“Why Write?” ~ my guest post at the Green Mountains Review Online

Leave a comment

Green Mountains Review recently published my “Why Write?” essay, part of their ongoing blog series from contributors. They had some very nice things to say about my work; I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly humbling it is to have one’s fiction compared to Saul Bellow’s, or Ron Carlson’s. Follow the link below to read the essay.

“Fiction writer Vanessa Blakeslee‘s “Hospice of the Au Pair,” from our Fall 2010 issue, introduces a powerful new voice in fiction. Here is the rare early writer who knows how to build compelling narrative, whose stories hit the ground running — driven forth always by characters in motion rather than the sort of conspicuous craft and propping-up that stilts so much current fiction. The language bristles with comic wit and energy yet never feels precious or, god help us, writerly; it is powered instead by story itself, hence the authority we feel in the language. This is the generous, intelligent style of Saul Bellow, Paula Fox, Ron Carlson. How remarkable, then, to find this in a writer so early in her career, and how lucky.” ~ Editors, Green Mountains Review


Language Specificity and Character in Katherine Mansfield’s “Revelations”

Leave a comment

Character arc in the short story often depends on how the writer employs descriptive detail—certain techniques illicit certain effects, and the external circumstances which the character faces often determine the amount of concrete and abstract detail necessary. To truly render the emotional undertones of a scene, the writer may use concrete detail to spring into the abstract, and vice versa, weaving back and forth from the concrete portrayal of looks, behavior, and surroundings to ground the scene and propel the action forward. In her story “Revelations,” Katherine Mansfield uses the most crucial, necessary specifics of both concrete and abstract details in building seemingly inevitable resolutions to her characters’ dilemmas.

As Monica enters the hair dresser’s shop, Mansfield transitions from the preceding paragraph of exposition, where we get Monica’s thoughts on how the shop usually is, and that she feels she is her “real self” there. Thus, the first and second lines contain more abstract language to capture the internal: “But to-day—how curious! Madame hardly greeted her.” Now able to move further into the external, immediate scene, Mansfield renders concrete visual and auditory detail with her next descriptions of Madame’s looks and behavior: “Her face was whiter than ever, but rims of bright red showed round her blue bead eyes, and even the rings on her pudgy fingers did not flash…When she called through the wall-telephone to George there was a note in her voice that had never been there before.”Mansfield could continue giving us more detail, but in order to maintain the effect of “revealing and concealing,” she chooses to sprinkle the details throughout the rest of the scene. In her next line, she moves to a handful of observations and Monica’s reaction as she as digests them, and so the language Mansfield chooses is more abstract: “But Monica would not believe this. No, she refused to. It was just her imagination.” Because Monica’s internal reaction to the dismal external reality is to refuse her observations, and she clings to her lofty expectations of the salon visit, her subsequent actions organically follow her pattern of thinking. Continuing to give us Monica’s reaction in the abstract vein would be superfluous; next, Mansfield returns to the concrete to give us a precise picture of Monica’s reactive looks and behavior: “She sniffed greedily the warm, scented air, and passed behind the velvet curtain into the small cubicle.”

As Mansfield builds toward the climax, she does so in a way that continues to force Monica to internally face her external reality. The wind blows outside and George doesn’t come, making it more difficult for Monica’s thoughts and emotional state to remain the same. First Monica notices her jacket and hat still hanging on the peg, a sign of George’s delay, and the quietness of the shop. Then Mansfield launches into the abstract: “Monica wished she hadn’t come. Oh, what a mistake to have come! Fatal. Fatal. Where was George? If he didn’t appear the next moment she would go away.” This paragraph uses concrete details of surrounding and behavior more sparingly, allowing us more insight into the transformation of Monica’s thoughts and their effect on her behavior. The external circumstances force a response. Monica removes the kimono, her “fingers trembled,” and Mansfield decides to use this opportunity of detailed, concretely shown tension to turn inward, revealing information the reader needs to know as the protagonist’s inner state launches into flux. “There was a tugging feeling at her heart as though her happiness—her marvelous happiness—were trying to get free.”

In the ensuing sequence of events, the external circumstances wholly determine Monica’s reactions. George appears at the last minute, so Monica gives in to carrying through with the appointment. Mansfield focuses several lines on George’s appearance, and here demonstrates that the portrayal of characters, how they observe and react to one another, does not necessarily have to occur in the concrete-to abstract-back to concrete pattern of revelation. Probably since the most recent lines dwell on the more abstract, internal workings of the protagonist, Mansfield’s description of Monica’s reaction to George’s awful appearance start with her inward reaction, use less descriptive language, and move outward: “How queerly he smiled!” (she must validate her observation); “It was the mirror of course” (she tries to refute it immediately). She turns around and is forced to greet him face to face. Now Mansfield moves outward and forces Monica into the more specific details of reality: “His lips curled back in a sort of grin, and—wasn’t he unshaven?—he looked almost green in the face.” Where before Mansfield tells us he simply “smiled,” here we are shown his smile is not so simple, but fraught with turmoil.

On the micro level, the degree to which Mansfield describes a particular look or a gesture depends on its purpose, the emotional weight it must play out in the story. For instance, the second to last paragraph of “Revelations” begins, “George took a brush”—a description of simple action. However, the ensuing line in which George reveals the death of his child (the story’s climax) Mansfield intensifies by coupling this delivery with the playing out of his gesture in more concrete detail: “And then suddenly he raised himself and, looking at Monica, gave a strange wave with the brush and said…” This maximizes the emotional effect on Monica in the scene and directly contributes to the overall effect of “Revelations.”

Mansfield chooses her details from varying degrees of specificity to the more general depending on the natural progression of events as they unfold. Had she failed to make such deliberate choices, not only might her stories struggle to achieve the same poignant epiphanies at the end, but her character arcs might meander rather than unify. Her balanced technique of interweaving from the internal to the external, and vice versa, pausing to focus on the most significant, revealing behaviors and thoughts of characters at the precise moments, allows the stories to resonate to their utmost potential.

Anancy Today: The Role of Folklore in the Afro-Caribbean Aesthetic

1 Comment

Although some critics regard the “folk story” and literary short story as different entities, most contemporary West Indian writers and poets have been aware of the oral traditions in their own writing, utilizing the character of Anancy, the trickster spider, or Ol’ Higue, the bloodsucking witch. The Anancy or “nancy stories” seemed an appropriate colonial metaphor for the Caribbean, illustrating the possibility of the powerless to survive and overcome larger forces than oneself with cunning, patience and wit. Whether or not attributions of traditional folklore, notably depictions of Anancy, play an appropriate role in Caribbean writing today is a chief argument challenging folklore. Does Anancy’s male trickster identity still apply to the Caribbean or should it be abandoned?

While the folktale tradition has greatly influenced the movement towards the language of speech becoming vernacular narration, certain writers have taken stories and characters out of the oral tradition and re-created them in a literary context. In many cases these writers use legendary figures as agents of meaning. By reinventing Anancy, the folktale serves as an aesthetic construct that informs characterization as well as a viable means of representing reality by the Caribbean writer.

Transcending these differences of name, the spider-figure

provides images of memory and survival, compromise and

obstinacy, past and present, that are directly related to a wider

process of creolization which is crucial to the formation and

understanding of the West Indian cultural heritage” (Tortello 2).

In recent texts, Anancy takes on new roles, and even claims to be as much female as male in Andrew Salky’s “Anancy and Jeffery Amherst.” For writers such as Andrew Salky and Willi Chen, the representation of the mythic imagination taken from folklore is not a matter of ornamentation in their work. Rather it functions as the means adopted by these writers of questioning the Caribbean reality through myth, and above all, constructing an aesthetic model that takes into consideration both the post-colonial world and the roots of the Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Andrew Salky remains one of the most well known innovators of the Anancy tale, as the legend formed the basis for his novels and short stories. In “Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst,” in which Anancy is sent to seek out a military official to answer to English atrocities for Caribbea, the protagonist appears at first mention to be the character of the folk tradition, called “Brother Anancy.” Yet when next described by the narrator, we get a revelation about his character which becomes a theme throughout the story. Brother Anancy is “the ancient African and Caribbean spider-man, who was also a woman” (Markham11). Salky reinforces the authority of Anancy’s presence in mentioning the folk hero’s historical background as well: “Amherst’s English ruling class clip didn’t unnerve Anancy in the slightest; as an African and Caribbean spiderman-woman, he had been well accustomed to that sort of Albion ambush, ever since the gimlet years of the Middle Passage” (Markham 12). Salky’s contemporary version of Anancy utilizes another folktale element—duality—to create a literary hybrid. Not only is Anancy both female and male, but of the present and of the past. Jeffrey Amherst tries to dismiss Anancy, thinking the odd gender fusion a sign of weakness, but realizes he has been approached by a strong figure that will not let him off easily:

‘And who are you?’

‘A spider-man who is also a woman.’

‘An unusual fusion?’

‘Only because the universal ancestors have kept the two quite

separate for ages.’

‘Still, absolutely extraordinary that you should claim such a duality.’

‘Two heads, two souls, always better than one of anything’ (Markham12).

Here Salky addresses the issue of creolization and blended ethnicity in theCaribbeanas a strength, not a weakness. Amherst’s reason for giving infected blankets to Indians disturbs Anancy, even though the reader can clearly see which character is in the wrong. Amherst’s definition of survival puts down weaker peoples, while Anancy’s is based on cunning wit and optimism to survive the tactics of Amherst. The agenda ofAmherst, a symbol of the British colonial power and Anancy, of the African Caribbean man and woman, are in perpetual opposition, as the empire still maintains influence over former colonies today. In the end, Anancy is disheartened by the clash. “He paused and closed his man-woman selves, tight shut, so that he would be able to heal the terrible crater” (Markham13). Even Anancy, superhero character that he/she is, has doubts about “two heads, two souls”—the blending of backgrounds existing in the Caribbean—being better than “one of anything.”

“Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst” demonstrates how Anancy is a universal and timeless Afro-Caribbean participant as well as authority figure, able to apply to the post-colonial identity and creolization issues of the today’s Caribbean due to the folktale character adopting a broader, hybrid form. Anancy’s relevance to the literary movement, however, is relatively new as writers sought to reconnect with folklore as a contemporary aesthetic.

Part of the colonial agenda was to convince its African subjects to believe the concept that “progress” derived from a Western consciousness, as represented by Western literary paradigms such as the novel (Akoma 2). Following the literary awakening in the Caribbean in the 1930s, writers shied away from the traditional European aesthetic and began to uncover their own. Folktales and legends, which had been forced underground by a colonial empire, surfaced again and were rediscovered by the post-independent literary movement in the 1950s and 60s, but the initial encounter was problematic. The folkways had become “fakeways” exploited politically for cultural nationalism and the growing tourist industry (Rohlehr 8-9). Poets and writers sought to give folk traditions an everyday appeal, a challenge when for so long folklore had been considered eccentric. The literature based on oral tradition and folktales resulted in creating a unique Caribbean aesthetic, such as the Anancy myth that has informed the structure and supplied ethic for Salky’s Caribbean stories and novels, among others.

Several writers making up the Caribbean literary scene today bring twists from different cultural backgrounds to the Anancy tale, and new versions of Anancy emerge from this melting pot to play various roles in fiction. Willi Chen’s game-cock trainer in “Moro” is not so much a trickster as an underdog trying to overcome the odds of defeating a foreigner on home turf, and makes more use of disciplined routine and patience than cunning. Abandoning the characteristic of Anancy’s blatant trickery, the story plays up other elements found in an Anancy tale of the past to recreate the folkhero in a more modern form. While Salky used a folktale style to tell “Anancy and Jeffrey Amherst” along with the characters of Anancy and Caribbea, Chen takes an entirely different stylistic approach for his Anancy allegory.

In Chen’s tale, a rich game cock owner seeks out a poor game cock trainer, Moro, known for his discipline and serious training, to help train his birds against the champion Spanish cocks coming toTrinidad. When Mr. Holman, the owner, asks, “Think we have a chance, Moro? Think Trinidad will finally be in the picture?” he foreshadows a symbolic showdown between post-independent Trinidad and a former dominating colonial influence (Markham296). Moro gives an Anancy-like answer. “Time’ll tell, boss…dem oversea cocks is world-class, but dat doh mean a thing. A good fighter cock could come from the bush. Get what ah say?” (Markham296). Moro is quick to point out that breeding and strength alone aren’t enough to win every time. The Trinidadian cocks entering the fight as the underdogs are representative of the Anancy folkhero along with Moro. The stakes rise for the Trinidadian cocks after their champion, Satan, is defeated by El Diablo.

With just three victories to the Trinidadians, they acknowledged

defeat. There was an aggressiveness in the foreign birds which

could never be found in their own cocks. Holman recognized the

superiority and fighting instincts in the five cocks fromHaitiand

Martinique, and knew there was a strong need for more training

and breeding to develop a stronger fighting strain (Markham298).

Through the cockfight, Chen illustrates the many challenges facing Trinidad in competition with the outside world. The evident “superiority” of the foreigners causes them to realize the need for better education and preparedness for their birds, in addition to a need for “aggressiveness” in facing competition. It seems, for the moment, all is lost, and the Trinidadian cocks must adopt outside ways of training and breeding in order to gain equal footing with the foreigners, or else lag behind.

However, Moro returns to the ring with a new opponent for El Diablo, one of his own birds:

It stood tall, its head almost round, but it had no tail…It was odd

looking with its large, round head and the stump of short feathers

for a tail. Once in the arena, the tailless bird evoked laughter from

the crowd. It was weighed, and someone remarked about going

back home for its clothes, but Moro stood his ground proudly


The red and black Dom functions as a significant symbol for the melting pot of ethnicities in Trinidadian society, where, in comparison to other Caribbean islands, creolization occurred to a much greater extent with the migration of East Indians and Chinese adding to the population. Creolization, defined by Brathwaite in his rewriting of the history of Jamaica, explains how the Trinidadian pyramid of social structure was hardly fixed (Chandrasekaran 2). Instead, a productive interaction developed, and because of the mixed origin of its occupants, Trinidad, likeJamaica, experienced a high level of creolization (Chandrasekaran 2). The Dom doesn’t look like a purebred because he isn’t purebred, and therefore is not taken as a serious threat by the observers. “Again there was laughter at the tailless Trinidad bird, though it stood taller than the red Spanish terror…many were hesitant to put their money on the Trinidad fighter. El Diablo was the red menace, conqueror from overseas, the one always victorious” (Markham299).

Chen sets us up for the unfolding of a modern Anancy allegory relating a new world experience. Islands such as Trinidad continue to struggle to prove legitimacy in a world that would rather “put their money” in one of the “conquerors from overseas” rather than risk investment in a post-independent country. Only Moro has confidence in his bird. The Trinidadian Dom waits for his opportunity until El Diablo strikes before making the fatal blow. The underdog outsmarts his great opponent and wins.

To Holman and his fellow trainers, it meant they had arrived at a

milestone in the sport, and that with dedication and continuous

training and breeding, they would be able to produce their own

successful strain. Moro had proven that by entering his tailless

battler, which he had raised in his own yard. ‘No more Venezuelan

cocks,’ Moro heard someone say. ‘Just now we goh do our own

exporting’ (Markham300).

In “Moro” the Anancy folktale is successfully adapted to show the Trinidadian capability to use their homegrown strength and skillful wit to triumph over adversity, namely to hold their own against the threat of foreign competition. The Anancy characteristics as demonstrated by Moro aren’t necessarily of the trickster, but rather of self-reliance and self-affirmation.

Both Salky and Chen use the Anancy tale as the basis for theme, structure and character to effectively convey meaning in their work. Though the styles and stories themselves differ greatly with Salky’s spider man-woman and Chen’s gamecock trainer, the folklore aesthetic functions today largely due to the freedom the contemporary authors have with which Anancy characteristics they chose to focus on from the tales. Trickery may no longer be in the forefront, but Anancy’s wit, patience, and determination are strengths capable of overcoming adversity and the challenges of creolization. “According to…Brathwaite, (creolization) is defined as ‘a cultural action, material, psychological and spiritual based upon the stimulus response of individuals to their environment and as white/black culturally discrete groups to each other’” (Tortello 2). Thus, the use of folklore itself as a literary aesthetic is one method of the creolization process for Caribbean writers. The select experiences that make up the society’s cultural consciousness reinforce the role of myth in realism.

“Realism to the African-Caribbean is both material and

transcendent. From the ordinariness of everyday existence

to the scars of a traumatic historical experience, the community

weaves narratives that validate and give life to that existence,

as well as establish themselves as the totem for group

identity and destiny” (Akoma 3).

The ability of Anancy to change into many forms and assume a dualistic nature allows writers such as Salky and Chen to look at him for inspiration as a way to solve the trials of everyday experience, ensuring the folk tradition will retain its place in Afro-Caribbean literature for years to come.



Latest book review of Hillary Jordan’s “When She Woke” in The Collagist

Leave a comment


Character Doubling in Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women”

Leave a comment

In “Lives of Girls and Women” Munro uses the technique of character doubling to create drama by juxtaposing and contrasting characters. Munro’s technique brings the characters side-by-side so that they become distinct to the reader.  Throughout the story she describes characters together in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. The contrast which emerges as a result of this character doubling technique shows a relationship of opposition between the characters clearly, e.g. in the numerous passages where Munro describes and contrasts Del’s mother and Fern. Subplots and mysterious complexity emerge from character doubling. Del and Naomi get described together, and Munro creates a subplot to the main sexual plot of Del/Chamberlain when Naomi falls sick and returns from her illness and she’s suddenly become prim, the opposite of Dell. The technique of character doubling thus helps make the characters round and vibrant.

“Lives of Girls and Women” contains three sections of text separated by line breaks, and Munro uses the character doubling technique on the second page of the first section in her initial descriptions of Fern and Del’s mother. The story opens with a brief scene about the photograph, and at the close of the scene Munro segues into a paragraph in which the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother exhibits contrast: “Her voice was small for such a big woman, plaintive, put-upon, but in the end good-humored, yielding. All those qualities my mother had developed for her assault on life—sharpness, smartness, determination, selectiveness—seemed to have their opposites in Fern, with her diffuse complaints, lazy movements, indifferent agreeableness.” Munro begins with a description of Fern and sets up the contrast in the sentence following about Del’s mother. Two paragraphs later, Munro brings Fern and Del’s mother together again in a long descriptive paragraph concerning the role opera plays in the friendship between the two women.

“Fern Dogherty and my mother were friends in spite of differences. My mother valued in people experience of the      world, contact with any life of learning or culture, and finally any suggestion of being dubiously received in Jubilee. And Fern had not always worked for the post office. No; at one time she had studied singing….My mother had a book of operas. She would get it out and follow the story, identifying the arias, for which translations were provided. She had questions for Fern, but Fern did not known as much about operas as you would think she might; she would even get mixed up about which one it was they were listening to….”

So even as Munro shows the two women sharing a common interest in opera, the specific details she gives about each women’s individual approach to the subject differ greatly. The side-by-side portrayal of the two women clearly sets up Del’s mother as stringent, determined, a questioning, thinking woman, in stark contrast to Fern who is passionate and free in her behavior, shown with her bursting into song at the paragraph’s close. This contrast in character doubling feeds the story by creating different subplots lines that stem from the characters, i.e.,Del’s mother’s rigid women’s rights agenda is the opposite of Fern’s loose sexual subplot with Chamberlain.

The second section of the story focuses on the main plot of Del and Mr. Chamberlain; the relationship between Del’s mother and Fern falls somewhat into the background. However, Munro brings the character doubling technique back again in the third and final section of the story, continuing the contrast and dramatic opposition between Del’s mother and Fern. Another paragraph in which the two women are described side-by-side occurs after the dinner scene. Fern has just received the letter from Chamberlain announcing he has left town.

“When Fern talked about having a good time she meant going to dances at the Lakeshore Pavilion, going to the Regency Hotel in Tupperton for drinks and dinner, being driven from one roadhouse to another on Saturday night. My mother did try to understand such pleasures, but she could not, any more than she could understand why people go on rides at a fair, and will get off and throw up, then go on rides again.”

Like the character doubling Munro uses throughout the story to show the dramatic opposition in the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother and spawn subplot complexity, the paragraph describing Naomi post-illness contrasts her with Del. The narrator states, “I had meant to tell Naomi all about Mr. Chamberlain, now it was over. But Naomi (here the but-construction alerts us to the forthcoming depiction of opposition in the “new” Naomi) came out of her illness fifteen pounds lighter, with a whole new outlook on life. Her forthrightness was gone with her chunky figure. Her language was purified….She sat under a tree with her skirt spread around her, watching the rest of us play volleyball, and kept feeling her forehead to see if she was feverish…”  In her description of Naomi,Del places herself apart with her use of the phrase “rest of us.”  Naomi has her own character subplot as is shown here in the contrast between the two teenage girls; the contrast resonates mostly with Munro’s careful attention to Naomi’s physical alteration. The Naomi subplot crosses the main plot of Del’s sexual initiation, and the character doubling contrast becomes clear in the sentence illustrating what happened to Naomi while Del and Chamberlain got together: “All the grosser aspects of sex had disappeared from her conversation and apparently from her mind although she talked a good deal about Dr. Wallis, and how he had sponged her legs himself, and she had been quite helplessly exposed to him, when she was sick.” So each teenage girl has undergone her own change, and the changes are vastly different in regards to sex which creates heightened dramatic resonance and meaning for the overall story.

In Fern and Del’s mother’s last scene together, Munro uses the character doubling technique again.  Here the character doubling shows not only the differences between the two, but creates complexity in the story by tying-in to the larger religious and societal structures of Jubilee as Fern departs for the strawberry supper (Munro also makes use of a rhetorical questioning device in the middle of the character doubling description which helps add thematic inquiry to the paragraph).

“We heard her high heels going down the sidewalk….Sociable noise of the United Church affair washed as far as our steps. Did my mother wish she had a hat and a summer sheer dress on, and was going? Her agnosticism and sociability were often in conflict in Jubilee, where social and religious life were apt to be one and the same. Fern had told her to come ahead. ‘You’re a member. Didn’t you tell me you joined when you got married?’

‘My ideas weren’t formed then. Now I’d be a hypocrite….’”

The subplots branching out from the character doubling technique are extended in the exchanges between Fern and Del’s mother, in Munro’s use of what writer Janet Burroway dubs “no” dialogue, or dialogue in which the characters disagree and perpetuate the conflict.

The repetitive techniques of character doubling and subplot in “Lives of Girls and Women” create a complex story line. As the story goes forward, the branches developed as a result of the side-by-side character descriptions; the resulting contrasts help to clarify the differences between characters and spawn branches out of their opposing action. The repetition of the character doubling technique in passages throughout the story creates branches, and these branches complicate the main plotline. The complication of character doubling and subplot enhance the unity and coherence of the story, as well as give “Lives of Girls and Women” vitality and greater dramatic meaning.

*For a more in-depth analysis of Munro’ s short story techniques, I recommend, “The Mind of Alice Munro,” by Douglas Glover, which you can find, among other excellent essays on writing, in his collection, “Attack of the Copula Spiders.”

Image Patterning in Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes”

Leave a comment

The root image in Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes” is the jar of cyanide the protagonist Willa steals from the lab, intending to use it to commit suicide. Throughout the story, cyanide repeats in a variety of phrases and images: the jar of cyanide, the chemical symbol KCN. In the story cyanide is also linked to snow and other elements of setting, such as the bath salts Willa uses and later, the glass globe. Willa frequently links these elements of setting to the cyanide in a direct and obvious way. In addition to the root image, the word “blue” splits off from its association with cyanide and starts another thread inside the story which enhances the web effect of the image patterns. Along with the plot action, this imagery web helps give the story meaning and shape.

Cyanide is first mentioned in the third paragraph of the story in the phrase “the distinctive almond odour of cyanide” and repeated again in the next paragraph when the protagonist refers to her “nice little supply of cyanide.” After the line break, the next section of the story contains some backfill in which the cyanide is mentioned as Willa recalls a memory: “On one such occasion, I noticed the cyanide on the shelf above, clearly marked with a skull-and-crossbones insignia.” At the end of this section Willa associates the word blue with the root image: “I realize I have forgotten to find out if cyanide poisoning is painful. I have a brief, blinding vision of blue me writhing in the Victorian nightie, frothing vomit and beshitting myself.” The extension of the cyanide pattern with the splintering technique applied in the use of “blue” creates an echo chamber effect. The juxtaposition of the image patterns that arise subsequent to the plot structure gives the story a dimension of strangeness.

At the mention of cyanide in the third section of the story, the image is loaded further with meaning. In connecting the snowy winter landscape to the cyanide, Willa using setting to load the root image pattern. She extends the connection between the snow and the cyanide further by directly linking the setting to her internal state: “The winter outside corresponds to the winter of my spirit, which is a dry, cold wind, or the snow crystals on the windshield remind me of the poison crystals in the jar.” The root image of cyanide (as well as the role of cyanide in the plot) mandates the winter setting and the pattern of snow words, since snow is another white substance similar to cyanide crystals. Thus the content of the outside setting reinforces the cyanide image pattern with this double-image of white crystals.

Another passage in which image patterns are loaded occurs when Willa ponders over the jar.

Here we have, I think to myself, a jar of cyanide, which…is a simple compound of cyanogen with a metal or organic radical, as in potassium cyanide (KCN). Cyanogen is dark-blue mineral named for its entering into the composition of Prussian blue….The cyanide (in this case KCN) will also turn me blue, as in cyanosis, a lividness of the skin owing to the circulation of imperfectly oxygenated blood. Something like drowning—inward shudder.

The patterns are loaded using several methods. The images of the cyanide and process of cyanosis are connected to Willa’s inner state with the phrase “inward shudder.” The split-off blue pattern is tied in to the root cyanide pattern in the sentence explaining cyanogens. The skin and oxygenated blood will be repeated in the final lines of the story, thus contributing to the echo effect and overall resonance of meaning.

Throughout the story, images associated with cyanide crystals repeat in various ways as form and plot mandate content. At the conclusion of the kitchen scene between Willa and Hugo, the image appears when Willa goes to take a bath: “But it doesn’t really matter, and I drift down the hall to the bathroom, run water in the tub and pour bath salts (resembling cyanide), depressed and indolent.” Again the imagery connects the external, bath salts that remind her of cyanide (suicide) to Willa’s emotional state. In the car at the Wendy’s parking lot, the cyanide resembles snow and salt: “The cyanide (KCN—stands for twelve gauge shotgun) scatters in the air like snowflakes. It is as if we are inside one of those glass globe shake-ups, a winter scene, couple with dogs, but the snow smells like almonds” and “The cyanide rattles against the seatcovers like tiny balls of sleet or spilled salt.” The snow pattern is juxtaposed with the cyanide pattern at the beginning of the next section as the characters take in the cyanide-filled Pinto: “Snow sifts through the open doors and mixes with the white crystals.” This repeated and extended image patterning creates a web which enhances the story’s meaning as the characters move through the forward-moving plot events. Along with unity, the repeated images help remind the reader what the story is “about”—in this case, suicide, Willa and her father’s death.

An offshoot of the cyanide pattern, the “blue” pattern separates and weaves its own images and meaning throughout the story with the connection to cyanosis and specific shade of Prussian blue. Willa tries “to remember the exact shade of blue Prussian blue is and wonder if I would look good in that colour. Perhaps I should dye my hair.” Here again, form drives content. Willa and Hugo dust the snow and cyanide off the seats of the car, and the blue pattern surfaces in the present-moment plot action. “It is cold, dirty work, and my hands and lips turn blue (as do Hugo’s—not an effect of cyanide; this is because the body directs the blood to the major organs, the heart and brain, for example, to keep them warm).” This sentence ties back the split-off secondary image of “blue” with the root “cyanide,” further loading the image patterning.

The position of the word “blue” in the final line of the story allows the image patterning web to achieve a reverberating effect. Willa ponders “…a truth that only now begins to spread like imperfectly oxygenated blood through my arteries and capillaries, turning my limbs leaden and my skin blue.” “Blue” becomes a pun that reflects back over the story and bolsters the initial meanings.

Plot and “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes” by Douglas Glover

Leave a comment

In Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes,” the protagonist, Willa, wants to return the cyanide to the lab and later use the hoarded stash to commit suicide. The relationship of opposition in the story is between Willa (A) and her boyfriend Hugo (B). Hugo wants to put the jar of cyanide back before Willa is “charged” and save her from killing herself. A series of three scenes play out in which Willa and Hugo collide in the same conflict over the jar of cyanide: Willa and Hugo in the kitchen, Willa and Hugo in the bathroom, and Willa and Hugo in the Pinto at the Wendy’s parking lot. In the conflicts between these two characters, the repetition of Willa’s desire keeps the plotline focused, forces the characters to search inward, and mandates content and imagery as the story progresses.

Willa’s desire appears in the beginning of the story. She announces what she wants in the following lines: “Let us say that a person wants, in general, to kill herself. She has a nice little supply of cyanide, obtained illegally from a university research lab (plants, not animals), which she intends to hoard for use when the occasion arises.” After a space break, the first sentence of the next section reiterates her desire and keeps the plot focused: “A girl decides to kill herself and life suddenly becomes a cesspit of complications.” In the third section of the story, plot stays focused on Willa’s goal in the line, “I do not wish to die in this Pinto with my dogs looking on.” This conflicting desire forms the basis for Willa’s next action, to hide a portion of the stolen substance: “I carefully pour out what I consider to be the minimum fatal dose, then double it.” Her action pushes the plot forward into the series of conflicts that follow in the next three scenes between she and Hugo.

In these scenes, the opposing poles of Willa (A) and Hugo (B) come into conflict in both action and dialogue. Willa restates her desire yet again in her first lines to Hugo: “Hugo,’ I say, ‘I wanted to kill myself. I stole this from the lab. I would have gone through with it, but Professor Rainbolt saw me. I didn’t want to get you into trouble.’” This direct dialogue helps keep the plot focused on the problem of the jar of cyanide and drives the action forward. Hugo’s response counters her speech; the opposing pole (B) fights (A): “It’s my fault, isn’t it? It’s all my fault.’” The continuation of the dialogue between them remains focused on what each character wants and how they are going to return the jar to the lab:

“I say, ‘Okay, well, as I said, Professor Rainbolt saw me, so you’d better take it back. If you take it back, then                                           he won’t find anything missing. You can just say you sent me to pick up a book.’ (A)

‘I can’t lie about a thing like this,’ he says.” (B)

Willa does not answer and (A) combats (B) with silence. Hugo’s next portion of speech is directed not at Willa but at his mother who has called; however, even in this sidebar conversation, the focus remains on the conflict over the jar of cyanide and Hugo’s desire of how he will combat (A): “’Mom,’ says Hugo, excitedly. ‘I can’t talk. I’m in a jam. Willa tried to kill herself. She’s all right now, but she stole some cyanide from the lab. I have to put it back somehow, before she’s charged.’” The plotline continues to drive the content.

The second scene involving Willa and Hugo takes place in the bathroom. Again this section opens with the protagonist meditating on the central, driving conflict, the jar of cyanide: “Presently, as I soak and pretend that I am already dead, reminiscing light-heartedly about my little stash of KCN, Hugo pushes through the bathroom door…” The actions of the characters are different from the previous scene—Willa takes a bath, Hugo pounds the side of the tub and gets more physical, tearing his shirt so that the buttons pop off—but the conflict remains the same. And the dialogue remains focused on the problem of Willa wanting to kill herself and Hugo attempting to intervene, even while talking about Rainbolt and his suicidal wife. Willa attacks Hugo’s revelatory announcement of Rainbolt’s response with a sarcastic comment: “Does Professor Rainbolt play the guitar, too?” Later in the section, Hugo suggest “therapy” to which Willa retorts and alludes to Mrs. Rainbolt again as a way to combat the conflict differently: “’For heaven’s sake,’ I say, ‘I don’t need therapy. I don’t want to turn into Mrs. Rainbolt. Evanescence is not my preferred mode of existence.’” Thus ends the spoken exchange between Willa and Hugo in this scene; Hugo’s response is a non-verbal thumping of the tub. While the approach the characters take to fight for what they want may change, the essential conflict never does.

The next scene and third in the series of repeated conflict between (A) and (B) again repeats Willa’s desire in light of the present action: “A woman who commits crimes and tires to kill herself automatically loses her ability, ever shaky at the best of times, to perform simple everyday tasks like, say, driving a car.” This technique of openly restating the conflict of Willa’s trying to kill herself helps give focus to the scene as it opens and orient the story to a unified and coherent whole. Again the dialogue and action taking place between Willa (A) and Hugo (B) centers on the same conflict, although the characters go about the fight in a different way. The dialogue focuses on the jar of cyanide, bringing the poles back into conflict:

“Is this all of it?” he asks, enunciating carefully, without looking at me. (B)

“Sure,” I say. “I may like the stuff once in a while, but I’m not an addict. (A).

Hugo’s responds in action rather than speech, smashing his fist on the dash, and Willa stifles a laugh.

The climax occurs when Hugo finds the cyanide hidden in the cassette box and there’s a “glass globe shake-up”—the cyanide flies into the air. Willa’s secret plan to kill herself fails because of Hugo’s combative action. She shouts, “Get out!” and the goal changes: both (A) and (B) must now join together to save themselves (and their dogs).

In the aftermath of the blow-up, the final scenes still show (A) and (B) in opposition with one another. When Hugo asks if Willa’s okay, the dialogue takes the following pattern:

“No, I’m not all right. No, I don’t feel okay. Okay?”

I turn away and the dogs follow me. (A)

“Where are you going?” (B)

“Home. I’m tired of this.” (A)

Hugo responds by running after Willa and embracing her (B), and Willa’s response is to pull away (A). The climax of the glass globe shake-up has caused the characters to change, to re-evaluate themselves and one another. In the final paragraph, Willa’s questioning of what happened causes the story to ponder its own meaning: “I lie awake thinking, thinking about what happened to Hugo back there by the car, what made him run after me, embrace me and weep—some inkling, I think some intuition of the truth, that I am leaving, a truth that only now begins to spread like imperfectly oxygenated blood through my arteries and capillaries, turning my limbs leaden and my skin blue.” The last sentence’s reference to the cyanide brings the plot into focus for a final time and heightens the sense of resonance and meaning.

Plot and Joyce’s Epiphany in “Araby” and “The Dead”

Leave a comment

Joyce’s concerns with character-focused, psychological fiction unfold simultaneously with his plot lines in order to render his final effect of epiphany. While Poe’s preoccupation of a story culminating in a “singularity of effect” seems similar to epiphany, Joyce’s moment of illumination occurs more cerebrally within the character than the more emotionally-charged endings advocated by Poe. Joyce takes Poe’s theory and complicates it by maintaining a closer “third person” protagonist whose thought processes unfold concurrently with the Aristotelian/Freytag models of plot to achieve his epiphany. In “Araby” and “The Dead,” Joyce uses plot chronologically, determining and fueling the action with the interior processes and choices of the protagonist combined with external obstacles, to mine the greatest depth and breadth possible in the ending’s epiphany.

The third person protagonist’s preoccupations in “Araby” appear immediately following the exposition and description of setting in the beginning, with the rising action. His infatuation has him fantasizing about his friend’s sister often and the line, “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” renders the simple plot one of a “hero’s journey.” We know what he wants is lofty, out of reach. The rare opportunity of the two characters meeting in the next scene, an external event brought about by the dead priest, incites the protagonist to make a choice: he gives into temptation and willingly takes on an obstacle, Araby, for the chance at winning his love. Thus, plot and character unfold with each propagating the other to the fullest extant of the narrative moment.

Joyce uses external obstacles in the following scenes regarding the protagonist getting permission to go to Araby, raising the stakes first with his uncle’s casual dismissal, then with the time passing, and then with the slowness of the train to diminish the chances of the protagonist reaching the bazaar and drawing out suspense for the reader. The external circumstances change the protagonist internally, as after all his obstacles have nearly been overcome, the emptiness of the setting makes him timid, even disillusioned. “Remembering with difficulty why I had come” he makes an effort to achieve his last obstacle, buying something to win his love. The climax occurs quickly in which his disillusionment increases and causes him to decline, giving up all he had been striving for in one instant. The brief falling action further informs us of his futile thoughts and feelings as he leaves the bazaar, the description of his internal desolation heightened with the external bleakness of the lights going off, all building to the ending’s epiphany, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity: and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Joyce’s epiphany complicates Aristotle’s resolution of a protagonist’s recognition from ignorance to knowledge with a much deeper level of insight and impact, by choosing the organic, concurrent evolution of character and plot throughout the story.

Similarly, “The Dead” follows the unfolding of Gabriel’s inner obstacles as he is faced with external forces, leading to his revelation at the end and inevitably so, as Joyce makes careful choices causing the plot and character to evolve together so that the most illuminating epiphany will be achieved. Joyce uses the encounters with the three women at the party to reveal different character aspects of Gabriel as the rising action occurs chronologically. First he questions Lily and makes her feel uncomfortable, showing his ineptitude at relating to those of another class and then forcing money on her. Miss Ivors corners him, a second obstacle, and he gets angry at having nothing to say about her passionate cause, revealing his reluctance to live a full, involved life.  His failure at attaining the final obstacle, intimacy with his wife, propels the direction of the action even further inward, as Gabriel must face his true self and the “deadness” of his soul.

Discovering that his wife was thinking of a former lover and not him in the climactic moment determines the nature of the epiphany that must come at the end. The revelation triggers a surfacing of internal emotions, and as Joyce’s point-of-view allows us full access to them, the suspense continues after the climax and throughout the story of his wife’s lover as the falling action ensues. His wife asleep, Gabriel is forced to face himself alone, the hero at the end of his tragic journey. While his thoughts and realizations bring about sadness, as the narrator states, “The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree” his approach to the epiphany is a more intellectual one. He sees his life as passionless. The mounting emotions combine with the rational revelations to bring a spiritual element to the resounding epiphany, “His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the living and the dead.”

These emotional and logical internal processes combined culminate in a spiritual illumination of human experience, exemplifying the potential of the epiphany as a craft device. The intent of achieving such an effect at the end informs every choice in both “Araby” and “The Dead,” along with the evolution of the close third person point-of-view. Without this approach, we would not be granted the clear insight into the thoughts and emotions needed to follow how the character’s inner state drives the plot. As the external obstacles are faced, so the internal follow, and the subsequent choices made by the protagonist propel the story and character toward the epiphany. Our ability to comprehend the epiphany determines solely on this ability to follow the character’s continuous internal process from the beginning with each obstacle faced. With such a focus on character, it may appear at times that Joyce’s focus on plot is obscured, but without use of his specific manner of external events revealing character and character choices subsequently driving plot, the story dependent on epiphany at the end would utterly fail. Joyce gives us a well-devised map, and we are never lost.

Developing Tension via Reminiscent Narration in Richard Ford’s “Communist”

Leave a comment

“My mother once had a boyfriend named Glen Baxter. This was in 1961.” These opening lines of Richard Ford’s short story, “Communist,” immediately provide the grounding facts of time and character relationships, in addition to the first person point-of-view narration. Ford develops the first person narration along a two-fold structure; rather than just telling the story from a narrative moment using simple past tense, he weaves in the voice of the older, reflective narrator looking back on the events and commenting with the first person voice of the narrator as a young boy, experiencing the scenic moments as they unfold. Ford’s choice of using this technique, through diction, tense shifts, and careful structuring of the places where the reflective voice dominates, then steps back, and vice versa, creates a dramatic effect in how the all-knowing reflective narrator reveals information at a precise moment.

The reminiscent narrator most strongly appears in the beginning with the set-up of the story through diction. In the second paragraph, Ford uses the word “then” in the first line: “We were living then off the proceeds of my father’s life insurance policies, with my mother doing some part-time waitressing work up in Great Falls and going to the bars in the evenings, which I know is where she met Glen Baxter.” He repeats use of “then” again in the concluding sentence of the paragraph: “She was young, and I knew that even then.” This technique “anchors” the reflective narration as he renders the back story information about his mother’s work, habits, and his attitudes at the time.

The third paragraph continues the repetitive use of “then,” but the unfolding reflective narrative voice here grows more complex and authoritative as in places, Ford juxtaposes “then” with the word “now.” The paragraph starts out describing the character of Glen Baxter in simple past tense, until midway through, Ford reasserts the presence of the reflective voice in this line: “I think now he must’ve been in the CIA and been disillusioned by something he saw or found out about and had been thrown out, but that kind of thing did not matter to us.” This juxtaposition creates a dramatic effect because the reader realizes at once that the knowledge this older, more informed narrator possesses “now” must be a) somewhat important, or else he wouldn’t be sharing it in his storytelling, and b) unknown to the narrator in the scenically rendered “then” of the story which is about to unfold, thus adding to the mystery and intrigue of how the events will play out.

Moving out of the back story and into scene, Ford shifts from the reminiscent narrative voice into the simple past and the narrative perspective of the narrator as a teenage boy, observing details as they unfold: “She was very pretty, though when she was mad her features were sharpened and less pretty by a long way.” Here Ford maintains a more subtle tone of reminiscence—this is how the mother always used to look when angry, not for just this moment, layering in the built-up effect of a lengthy past. So as to keep the momentum of the dramatic tension set up earlier with the two-fold interweaving of the narrative voice, the reminiscent narrator returns in the final line of the scene: “But the door slammed behind her and he looked at me then with a look I think now was helplessness, though I could not see a way to change anything.”

Ford continues to juxtapose use of “then” and “now” to maintain this effect through the rest of the story, not only in back story but in scene, shifting narrative voice from one sentence to the next as in the following paragraph:

“By now the whole raft was in the air, all of it moving in a slow swirl above me and the lake and everywhere, finding the wind and heading out south in long wavering lines that caught the last sun and turned to silver as they gained a distance. It was a thing to see, I will tell you now. Five thousand white geese all in the air around you, making a noise like you have never heard before. And I thought to myself then: This is something I will never see again. I will never forget this. And I was right.”

“Now” is used twice in the above paragraph, however each “now” refers to different moments of time, the “now” of the past and the “now” of the narrative moment. These two distinct moments across place and time are brought together in the story’s telling, and the tight interweaving of the two narrative voices carry emotional weight.

The final segment of “Communist” opens with a return to the clearly defined diction of the reminiscent narrator: “A light can go out in the heart. All of this went on years ago, but I still can feel now how sad and remote the world was to me. Glen Baxter, I think now, was not a bad man, only a man scared of something he’d never seen before….” Before returning to show the final scene at the close of the day’s events, the reminiscent narrator flashes forward to reveal how things turned out. Why does Ford do this?

Part of his decision may have been because of the effect he wanted for the concluding note of “Communist,” at the end of the final scene. This scene, sandwiched between heavily revealing reminiscent narration and the last line of the story, is slightly disconnected from the previous scenes illustrating the day’s events with Glen Baxter. The final scene becomes, then, a scene just between the boy and his mother, as they leave off talking about Glen, and the mother and the son speak intimately. The reminiscent voice carries its emotional weight up until the very end, as the voice which began the story returns, again with the pattern of juxtaposition of “then” and “now”: “And how old was I then? Sixteen. Sixteen is young, but it can also be a grown man. I am forty-one years old now, and I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.” Through this interweaving effect of the juxtaposition of diction and the book-ended structural placement of the reminiscent narrative voice, the dramatic tension of “Communist” stays sharp and focused. Ford’s technique allows the story to deliver a more complex emotional payoff than had he chosen to tell it directly from the past and its limited perspective of youth, rather than from the more knowledgeable, reflective, mature present.

Anderson’s Plot Choices in “Hands” and “The Philosopher”

1 Comment

As the paramount artistic intention of “Winesburg, Ohio” centers on revealing the inner lives of his characters in separate stories, each providing us with a uniquely focused perspective on a protagonist, so do the individual plot structures follow in a departure from the traditional dramatic approaches outlined first by Aristotle and modified later by Freytag. Such a departure must occur subsequent to Anderson’s choice to focus on character, causing him to structure the traditional elements in nonlinear places in the narrative or even eliminate certain elements. In “Hands” and “Sophistication,” Anderson shows an inciting incident first, delivering exposition more naturally by inserting relevant back story as needed throughout and developing the story in a less chronological manner, which allows each protagonist to reach a highly emotional moment of insight more organically and effectively.

“Hands” begins with Wing Biddlebaum walking nervously on his porch as the teenagers nearby tease him, first showing his status as a person of ridicule in Winesburg and inciting an obstacle immediately. Anderson then provides three sentences of background exposition on Wing in the next paragraph, only as much as we need to know for the moment, before returning to Wing on the porch, furthering Anderson’s choice to focus on character over an Aristotelian/Freytag plotline of starting with exposition before moving into action. For the next several paragraphs, Anderson weaves back and forth from describing the current situation to the secondary plot complication—the story of the hands. Anderson shows us the relationship between Wing and George in a flashback scene which builds to a point where Wing, inspired by his conversation with George, forgets his hands momentarily. In the climactic moment, the horror of his hands returns, and he hurries off and leaves George, ending the friendship. This informs us on Wing’s current state in the narrative moment: pacing the porch and pining for his loss of George.

George’s intrigue brings us into the falling action and the story of the hands, which Anderson’s omniscient narrator tells as a story in itself. The complications of the expositional back story given at this juncture create suspense as they reveal more about Wing, for the more we learn about his previous life the more fascinated, horrified and doubtful we become about the protagonist. The emotional build corresponds to Poe’s “singularity of effect,” for when we return to the narrative moment and Wing on the porch, our emotional state in relation to his character has changed to a much more complex one. The final image of the hands resonates and ends the story on a moment of emotional insight.

The framework of “Hands” keeps plot subordinate to character, for by starting and returning to the scene of Wing at home with his hands, immediate investment goes to character and contributes to plot unraveling as necessary, in order to create the most heightened, layered emotional insight. Had Anderson revealed the complete back story of Wing’s hands more chronologically, this effect would have depleted the suspense of the underlying tension in the climactic scene showing his friendship with George; indeed, the climactic moment of the story itself would have completely diminished in dramatic stakes. We would have known too much, too soon about Wing and thus lost interest and empathy for him in the obstacles he faces in the narrative moment, certainly the loss of George.

The plotline of “Sophistication” unfolds in a structure closer to the Aristotelian/Freytag model, yet Anderson still utilizes the order of dramatic elements selectively when he finds it necessary. Similar to his method in “Hands,” “Sophistication” begins in scene with immediate rising action and a focus on character, as George pushes through the crowds at the fair and anxiously questions if Helen White will see him. Only then does Anderson give us exposition on who George Willard is and his current condition. Character continues to remain the focus as another scene shows us Helen’s condition and obstacle. For the stakes to increase and rising action continue, Anderson must establish the emotional connection between the two characters, so he chooses to insert a brief flashback scene between two sections of exposition. Without this short but crucial scene, the emotional effect concluding the story would hardly carry the weight it does; we must see what the relevant connection has been in the past between George and Helen in order to sense the hope, loss and nostalgia evoked in the latter half of the story.

As Anderson builds the rising action of George and Helen escaping to the grand-stand, he continues interspersing the exposition throughout with sections such the one beginning, “In youth there are always two forces fighting in people.” During the scene in which the two characters sit underneath the grandstand, this interwoven exposition extends the scene and maximizes the effect of mounting suspense. Reaching the climax happens slowly, in a drawn-out moment, and Anderson skillfully continues to capture our intrigue afterward in the falling action. By building up the final scene of them turning from embarrassment to playfulness nearly moment-to-moment, he creates an emotionally layered, visual ending. Had Anderson given us too much exposition up front and rushed the scenes before, allowing the rising action and climax to occur too quickly, the “singularity of effect” would likely have not been reached. However philosophical the narrator’s final lines ring in “Sophistication,” Anderson’s sound, character-ordered choices pay off as the last scene concludes: “For some reason they could not have explained they both got from their silent evening together the thing they needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.”

Both “Hands” and “Sophistication” exemplify Anderson’s selective approach to the structuring of his plots throughout the collection, “Winesburg, Ohio.” The emotional resolutions of his “singularity of effect” depend vitally on his allowing the character focus to take precedence over principles of plot from the very beginning of his stories. In some such as “Hands,” his elliptical plotlines meander more obscurely, even haphazardly, while others like “Sophistication” are only slightly deviating from the Aristotelian/Freytag model, but the majority of choices Anderson makes are appropriate and resounding in his work as a whole.

Older Entries