Rebecca Martin is a former student, a very committed and independent person who has worked all over the world helping to make it a better place. See her wonderful “Dispatches from Moscow” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. This essay was her critical thesis at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a masterful example of the genre, an incisive, clear and compelling analysis of how authors get across to the reader the emotional states of their characters.
Midway through grad school, I knew I had a problem when people’s comments began to sound alarmingly the same. “This story seems blank, impressionistic.” “I can’t tell what the narrator wants or what she feels about other characters.” Once, to my horror, a workshop participant said she was annoyed by my narrator’s condescending attitude, an attitude diametrically opposed to my intention. Advisors pitched in as well. One advisor wrote that I seemed to be holding back. Another said that while the details of my African journey fascinated her (a kind note), my emotional journey was missing from the page.
Clearly, I needed to admit that despite my exotic settings and riveting plot points (dazzling only me, apparently), the reader would not turn the page unless she felt engaged by emotion. Why are emotions important? As Bharti Kirchner writes in “Putting Emotion into Your Fiction,” emotions are “more compelling than ideas, facts, and reasoning, which are the stuff of nonfiction. In fiction, the character must act from emotion, rather than reason. And emotional truth is the reward readers hope to get from a novel.” (Kirchner 139.) Kirchner notes in her essay a preliminary list of techniques for emotional representation: establish character sympathy in openings; show physical symptoms in your characters; write dialogue that sizzles; create atmosphere in setting; and use symbolism, feeling words, and diction in one’s writing.
I started to write because I wanted to better understand and share perspectives gained from my years of teaching and living overseas, an experience that deeply changed me. But whether my intention is to explore, persuade, or simply inform, the reader needs to come away with a lived experience, felt through the emotions on the page. In writing this essay, I hope to provide myself with a set of techniques and ground rules that will help the reader experience the emotions of my characters, and my own as a nonfiction essayist.
First, I shall note and compare three key techniques of emotional representation as implemented in three short stories, each by a different author. Each author uses the techniques to shape the emotional arc of the story. The techniques are also used in a manner that is best suited to reveal the final discoveries of his characters. I shall then discuss how both the arc and final discoveries achieves an aim, to move a character towards a changed emotional state, a construct of the self that—in the most satisfying stories—has been altered from the character’s initial desire. Finally, I’ll conclude with a list of “rules” for emotional representation drawn from the essay.
The stories discussed are all first-person narratives, which allow me to more easily make comparisons between them, and to my own work. However, I believe my conclusions can also be applied to stories written from a third-person point of view. The stories are: “Run Away, My Pale Love” by Steve Almond, “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, and “Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien
The key techniques I found fall into three chief categories: 1) the narrator’s emotion in thought, 2) his interaction with other characters, and 3) his physical behavior.
Character thought revolves around assessments of what the narrator desires: his progress or frustration towards a goal. These thoughts can be the re-thinking of events (both in backstory and in front story), the naming of emotions, and thinking about emotions in thematic passages, which are observations at a slight remove from ongoing action.
Character interaction includes the narrator’s observations and reactions to other characters’ physical appearances, facial expressions, habits, actions, and dialogue.
Finally, a character’s physical behaviors include his body language, actions, gestures, and internal physical symptoms.
In the three stories, setting details (atmosphere) and diction also play an important role in revealing emotion, but I shall only touch on them briefly as they intersect with the three key techniques above.
I shall start with a discussion of character thought, prefaced by a brief summary of each story.
“Run Away, My Pale Love” by Steve Almond appears in his collection of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal. “Run Away, My Pale Love” is approximately 12,000 words and constructed by numerous short passages, most under a page long.
The following is the nucleus of the story: One May morning, David, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate of comparative literature, sees Basha, a young Polish woman, on a nameless American campus. Two weeks later, he manages to ask her out, but she refuses to kiss him. At this point, David notes to himself that he longs for a grand romance, which Basha also seems to want; on their second date, they have sex until dawn. She returns to Poland. At the end of his summer break, David visits her in Warsaw. She tells him she wants to return to America with him, but David goes home alone. He visits her a second time at Christmas, this time staying in Katowice (a city about 150 kilometers from Warsaw) in the apartment that Basha shares with her twice-widowed mother. Mamu accepts David, but he observes that the genuine affection and intimacy the two women share is missing from his relationship from Basha. The following May, he returns for a third and final summer-long visit to Katowice, time he uses to work on his dissertation. By this time, the couple’s sex life has wilted. In July, David is offered a teaching position in America, but Basha refuses to join him. On his final night, Basha refuses sex. They tussle and Basha elbows him in the mouth. She runs into Mamu’s room. Mamu comes out an hour later to hug him goodbye. David breaks down and sobs in Mamu’s arms.
For a story about sexual infatuation, David’s narrative thought plays a surprisingly important role—surprising because he mostly thinks his emotions, rather than closely feeling them. The narrative is peppered with his intellectualizations and includes two thematic passages that are also somewhat abstract in tone.
In the opening lines, David notes his confused mental state.
This was just before my thirtieth birthday. I was in graduate school of all places. I had no idea why. None of us did. We were extremely well-spoken rubber duckies. You could push us in any one direction and we would flounder on forever. Sometimes, in the drowsy winter hallways, my conscience would rear up and remind me I was dumb with luck. Other times, I wish they would turn the whole place into a homeless shelter. (Almond 79)
Here, David’s “conscience” is pricked, which re-enters later, when he assesses his relationship with Basha. Also in this first paragraph, character sympathy is established by David’s comic self-deprecating voice, and note also the inclusive “we,” a first-person reference that David returns to in the conclusion.
In keeping with David’s tendency to think his emotions, even his first sighting of Basha is a mental construct. He is with a friend when he sees Basha, but insists that he is not gawking. “This was more or less true. Somewhere in my mid-twenties it dawned on me that female beauty didn’t require any encouragement from me. Female beauty was doing just fine on its own. But I couldn’t get this woman out of my head.” (Almond 80) (Italics mine.)
He manages to get Basha’s phone number because he tells her he loves The Painted Bird, although he has never read Kosinski. They have a disastrous first date in which he forgets his wallet. This scene is followed by a thematic passage in which he again intellectualizes his emotional state:
The amateur psychologists in the crowd will perhaps sense the significance of the lost wallet: The subject subconsciously enacts a fantasy in which he is stripped of his identity through a powerful, exotic love.
To which I would respond: Doy hickey.
I was ravenous for a love so grandiose as to obliterate my past. (Almond 81) (Italics are Almond’s.)
This statement of being ravenous for a grandiose love, better than any other, reveals David’s goal. But he is also trapped here in an intellectual murkiness, and denial. He says not the stripping of his identity, yet wants to obliterate his past? (Hickey means love bite, but the sole reference I could find for doy was on a high-schooler’s blog, in which he says his sister uses doy! for not! There is also the similarity to doohickey, but I have to conclude that Doy hickey is Almond’s inventive wordplay at work here, to express denial.)
He goes on in this thematic passage to describe his tendency to wreck relationships before they can get off the ground, and ends the passage with a statement that is abstract, universal in construct. “What we want is the glib aria of disastrous love, which is, finally, the purest expression of self-contempt.” (Almond 82) Importantly, Almond returns to a statement of a shared universal condition in the final phrase of the story.
David even describes their sexual encounters in intellectual terms. After the first time they have sex, he states that “Basha had been sent to rescue me from the dull plight of my life. This, it would turn out, is the main thing we had in common: a susceptibility to the brassy escapism of myth.” (Almond 84) Later, in their hotel room, she tears the button off his pants. “I’d seen this sort of thing, in films hoping to suggest reckless passion. But this was the first time I’d been inside the animal experience, so famished for physical love as to overleap the gooey crescendo of intimacy.” (Almond 86) David’s narrative distance, his naming of leaping over true intimacy, tips the reader off to the ultimate fate of their relationship.
When Basha expresses her desire to return to America to make a life with him, his reaction is again distant, ideational, alluding to the universal. “This was all terribly real. I had to remind myself. . . . Hadn’t I come to Poland in the hopes of just such a plea? Don’t we all, in the private kingdom of our desires, dream about such pleas?” (Almond 88) But the conclusion of her “end to the hunt,” as David calls it, is to be prolonged. He returns home, where he notes in the second thematic passage:
We were ideally suited to the long-distance relationship, with its twisted calculus of wish fantasy and ardent grief. We wrote long epistles full of desire and ardent grief. We perfected the art of nostalgia, extracting the finer moments from the tangle of actual experience. We took the inconvenience of our love as proof of its profundity. (Almond 89)
When he returns to Poland at Christmas, staying in Basha’s and Mamu’s apartment, he now enjoys the doting attention of both women, but his stance is at a conscious remove. “What will I have to do? Stand there and look pretty. This was the secret dividend of loving a woman from a foreign country: very little was required of me.” (Almond 90) On this trip, his inability to feel real intimacy is also mirrored in Basha: “She was emotionally inobvious. That was true. But wasn’t that part of the mystery? Wasn’t that, in some sense, the entire point?” (Almond 92)
A shift occurs in the story here, away from its emphasis on losing oneself in sexual infatuation to David’s longing for intimacy. This is felt in his observations of Basha and Mamu (character interaction). Still, when he returns to the States, surrounded by other women students, he notes: “The last thing I wanted was a woman who actually understood me.” (Almond 96)
By this point, the plot point of dying passion—fantastic or real—has been set. When he returns to Poland for his final trip, he observes what seems to be Basha’s fear of her own emotions: “Aside from sexual congress, during which her mind and body seemed open to the fluctuations of experience, she remained determinedly opaque. She was not dumb or shallow. . . . She simply mistrusted the depth of her feelings. (Almond 97) This is also when David notes that their “sex life wilted under the rigor of permanence.” (Almond 97)
Finally, at the end of summer before his return to the states, when Basha refuses to join him, she claims that he loves her too much to leave (denial of true emotions on her part as well). On his final night, when she refuses sex, she inadvertently whacks him in the mouth, drawing blood. She runs to Mamu for comfort and he understands then why Mamu has never resented him. Mamu knew all along that Basha would never leave her. Yes, the three techniques of thought, interaction, and the physical are woven together here, but again, rather than expressing the end of the relationship in personal terms, as a physically felt emotion for example, David relies on a generalization: “Men were people who left; they were not dependable. Their other charms, their money and their words and their cocks, these were only temporary compensations. Her daughter was finally learning this.” (Almond 101) He does admit, on a more personal note, and put in second person to suggest universality: “There is a point you reach, I mean, when you are just something bad that happened to someone else.” (Almond 101)
Finally, in the last line, David has a physical reaction that expresses his emotional state. Mamu hugs him, and he buries his head in her bosom and sobs, “for Basha, for Mamu, for all of us in the suffering of our desires.” (Almond 101) David’s final thought, “all of us suffering in our desires,” functions emotionally (and more so than other character thoughts) because it occurs in the context of character interaction, and his weeping, his physical break-down.
David is a man sinking in his intellect. He cannot make a leap of faith, enter intimacy. Actually, the most deeply felt emotional moments seem to occur in David’s interaction with the other characters, but I’ll discuss that later. The point here is that Almond has chosen to rely on character thought to talk about loneliness. In an interview, when Almond was questioned about the graphic sexuality of the entire collection (My Life in Heavy Metal), he responded:
That’s just the furniture. What people are doing in the book, men and women, is desperately seeking a path from loneliness and desperation, and so they throw their bodies before their hearts . . . if you really want to talk about the really interesting part of sexuality—which is the emotional vulnerability of it, how much is at stake, how desperate and embarrassed people are, how ecstatic and out-of-control—that is off limits. (From an interview on http://www.identitytheory.com)
Almond extends the rope of David’s intellectuality as far as it can sustain him. At first, the narrative relies on a tragic-comic tone in longer passages of thought, a denial device. (Here also, Almond employs diction, the use of such phrases as “sexual congress,” “determinedly opaque,” and “the rigor of permanence,” to show David’s wonky take on things.) However, the narrative is increasingly subsumed by particularized observations of the other characters, and when abstractions do occur they become more particularized as well. When the rope of David’s intellectuality finally snaps, he is emotionally stranded.
Peter, the narrator character in “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, is also a man at the end of his rope, but Baldwin relies on all three techniques of emotional revelation more equally. In Ann Charters’s editorial introduction (from Major Writers of Short Fiction), she notes: “‘Previous Condition’ was originally published in Commentary in October 1948. The critic Peter Freese considers it one of the most important stories in Going to Meet the Man because it ‘contains nearly all the themes and techniques Baldwin was to unfold in his oeuvre and thus serves as a useful introduction to an understanding of his work.’” (Charters 58)
That said, most of the narrative thought occurs out of the present action of this story. (The story is approximately 5,500 words and has eight scenes, two of which are backstory. There are also two thematic passages, the first an actual dream and the second dream-like, but both these passages also occur outside of ongoing action.) In the present moment, Baldwin relies almost entirely on character interaction and physical behavior to reveal emotion.
The summary of the story is as follows: Peter wakes and recalls a recurring nightmare. He wonders what to do about his situation. He is an out-of-work black actor, living in a room lent to him by a white friend, Jules, in all-white New York boarding house, but he expects to be kicked out soon because of the landlady’s racism. In a backstory scene, he recalls the first time he was called a nigger, his mother calling him a bum, and his return to his New Jersey hometown for his mother’s funeral. In a second backstory scene from the previous year, his white girlfriend Ida chastises him for a derogatory remark he makes about black people, and he also recalls how he has learned to play the fool. Back in the present moment, he thinks of a dream-like experience he’s had of listening to music. Then the landlady kicks him out. He visits Jules and confesses his worry about his increasing hatred of everyone. That night over dinner with Ida, he flares up when she tries to comfort him. He then takes the subway alone to Harlem, where he drinks in a black bar, but when a woman sitting next to him makes a friendly comment, he insults her. Immediately regretful, he offers to buy her and another woman drinks. When she asks him, “Baby. What’s your story?,” he responds, “I got no story, Ma.” (Baldwin 71)
The story opens with Peter’s physical symptoms, his sensations waking from his dream, and then the sounds in the boarding house. The first instance of narrative thought occurs in the recollection of his dream. He can’t recall the dream exactly, but assumes it must have been his recurring nightmare of running in fear. This paragraph concludes with a naming of emotion: “I would go to sleep frightened, and wake up frightened and have another day to get through with the nightmare at my shoulder.” (Baldwin 60)
The dream passage is immediately followed by thoughts about his past, a device that Baldwin uses often in the first half of the story to speak about his “previous condition.” Peter is back in New York because the Chicago play he had acted in folded. Here are two excerpts from that long backstory paragraph: “I played a kind of intellectual Uncle Tom, a young college student working for his race. The playwright was a liberal, I guess.” (Baldwin 60) He then thinks that he should be out trying to find another acting job.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t face it. It was summer. I seemed to be fagged out. And every day I hated myself more. Acting’s a rough life, even if you’re white. I’m not tall and I’m not good-looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand. (Baldwin 60)
Although he names feeling “fagged out” and hating himself, the tone here is so factual, so dryly and ironically voiced, with anger bubbling just under the surface, that I am drawn to this character. We understand from his voice that he is struggling to avoid self-pity, and so character sympathy is established.
In a short second scene, he describes his dismal, borrowed room, and notes that every morning he expects to get kicked out, again in a factual, thinking tone. “I didn’t know what would happen. It might be all right. But the waiting was getting to me.” (Baldwin 61)
This second scene ends with another backstory paragraph. I’ll quote the entire paragraph here, as I admire Baldwin’s diction. The parallel sentence structures of short clauses (pronouns followed by blunt verbs) create a rhythm of hopelessness and irony.
I’d done a lot of traveling in my time. I’d knocked about through St Louis, Frisco, Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, worked at just about everything. I’d run away from my old lady when I was about sixteen. She’d never been able to handle me. You’ll never be nothin’ but a bum, she’d say. We lived in an old shack in a town in New Jersey in the nigger part of town, the kind of houses colored people live in all over the U.S. I hated my mother for living there. I hated all the people in my neighborhood. They went to church and they got drunk. They were nice to the white people. When the landlord came around they paid him and took his crap. (Baldwin 61) (Italics are Baldwin’s.)
The next two scenes (the third and fourth in the story) are also backstory. He recalls his childhood, related entirely in action and dialogue. The second backstory scene is a trip with Ida upstate. Peter is twenty-five and Ida is thirty, married to a wealthy ballet dancer who she suspects is homosexual but hardly ever sees. Peter ends the description of her with this thought: “We never let it get too serious. She went her way and I went mine.” (Baldwin 63)
The distant nature of their relationship triggers an insertion of a page-long description of how he has learned to adopt a false self-identity to cope with racism. I’ll cite two excerpts of narrative thought here, because they most directly address his present emotional condition.
I’d learned to get by. I’d learned to never be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong. What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else would be insufferable arrogance in me. After the first few times I realized that I had to play smart, to act out the role I was expected to play. (Baldwin 63) There are times and places when a Negro can use his color like a shield. He can trade on the subterranean Anglo-Saxon guilt and get what he wants that way; or some of what he wants. He can trade on his nuisance value, his value as forbidden fruit; he can use it like a knife, he can twist it and get his vengeance that way. I knew these things long before I realized that I knew them and in the beginning I used them, not know what I was doing. Then when I began to see it, I felt betrayed. I felt beaten as a person. I had no honest place to stand on. (Baldwin 63)
If we can specifically locate Peter’s desire in the text, it occurs in these last three sentences, although his desire is expressed in a negative sense. What he wants is the opposite of what’s stated. He wants to feel not betrayed, not beaten. He wants an honest stance. But the only way he can be accepted is through vengefully playing off white guilt.
Baldwin concludes this backstory scene by noting how his white New York friends, mostly his theater crowd, always seem to pity him. They acknowledge his talent, but he senses that they think he’ll never get anywhere. The tone here changes from dry and ironic to more genuine, almost confessional. “I wondered if I trusted them; if I was able any longer to trust anybody. Not on top, where all the world could see, but underneath where everybody lives.” (Baldwin 64) This narrative thought also refers to his desire—that he wants to trust people, including himself.
In the following scene, we return to the present action, a few moments after he has woken. Peter is still listening to Beethoven from the radio downstairs. Here, Baldwin inserts one last recollection from the past, a marvelously lyrical and dream-like paragraph which I believe could be called a thematic passage because it alludes to what he desires. Peter recalls going to an outdoor concert with Jules and Ida. In the stadium, “There, it seemed to me the sky was far away; and I was not myself, I was high and lifted up.” (Baldwin 64) Additionally, the setting details here work to create an atmosphere of communality and peace with the world. The passage concludes:
There were pauses in the music for the rushing, calling halting piano. Everything would stop except the climbing soloist; he would reach a height and everything would join him, the violins first and then the horns; and then the deep blue bass and the flute and the bitter trampling drums beating, beating and mounting together and stopping with a crash like daybreak. When I first heard the Messiah I was alone; my blood bubbled like blood and fire; I cried; like an infant crying for its mother’s milk; or a sinner running to meet Jesus. (Baldwin 64)
Peter sees himself as “the climbing soloist,” but then being joined by others. In the last sentence, he returns to his desire for innocence and redemption, although inflected by solitude again. These emotions are emphasized by the active verbs: bubbled, cried and crying, and running.
Then the landlady knocks on his door, kicks him out. The conclusion of this scene is in character interaction and physical behavior, as is most of the rest of the story for that matter. First, he visits Jules where he confesses his worries about what’s happening to him. This is followed by the scene with Ida at dinner. Both of his friends sympathize with his troubles, but Peter feels they can’t really help him. In these two scenes, all the emotional revelations occur in character interaction and physical behavior.
The concluding scene, Peter riding the subway to Harlem and drinking at the bar, follows this pattern of active scene inflected by Peter’s observations. It’s as if the ongoing rush of events don’t allow him to insert the narrative thoughts that might lend him perspective, distance. I found only one passage of character thought that is not embedded in action or direct observation. In the last half-page of the story, after he regrets insulting the woman at the bar, he notes:
I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me a part of the life around me. But there was nothing except my color. A white outsider coming in would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar, perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes. But the people here knew differently, as I did. I didn’t seem to have a place. (Baldwin 70)
The casually inserted line, “But the people here knew differently, as I did,” is the sole reference Peter makes to any identification with “my people” as he sarcastically notes elsewhere. By extension, I think we can infer that Peter thinks the other people in the bar don’t have a place either. The story concludes with another woman joining the first, Peter offering to buy both of them drinks, and with him saying that he doesn’t have a story.
If we consider Peter’s desire, trying to find an honest place on which to stand, we might say that his small recognition of the other people in the bar hardly mitigates his own isolation. Still, in the end he has achieved a somewhat more honest stance. He finally admits that he doesn’t have a story or a place.
Baldwin uses narrative thought chiefly to note Peter’s “previous condition” and his wishes for the future (both of these are moments out of a present time), but most of the present emotional moments are revealed through character interaction and physical behavior. It is noteworthy that the final emotional revelation of the story is in dialogue (his interaction with other characters), because this is a story of a man in a social construct.
Of the three authors, O’Brien has most inventively staged the key techniques of emotional representation in his story “Rainy River.” Like Almond and Baldwin, he uses the longest passages of character thought in the first half of his story, to provide background information and context. O’Brien also makes his character conscious of the role of narrator thought; the character states that his intellect can’t help him. Also, unlike the other two authors, O’Brien uses thematic passages (four in “Rainy River”) not only to assess progress towards a goal, but also as a transformative device.
This story is approximately 6,500 words, has seven scenes, and is framed as a recollection of events taking place twenty years before, in the summer of 1968. (The story was first published in 1990.)
First, I must note that O’Brien’s work has provoked much speculation about his blending of autobiographical truth and fiction. Suffice it to say here that O’Brien has stated that his goal has been to write story truth as distinct from happening truth, so in discussing this first-person narrative, I shall simply refer to the narrator as Tim and to the author as O’Brien.
The summary of the story is as follows: In the opening, Tim states that he has always been too ashamed to tell anyone this story. He recalls his objections to the Vietnam War, but he has falsely assumed he can’t be drafted as he is about to go to graduate school (Harvard) on full scholarship. Then in June, he receives his draft notice. He considers his options including Canada. One day at his summer job at a hog slaughterhouse in his Minnesota town, he has what constitutes an emotional breakdown. That same morning, he takes off, drives to a small resort on the American side of the Rainy River, the border with Canada. Now late August, the resort is empty except for the owner, an 81-year-old man named Elroy Berdahl. Elroy does not question Tim, simply takes him almost wordlessly. Tim stays for six days during which time he helps Elroy with the tasks of winterizing the resort. Elroy refuses to take payment for Tim’s stay, and instead pays him for his help. On Tim’s last day, Elroy takes Tim in his boat to a fishing spot twenty yards from the Canadian shore. But Tim can’t jump. He sobs loudly. They return to the resort. The next morning while Tim is packing, Elroy disappears. Tim returns home and then goes to Vietnam.
The opening lines are this confession:
This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession. (O’Brien 39)
Rather than the reader needing to “be elsewhere,” this confessional opening is a promise of intimacy, guaranteed to draw the reader into the realm of the secret—a ploy that is perhaps best known in the opening line of the diary of Anne Frank: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone. . .” (Frank 1) This promise of intimacy is how O’Brien establishes character sympathy in his first line.
Tim states that his confession feels not only embarrassing, but shameful: “For more than twenty years, I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve some of the pressure on my dreams.” (O’Brien 39) This is the desire of the story, stated in narrative thought: to relieve his shame, his loss of courage at letting himself be drafted. He also notes, that he used to think that courage was something to be hoarded, like an inheritance account to be drawn out only when necessary, as opposed to the “bothersome little acts of daily courage.” (O’Brien 40)
Tim then poses a full page of questions about the morality of the war. Finally, he notes, “I had taken a modest stand against the war,” but “Oddly, though, it was almost entirely an intellectual activity.” (O’Brien 41) So far, the narrative has been his thoughts about his shame and objections to the war. However, when he receives his draft notice, his immediate reaction is a physical symptom, but he quickly returns to narrative thought: “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it.” (O’Brien 41) (Italics are O’Brien’s.) He concludes this scene with another page of narrative thought in which he thinks about who should be responsible for the war.
The second scene begins with a summary of his summer job. This long paragraph is remarkable for its gory details of being a pig declotter (his job is to squirt a heavy water gun at the eviscerated hog carcasses), a horribly rich parallel to what killing in a war might feel like, but the tone is distant. Tim the narrator is still in avoidance mode. (And this is an authorial choice as well. The details of the hog fluids and blood clots spraying Tim are vivid enough to stand on their own.) Tim only states mildly: “It was not pleasant work.” (O’Brien 43) In fact, the worst thing about the job seems to be the smell of pig that he cannot wash out, which makes him recall: “. . . it was tough getting dates that summer. I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone.” (O’Brien 43) And almost as an afterthought, he recalls: “And there was also that draft notice tucked away in my wallet.” (O’Brien 43)
This avoidance technique (here in Tim’s numb tone) is found elsewhere in O’Brien’s work, perhaps most pointedly in another short story, also in this collection: “How to Tell a True War Story.” Avoidance (which is an interesting way to present emotion) can be used in any of the key techniques. I’ll note later how O’Brien uses avoidance in not-answering dialogue.
Still in this second scene, he wonders if he might qualify for a conscientious objector’s status or if he might go to Canada. “In the beginning the idea seemed purely abstract, the word Canada printing itself out in my head.” (O’Brien 44) But he begins to imagine details “a hotel room in Winnipeg, a battered old suitcase,” (O’Brien 44) and names that he fears loss of respect and ridicule if he were to become an exile.
Next, the first thematic passage occurs. The passage might also be called rhetorical because Tim does not reflect on the past; he imagines what would happen if he left for Canada. He pictures in his mind the people in his hometown sitting around at the old Gobbler Café, what they would say if he became a draft resistor. “At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d carry on fierce arguments with those people. I’d be screaming at them . . .” (O’Brien 45) But the arguments are imagined; it is as if he is arguing with himself. The page is too long to quote here, although I also admire O’Brien’s use of diction here, his repetitions of parallel sentence structures, repeating—like a rolling drum beat—such phrases as: “I feared . . . ,” “I held them responsible . . . ,” and “They didn’t know . . .” (O’Brien 45)
Finally, he does have a physical reaction at his job (his emotional breakdown), but I will detail that later in my discussion of physical behavior. However, it is important to note that it is Tim’s physical reaction that makes him decide to drive north towards Canada, not his character thought which has dominated the first eight pages of the story.
The third and fourth scenes are Tim’s narrative of driving north, arriving at the resort, and his interactions with Elroy. These pages are the bulk of the action, and the emotions shown here are largely in physical symptoms, his inflected observations of the landscape and resort, and in character interaction. However, narrative thought inserts at one point (in the fourth scene), when Elroy nearly asks about Tim’s situation, but Elroy holds back.
The man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion. During that long summer I’d been over and over the various arguments, all the pros and cons, and it was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks at the Gobbler Café. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my own conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing. (O’Brien 52)
“Intellect had come up against emotion,” O’Brien writes. Intellect has proved inadequate. So far, O’Brien has used character thought to provide context, to name emotions, and to speculate about the future. However, the more deeply felt emotions thus far are revealed in physical behavior and character interaction. This scene, the fourth, concludes with a fairly long dialogue passage: Tim asks for his bill, but Elroy ends up paying Tim for his work.
Inserted here is a short fifth scene, Tim at the moment of writing the story, looking back twenty years. He notes that the past doesn’t seem real; it’s as if he were “watching an old home movie.” (O’Brien 54) This scene works as another thematic passage, as if he is wondering how well he is doing in relieving the pressure of his shame. Not very well, it seems, because the main thing he recalls is his inability to explain his feelings in a letter to his parents. He recalls himself: “…some poor yoyo with my name and face tried to make his way toward a future he didn’t understand and didn’t want.” (O’Brien 54)
Scene six starts with the boat trip up Rainy River. After Elroy cuts the engine and drops his fishing line twenty yards from the Canadian shore, there are two thematic passages, back to back, but I think they can be called two separate passages because the narrative devices are different. In the first thematic passage, O’Brien starts with “I want you to feel it. . .,” the wind on the river, and he states: “you’re twenty-one years old and you’re scared . . . ” (O’Brien 56) Seven rhetorical questions are then posed:
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did? (O’Brien 56)
The switch to second-person and the questions are so direct, that I found myself seriously considering what I would have done. O’Brien so skillfully puts us in Tim’s place, that we experience the moment. Tim answers his own questions by saying: “All I could do was cry.” (O’Brien 57) He feels that he was not only embarrassed by his tears, but also by “the paralysis that took my heart.” (O’Brien 57)
In the next paragraph, the beginning of the following thematic passage, Tim names his “. . . crushing sorrow . . . I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation.” (O’Brien 57) Then, in the same two-page-long paragraph, Tim imagines being drowned in a flood of powerfully distinct images. The images are of himself and of people from both his past and future—his classmates, his future wife, his unborn daughter and sons, and of soldiers and Vietnamese, both alive and dead. He also imagines public and historical figures he will never meet. In all, I counted forty-two images. The final image is: “There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.” (O’Brien 58-59)
In this passage, in this accumulation and piling up of images, O’Brien again employs diction as an emotional device. I think of this passage as thematic because while it is not a dream, it is certainly dream-like. (Tim calls it a hallucination.) He imagines having to face these people, and because he realizes he can’t face them unless he goes to war, this thematic passage is not merely assessment; it is transformational. It allows the pivotal decision of the story. Tim concludes this passage with this turning point:
“I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule . . . I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.” (O’Brien 59)
The last two pages of the story (the final scene) are numb in tone, an almost uninflected description: Elroy pulls up his fishing line, and the next day Tim packs and drives home. Has Tim fulfilled the desire of the story, which is to overcome his shame? He has found the courage to confront his shame, but I have to conclude that no, he will always live with it, from the subdued tone of the last three sentences of the story. “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.” (O’Brien 61) (The deepest feelings may be revealed in a somewhat contrapuntal fashion through restraint.)
Summary of Narrative Thought in the Three Authors
All three authors rely more heavily on narrative thought in the first halves of their stories to provide context. Beyond that, there are differences in narrative thought that have to do with 1) tone, and 2) how the characters assess progress towards goals. These differences arise out of the narrator’s personality and the nature of what they desire.
Almond changes the tone of David’s narrative from comic-ironic (this fits his intellectual frame of mind) to that of genuine sadness. Almond also inserts thematic passages and frequent thought assessments of his progress, but the most deeply-felt emotions are mainly revealed in interactions with the other characters. This fits the failure of his unrealistic love as it is brought up against reality.
Baldwin’s narrative thought is bitter-ironic (Peter has learned to disguise his real emotions) but at times, the tone is despairing. The narrative thought and thematic passages are mainly backstory. Peter has had these “previous conditions” ground into him. In present-moment narrative thought, he does note that he is becoming increasingly hateful, but most of the emotional revelations occur in active scene, as if he is finally testing a no-win situation.
The tone of O’Brien’s narrative thought vacillates from rage (at being forced to fight) to numbness (trying to distance himself from his shame). The story is written from the perspective of an older man trying to justify his first adult decision. Of the three authors, O’Brien’s narrative is most deliberately staged in his character’s consciousness. Tim attempts to rationalize, but ends up relying on his physical emotions, some of which are shown to another character. Tim does assess his progress in thought, but interestingly, he also uses two thematic passages not only to assess progress but as a transformative device.
As I noted in my introduction, character interaction includes the narrator’s observations and reactions to other characters’ physical appearances, facial expressions, habits, actions, and dialogue.
Despite Almond’s lexical virtuosity in narrative thought, his handling of character interaction more poignantly reveals David’s emotions. His first sighting of Basha alludes to a kind of frailty or vulnerability: “She had the plumpest cheeks I’d ever seen. Her eyes were pinched at the corners, and blue patches stood out below them. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in a year. Every other woman I could think of seemed coarse and stingy by comparison.” (Almond 79)
As well, his obsession with her seems like it might be too fanciful, too improbable, although his reaction is still comic. On their first date, he sees her waiting for him: “She looked elegant and chimerical: the head of a lioness, the body of a swan. At dinner I choked on my chicken korma.” (Almond 81)
Their first kiss is a failed venture:
I stepped in front of her and let my face fall forward. She executed a brisk little sidestep. My lips smeared the side of her cheek. A pinecone fell from the tree outside, striking the roof with a soft thud, as if to close the subject.
Later, standing outside her dorm, I said: “Will I ever get to kiss you?”
Her lips pursed, like a waiter who is out of the most popular item on the menu.” (Almond 82-3)
In the next passage, they do kiss, and I will quote this entire paragraph, for its dark details about Basha and its foreshadowing of doom.
We kissed and she smiled, her lips turning back on themselves. Her teeth were faintly discolored, as if she’d had a quick bite of ashes. I had never seen the classic Slavic facial structure at such close quarters. When she laughed her cheeks rose with the strange, graceful bulk of glaciers and her eyes became Mongol slashes. Frowning, her face took on the milky petulance of a Tartar princess. Even at rest, her face expressed the severe emotions I associated with true love, which I had always known to be exquisite and doomed and slightly stylized. (Almond 84)
Their eventual lovemaking has an unreal albeit tragic-comic quality: “We made love, or fucked, did that thing where our center parts fit and unfit, a half-dozen times, in panicky sessions, ten minutes or so, until she cried out tak! tak! then fell silent.” (Almond 84) And later, in another kiss: “And the rot of her mouth turned me on! (Is there nothing the early days of love won’t fetishize?)” (Almond 84)
Still later, when he first visits her in Warsaw and they go to a hotel, David’s description of their lovemaking betrays a lack of intimacy, of two people who despite the intensity of their passion are not communicating:
Basha wanted nothing to do with clitoral stimulation, tricky positioning, languorous gazes. Put it in, was her agenda. Let the flesh speak. Her face went rubbery. She took on the aspect of a madwoman plucked from one of Hogarth’s Bedlam prints, ready to tear her hair, throw shit, which pleased me . . .
“Make big come,” she said. “Make big come in my pussy.”
Afterwards, her body looked like something tossed ashore.” (Almond 86-87) (Italics are Almond’s.)
What were David’s unspoken words, I wonder. Tell me you love me? After another lovemaking session, they have quite different reactions. David feels tranquil, but this is the moment Basha chooses to tell him that she wants “‘to come to America to make a life with you, David.’ Her hands trembled. Her breathing was ragged. This was all terribly real. I had to remind myself.” (Almond 88)
At this point in the story, he meets Mamu, whose behavior makes him realize his failure of intimacy with Basha. From here to the end of the story, there is as much interaction with Mamu as Basha. This first observation of Mamu’s and Basha’s relationship takes place during his Christmas visit in their small Katowice apartment:
Mamu appeared, flushed from the cold (and it would turn out, a good deal of wine). She was a handsome woman, wide cheeks and a plucked mouth. Basha’s face bloomed. It was clear at once that they were deeply in love, as mothers and daughters sometimes grow to be, without the interfering needs of men. (Almond 90)
Mamu tells him she is glad to meet him, but David’s exclusion is further reinforced in this mix of character interaction and physical behavior: “Then she pulled me into a sloppy hug and Basha laughed and pulled me back to her side, scolding Mamu in Polish, a language that seemed to me always, in the mouths of the Olszewska women, a volley of quick and playful whispers.” (Almond 90)
Almond uses Mamu’s constant smoking as a symbol of her attitude towards love—assured but as far as love alludes to men, forsaken. “Mamu was one of those smokers whose motions are so calm and practiced, so assumed, that the act becomes an extension of their personality.” (Almond 91) She smokes a brand called Petit Ceours but “often she let them burn untended, the ashes making elegant snakes. She seemed to enjoy the option of smoking as much as the act.” (Almond 91)
After a night out of heavy drinking, Basha and David make love, then he staggers to the bathroom, sick from the vodka he drank. He hears a tap on the door. He opens it because he thinks Basha is knocking, but Mamu is standing in front of him (again, character interaction and physical behavior are meshed here). “I was naked. My penis dangled. The sweetness of her daughter’s sex, like flesh that has been perfumed and licked, rose into the air between us. I wanted to duck behind the door, but in that moment such an action seemed to constitute an accusation.” (Almond 92)
David feels accused for his lustfulness, his dishonest intimacy with Basha. But then, he explains that he drank too much and inadvertently lays his hand on his stomach. Mamu glances down briefly, for “not even a moment, a charged little half moment.” (Almond 93) David wonders if she is still interested in men, even though Basha has told him that she is not. Mamu turns away; David notes that she has the same body as Basha, only older. He apologizes for waking her up, and also partially hides behind the door. “. . . the expression that settled onto Mamu’s face then seemed unutterably sad. Her teeth carved out a tiny failed smile. ‘It doesn’t matter to me,’ she said.” (Almond 93)
This is a wonderfully emotionally revealing scene. David is sick (of the soul). Mamu is not interested in sex (she barely notices David’s nakedness, and her husbands have abandoned her in their deaths), which foreshadows how later Basha will be disappointed in David.
By now, the tone of the narrative has changed. David’s voice has lost its flip quality and is now infused with shame. The night before he leaves, Basha gets very drunk, positions herself for anal sex, and asks if David likes her like this.
It took me a moment to gather my voice and Basha laughed, as we would wish all women to laugh, at the fallacy of their depravity, at the idea that anything, in the end, can disgust them. “I want anal love,” she said, making the word sound French and exquisite.
Is it cruel for me to repeat her words like this? Should I lie, make them sound prettier, more poetic? But this is what she said. This is the form her desire took at that moment. Or perhaps, less flatteringly, she intuited my need for a memorable degradation, some form of going-away present. (Almond 95)
David observes this in his last visit, when their sex life has waned: “She wanted to be cuddled, fawned over, stroked like a child. If I pushed for more, she claimed to be sore, or tired. . . .Where had the wanton accomplice of our early days gone?” (Almond 97)
When David’s job offer comes and he asks Basha to join him, she says, “‘You won’t leave,’. . . She refused to imagine that I had another life, beyond her beauty, thick with the troubled symptoms of adulthood.” (Almond 98) Basha is living in a fantasy romance, just as David cannot yet admit his obsession of her might be only sexual, the body before the heart.
On the last night before his penultimate departure, Basha refuses sex altogether. Still he presses himself on her, and they struggle, after which she runs to Mamu arms for comfort. “The two of them stood there for a minute. Then they moved off, like a pair of wounded soldiers, and I heard the door to Mamu’s room swing shut.” (Almond 100)
An hour later (Basha is still in Mamu’s room), Mamu comes out to the kitchen and slices kielbasa for a sandwich for David’s trip. “The skin of her hands was like beautiful pink paper.” This poignant detail speaks of frailty, tenderness.
David constructs an apology, says he might have hurt Basha because he was angry at having to leave. “Mamu gazed at me. Smoke drifted from her nose. She had known this was coming, after all. Men were people who left . . .” (Almond 101)
But Mamu is not angry. She steps up to David and takes him in her arms. Despite the sexual passages in this story, David’s reaction here is the most honestly and deeply felt of any of his character interactions (and physical behavior). “I buried my head in her bosom, which smelled of laundry soap and ten thousand meals, and began to sob, for Basha, for Mamu, for all of us in the suffering of our desires.” (Almond 101)
Almond’s handling of the technique of character interaction follows the trajectory of the story. At first, David is fascinated by Basha’s exoticism. Then there is the unreality of their relationship. He sees Basha and Mamu interacting with more intimacy. Finally, the relationship ends, with David’s recognition of universal isolation and suffering. While the tone of narrative thought is somewhat distant, the description of character interaction is more emotionally inflected, through careful choice of words and sensitivity to loss.
Baldwin relies quite heavily on character interaction in active scene to reveal emotion. After all, Peter is a character struggling in a charged social context. Interestingly, besides Peter’s interactions with other characters, Baldwin’s passages of nameless characters in setting descriptions also inform us of Peter’s isolation.
Because Baldwin flips from past to present so frequently in this story, it seems more efficient to discuss character interaction chronologically as it occurs in Peter’s life. I’ll also summarize, instead of extensive quoting, to expedite my discussion.
His first recollection (at his youngest age in the story) occurs at the age of seven. He tosses a ball back to a white girl, but she calls him nigger. He doesn’t know what nigger means, but when he asks his mother, she reprimands for his unwashed face that is “dirty as sin.” (Baldwin 62) She also tells him, that if a white person ever calls him nigger again, he should say that he’d rather be black than “lowdown and nasty like some white folks is.” (Baldwin 62)
As he grows older, he joins gangs that fight with white gangs. His mother would scold him and say “You wanna end up like your father? . . . You ain’t never gonna be nothin’ but a bum.” (Baldwin 62) (Italics are Baldwin’s.) He has never met his father, although he was named for him.
When he returns for his mother’s funeral six years later, the poverty of their house is the same. Baldwin describes the family that has moved into the house, their children running through it, and this first backstory scene ends with a sad reference to himself as a younger man. “The oldest boy was tacking up a mirror.” (Baldwin 62) All of these childhood memories of character interactions are the first of many opportunities Baldwin uses, to reveal the emotions of not being unable to overcome previous conditions. In this backstory passage, he sets the stage by showing his first tensions with whites and his early negative self-image.
In the second backstory scene with Ida, he recalls how he has learned to play the fool with policemen. Ida says, “Worse things have happened than chain gangs. Some of them have happened to you.” Peter says: “You mean you think I’m a coward?” (Baldwin 63) But they are both so uncomfortable whenever the issue of racism crops up that they avoid further discussion. In this scene, Peter also recalls the unspoken pity his white theater friends feel for him.
Jules is also sympathetic to Peter’s difficulties. When Jules lends him the depressing room, he tells Peter that if it doesn’t work out, he can move in with him. “‘Think it’ll be all right for awhile?’ He sounded apologetic, as though he had designed the room himself.” (Baldwin 66) This consortium of past and current relationships reveals Peter’s feelings of isolation, resentment, and helplessness.
In the present moment of Peter waking up (as if Peter wants to rouse himself from past troubles), Baldwin uses the sounds of people in the boarding house—rising and leaving for work with active verbs like whine, shuffle, slam, and thud—to convey a feeling of life closing down on Peter. Then the landlady comes up to his room. Peter observes remarkably hateful details about her, but interestingly, the details are also of her fear, as if she can’t avoid the all-encompassing net of racism.
Her glasses blinked, opaque in the light on the landing. She was frightened to death. She was afraid of me, but she was more afraid of losing her tenants. Her face was mottled with rage and fear, her breath came rushed and little bits of spittle gathered at the edges of her mouth; her breath smelled bad, like rotting hamburger on a July day. (Baldwin 65)
She screams at him to go uptown, where he belongs. Peter responds: “‘I can’t stand niggers,’ I told her.” (Baldwin 65) Then, Baldwin inserts Peter’s thoughts of what he would like to do to her, a shocking demonstration of the anger that he feels. “I wanted to kill her, I watched her stupid, wrinkled frightened white face and I wanted to take a club, a hatchet, and bring it down with all my weight, splitting her skull down the middle where she parted her iron-grey hair.” (Baldwin 65) Very few authors can write with such violence but still retain the reader’s sympathy, a feat accomplished by grounding the reader in Peter’s abusive past and his negative self-image.
He then visits Jules. This scene is approximately 600 words, and except for a few sentences, all dialogue, including several long speeches from Peter. Baldwin rarely uses dialogue summary in the story. Instead, he uses the fully-told dialogue lines as discovery moments. In this scene, at first Peter speaks sarcastically, then he feels genuinely ashamed at venting at Jules and ashamed of not fighting the landlady. Yet he also admits:
Goddamit to hell, I’m sick of it. I’m goddamn tired of battling every Tom, Dick, and Harry for what everybody else takes for granted. I’m tired, man, tired! Have you ever been sick to death of something? Well, I’m sick to death. And I’m scared. I’ve been fighting so goddamn long I’m not a person anymore. (Baldwin 66)
Then he confesses his fear about what is happening to him. “How can I explain to you what it feels like to be black when I don’t understand it and don’t want to and spend all my time trying to forget it? I don’t want to hate anybody—but now maybe I can’t love anybody either—are we really friends?” (Baldwin 66)
Jules assures him that they are friends, and that he can empathize because he is Jewish, but Jules also says, “I can’t help you—take a walk, get drunk, we’re all in this together.” (Baldwin 66) Jules invites Peter to stay in his apartment, but later Peter doesn’t to take him up on that. Instead he goes to Harlem.
In the next scene (also mostly dialogue), when Ida asks him at dinner if he found a job yet, Peter reverts to his characteristic sarcasm. “Metro offered me a fortune to come to the coast and do the lead in Native Son but I turned it down. Type casting, you know. It’s so difficult to find a decent part.” (Baldwin 67) (While Baldwin wrote a book of essays Notes of a Native Son, the reference here is to Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor young black man who inadvertently kills a white woman and then intentionally kills his own black girlfriend.)
Ida and Peter banter jokingly for a few minutes about his movie prospects, but then Peter tells her that the landlady has kicked him out. Ida exclaims: “‘God save the American Republic,’ . . . ‘D’you want to waste some of my husband’s money? We can sue her.’” (Baldwin 68) (Peter sarcastically repeats this refrain, “God save the American Republic,” or variations on it, three more times in the story.)
Peter doesn’t want to sue, but Ida persists in comforting him, including this line: “Don’t let it throw you. What can’t be helped you have to learn to live with.” (Baldwin 68) Peter is silent, but notes: “I sat like a child being scolded, looking down at my plate, not eating, not saying anything. I wanted her to stop talking, to stop being intelligent about it, to stop being calm and grown-up about it; good Lord, none of us has ever grown up, we never will.” (Baldwin 68) Peter’s use of the inclusive we speaks to his increasing awareness in the story of everyone’s helplessness, their inability to deal with racial injustice, as if this is something imprinted forever from childhood.
Still Ida rattles on about hatred everywhere because people just don’t understand. Peter wants her to leave him alone. Finally their conversation comes to a close.
I grinned: the painted grin of the professional clown. “Don’t worry, baby, I’m all right. I know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna go back to my people where I belong and find me a nice, black nigger wench and raise me a flock of babies.”
Ida has an old maternal trick; the grin tricked her into using it now. She raised her fork and rapped me with it across the knuckles. “Now stop that. You’re too old for that.”
I screamed and stood screaming and knocked the candle over: “Don’t do that, you bitch, don’t ever do that!” (Baldwin 68) (Italics are Baldwin’s)
This is Peter’s most direct expression of anger in the story, but he immediately feels fearful because everyone is watching them. “A black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat.” (Baldwin 69) Peter apologizes and they leave, with a promise to meet the next day. Again, they both smooth over raw nerves. He repeats to himself: “God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 69)
In Peter’s subway ride to Harlem, Baldwin again uses the backdrop of other people to underscore his isolation.
Anonymous, islanded people surrounded me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes. I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.) I looked at the ads, unreal women and pink-cheeked men selling cigarettes candy, shaving cream, nightgowns, chewing gum, movies, sex; sex without organs, drier than sand and more secret than death. (Baldwin 69)
This is America for Peter, a desolate place without humanity (it’s noteworthy that Baldwin repeats the words death and kill a half-a-dozen times in the story), but Harlem is hardly better. “My people, my people. Sharpies stood on the corner, waiting. Women in summer dresses pranced by on wavering heels. Click clack. Click clack. There were white mounted policemen in the streets. On every block there was another policeman on foot. I saw a black cop. God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 70)
In the bar, he can’t contain his anger. He is standing next to “somebody’s grandmother,” a woman whose face is “sullen and heavy and aggrieved.” (Baldwin 70) She makes a friendly overture to him:
“Hello, papa. What you puttin’ down?”
“Baby, you can’t pick it up,” I told her. My rye came and I drank.
“Nigger,” she said, “You must think you’s somebody.” (Baldwin 70)
He doesn’t answer, but he observes that she must have been pretty once:
. . . before she hit the bottle and started crawling into too many beds. . . Then I realized I was feeling a little excited by her. . . I kept on drinking, listening to the voices of my people, watching the faces of my people. (God pity us, the terrified republic.) Now I was sorry to have angered the woman who still sat next to me, now in deep conversation with another, younger woman. (Baldwin 70)
Next is where Peter, in a passage of narrative thought, longs for an opening and realizes by extension that none of them in the bar have a place. This prompts him to offer the two women drinks. The first woman is suspicious, but Peter drops his usual sarcasm. He is finally honest. “‘On the level,’ I said. ‘Both of you.’” (Baldwin 70) The story concludes with these three lines: “‘Baby,’ said the old one, ‘What’s your story?’ / The man put three beers on the counter. / ‘I got no story, Ma,’ I said.” (Baldwin 71)
As I noted earlier, the last lines are significantly dialogue (character interaction) because this is a character struggling against a racist society. The character interactions in this story supply a range of emotions, but still Peter often uses sarcasm in character thought and dialogue to cover over his anger. For the most deeply-felt emotions, the key to his inner life, I think we need to turn to his internal physical symptoms.
For a longish short story “Rainy River” has remarkably little character interaction, but this is appropriate because in most of the narrative Tim privately wrestles with his conscience. In the opening, he does confess that he hasn’t been able to tell anyone this story. But after that, there is only one other character interaction, aside from the scenes with Elroy Berdahl. After Tim gets his draft notice, his father asks (in reported speech) what his plans were. “‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Wait.’” (O’Brien 42)
In two of the thematic passages, there are also imagined character interactions. Early in the story, Tim imagines the “people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street,” (O’Brien 45) gossiping about the sissy O’Brien kid, and his imagined arguing and screaming at them. (O’Brien 45) In another dream-like thematic passage, he also imagines all the people from his past and future rising up in front of him. These imagined interactions are a powerful technique of revealing emotion, for use in thematic passages or in ongoing scene.
Tim introduces Elroy Berdahl, the source of real character interaction in the story, by stating what function the man plays in his life.
The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say that without sounding sappy? Blurt it out—the man saved me. He offered exactly what I needed, without questions, without any words at all. He took me in. He was there at a critical time—a silent, watchful presence. Six days later, when it ended, I was unable to find a proper way to thank him, and I never have, and so if nothing else, this story represents a small gesture of gratitude twenty years overdue.( O’Brien 48)
Elroy is the silent witness, the man who guides Tim towards resolving his crisis of conscience. Actually, I thought naming him his savior is somewhat questionable, as Tim feels so ashamed of taking what he calls the cowardly route, but the point is that Elroy’s presence helps Tim realize that he is “ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.” (O’Brien 52)
Tim’s initial description of Elroy emphasizes his eyes, as if Elroy can see into his soul.
Even after two decades, I can close my eyes and . . . can see the old guy staring at me. Elroy Berdahl: eighty-one years old, skinny and shrunken and mostly bald. He wore a flannel shirt and brown work pants. In one hand, I remember he carried a green apple, a small paring knife in the other. His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine . . . I’m absolutely certain that the old man took one look and went right to the heart of the things—a kid in trouble. (O’Brien 48)
Their first actual dialogue lines are written with admirable restraint. “‘Dinner at five-thirty,’ he said. ‘You eat fish?’ / ‘Anything,’ I said. / Elroy grunted and said, ‘I’ll bet.’” (O’Brien 49) Elroy’s line, I’ll bet, refers to what he knows is Tim’s hunger to resolve his problem.
In narrative summary, Tim tells how they spent the next few days. They eat together, take hikes in the mornings, work on the resort, and at night play scrabble (Elroy always wins).
At times, I felt the awkwardness of an intruder, but Elroy accepted me into his quiet routine without fuss or ceremony. He took my presence for granted, the same way he might’ve sheltered a stray cat—no wasted sighs or pity—and there was never any talk about it. Just the opposite. What I remember more than anything is the man’s willful, almost ferocious silence. (O’Brien 49)
Elroy never asks Tim why he is there, although Tim realizes Elroy doesn’t have to ask—after all in 1968, “guys were burning draft cards and Canada was just a boat ride away.” (O’Brien 49) And Tim admires Elroy’s intelligence, his room is filled with books. “…on those occasions when speech was necessary he had a way of compressing large thoughts into small, cryptic packets of language. “One evening, just at sunset, he pointed at an owl circling over the violet-lighted forest to the west. / ‘Hey, O’Brien,’ he said. ‘There’s Jesus.’” (O’Brien 50) This short dialogue line gives us huge insight into Elroy’s character. (I’m from laconic Minnesota stock myself, so Elroy’s line makes me recall compacted irreverent comments my own father has made.)
Tim also notes this regional influence on Elroy.
To an extent, I suppose, his reticence was typical of the part of Minnesota, where privacy still held value, and even if I’d been walking around with some horrible deformity—four arms and three heads—I’m sure the old man would have talked about everything but those extra arms and heads. Simple politeness was part of it.” (O’Brien 51)
When they discuss Tim’s bill one night, Elroy avoids asking about Tim’s plans. They negotiate the bill (at a reduced rate), but then Elroy exclaims that he forgot to pay Tim for his work, and asks how much he got at his last job. Without intending to go into the details at first, Tim ends up telling Elroy all the visceral details of working in the slaughterhouse. Elroy must have understood this parallel to killing in a war, but this is his only comment (I’d call this a form of not-answering; it deflects Tim’s tension): “‘Well, to be honest,’ he said, ‘when you first showed up, I wondered about that. The aroma, I mean. Smelled like you was awful damned fond of pork chops.’ He almost smiled.” (O’Brien 53)
Elroy figures he actually owes Tim money. Tim refuses to take it, but “In the morning, I found an envelope tacked to my door. Inside were the four fifties and a two-word note that said EMERGENCY FUND. The man knew.” (O’Brien 54)
In more avoidance or not-answering technique, when Elroy takes Tim fishing, he busies himself with his tackle twenty yards from the Canadian shore. But Tim he thinks he must have planned it, “to bring me up against realities, …to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself.” (O’Brien 56) Tim looks at the shore, asks himself the rhetorical questions of what would you do, and then imagines all the people in his past and future. He starts to cry, at first softly, then louder. Elroy says nothing. (Again, not answering.)
Elroy Berdahl remained quiet. He kept fishing. He worked his line with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white bobber on the Rainy River. His eyes were flat and impassive. He didn’t speak. He was simply there, like the river and the late-summer sun. And yet by his presence, his mute watchfulness, he made it real. He was the true audience. He was a witness, like God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them. (O’Brien 60)
The metaphor of Elroy quietly fishing speaks to the theme of fishing for answers. But finally Elroy pulls in his line and they head back to Minnesota. “‘Ain’t biting,’ he said.” (O’Brien 60) The answers must be found within oneself.
In the morning (the last scene), Elroy makes breakfast, but only nods when Tim tells him he would be leaving, “…as if he already knew. He looked down at the table and smiled.” (O’Brien 60) After Tim finishes packing, he notices that Elroy’s truck is not there. Tim feels it is appropriate that Elroy would not want to witness Tim’s departure. The remaining paragraph is Tim’s restrained description of returning home and finally, to the war.
Character interactions in this story are of imagined interactions and the one real relationship with Elroy. Both of these employ avoidance technique. The imagined interactions are ultimately exactly that, the avoidance of a real confrontation. Nor does Elroy ever confront Tim, but his presence helps bring Tim to a decision.
Summary of Character Interaction in the Three Authors
As noted in the summary of narrative thought, there are some tonal differences which also are carried though in character interaction. Again, these differences are determined by the narrator’s personality and by the nature of his desire (Almond’s comic-tragic tone, Baldwin’s angry-ironic, and O’Brien’s confessional tone).
Each author also uses character interaction to fit the emotional arc of his story—how the desire of his character plays out in active scene. Almond’s use of character interaction conveys David’s fascination of Basha from a distance, then the confused entanglements between all three characters, and lastly, David’s final isolation. Baldwin most heavily relies on intense character interaction as fits Peter’s struggle against society. Finally, O’Brien writes imagined character interaction and portrays Elroy as an almost mute witness, both of which fit Tim’s solitary struggle with his conscience.
The technique of a character’s physical actions (as it is used to reveal emotion), occurs in two subcategories: his gestures and body actions, and his internal physical symptoms.
In Almond’s story, I’ve already noted a few of David’s physical actions as they occur in his interactions with Basha and Mamu. In his first attempt to kiss Basha, his face simply falls forward. The first time they make love, their “center parts fit and unfit, a half dozen times, in panicky sessions.” (Almond 84) He’s turned on by the rot of Basha’s mouth because he has fetishized her ashy teeth. The emotions expressed in their lovemaking betray a remove, the disconnect of the body from the heart.
In fact, it could be said that David is most intrigued by Basha’s strangeness, her exoticism. The first time she speaks to him, she sits in a seat next to him in the campus computer lab. “‘Is it all right?’ she said. Her accent was excruciating: the blurred diphthongs of Russian, the sulky lilt of French. My heart did a little arpeggio.” (Almond 80) This internal symptom, the reaction of David’s heart to Basha’s awful accent, touchingly betrays a desire to be taken out of himself.
There are several references to the fallacy of the body, which are also described somewhat at a remove. Before they have sex, Basha tells an amusing story about what she said at a dinner when the Dean of Students was presented with a large steak. (This quote starts with Basha speaking.)
“It was a like a car tire. . . I turned to him and said: ‘You have such a huge meat!’” This story thrilled me, its slapstick reference to the male part. Basha knew what a cock was! She understood the great harmless joke that all cocks come to in the end. And this idea, however improbable, led to the idea that she might touch my cock. (Almond 82)
Later in the story, when she rushes to him at the airport, David notes their physical inappropriateness: “She was far too beautiful for me, my sharp face and chickeny bones.” (Almond 86) Still later, David again refers to the unreal quality of their lovemaking. “She let out a luxurious sigh as I slid into her. Such drama! It was like leaping onto Broadway cock-first.” (Almond 90)
Midway through the story, when David begins to realize that their affair is doomed, Almond employs more genuinely felt physical reactions. When Basha says she wants to come to America to make a life with him, David notes: “I felt my heart chop.” (Almond 89) When they go back to the apartment after their drunken night out, he notes: “Salt rose in my throat. My body heaved and gasped. I suspected—as do all unpracticed drinkers—that I would never feel right again.” (Almond 92) His body is betraying him. Witnessed naked in the bathroom by Mamu, his body feels like an accusation, then he ducks behind the door to hide himself from her. But in this passage, he also clings to an intellectualization of the body, as if denying the reality of their relationship. “But Basha did not understand what a stubborn customer the body is. The heart may turn the lights out. The body never closes for business.” (Almond 93)
However, when Basha refuses sex altogether, he notes: “She understood that the body can only express wishes. It cannot undo facts.” (Almond 99) The fact is that their affair has run aground, but David still thinks: “It was time for our bodies to leap to the rescue.” (Almond 99) He reaches for her, but Basha tells him not to touch her and here her body does leap to the rescue, in defense. She kicks at him, and then, “Basha’s elbow swung back, knocked me in the mouth, and I could taste blood now, a good taste, sweet and full of ruin.” (Almond 99) Almond’s choice of “sweet ruin” to describe the taste of his blood poignantly describes the end of their relationship. An hour later, he goes to the kitchen where Mamu asks him if he has packed. “I nodded. I could feel the swell of my fat lip.” (Almond 100) This is what David is left with—a fat lip—as if all his desire for passion amounts to little more than mouthing off.
Finally, in the last sentence, David has a genuinely felt physical reaction to reveal the final most profound emotion in the story (which I’ve quoted in my discussion of character interaction), of David burying her head in Mamu’s bosom and sobbing.
Almond uses more direct physical sensations as the story progresses. It’s interesting that earlier in the story, David uses phrases like I felt my heart . . . and I became aware. Towards the end, when his emotion is more keenly felt, he writes more directly: Salt rose in my throat. My body heaved . . . and I buried my head. . . and began to sob. . .
However, since this is a story in which neither David nor Basha establish real intimacy, most of the descriptions of physical behavior are at a remove. By the end, David discovers that his physical passion is desperation—the body blindly following a path away from loneliness, the discovery that he frames as a universal condition.
Baldwin’s strategy is somewhat similar to Almond’s, to punctuate more deeply felt emotions with a physical reaction or symptom, but Baldwin’s representations of emotions in physical behavior is more genuinely felt. Indeed, in his opening lines, Baldwin starts on an intense note by describing a physical symptom of isolation and panic. “I woke up shaking, alone in my room. I was clammy with cold sweat; under me the sheet and mattress were soaked. The sheet was gray and twisted like a rope. I breathed like I had been running.” (Baldwin 59)
Next is a page of narrative describing how he has ended up in the borrowed room. Back in a present moment, when Peter thinks about waiting to get kicked out of the room, Baldwin inserts the next physical symptom. “The sweat on my body was turning cold.” (Baldwin 61)
Baldwin then returns to backstory, the two flashback scenes. There are a few physical reactions here, i.e. Peter sticks his tongue out at the white girl, and cries when his mother scolds him. This is his behavior when confronted by a policeman: “I acted like I didn’t know a thing. I let my jaw drop and I let my eyes get big.” (Baldwin 63) He equates honesty with trust and innocence as shown in yet one more backstory passage when he first heard the Messiah. Here he uses the physical symptoms of his blood bubbling, crying like a baby, and running like a sinner.
Back in the present moment, in the encounter with the landlady, Peter notes his fear. “I was trembling like a fool.” “My mouth was dry.” “I couldn’t get my voice up; it rasped and rattled in my throat.” (Baldwin 64) Peter attempts to close the door, but she puts her foot in the way. In this stand-off, Peter feels unwarranted guilt. “My skin prickled, tiny hot needles punctured my flesh. I was aware of my body under the bathrobe; and it was as though I had done something wrong, something monstrous, years ago, which no one had forgotten and for which I would be killed.” (Baldwin 65)
She threatens to call the police, leaves. Peter packs, but his fear is noted again. “I tried to take as long as possible but I cut myself while shaving because I was afraid she would come back upstairs with a policeman.” (Baldwin 65)
Next is the scene with Jules, in which Peter confesses his worries about his increasing distrust of everyone. Although the scene is mostly dialogue, the last line is this physical symptom: “I felt that I was drowning, that hatred had corrupted me like cancer in the bone.” (Baldwin 67)
In the scene with Ida, at first Peter’s chief emotion is weariness at her endless sympathetic rationalizations. “The food came. I didn’t want to eat. The first mouthful hit my belly like a gong.” (Baldwin 68) When she persists, he begins to panic. “I began to sweat in my side of the booth.” (Baldwin 68) But Peter is unable to control his panic, and anger, leading to this intense reaction: “I screamed and stood screaming and knocked the candle over.” (Baldwin 68)
Everyone turns to look and Peter feels fearful. “My stomach felt like water . . . I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat.” (Baldwin 68) As they leave the restaurant “…the ground under me seemed falling, the doorway impossibly far away. All my muscles tensed; I seemed ready to spring; I was ready for the blow.” (Baldwin 69) Outside, they promise to meet the next day, and here Peter feels frustrated. “I started to walk away. I felt her eyes on my back. I kicked a bottle-top on the sidewalk. God save the American Republic.” (Baldwin 69) This scene is remarkable for its range of emotions presented—hopelessness, panic, anger, fear, and frustration—all punctuated by physical reactions and symptoms.
In the concluding scene, most of Peter’s emotions are expressed in his observations of others: his hatred of the white people on the subway and his ironic description of the people in Harlem. His observations of the woman in the bar might mirror himself: “sullen and heavy and aggrieved.” (Baldwin 70)
But then, in an interesting twist, as if Peter is about to finally discover his place (as he refers to it), he notes: “I realized I was feeling a little excited by her; I laughed and set my glass down.” (Baldwin 70). Then, just before he places their order with the bartender, he notes in the final physical symptom of the story: “I was shaking like a baby.” (70) This is a reference to the earlier enfant crying for its mother’s milk, and to Peter’s desire for innocence, to strip himself of his armor of distrust and anger.
Because of the ironic and wry tone of most of the narrative, physical symptoms are the most reliable source of emotion in this story. As well, there are the repeating motifs of desire for innocence, i.e. the baby crying, and of the many variations on fear: sweating, trembling, cutting himself while shaving, and turning cold.
Of the three stories, O’Brien most carefully stages his character’s physical emotions. At the beginning of “Rainy River” even Tim the character is aware that his objections to the war are intellectual, but as the story progresses he notes that words can no longer help him. At first, the physical emotions are generalized, but further into the story, are located in specific areas of the body to fit the emotional arc.
The first physical reaction occurs when he receives the draft notice. “I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines, feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in my head. It wasn’t thinking, just a silent howl.” (O’Brien 41) But he does think; for the next page he enumerates his many political objections. Finally, at the end of this first scene, the emotional reaction moves from his head to his stomach. “I remember the rage in my stomach. Later, it burned down to a smoldering self-pity, then to numbness. (O’Brien 42)
This numbness turns to pressure in the next scene in his small town. Tim notes: “I felt paralyzed. All around me the options seemed to be narrowing, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight.” (O’Brien 43) Of course, he does feel terror, but still the emotion is generalized, not located in specific parts of his body. “I sometimes felt the fear spreading inside me like weeds. I imagined myself dead. I imagined myself doing things I could not do—charging an enemy position, taking aim at another human being.” (O’Brien 44)
Towards the end of the scene, while he is hosing out the hog carcasses, he has an emotional breakdown which he now locates in the general region of his heart. “I felt something break open in my chest. I don’t know what it was. I’ll never know. But it was real, I know that much, it was a physical rupture—a cracking-leaking-popping feeling. I remember dropping my water gun.” (O’Brien 46)
Later in the shower, he still feels something leaking out of his chest, possibly his courage and moral integrity. “Down in my chest there was still that leaking sensation, something very warm and precious spilling out, and I was covered with blood and hog-stink, and for a long while I just concentrated on holding myself together.” (O’Brien 46)
In the next scene, on his drive north, Tim recalls: “It’s a blur now, as it was then, and all I remember is a sense of high velocity and the feel of the steering wheel in my hands. I was riding on adrenaline. A giddy feeling, in a way, except there was the dreamy edge of impossibility to it . . . it couldn’t come to a happy conclusion.” (O’Brien 46-7) In this same scene, he also has a visceral reaction to Elroy’s piercing eyes. “I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open.” (O’Brien 48)
At the beginning of the next scene, Tim summarizes how Elroy took him in. Meanwhile, privately, he feels enormous anxiety. “I was wired and jittery. My skin felt too tight. After supper one evening, I vomited and went back to my cabin and lay down for a few moments and then vomited again.” (O’Brien 50) He touches on other physical symptoms as well: he sweats, he can’t sleep, he feels as if he is falling, that he has “slipped out of my own skin.” (O’Brien 54) Several of these symptoms are almost out-of-body experiences as if he wants to void himself.
When their boat trip nears the Canadian shore, Tim returns to locating the emotions in his chest. “I remember a sudden tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me. This wasn’t a daydream. It was tangible and real.” (O’Brien 55) Elroy stops the boat. Tim can see details on the shore—mulberry bushes, pine needles, a squirrel. “Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier.” (O’Brien 56)
This is the beginning of the thematic passage in which Tim asks, “What would you do?” He answers his own question: “All I could do was cry. Quietly, not bawling, just the chest-chokes.” (O’Brien 57)
He also feels like he is drowning: “I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves.” (O’Brien 57) This drowning sensation is the transition into the long passage in which images of people from his past and future flood his imagination. “And right then I submitted. I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to. That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. It was loud now. Loud, hard crying.” (O’Brien 59-60)
O’Brien locates the emotions in this order: eyes, head, stomach, general numbness, his first rupture in the chest, a generalized out-of-body anxiety, returning to his chest, drowning, and finally the release of crying. But interestingly, the chest (heart) emotions are the moments that are transformative. His chest pops when he’s at his hog butchery job; he decides to go to Canada. His chest squeezes on the boat, and he knows he won’t be able to jump overboard.
The short conclusion scene returns to numbness, although this is not located in Tim’s body, but in the flat, uninflected narrative. This is the only way Tim can relieve his shame (his stated purpose in writing the story), by numbing himself out.
Summary of the Technique of Physical Behavior
All three authors punctuate emotions (usually the most deeply felt emotions) with physical reactions. Almond narrates at a remove, but as he realizes the relationship is failing, that changes to more deeply-felt physical reactions. Baldwin punctuates all his emotions—anger, shame, fear—with physical symptoms. O’Brien locates emotions in different parts of the body to fit the arc of the story and uses these physical emotions to push his character towards change. In all three stories, I think we can say that physical reactions and symptoms are the most reliable source of emotion. Character thought and interaction are more easily inflected by an unreliable narrator.
Baldwin and O’Brien also use recurring sensations. In addition, I am impressed by the variety of language play all three authors use to express physical emotion—inventive simile (my heart did an arpeggio) and the intensity of active verbs (i.e. pop, crack, leak, chop, shake, hit, drop, drown, carve, rock).
Thoughts on the Overall Emotional Arc
As Douglas Glover states in “Notes on Novel Structure,” “The important thing to remember: the novel is a machine for desire.” In these stories, the goal is an altered emotional state. Almond’s David wants to lose himself in romantic passion. Baldwin’s Peter wants to find an honest stance. O’Brien’s Tim wants to relieve his shame.
Their progress towards these goals is marked in emotional moments. David sees the intimacy that Basha and Mamu share and experiences the fallacy of the body in his lovemaking with Basha. Peter is kicked out of his room, and can’t find solace from Jules and Ida. Tim tries to reason himself out of his shame, flees to Canada.
The characters also become less sure of themselves as the story progresses. They extend the ropes of their desires as far as they can. David calls on Basha’s and his bodies to rescue them. Peter finally looks for communality in Harlem. Tim gets twenty yards from the Canadian shore, but breaks down.
In the end, the characters all fail their initially stated goals. David is left lonely and suffering. Peter can’t find an honest place. Tim does not relieve his shame. What they are left with is an adjustment: David connects his loneliness to a universal condition, Peter recognizes that other black people may share his lack of honest place, and Tim acknowledges that at least he tried to face his shame and it was legitimized by one other character. But in each case, I think we can say that they are forced to examine the limits of self, and in a sense obviate themselves in order to make those final discoveries.
Actually, I initially found it difficult to decide which stories to discuss. I reread some of my old favorites, but found myself disappointed. They seemed to somehow lack a certain resonance or complexity. In the end, I chose to examine three stories that simply made me wish that I had written them myself. As it happened, the stories all share a failure towards goals, and what I think of as a complicity in the character’s own undoing.
In an informal talk, David Wojan once mentioned that the essential construct of poetry is the “box of the self.” This struck a chord with me because I thought the best of prose also addresses this limitation. I also recalled a lecture by the poet Stephen Dunn, actually a reading of his marvelous essay, “Alert Lovers, Hidden Sides, and Ice Travelers: Notes on Poetic Form and Energy.” Although the essay is about poetic form, I’ll summarize his main points for its relevance to prose.
First, Dunn cites several definitions for form, including his favorite (because of its sexual connotation, he notes) from Kenneth Burke: “Form is the arousal and fulfillment of desire.” (Dunn 145.)
Dunn also notes how the demands one makes upon oneself as a character in one’s own poem shape the container of the poem.
But interestingly, Dunn notes that the bad poet, like the bad lover, is preoccupied with self, and to illustrate this pitfall he suggests the metaphor of the writer as an ice traveler who wants to put himself “in the middle of a big lake; let’s call it Lake Eros.” (Dunn 151) There are different kinds of ice travelers, he explains. The ice fisher plunks himself over a hole and pulls out predictable fish. The ice skater skirts the safe edge of the frozen lake and is only concerned with brilliant surface effects.
However, the experienced ice traveler will not take the easy route. He will slip and slide towards the center of the lake where the ice is thinnest and possibly melting. He needs to tread lightly, although he is aware that at all times, the ice must bear his full weight. He is “always interested in what it means to stay alive,” (Dunn 149) yet realizes that the further he moves towards the center, the fewer choices he has. “We are limited by the choices of diction and rhythm that we’ve already employed, and by the poem’s contextual logic.” (Dunn 150) But as Dunn also notes, he wouldn’t have it any other way. These experienced ice travelers don’t stop to fish, but:
“. . .when they pass over the ice just right, spectacular fish break through the ice and offer themselves. These fish are recognizably fish, but they have no names. The job of the ice travelers is to name them. And then they toss them back, not out of pity or compassion, but because the fish they name always are for others to find, and to do with as they please.” (Dunn 151)
To apply this to the short stories discussed, I found that somewhere fairly close to the stories’ openings, the authors establish a promise of what to expect in terms of stated goals. This is set in an emotional framework: they desire an altered emotional state. The author also establishes a certain lexicon, how he will note progress. These are the emotional representations. Then the authors extend the ropes of emotional and dramatic tension to put their characters in a melting center, where they are unsure of themselves. This is where the surprising fish spring out that must seem unexpected, a discovery. Importantly, these are also the fish that must be shared selflessly with the reader.
Inside the stories, the emotional energy comes from how the characters are complicit in their own undoing. They state goals, but then they have to make accommodations which take the form of criticizing themselves. Almond’s David criticizes his insistence on the body. Baldwin’s Peter criticizes his growing hatred of everyone and himself. O’Brien’s Tim criticizes that he can’t overcome his shame. In the end, they are not able to perform beyond their limitations.
However, their final discoveries name something beyond their own limitations. David recognizes a universal suffering. Peter says that he doesn’t have a story, but this void is shared with others. Tim’s shame is made real by recalling Elroy’s witness. In each case, the character must obviate himself towards a larger recognition, and this is the discovery that must be shared selflessly with the reader, for the reader to do with as he pleases. In a successful story, this final experience of the reader also needs to be emotional.
Glover also states in his discussion of theme that: “Every novel, in a sense, at its thematic base, is the story of a human infant encountering the grim reality of other wills, scarcity, work, choice, loss and evil. Every plot focuses on the disconnect between the self and the world.” The self against the world plays into the stories. Almond alludes to a lack of intimacy in the world. Baldwin emphasizes racist society. O’Brien talks about the injustice of the Vietnam War. I realize also that this is somewhat of a contradiction. Perhaps indeed, it is the characters’ worlds, not their own limitations, that won’t let them achieve their goals. But to go deeper into this would involve a discussion of how dark stories function, another topic.
However, in these particular stories (to emphasize again this point of final obviation), most of the emotional energy arises from how the character criticizes and recognizes the limitations of self. Each author’s choices of emotional representation inform each failure with its own cosmic quality. Each character is complicit in his own undoing. Perhaps as well, I have grown out of my old favorites because I have come to expect out of prose an intelligence of language play that speaks to beauty, to how failed desires are expressed with humility and grace.
To sum up, I have formulated some ground rules for myself, discovered in the course of writing this essay. I consider these rules a starting point: to be noted in future readings of other authors and to begin to apply to my own writing.
- The reader must be involved emotionally in the opening by establishing character sympathy. This is usually established by voice (i.e. humor, humility, earnestness of struggle), but also might be seen in the intensity of the character’s desire.
- The goal of a story must be an altered emotional condition. (After a character achieves X, he will be different emotionally.)
- The narrator notes his progress towards his goal in moments of emotional representation. Avoidance of emotions can also be a useful device.
- The narrator’s personality and the nature of the goal determine which techniques of emotional representation to emphasize or otherwise modulate. The writer can choose to emphasize character thought, character interaction, or physical behavior and/or orchestrate all three.
- Character thought is usually ongoing assessment, identifying how he feels about what he has achieved so far. Character thought can also be a projection into the future. Some character thought can also be transformative, that is, not merely assessment but leading to a change of action. Thematic passages (an interpretation of the action, dreams, or imagined actions) can also be either assessing or transformative.
- Character interaction is how the narrator tests his progress against other characters. However, imagined interactions are also an extremely useful emotional device to reveal what the character would really like to do.
- Physical behavior is often the most reliable sign of emotions, especially internal physical symptoms. Physical behavior can be narrated from a distance or closely, for different effects.
- Diction can be used to reveal emotion in all three techniques. Examples of emotional diction include parallel sentence structure, the repetition of phrases, choice of an abstract or more visceral lexis, and especially the use of concrete, active, and non-generic verbs. A restrained tone is also useful to reveal the deepest emotions.
- Setting details and atmosphere can also be inflected to reveal the character’s emotional state.
- The closer the character gets to his goal, the more unsure he becomes. This can be shown by a difference in tone in character thought (and the thoughts themselves), a change in character interaction, or more intense or otherwise changed physical behavior.
- The conclusion of the story should show how the character has satisfied or failed his goal. The most successful stories are those in which the narrator obviates himself in order to make a larger recognition. The conclusion should also be an unexpected discovery that allows the reader to come away with a shared emotional experience.
Almond, Steve. “Run Away, My Pale Love.” My Life in Heavy Metal. New York: Grove Press, 2002. (79-101)
Almond, Steve. Interview with Robert Birnbaum. Identity Theory: The Narrative Thread. Posted January 26, 2003. http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/)
Baldwin, James. “Previous Condition.” Major Writers of Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1993. (59-71)
Dunn, Stephen Dunn. “Alert Lovers, Hidden Sides, and Ice Travelers.” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. New York: Norton, 1993.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Translated by Susan Massoty. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Glover, Douglas. “Notes on Novel Structure.” Attack of the Copula Spiders, Biblioasis, 2012.
Kirchner, Bharti. “Putting Emotion into Your Fiction.” The Writer’s Handbook. Ed. Sylvia Burack. Boston: The Writers, Inc., 1998. (139-144)
O’Brien, Tim. “On the Rainy River.” The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. (39-61)