noble Baker” and “Bra Stuffer” only exist in the world of this story. In our real world, though, children do often ignore their parents in favor of video games. In the story, Josh’s response to his mother reaching out and trying to connect with him is to shout, “Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!…You nimrod machine! I chose that!” (par. 6) His mother’s attempts at bonding are drowned out by his frustration with a machine that is supposed to be fun. This is also a scene that is familiar from real life.


By presenting the reader with a scene that they have probably really witnessed and making the subject of the game that Josh is playing so ridiculous, the narrator emphasizes how ridiculous it is for human interaction to compete with a video game. Also, this points out how silly it is for us to play video games that simulate mundane real life tasks. Even though “Noble Baker” doesn’t really exist, there are similar games that allow the player to simulate tasks like “cooking” and “slicing fruit” in real life.


While we read Puppy we laugh at the pure ludicrousness of the situation. Laughter turns to thoughtfulness, though, as we realize how close this fictional story is to our real lives. Reading a scene where a child would rather play a game with animated robins that try to drop “Clonking Rocks” (par. 12) on animated bakers than talk to his loving mother who is eager to connect with him makes the reader marvel at is hilariously absurd. We are amused, because it seems so far from something that would happen in real life. Then we remember that this is something that does happen in real life, and the amusement is joined by self-reflection.

An Essay on Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

Prompt: Look closely at the indications of time in the story. What actions take place at certain times? Does any event or action happen only once? Is there a plot in Girl? If so, how would you summarize it?


At first glance the very short story Girl by Jamaica Kincaid does not seem to have indications of time. The story can be described as a series of instructions that are being given to the titular girl. The instructions are all guidance on how to conduct yourself and do certain tasks in life, from cooking pumpkin fritters to having a relationship with a man. The nature of the instructions and the voice of whoever is giving them makes the reader think of a mother passing down wisdom and warnings to a daughter.


The voice of the instructions is commanding. It doesn’t say please. Only twice in the story, the voice also questions the girl. “Is it true that you sing benna in Sunday School?” the voice asks the first time. It is the kind of question that a mother, or some other elder asks, when they demand to know if a young person has been up to something they shouldn’t be doing.


These instructions could have been given all in one sitting, but, especially if we assume that this is a mother or other elder woman talking to a daughter, it seems unlikely. Instead, these instructions sound like the kinds of things a mother tells a daughter on a daily basis as they go about the business of living. As the daughter grows, this wisdom is handed out a little bit at a time as the mother watched the daughter develop and encounter more experiences. So, this list of instructions is allowing us to see into the relationship between a mother and daughter, perhaps over years.


The very beginning of the story directs the girl to “wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry”. These are the kind of directions a mother would give to a young girl who is just learning to do laundry for the first time. The girl has probably passed early childhood, so older than seven, but not yet a teenager, so younger than fourteen.


The story ends with the second question from the mother figure: “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” This is a question that is supposed to challenge the girl about what kind of woman she is going to be. Is she going to be a proper sort of woman, a woman who people see and don’t have to worry about her cleanliness and worthiness. This is the kind of question you ask a girl who is on the cusp of womanhood, so perhaps by the end of the story the girl is around eighteen.

An Essay on The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

Prompt: What can the reader infer about Montresor’s social position and character from hints in the text? What evidence does the text provide that Montresor is an unreliable narrator?


The narrator of The Cask of Amontillado is a man named Montresor. The story begins with him directly addressing the auditor of the story, saying that he had vowed revenge on a man named Fortunato who had dealt him “[a] thousand injuries” which he had “borne as best [he] could”, but finally, an insult heaped onto those injuries pushed Montresor past the breaking point (par. 1).


Montresor never tells the auditor what the injuries and the insult were, so the reader never has a chance to determine whether Fortunato has truly and gravely wronged Montresor or if Montresor is overreacting to a minor or perceived slight. Montresor’s reaction, though, suggests that the level of harm done to him was extreme. He is passionately focused on getting his revenge, but he is also meticulous enough to patiently and painstakingly plan it out. “At length I would be avenged,” Montresor says. We see that Montresor is someone who holds deep grudges. It is considered healthier to forgive and forget wrongs that are perpetrated against you, but that is the opposite of what Montresor is doing.


Montresor tells the auditor:


I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong (par. 1).


Montresor is the kind of person who is convinced that his view of the morality of a situation is the absolute. What Fortunato actually did doesn’t matter. What matters is that Montresor wants revenge for it. Montresor is so convinced of his rightness that he insists that whatever action he takes against Fortunato is so justified as to excuse him from any kind of judgment for it. It is notable that Montresor seems aware of the fact that whatever he has planned as his revenge will be viewed as punishable by whatever societal authorities may be. He is aware of a need to avoid detection by witnesses and authority but still convinced that he is in the right. He also needs Fortunato to know that he is the one who has caused his punishment. It is not enough that something bad happen to Fortunato. Fortunato has to suffer and know that Montresor caused the suffering.

An Essay on A & P by John Updike

Prompt: How does the setting of the story shape the initiation and its meaning? How do details about the merchandise or space contribute to the story?


A & P is set in one of the eponymous supermarkets in the 1960s in suburban Massachusetts. The initiation in the story takes place when the narrator and protagonist, a 19-year-old boy named Sammy, impulsively quits his job at said supermarket. He instantly regrets his decision but feels like he has to follow through with it, because “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it” (par. 31). As Sammy stands in the parking lot of the A & P after walking out, he thinks about “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter”, and the thought makes his stomach drop (par. 32). The reader can assume that Sammy’s stomach is dropping with the realization of the gravity of his impulsive action and dread about what is going to happen to him now. Part of becoming an adult is realizing that your actions, especially your mistakes, have consequences. Sammy immediately feels the consequences of his decision, which was not thought out at all, and is so initiated into adulthood.


Ultimately, Sammy’s actions are meaningless. That is to say, they do not have the meaning that he wanted them to have. The situation that spurred Sammy’s rash decision was his witnessing his boss being rude to three attractive teenage girls who were shopping in the store. The reader is constantly reminded of the fact that the girls are attractive, because this fact is so important to Sammy. The first four paragraphs of the story are spent on Sammy describing the physical appearances of the girls in great detail. The first one he describes is “a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can” (par. 1). The second girl is “a tall one, with black hair…the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it” (par. 2). Finally, he describes the third one, “the queen” (par. 2). He is so enamored with her that she gets two full paragraphs just to herself. She has “long white prima-donna legs” (par. 2) and the way her body looks in her bathing suit is “more than pretty” (par. 3).


The setting of the supermarket is important, because gorgeous teenage girls in nothing but bathing suits wandering down the aisles is an anomaly. Sammy is shocked to see them there. He is used to seeing worn housewives and shabby townspeople wandering through the store, buying mundane groceries. Some of the unattractive customers, who Sammy describes with disdain, provide contrast to the girls.

An Essay on Boys and Girls by Alice Munro

Prompt: Find the two occurrences of the phrase “only a girl.” Why and how does the meaning of the phrase change in each case?


In the short story Boys and Girls by Alice Munro, the phrase “only a girl” appears twice. Both times a male character is referring to the narrator and protagonist, a young girl growing up on her family’s fox farm.


The first time occurs when a feed salesman is talking to the narrator’s father, and the father makes a joke. He tells the salesman that his young daughter is his “new hired man”. The narrator becomes “red in the face with pleasure” (par. 10). She is eager to do whatever tasks her father assigns to her, and she takes pride in the work they do on the farm. Her father’s joke seems to her an acknowledgement of the seriousness of her work. She wants her father to value her just as much as he would a grown man working on the farm.


The narrator’s pleasure at her father’s words is interrupted by the salesman’s response. He says to the father, “Could of fooled me…I thought it was only a girl” (par. 11). The salesman refers to the narrator as “it”, as if she were some sort of inanimate object instead of a human being. Instead of going along with the father’s joke, the salesman immediately points out that what the father has said is untrue. The narrator is not the same as a “hired man”. She is a girl, not even a woman yet.


In the moment of the father’s joke, there is the possibility of the narrator being taken as seriously as an adult man, even though she is far from being an adult man. The salesman’s response instantly refutes that possibility. The narrator does not show us her reaction or her father’s reaction to the salesman’s words. Immediately after the salesman speaks a new paragraph begins where the story jumps forward in time. The salesman’s statement that the narrator is “only a girl” is the last word we are left with from this scene. We had the father’s joke. We had the seriousness with which the narrator heard her father’s joking words, and the way the suggestion in the father’s joke pleased her. We never know for sure whether the father actually feels there is a truth underneath his joke, whether he is proud of and values his daughter’s work. Then the salesman’s words cap the scene and replace the narrator’s pleasure. The salesman gets to have the last word, and the last word is that the narrator is “only a girl”.


The second time the phrase “only a girl” appears is in paragraph 64. This time the phrase is literally almost the last word in the entire story, and they are spoken by the father. It is almost as if the father’s words reach back through the past and finally answer the salesman. He is confirming that there definitely wasn’t any seriousness under his joke. The ludicrousness of the idea of taking his daughter seriously makes the joke even funnier.


This time the father is taking to his son, the narrator’s younger brother, Laird. Laird is the only family member named in the story. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name. We only know Laird’s name and the name of Henry Bailey, her father’s actual hired man.