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.

An Essay On The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara

Prompt: How does Sylvia feel about Miss Moore, and why? How do you know? Do her feelings change over the course of the story?

 

Sylvia, the young narrator and protagonist of The Lesson, describes her neighbor, Miss Moore, as a “nappy-head bitch” with a “goddamn college degree” (par. 2). Sylvia is not fond of Miss Moore, but, to be fair, Sylvia does not seem that fond of anyone except for her cousin, Sugar. In fact, Sylvia describes everyone besides her and Sugar as either “old and stupid or young and foolish” and says that she and Sugar “were the only ones just right” (par. 1).

 

So, even though Sylvia is a child, she is obviously not the warmest and friendliest of people. Many people, including her Aunt Gretchen and other neighborhood kids, draw her ire. Her dislike for Miss Moore, though, does seem to be exceptional. Perhaps her feelings about Miss Moore are set apart, because she is set apart from the rest of the neighborhood. They are all black and low-income, but Miss Moore has the aforementioned college degree. She has “nappy hair”, uses “proper speech” and wears “no makeup” (par. 1). Upon observing these things about Miss Moore, Sylvia says, “quite naturally we laughed at her…and we kinda hated her too” (par. 1). Sylvia complains that Miss Moore is “black as hell” and is “always planning these boring-ass things for us to do” and “always looked like she was going to church, though she never did” (par. 1).

 

Sylvia’s special dislike for Miss Moore seems to be rooted in the fact that Miss Moore feels a sort of responsibility to help educate the poor neighborhood children. “She’d been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education, and she not even related by marriage or blood” (par. 1). Sylvia doesn’t think it’s Miss Moore’s place to try and educate her, and she doesn’t find value in the things that Miss Moore has to teach her. The suggestion that there are things Sylvia needs to learn from Miss Moore also suggests that Sylvia is ignorant in some way. That is not a suggestion that Sylvia takes kindly to at all.

 

On the hot summer day when the story takes place, Miss Moore has planned an outing for a group of children in the neighborhood, including Sylvia. Sylvia, whose name we don’t yet know at this point in the story, introduces all of the children by their nicknames: Sugar, Flyboy, Fat Butt, Junebug, Q.T., Rosie Giraffe, and Mercedes. The children gather together with Miss Moore and before they even depart Sylvia is thinking about how she is “tired of this” and would “much rather go to the pool or to the show where it’s cool” (par. 2). Miss Moore asks the children if they “know what money is”, which offends Sylvia (par. 2). She is incredulous to think that Miss Moore believes them so uneducated that they don’t understand the concept of money. Sylvia hilariously points out that Miss Moore must think “it’s only poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer” (par. 2).

 

As the group sets off Miss Moore begins “boring [the children] silly” with talk about “what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country” (par. 3).

An Essay on Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

Prompt: Both Connie and Arnold Friend more than once suggest that he is, or should be, familiar to her. Aside from the fact she has seen him at least once before, why and how does he seem familiar? Why might that familiarity be significant, or how might it shape your sense of who Arnold is or what he might represent in the story?

 

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is a chilling story. The way that Joyce Carol Oates writes Arnold Friend as a predator and fifteen-year-old Connie as prey is horrifying, and there are many moments in the story that leave the reader filled with dread. Some of these moments are when Connie’s internal monologue is shown to the reader, and she is noticing things about Arnold that seem off or threatening.

 

At one such moment, Connie is watching Arnold Friend standing outside of her door and thinks about how:

 

she recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words. She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together (par. 77).

 

Connie recognizes all these things about Arnold Friend, but she doesn’t recognize him specifically. Earlier in the story, Connie had been out another evening with a friend and had passed Arnold at a burger joint while she was walking with another boy. That evening their eyes met in the parking lot, Connie took note of Arnold Friend’s distinctive hair and distinctive car. Connie doesn’t say a word to Arnold Friend, she doesn’t even know his name yet, but he says to her “Gonna get you, baby” (par. 7). That is the only time that Connie has any contact with Arnold Friend before he shows up at her house several days later.

 

So, it seems odd that he would be familiar to Connie during this meeting in her driveway while she is home alone. He is a stranger who she has only glimpsed once. How can he be familiar? But, Connie keeps thinking that there are familiar things about him. “His face was a familiar face, somehow” (par. 46).

 

Arnold Friend himself approaches Connie with an inappropriate and startling level of familiarity. He breaks standards for acceptable behavior by treating a girl he is meeting for only the second time ever like a long-time girlfriend who he is confident is madly in love with him. The first thing he says to Connie is “I ain’t late, am I?” (par. 17). He speaks as if he knows that Connie has been expecting him. Connie’s response of “who the hell do you think you are” (par. 18) makes complete sense to say to a stranger who shows up unexpectedly at your house and then pretends like you have made plans together. Arnold Friend, however, ignores Connie’s response as if she is the one who is not making sense. He continues pushing the narrative he has created onto Connie as if he can rewrite truth through pure force of will.

 

Arnold Friend is familiar to Connie. Connie “liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed” (par. 46). The reader can assume that Connie is talking about boys. Much of her focus during the story has been on boys. The story begins with a description of Connie’s habit of checking mirrors or “other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right” (par. 1). Connie “knew she was pretty and that was everything” (par. 1). Being pretty attracts boys.

 

It is summer vacation for Connie, and when she’s not out with her friends meeting boys, she’s at home “getting in her mother’s way and thinking, dreaming about the boys she met” (par. 10). As she thinks about these boys her mental images of them dissolve “into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July” (par. 10). The boys are melded together by her wanting for them and her wanting for them to want her.

 

On the day that Arnold Friend shows up to Connie’s house uninvited, before he arrives, Connie is sunbathing in her backyard “dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over into thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was” (par. 12).

 

When Arnold Friend shows up at Connie’s house her feeling that he is familiar is mingled with her recognition of the distinctly male things about him. While Connie is noticing how muscular he is she is also noticing that “his face was a familiar face, somehow; the jaw and chin and cheeks slightly darkened because he hadn’t shaved for a day or two, and the nose long and hawklike, sniffing as if she was a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke” (par. 46).

 

The male face is familiar. The features, compared to the features of a predator, a hawk, are familiar. The idea that Connie is a treat to be gobbled up by a boy is familiar. Before Arnold Friend shows up, Connie is thinking about the boy she was with the night before, a boy who “gobbled” her, a boy who she wanted to be “gobbled” by. Arnold Friend is exciting some of the same feelings in Connie, but in a different way. The night before was “nice” and “sweet”. Arnold Friend seems neither nice nor sweet. He is an attractive yet unknown entity that is forcing his way into her life. Connie doesn’t yet know whether or not she wants to be “gobbled” by Arnold Friend. He is both enticing and threatening.

 

The threat outweighs the attraction whe Connie realizes what is not familiar about Arnold Friend. Connie is continuing to notice things she recognizes about him, about boys in general. She recognizes “tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt”. She recognizes “that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words”. She recognizes “the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy,” and she recognizes “the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him, but all these things did not come together” (par. 77).

 

Connie has finally pinpointed what is foreign about Arnold Friend, and she asks him how old he is. When Arnold Friend realizes what Connis has realized “his smile faded” (par. 79). He tries to lie and convince Connie that he is also a teenager, but Connie sees through the lie. She has realized that Arnold Friend is not a boy, but a man. Boys are familiar to Connie, but men are not, and she doesn’t want them to be.

 

Connie’s fear only grows when she realizes that the friend Arnold brought along with him is also a man rather than a boy (par. 86). “Maybe you two better go away,” she tells them, but Arnold Friend is not taking no for an answer. Arnold Friend does not go away. He reveals that he know even more information about where Connie’s family is. He threatens Connie and her family when Connie says she is going to call the police. When the story ends, Connie, alone with this predatory man and terrified out of her mind, does not seem to have any option but to comply with his demand that she come with him. Reading these events play out is so chilling, because Arnold Friend seemed so familiar. He’s the irresistible bad boy that sweeps a teenage girl off her feet and whisks her away from her stifling family. At least, that’s who we thought Arnold Friend was at first. That’s who he wants us to think he is.

 

Is the bad boy so irresistible, though, when, instead of whisking, he coerces and threatens? No, he is not. Is the bad boy irresistible when he’s not a boy at all, but a man playing the part of a boy. No, he’s just creepy then. The familiarity of Arnold Friend is so unnerving, because the familiarity is just a facade covering up something devious and malicious.

 

 

An Essay on Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Prompt: Discuss how dramatic irony plays out in ROMAN FEVER. What is the full story that neither Mrs. Slade nor Mrs. Ansley knows? What prompts the two ladies to reveal what they know to each other?

 

Roman Fever is an exquisitely executed example of dramatic irony. Irony is defined as “a situation or statement characterized by a significant difference between what is expected or understood and what actually happens or is meant”. There are several different kinds of irony, and dramatic irony is “when there is a gap between what an audience knows and what a character believes or expects” (Glossary, A6).

 

In the story two wealthy women who are on the border between being middle-aged and being elderly unexpectedly meet each other on vacation in Rome. Both of them are widows of rich and powerful men. Both of them live in New York City, and they were even neighbors at one point (par. 19). These two women, Mrs. Alida Slade and Mrs. Grace Ansley have been “intimate since childhood” (par. 19), and their lives have many parallels. They both have daughters who are young adults, right at the age where a well-to-do young lady in the 1930s would be courted by possible husbands. Like their daughters, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley were both visiting Rome at the time when they were being courted by the men who would become their husbands.

 

The story finds Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley on a restaurant balcony just after lunch on a gorgeous Roman afternoon. Their daughters have gone off together to flirt and spend time with “young Italian aviators” (par. 14), and Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley sit on the balcony together, chatting and enjoying the view while Mrs. Ansley knits. At times they fall into silence, and the afternoon turns into evening as the two reminisce. Even though that’s all the action that occurs in the story, the dialogue between the two women and Mrs. Slade’s internal monologue (we never see Mrs. Ansley’s thoughts) are full of drama.

 

As the ladies’ conversation progresses they reveal a story that neither of them ever knew. Each of them knew parts of the story but had kept what they knew secret from the other for decades. Finally, at this fateful moment on the balcony, the full story is revealed to both of them. The ignorance and jealousy of Mrs. Slade’s thoughts together with the gradual piecing together of the story creates the irony for the characters and for the reader. We witness the inner workings of Mrs. Slade’s mind as it is revealed that what actually happened so many years ago in Rome is so much different than what she had understood events to be.

 

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Slade, whose thoughts have been antagonistic towards the seemingly benign Mrs. Ansley, confronts Mrs. Ansley. Up until this point their conversation has been peppered with little jabs at each other, but mostly tame. Suddenly, Mrs. Slade bursts out with an accusation that Mrs. Ansley “went to meet the man I was engaged to” (par. 69). She knows that all those years ago when she and her husband, Delphin, were first engaged, he was cheating on her with Mrs. Ansley, who wasn’t yet Mrs. Ansley at that time. She knows because of what happened on a fateful night in their youth. On that particular Roman winter night, Mrs. Ansley had gone out in the cold and ended up “catching a bad chill” (par. 61). As she convalesced, she disappeared from the social scene. The reason she gave to people for having gone out that night was that she was going “to see the moon rise” (par. 61). Mrs. Slade has always known that was not the real reason the young Mrs. Ansley went out that night.

 

As these revelations come to light, the reader can sense that something major is brewing between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, but we don’t know what. We are in a similar position as Mrs. Slade, missing a key piece of knowledge. However, Mrs. Slade has not yet caught on to the fact that she is missing a key piece of knowledge. She is wrapped up in the drama and the energy of finally confronting Mrs. Ansley after all of these years.

 

The truth is that Mrs. Slade, who knew that her fiance was secretly seeing Mrs. Ansley, had sent a note pretending to be Delphin Slade, the man they were both in love with. In the note she told Mrs. Ansley to meet her at “the Colosseum immediately after dark” (par. 72). According to Mrs. Slade’s plan, Mrs. Ansley received the note and went to the Colosseum. What was supposed to happen was that there would be no one there to meet Mrs. Ansley, the excursion out into the cold would sicken her, and she would be out of the way as a romantic rival.

 

This is the secret truth that Alida Slade has kept to herself for years. Delphin didn’t write the letter that sent Grace Ansley out into the cold one night, she did, posing as Delphin. Then she let Grace believe that the letter had really been from Delphin. It was a cruel act committed by a desperate girl worried that she would lose the man she loved to another. After this devastating confession bursts out of Alida she finds that “the flame of her wrath had…sunk” and she wonders “why she had ever thought there would be any satisfaction in inflicting so purposeless a wound on her friend” (par. 88). Within Alida, guilt and regret are warring with jealousy and anger. Even though she got to marry and live a life with Delphin she still feels the betrayal of a young girl competing with another woman for a man’s love. She wants to shame Grace for nearly stealing her fiance away so many years ago even as she knows it is pointless.

 

Grace is, understandably, very shaken. She had treasured the memory of the letter that she had thought Delphin had written to her (par. 83). Seeing how devastated Grace is, Alida admits that she wishes now she hadn’t told Grace (par. 99). Despite feeling some guilt, Alida is able to feel a sense of victory over Grace. She is not able to feel it for long, though, because Grace knows a piece of the story that Alida has never known.

 

In Alida’s mind, and because the narration has mostly been from Alida’s point of view, in the reader’s mind, Grace was alone in the Colosseum that night. Alida’s false note sent her there, and no one ever came to meet her. Except that’s not the truth of what happened. Alida was so “blind with rage” (par. 112) that she never considered that, upon receiving the note, Grace might send a response to Delphin confirming that she would be at the Colosseum that night. Having received Grace’s reply, Delphin arranged to really meet Grace that night, and it all happened without Alida ever knowing. So, even though Alida ended up marrying Delphin, Delphin and Grace had a night together in the Colosseum that Alida never knew about.

 

This revelation is shocking to Alida, but she is still able to feel like the victor because she is the one who got “everything” (par. 116). She got to be married to Delphin for twenty-five years, while Grace “had nothing but that one letter that he didn’t write” (par. 116).

 

It seems to both Alida and the reader that perhaps she really did come out on top until Grace simply replies, “I had Barbara” (par. 118). With only three words, Grace suddenly upends everything Alida and the reader thinks they know about the situation. Everything is cast in a new light. The fact that Grace disappeared after that night in the Colosseum was not due to a chill she caught from the cold, but due to a pregnancy out of wedlock. She was wed to Horace Ansley so quickly not because she wanted to beat Alida and Delphin to marriage, but so that no one would notice that she was pregnant before the nuptials. Finally the full truth has been revealed, and then the story ends abruptly before we can see the effect that this bombshell has on Alida. The abruptness of the ending serves to compound the shock.