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.

An Essay on Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

Prompt: Sonny’s Blues begins “in medias res”. What does Baldwin achieve by beginning the story as he does? How does the order in which events are related later in the story affect your experience of reading it and interpreting its meaning?

 

James Baldwin begins the short story Sonny’s Blues with the narrator, an African-American man in 1950s New York City riding the subway to the school where he teaches, reading in a newspaper that his estranged younger brother has been arrested for selling and using heroin. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, “couldn’t believe it” (par. 1). In the first paragraph, the narrator repeats three times that he read the news and two times that he stared at the news. He states three times that he couldn’t believe the news.

 

The news absolutely shocks the narrator. His emotional reaction is so overwhelming that he feels extreme physical sensations in his body. He describes how:

 

a great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…it kept melting, sending trickles of ice water up and down my veins, but it never got less; sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream (par. 2).

 

At the same time, though, the narrator admits that he cannot doubt the news either. The reality of Sonny’s drug use is something he had kept “outside me for a long time”. He “hadn’t wanted to know”. He “had had suspicions” but “didn’t name them” (par. 4).

 

Because Baldwin begins his story at the very moment that our protagonist receives this shocking and terrible news about his younger brother, the reader partly feels the narrator’s sense of surprise and horror. The reader does not feel as deeply rattled as the narrator, though, because we don’t know Sonny, not yet. We don’t have the familiarity and shared history with Sonny that the narrator does. We don’t love Sonny as the narrator does.

 

The first thing we ever learn about Sonny is that he has been arrested for “peddling and using heroin” (par. 3). Our first experience of Sonny is his brother’s anguish at this unfortunate turn of events in his life. Because his brother is anguished we are able to glean that Sonny is a person who is worth loving, who is worth worrying about. He is not an irredeemable villain. The narrator tells us “Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy…he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful” (par. 4). So Sonny isn’t a bad person. However, the fact that the narrator doesn’t doubt the terrible news, doesn’t think it must all be some mistake, tells us that Sonny has probably been struggling with some demons. Part of the reason the news is so shocking to the narrator is that he has been hiding from the truth about his brother. This shows the reader that something has been obviously wrong in Sonny’s life. Unlike the narrator, the reader has no emotional investment in Sonny’s wellbeing and so no reason to avoid the truth of Sonny’s addiction.

 

Beginning in the middle of a scene, at the very moment that the narrator reads the news about Sonny in the paper, also gives the reader a sense of the estrangement between the narrator and Sonny. Instead of finding out directly from Sonny or Sonny’s possible friends or lovers that Sonny is in trouble, the narrator discovers the news by chance in the paper. Even though they live in the same city there is some sort of rift between the brothers that keeps them from regularly communicating or seeing each other. As the reader processes the first few paragraphs of the story, she begins to wonder what kind of person this Sonny is if he is “a good boy” but also in this serious trouble. She begins to wonder what happened between these two brothers that they are no longer involved in each other’s lives. And she begins to wonder what kind of person the narrator is. He has described Sonny but told us nothing of himself. We meet him in the middle of a very vulnerable moment. We see his fear for his brother and his desire for the truth about his brother not to be true. We know he is a schoolteacher. We are left wondering how he will handle this news.

An Essay on The Lives of the Dead by Tim O’Brien

Prompt: This story begins, “But this too is true: stories can save us” (par. 1). In what different ways does that prove true in this story? Why “but”?

 

The narrator in The Lives of the Dead tells us that “by slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was” (par. 92). The “we” is soldiers in Vietnam, young men in their 20s, of which the narrator is one. The soldiers “slight death” in many ways. At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes a little village that was burned up in an air strike. After the bombs stop dropping the soldiers search the village and find the dead body of “an old man who lay face-up near a pigpen at the center of the village” (par. 2). One of the narrator’s comrades goes up and shakes the old man’s hand, offering him a greeting. This begins a ritual in which all the other soldiers go up and do the same thing. “One by one…they just grabbed the old man’s hand and offered a few words and moved away” (par. 4). Everyone except for the narrator, Tim, does this. The narrator is “brand-new to the war”, and just looking at the old man’s body makes him feel sick (par. 7). Tim resists the prompting and teasing of his comrades, refusing to go near the body. As he watches the strange ritual, though, he notes that “it was more than mockery; there was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness” (par. 14).

 

This odd formal mockery of shaking a dead man’s hand, speaking to him, proposing toasts to his “family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death” (par. 14) creates a kind of buffer between the young American soldiers and the horror of their situation. They are in a foreign land fighting a war. They have just come under sniper fire, which could’ve killed any one of them, and then they watched as their own army bombed out the village the sniper fire came from, killing an old man who could have been just an innocent civilian, who could have reminded them of their own grandfathers back home.

 

The “funeral without sadness” that they have for the old man creates a story these young soldiers can tell themselves. They are in a situation where, even though they are armed, they are rather powerless. Many of them were probably drafted and did not choose to leave home and go fight a war. Some of them may be morally opposed to the war. They may not have an intimate understanding of the politics underlying the very war they are fighting. They follow the orders of commanding officers. They walk into dangerous situations where they never know if they will be surprised by sniper fire or if they will survive. They watch as friends, enemies and strangers die around them in terrible ways. This is the grim reality of their situation. This is their nightmarish unaltered story.

 

The old man’s body represents this story. The ritual of shaking his hand alters the story. Maybe there is an afterlife where this old man can find peace or justice. Maybe it’s not too late for this old man’s grandchildren to live good lives. Maybe his ancestors lived good lives before him. Maybe showing his dead body the same kind of cordial politeness you would show a stranger you meet on the street is a sort of apology the soldiers make for being part of the army that perpetrated the violence that took this old man’s life.

 

Interwoven with this narrative about the Vietnam war is another narrative about Tim’s childhood. As a nine-year-old child, when he was Timmy, the narrator fell in love with a classmate, Linda, who was dying of a brain tumor. When the girl died Timmy comforted himself by telling himself stories. Timmy is able to use his vivid imagination to bring Linda to life again in his mind, so much so that it seems real to him. He is able to have conversations with her.

 

On the day that Timmy receives the news of Linda’s death, he lays down on the sofa and calls out to Linda. “Linda, please,” he says, and she comes to him (par. 86). She walks to him down a familiar street, and she looks vibrant, happy and healthy. The signs of sickness that Linda showed in life, a bald head covered in scars and stitches, are gone. The Linda that Timmy has dreamed alive ask him why he is so sad (par. 87). When Timmy responds that she is dead, she looks at him with “something ageless in her eyes” (par. 89) and tells him “Timmy, stop crying. It doesn’t matter” (par. 91).

 

Tim tells the reader:

 

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness (par. 40).

 

Young Timmy uses his dreams of Linda to create the illusion of aliveness that he needs to cope with her death. The illusion of Linda gives him more time with her, to go to parties, to go ice skating. It is time that they did not have in reality. In reality, when Timmy and Linda went on a date together they were too shy to properly speak to each other. They barely look at each other (par. 37). When Timmy does speak to Linda on the date it’s to rudely tell her to “step it up” (par. 39). Timmy’s inner feelings are a sharp contrast to his outer brusqueness. Even at his young age, he feels he knows that they are in love, feels that they are “sharing something huge and permanent” (par. 37).

 

However, that fact is never communicated between them before Linda dies. After Linda dies and Timmy is dreaming Linda alive again, the Linda he dreams is able to have deep conversations with him about what death is like and why death is not permanent. “Once you’re alive you can’t ever be dead,” she tells him (par. 113). Later she likens being dead to being “inside a book that nobody’s reading” (120). You have to wait and hope that someone will pick up the book and begin reading your story. In this analogy, having your story told is like being brought back to life, if only for a little while.

 

So, Timmy keeps telling himself stories where and Linda spend time together, keeps bringing Linda back to life. He begins spending more and more time sleeping, going to bed earlier and earlier. His mother notices and asks him what’s wrong (par. 116), but he brushes off her concern. He doesn’t want to share the dream world he has created, because he’s scared that sharing this secret might mean losing it. To get to the stories, to bring Linda back to life, Timmy has to give up more of his connection with waking reality.

 

Perhaps that’s why the story begins with the word “but”. It is true that stories can save us. We need stories to comfort us when reality is so terrible that we can hardly cope with it. But, can the stories be something of a lie? Can we lose something if we immerse ourselves too deeply in story, like if we spend more time sleeping than waking, because we want to dream of a dead loved one?

 

Tim tells us about his “worst day at the war” (par. 108). He is assigned to help carry the bodies of dead enemy soldiers down a mountain and load them into a truck. The bodies have been lying there for more than a day and are bloated and stinking. As he and his fellow soldiers go about this hellish task another soldier, Mitchell Sanders, says to Tim, “Death sucks” (par. 111). He says it as if he is “awed by his own wisdom” (par. 110).

 

What Mitchell Sanders says, death sucks, is the stark truth that no amount of storytelling can provide an escape from.

An Essay on A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley

Prompt: What different ideas about stories and storytelling do the narrator and her father seem to have in A CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER? What might account for their different attitudes?

 

The narrator in A Conversation with My Father is a writer. We can tell that she has written many stories, because her father makes a comparison between the kind of story he wants her to write during the story and “the kind you used to write” (par. 2).

 

The narrator likes to have the element of hope in her stories. She feels that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (par. 3). She seems to write stories as if she is part of the audience. The story reveals itself to her as she writes it, and she is just as surprised by occurrences in her writing as one of her readers might be.

 

As she talks to her father about the main character in the story she creates for him, she tells him, “that’s the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic. You think they’re extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they’re just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person’s a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can’t even think of an ending good enough” (par. 24).

 

The reader gets the sense that the narrator likes it when one of her characters “outwits” her. She doesn’t like to know how she will end a story when she begins it, because she enjoys the feeling of discovering the story as she writes.

 

So, when her father asks her “to write a simple story just once more…just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next,” the narrator seems to chafe at this (par. 2). She doesn’t want to write a story with a beginning “followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised…because it takes all hope away” (par. 3). An “absolute line” stretching between the beginning and end of a story means that every detail of the story can be seen clearly from the start. The ending can be known just by reading the beginning of the story. It’s too predictable. The narrator doesn’t want this. She “despises” this kind of “plot”. As she tells the story she wants to experience twists and turns. She wants the line to go around corners that she can’t see around until she gets to them.

 

It’s like she sees writing the story as a kind of collaborative act between herself and her characters. She tells her father that sometimes “you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero” (par. 26). In this view of storytelling, the story itself and the characters in the story are lively and active participants in the act of writing. The narrator sees herself as just a part of the storytelling process. She doesn’t control it; she works with it.

 

The interesting thing about the story the narrator tells her father is that the narrator took the story from real life. It’s actually the story of one of her neighbors and “had been happening for a couple of years right across the street” (par. 4). The narrator tells the story twice. The second time is lengthier and has more detail, but both times the general gist is that a mother and son start using heroin together. The son starts dating a girl who gets him to stop using, but the mother is unable to stop using, so the son and new girlfriend cut ties with her until she gets clean. The story ends with the mother alone and crying.

 

The narrator has taken the tragic turn of events in the life of one of her neighbors and made it into a story for her father. Her intention is to tell the kind of simple story that her father has requested, where one event follows another in a clear plot. However, the father is not satisfied with the story and feels that his daughter has not told the kind of story that he asked for. After the first telling, the one that is so short that it is only a short paragraph and includes almost no details, the father complains, “You left everything out.” The narrator misinterpreted her father’s request for a straightforward plot as a desire for brevity.

 

The father doesn’t want brevity. He rather seems to want the events in the story to logically follow one another. He criticizes one of the narrator’s other stories, because it contains nonsensical elements like “people sitting in trees talking senselessly, [and] voices from who knows where” (par. 8). In the current story he wants to know details like “what were her [the mother] parents like…that she became such a person” (par. 13). Knowing such a detail helps the father feel like he can make sense of the mother character. To the father someone’s family background can help explain why they would make the choice to become a drug addict or not. Instead of the elements of surprise that the narrator desires, the father wants a logical and clear series of events.

 

Four times in the text the father complains about the narrator’s sense of humor and/or constant joking. He goes so far as to say that his daughter’s “main trouble [as a writer]” is that she “[doesn’t] want to recognize [tragedy]” (par. 42). To the father, sometimes the events in a story are clearly leading to an unhappy ending, and that ending cannot be avoided. As the narrator tries to write in a surprise that will give the story a happy ending, the father insists that the tragic ending must be faced. In fact, the final lines of the piece are the father asking the narrator, “When will you look [tragedy] in the face?” (par. 51).

 

To the father, the narrator’s joking, in the story and in their real lives, is a symbol of her refusal to deal with the real facts of life, even if they are unpleasant. As they share this moment of storytelling, the narrator and her father are in the midst of dealing with a very unpleasant situation: the father’s illness which is leading to his impending death. The piece begins with the narrator describing her father’s heart as a “bloody motor” that is “old and will not do certain jobs any more” (par 1). The father himself is eighty-six years old. He no longer has the strength to walk, and he is propped up in bed offering “last-minute advice” and making requests. Even though she doesn’t do it to his satisfaction, the narrator tries to fulfill her father’s request for a simple story, because you don’t deny the requests of someone who is dying. The narrator tries to listen to her father’s criticisms of her story, because the advice someone gives out as they are dying, especially if they have lived a long life, is often considered sage wisdom.

 

The narrator can’t quite bring herself to listen, though. She feels a “responsibility” to the character in her story and to the real neighbor woman the character is based upon. The narrator says of the mother character, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying.” (par. 45). If she can’t save the real woman she can at least give the character a happy ending, and she does. She allows the mother character to surprise us. Against all odds, she triumphs over her addiction. She becomes “the receptionist in a storefront community clinic…most of the customers are young people, some old friends” (par. 46). So, even though her son never comes home again she finds meaning and fulfillment in helping others who are in the same predicament she was in. The head doctor at the clinic admires her, and she becomes a hero of sorts.

 

It is a hopeful end, which is the exact opposite of what the father wanted from the story. He wants a story that starts out with such unhappy events to end unhappily. In the end he feels there should be “no hope” (par. 42). It could be said in his own story there is no hope. He is in old age, and his body is failing him. By his side is a daughter who he knows will soon be without him. His impending death is the tragedy that he knows is coming for the narrator. In her stories, the father sees the narrator avoid the unavoidable by adding happy endings to situations that seem impossible. The father knows, though, that there will be no avoiding the pain that will come when he inevitably dies.

 

The father says to the narrator, “In your own life, too, you have to look [tragedy] in the face” (par. 44). If the narrator cannot deal with sad consequences in the stories she tells, how will she deal with the sad consequences of her own father’s death? No doubt the father is wondering this as he listens to his daughter’s storytelling.

An Essay on Flight Patterns by Sherman Alexie

So, I definitely wish that I had been an English major in college. I always thought that majoring in English meant that you were throwing away your career prospects and failing to gain employable skills. Well, I did that anyway by majoring in “International Studies” but I didn’t even learn anything useful from my “interdisciplinary” degree. At least if I’d majored in English, I would’ve done a ton of my favorite things: reading and writing.

 

Well, rather than waste any more time on regrets, I’m doing it now. I’ve decided that I’m going to read The Norton Introduction to Literature and The Norton Reader in their entireties. That will give me a thorough survey of the four main genres: fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. These collections are filled with short stories, poems and excerpts and essay prompts for each one. After reading each piece I will write an essay for it. It will be like crafting my own English major. When I’m done, I won’t have official credits or a degree to show for my trouble, but I will have a feeling of deep personal satisfaction.

 

This blog seems like the perfect place to share my essays, so without further ado, here is the first one:

 

Prompt: William tells himself a variety of stories to cope with his feelings. How do these stories relate to his dialogue with the taxi driver and the stories the driver tells?

 

 

William is a person who spends a lot of time thinking about the world around him and his own inner world. He is thoughtful, but sometimes that thoughtfulness tips over into anxiety. Organizing his thoughts and feelings into stories about himself and about the world help William to cope. Throughout the story, many of William’s thoughts are punctuated by exclamation points to show how deeply he is thinking and feeling inside his mind. Twice, the story refers to William as exaggerating (par. 2 and par. 36). Twice, the story refers to him as romanticizing something (par. 36 and par. 105). Twice, the story calls him obsessive (par. 2 and par. 6).

 

Immediately upon waking, the song that comes on William’s clock radio makes him think of a story about the singer Donna Fargo and how her “birth name was the infinitely more interesting Yvonne Vaughn” (par. 1). William does not seem to intentionally tell himself this story. It just pops into his head before he is even fully awake. His mind immediately ties this story in his mind about a decades old song, to all of the “formerly famous rock- and country-music stars” who played the “Indian casino circuit” (par. 1). We find out that William is a Spokane Indian, so seeing these oldie acts perform was part of the story of his childhood.

 

William is a businessman who is leaving his beloved wife and daughter behind at home to go on a business trip. William travels, “so often, the Seattle-based flight attendants [know] him by first name” (par. 39). He is picked up by a taxi driver who is a man of color and whose accent is ambiguous (par. 41). William and the taxi driver begin talking, and the taxi driver tells William he is Ethiopian (par. 75). They discuss William’s own ethnic ambiguity (par. 86). The driver tells William that his name is Fekadu, that he was a fighter pilot in Ethiopia who “dropped bombs on [his] own people” (par. 155). He tells the story of how he defected, abandoning his family, because he “could not do it anymore” (par. 157).

 

Fekadu’s story resonates deeply with William. Fekadu found himself torn between staying in his country with his family and continuing to kill as part of the military or running from both the killing and his family. Before getting into the taxi, William was deeply conflicted about leaving his own family, something he does constantly for business trips. As he kissed his wife, Marie, goodbye he wondered if she dreamt about “a man who never left her, about some unemployed agoraphobic Indian warrior who liked to cook and wash dishes” (par. 19). When he says goodbye to his daughter, Grace, she cries. He already feels like “only an adequate husband”. His daughter’s tears make him wonder “if he [is] a bad father” (par. 29). Whenever William leaves his family he knows that it is only a business trip and not a permanent separation. Still, while he is away from his wife and daughter he has “nightmares about strangers breaking into the house and killing and raping Marie and Grace. During longer business trips, William’s nightmares became more violent as the days and nights passed” (par. 43). These are all stories that William tells himself, about what kind of husband and father he is, about whether or not his wife and daughter are safe when he leaves them.

 

William loves his wife and daughter intensely. He tells Fekadu, “I miss them so much I go crazy…Sometimes I worry their love is the only thing that makes me human” (par. 72). William struggles to leave his family for constant, short-term business trips. As he is embarking on one of these trips, he struggles to bid his family farewell and then his taxi driver turns out to be a man who chose to escape war by completely abandoning his family without even saying goodbye. As he talks to Fekadu, William imagines the pain and horror of never being able to see his family again. When Fekadu first mentions that he fears he will never see his family again, William doesn’t want “to be having [the] conversation” (par. 80). Fekadu’s reality is so terrible to William that his mind wants to reject it completely. Fekadu’s heartbreaking story is like the worst case scenario of William’s personal fears and anxieties about his own family.

 

Fekadu’s story is not just about abandoning his family. It’s also about the nightmarish job he was given to do as a jet-fighter pilot. Fekadu tells William that he was born into a family that had connections to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who was a “great and good and kind and terrible man [who]…loved his country and killed many of his people” (par. 142). Selassie recognized that Fekadu was an extremely intelligent student and sent him to study physics at Oxford in England. He learned to fly and returned to Ethiopia to fly jets in “Selassie’s army” (par. 147). Fekadu confesses to William, “I dropped bombs on my own people…For three years, I killed my own people…and then, on the third of June in 1974, I could not do it anymore” (par. 155, 157).

 

William is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Fekadu’s stories. When he first gets into the cab and Fekadu starts making small talk with him, “he didn’t really want to talk…he needed to meditate in silence…to put his fear of flying in an imaginary safe deposit box and lock it away” (par. 60). When Fekadu tells William that he can fly planes, William feels “very doubtful of this man but fascinated as well” (par. 104). Before Fekadu tells William about his past as a fighter pilot and his abandonment of his family he asks William, “do you want to hear my story?” (par. 140). Out loud, William says, “Yes, I do, sure, yes, please,” but “he was lying” (par. 141). When Fekadu comes to the point in his story where he’s about to reveal whether he killed or not, “William wanted to know the terrible answer without asking the terrible question” (par. 152). By the time they make it to the airport, William finds that “he didn’t want this journey to end so soon…[he] wanted to hear more of this man’s stories and learn from them, whether they were true or not” (par. 160).

 

As Fekadu and William talk and Fekadu shares his stories, William’s opinions of Fekadu change. At first, he sees Fekadu as a blue-collar taxi driver who is probably from a poor background. Fekadu’s deference to him by calling him “sir” makes William, who is conflicted about his middle-class-American status, uncomfortable (par. 42). William sees that his taxi driver is a black man but can tell by his accent, “a colonial cocktail of American English, formal British, and French sibilants added to a base of what must have been North African,” that he is not African-American (par. 41). William tries to erase the class difference between them by also calling Fekadu sir and helping Fekadu load his luggage into the taxi, which makes Fekadu uncomfortable (par. 52). It is notable that at this point in the story, for one short paragraph, the third person POV switches from William’s perspective to Fekadu’s.

 

As William sits in the back of the taxi heading to the airport he wonders about his work. When Fekadu asks him, “What do you do, sir?” (par. 61), William laughs and replies, “You know, I’m not sure” (par. 62). He works for a “think tank” and thinks of his job as “[selling] ideas about how to improve other ideas” (par. 62). William’s work is profitable and has allowed him to create a comfortable and respectable life for his family. His work is also cerebral. William recalls a product his company designed and sold that was never actually manufactured and would probably be a prototype forever. It was a financial success, because William’s company made “a few hundred thousand dollars” from the idea alone (par. 62).

 

Despite his professional and personal success the intangibility of Williams work makes him worry “that his job-his selling of the purely theoretical-wasn’t a real job at all” (par. 105). As Fekadu drives them down the highway they pass various industrial yards where “blue-collared men and women drove trucks and forklifts, unloaded trains, trucks, and ships, built computers, televisions, and airplanes” (par. 105). William compares himself to “so many men and women working so hard” (par. 105). He compares his work to the kind of work that leaves “calluses on the palms of hands” (par. 105), and he feels torn. He has everything that anyone could want: a loving family, a comfortable home, financial security, a prestigious job. However, he still yearns for and romanticizes what he doesnt have. He wants his “comfortable and safe life to contain more wilderness” (par. 105).

 

Then Fekadu tells his story. Fekadu’s story doesn’t exactly contain wilderness but it does contain wildness. As they drive past a field of planes Fekadu says, “I can fly any of those planes…I am the best pilot in the world” (par. 103). Being a pilot is tangible and physical in a way that William’s work is not. The life of a fighter pilot who defects from a tyrannical regime is wild in a way that William’s life is not. Listening to the wildness of Fekadu’s life is fascinating for William. However, Fekadu’s story is also an extremely painful one. Fekadu’s story seems to confront William with the fact that adventure in life can come at a high price. William spends so much time in his head, worrying about the ways that his life could be different, for better or for worse. This time spent worrying is time taken away from appreciating the reality of what his life actually is, which is pretty good.

 

When Fekadu drops William off at the airport he feels “unsure [and] afraid” (par. 180). Fekadu makes a joke about he is a much better jet pilot than taxi driver and then laughs “loudly and joyously” at his own joke (par. 177). William cannot believe that a man who has endured such pain “could be capable of such happiness, however temporary it was” (par. 178). Fekadu, if his stories are true, has suffered great loss and been faced with terrible choices in life. Yet, he is able to laugh and smile and joke. William, the one with the enviable life, is the one feeling fraught.

 

Standing at the curb of the airport, William seems to have an anxiety attack. He “[can’t] breathe well” and wonders if he might “fall over from a heart attack or stroke right there on the sidewalk” (par. 182). He doesn’t fall over. He leaves his bags right on the curb and runs inside the terminal. He runs and he searches until he finds a pay phone and calls home. As the phone “rang and rang and rang and rang…William worried that his wife and daughter were harmed, were lying dead on the floor, but then Marie answered” (par. 182).

 

Hearing Fekadu’s story transported William out of his own life for a while. It transported him into a world of unimaginable destruction and loss. In his own life, William is constantly beset by anxieties that are unfounded based on the extremely low levels of danger facing him and his family. They are secure and fortunate. Confronted with the story of a man who has lived through real danger and chaos, William sprints back towards the safety and comfort of his life. His wife’s voice comes through the phone, and it anchors him. It reminds him that even though all is not well with the world, all is well with his life right now.