[Close Reading Rainbow Part 3] Heartless Reactions to a Boy and a Buzz Saw: “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was an American modernist poet and playwright who wrote and published his work from the early 1910s to his death in the early 1960s. He is praised for his command of the English language through his use of colloquialisms (common speech) in his writing. Many of his poems are set in rural settings and describe life outside of the city. Frost’s most well-known poem is one that is used during essentially every single graduation/convocation speech: “The Road Not Taken.” Though this poem is uplifting and thought provoking in its tone and intention, some of Frost’s poetry is as thought provoking as they are violent and disturbing. One of these poems is his 1916 poem “Out, Out—”. To understand the gravity of this poem, here it is in its entirety:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

After frightfully watching and listening to the boy’s penultimate pulse leading to the final beat, the adults that surround him seemingly get up and go about their affairs without any real thought regarding the ill fate of the child. Upon first reading, the poem “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost seems to end leaving the reader standing in a dismal deluge of disinterest and disconnection. However, through understanding the purpose behind the tonal shift between the first twenty-two lines and the last three lines, the reader can see that the apparent apathy isn’t heartless, but rather a natural, more mature response to a very tragic death.

As a beginning move, the speaker describes a cozy, idyllic, rural scene in the opening six lines, which provides the reader with a sense of innocence and security. The saw in the yard, “drop[s] stove-length sticks of wood,” that are described as “Sweet scented stuff when the breeze [blows] across it” (ll. 2-3). The sticks produced by the saw will inevitably be used to warm the home and provide comfort to all those who reside therein. There is a calmness about the yard and the home despite the “snarl[ing]” and “ratt[ling]” of the saw (ll. 1). The voice of the saw is just noise in the background of what should be a perfectly fine day. We get the image of a rural Vermont surrounded by “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset” (ll. 5-6). The setting established in these introductory lines allows the reader to feel at home. There is protection. The mountains act as a natural barrier, giving the yard a safe-and-sound sort of vibe. The only image that is disconcerting is that of the saw as it “snarl[s] and rattle[s], snarl[s] and rattle[s]” (ll. 7).

The saw’s rattling and snarling hums in opposition to the calmness and homeliness of the wooded compound and creates an uneasiness that culminates in the rather forceful amputation of the boy’s hand. In accordance with the comfort of the wooded enclosure, the boy possesses a naivety that protects him from understanding the danger and gravity of the saw. This innocence can be seen in the way that the interaction between the boy and the saw is portrayed. Rather than being a grotesque and awful scene of confusion and gore, when the boy’s hand meets the saw, the whole ordeal is shown as something comparable to an animal jumping at the boy. The saw is given animal characteristics, in addition to the snarling and rattling, in that it is described as “Leap[ing] out at the boy’s hand” (ll. 16). It’s almost as if the saw is some sort of snake, lashing out at some unsuspecting passerby. Though the saw is seen as a sort of snake, the speaker interjects saying, “or seemed to leap,” leaving the reader a bit disjointed (ll. 16). This disconnect allows the reader the chance to question the perspective of the child. It also acts as a catalyst for the reader to come to terms with the reaction of the adults at the end of the poem.

The boy’s perspective, in addition to the image of the saw as a snake, gives the remainder of the poem, up until the last three lines, a tone of innocence taken away. The boy is described as “giv[ing] the hand” to the saw, almost as if it were some sort of offering (ll. 17). When the hand is accepted by the saw, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” (ll. 19). The juxtaposition of these two words gives the reader a conflicted image. Rueful and laugh are almost absolutely opposite of one another. The “outcry” of the boy is something of a sorrowful laugh. This image, in relation to the uncertain tone that the speaker employs earlier on, shows that although the boy might have thought that he knew what he was doing when he offered his hand to saw, he really had no clue what he as getting himself into. The bucolic background bursts before the readers’ eyes. The boy holds his hand “as if to keep the life from spilling” out of the wound that now occupies where his hand once was.

The boy loses his innocence and his knowledge regarding danger and pain allows him to be like the rest of the people that end up surrounding his deathbed. He possesses, or at least seems to possess, all knowledge beforehand, yet when he is disarmed “[he sees] all—” (ll. 22).  He wanted to be a “big boy” although he wasn’t old enough to be using the saw to begin with (23). His innocence is “spoiled” and he is thrown into confusion as he cries for his sister to tell the doctor to not “cut [his] hand off—” (ll. 25). Despite his desire to keep the hand unspoiled, “the hand was gone already” (ll. 27). He is left with no hand, and the people around him show little to no emotion toward his sudden, tragic end. Although this is very tragic, the adults understand that the saw wasn’t a snake. It wasn’t something that a boy of his age should have been playing with. They aren’t sad that he is gone, but they are sad that he had to learn the hard way that when children get too close to snakes, they will get attacked.

This shift in tone from calmness and homeliness to the confusion of the boy and the subsequent apathetic attitudes of the adults allows the reader to see that the attitude seen by these people isn’t one that should be deplored. The adults understand that there is nothing that they can do to bring the child back. It is true that “No one believed” that he could pass so quickly, yet everyone knew that the saw was dangerous. As a group of rural residents, their lives are most likely based on surviving. The boy exhibited ineptitude in the realm of survival. He was dead as a result of his actions and the as a result of the adults’ awareness of such a consequence, they knew that there was “No more to build on there” (ll. 33). They understand that in nature, although one might be encircled and protected by mountains and foliage, if someone dies as a result of their own actions, it is not their affair and shouldn’t be something to trouble them further.

What are your thoughts? Are the adults heartless? Is nature unforgiving and uncaring as some writers like Frost describe it to be? What can be said about the response of the adults as opposed to the children? What does that say about innocence between adults and children? Leave your responses in the comments below! Thank you, and see you next week where I will be looking at Julio Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up.

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[Close Reading Rainbow Part 2]: Dead Letters, Dead Walls, and Dead Men: Artistic Uncertainty in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. He wrote short stories, novels, and poetry between the 1840s and 1880s. His most famous work is that of Moby-Dick. Despite his recognition and acclaim now as the author of Moby-Dick, in its time the novel nearly ruined Melville’s career as a writer, as the length and complexity of the novel served to alienate his readers and pushed him out of the literary limelight that he experienced through writing adventure/travel novels.

Melville had written travel/adventure stories like Typee: A Peep at Polynesia (1846) and Mardi, and a Voyager Thither (1849), both based on Melville’s own travels in the South Pacific, which were highly regarded during the time and well-received. His two Moby Dick (1851), which he regarded as his masterpiece, and Pierre (1852) were financial and critical bombs. Regarding this dilemma, Melville once wrote to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne However, despite his earlier success with these stories, after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville waited in vain for letters assuring him of at least an ounce of critical attention and the possibility of making some sort of profit off of his hard work. Melville admired Hawthorne and wrote an incredibly helpful review of Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He considered Hawthorne as a friend and gave praise to his tales and success as a story teller and his masterful prose style. In one letter Melville laments the underwhelming public response to Moby-Dick: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most to write, that is banned” Melville continues, “—it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way I cannot” (Frederick Busch vii-viii).

After the reception of Moby Dick, and Pierre, Melville wrote several short stories that explored the feelings of utter despair and rejection he had felt at the hands of publishes and critics. One of those stories was “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” This tale of frustration and annoyance can be seen as Melville’s own response to what he perceived as his literary downfall. In the story, the narrator relates his experience with a scrivener (law copyist) named Bartleby, who was “the strangest [he] ever saw, or heard of” (Melville 3). The narrator, a lawyer, is considered by many to be a “safe man” because he does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds” (4). He is “a man who, from his youth upwards, [had] been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). Though he sees himself as a successful and well-to-do lawman, he meets his match when Bartleby begins to work at this office. Bartleby is described as being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!” (11). Hard-working as he seems to be at the beginning of the tale, Bartleby develops a disdain for doing anything that he prefers not to do. Throughout the story, the compromising and adaptable narrator is faced with unchanging and stubborn Bartleby as he prefers not to do anything at all. Bartleby prefers not to do anything to the point that the narrator moves his office because Bartleby won’t leave, and Bartleby is subsequently taken into custody and sent to prison where he dies because he “prefer[s] not to dine…[for i]t would disagree with him; [he being] unused to dinner” (44). Rather than preferring to do anything a sane person would do, Bartleby stares only at the “dead wall” outside his office window, and when he enters prison, he stares at a wall rather than doing anything he is told. Upon further examination after Bartleby’s death, the narrator discovers that he had been employed at the “Dead Letter Office in Washington” where letters that have incorrect return and forwarding addresses are sent, sorted through, and finally burned. Despite the narrator’s efforts to get Bartleby to move and do something, he is unsuccessful. Much like Melville’s own career, he felt that things were not moving, and that publishers and critics were preferring not to consider his work seriously. Through looking at the relationship between the narrator, Bartleby, the wall, and the Dead Letter Office, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” becomes an angry cry from a rejected artist and an accurate depiction of the total anxiety and dejection that struggling artists everywhere no too well. As Melville writes in his letter to Hawthorne, Bartleby exemplifies the emotions surrounding critical and financial failure that Melville felt as he bore the shame associated with what he felt was the “malicious devil… forever grinning in upon [him].”

The narrator feels as though he were secure in his identity as a semi-successful lawyer who is in the know about those under his control, but his interaction with Bartleby proves to expose his true character. He knows the routines, eccentricities, schedules, and personalities of every scrivener in his office. He gives definite and methodical descriptions of his employees three employees: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my own age – that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, P.M., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity” (5).

Nippers is described as being “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man, of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly personal affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (7-8).

Ginger Nut, “was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student of law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of shells of various nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth, the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (10).

The narrator is able to easily profile each of his employees and is even able to work within each of their strange personal schedules. They, unknowingly, all work together to make the office work as efficiently, without too much effort needed, as the narrator wants. In each description given, the detail is methodical; it is a brief, but detailed character sketch of each scrivener. From eating habits to grinding teeth, the narrator has each of his employees figured out. They are round characters who have quirks that are relatable and understandable. Turkey can’t work efficiently in the afternoon in evening, so the narrator frontloads his work day and doesn’t give hardly any work to him in the afternoon and evening. Nippers is the opposite; he doesn’t work as hard in the morning, but come the afternoon and evening, his work is admirable. According to what the narrative deems fit, each employee is given specific workloads and tasks to enable the office to function like clockwork.

With Bartleby’s arrival, the narrator knows nothing about him. He has no next of kin or close family relationships that are on record. Bartleby is an enigma. After one of the first instances in which Bartleby “prefers not to” accomplish a task that the narrator expects of him, the narrator “look[s] at [Bartleby] steadfastly. His face [is] leanly composed; his eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (13). Although the narrator feels strongly about Bartleby’s insistence that he “prefer not to” do anything, the narrator feels pity rather than anger. At one point the narrator even claims that he became “considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.” The narrator even applauds Bartleby’s integrity stating that he “had a singular confidence in his honesty. [He] felt [his] most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (20). Though these admissions seem to be heartfelt, the narrator is only trying to reconcile with the fact that Bartleby is no doing what he, the narrator, would prefer that he would do.

These feelings quickly turn to agitation and frustration and finally to apathy, but for a moment the narrator feels as though he has figured Bartleby out. While the narrator believes that he can understand Bartleby’s character, he speculates many of the details that are more readily apparent of his more long-time employees. With the passage of time, Bartleby’s obstinance proves too much for the narrator. After giving up copying completely, Bartleby, according to the narrator, becomes “a millstone to [him], not only useless as a neckless, but afflictive to bear” (29). Bartleby prefers to do nothing but stare at the wall outside of the office, in what he narrator defines as “dead-wall reveries” (24). Though the narrator shows compassion on Bartleby during this, and other occasions, his patience quickly runs dry leaving him with no other choice than to ditch Bartleby and part ways with him. This task becomes difficult for the narrator because, unlike his other employees, he has not yet been able to conquer the wall that is Bartleby.

The wall outside the office serves as an important symbol in both the obstructions faced by the narrator and those faced by Melville. Outside the narrator’s office stands a “lofty brick wall” that is white on one side and “black by age and everlasting shade” (5) on the other side. This wall creates a deficiency “in what painters call ‘life’” (5). Like the wall that stands outside of the office, Bartleby becomes a wall to the narrator; a barrier that prevents him from figuring this employee out and fitting him within the system of the office. Likewise, to Melville, he published his work according to what his readers wanted to read. He knew the publishers like the narrator knows his employees. Much like Melville’s experience with Moby-Dick, he had been publishing in journals, magazines, and periodicals for years before publishing Moby-Dick. He was an experienced and talented writer, but unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was long, complicated, and difficult for readers to grasp. In a sense, Moby-Dick was dense, deep, and in many cases enigmatic. Readers approached it the same way one would approach a towering white and black wall. How can I climb this? Should I even bother? What can I use to destroy this so that I can just get to the other side? For Melville, the same questions were posited when trying to overcome the obstacle of the negative reviews and poor reception of Moby-Dick.

Questions like these are exactly the questions that the narrator asked regarding Bartleby. Before the narrator can truly understand Bartleby’s character, Bartleby is imprisoned and shortly thereafter starves to death. Following his death, the narrator recalls a rumor that was floating around concerning Bartleby’s history:

“Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?… a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

In Melville’s attempts to write, publish, and see the success of Moby-Dick, he like the narrator and even in some ways like Bartleby, was met with insurmountably dead-walls, dead letters and submissions, and dead hopes and dreams. Melville’s hopes were not fully actualized until decades after his death. Between his death and the recognition he would later receive at the hands of modernists poets like D.H. Lawrence, his most famous work, his life’s work, sat on the shelf while readers and critics preferred not to recognize him for his masterful prose style and devotion to his craft. Oftentimes writers like Melville who go against conventional writing forms and styles are not widely accepted and recognized in their own time. Melville’s interjection of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” at the end of the story serves as a sometimes unwelcome reminder to readers and society generally of the importance of supporting and being involved the arts. In a time when civil discourse is on the decline in the media (social or otherwise), we would do well to step back and learn from authors and writers like Melville who hoped to illuminate moral and social issues and help us discover truths that need to be discussed so that we can learn what it really means to be human.

What do you think? What are your thoughts about Herman Melville? What can we learn from “Bartleby” in 2019? What piece of literature would you like to see next on the blog?

Also, a special thanks to Terence Wride for suggesting “Bartleby” for this series! Check him out on WordPress at Wride Rants.

 

[Close Reading Rainbow Part 1] “Me – Who?”: National Identity in “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

To start off my return to the blogging world, I will be doing a series of short close readings of poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ll start off this series with one of the greatest American poets of the early twentieth century: Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He was one of the leading writers and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry is extremely lyrical and incredibly poignant in relation to understanding the racial tensions of the first half of the twentieth century; sadly many of these same tensions exist today. Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was published in 1951 in his collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Before I go into my analysis here is the poem in its entirety for a reference and so that you can experience the message that Hughes spent his career trying to convey to American readers: both black and white, bond and free.

“Theme for English B”

The instructor said,
      Go home and write
      a page tonight.
      And let that page come out of you—
      Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

The speaker of Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” wrestles with a crisis of racial identity as he strives to follow the directions given by his instructor: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true” (ll. 2-5). While attempting to answer the quandary of the apparent simplicity letting the truth issue forth out of him and onto the page, the speaker effectively raises awareness to the fact that detecting truth about one’s identity is more complicated than simply going home and writing a page tonight. The speaker shows the complexity of racial identity through addressing both Harlem and New York as separate entities in the piece, through using double negatives, and through blending musical tastes of both whites and blacks. The simple fact about racial identity, according to the speaker is that race is complicated, but regardless of race, all who call themselves Americans should understand that the truest truth is that “we are” (ll. 36).

Hughes’ speaker feels, at least in some degree, at odds with his own identity at the beginning of the page that he writes by mentioning both Harlem and New York as influences in his life. “I’m what / I feel and see and hear,” the speaker explains (ll. 17-18). The reader might be asking, “What does he feel, see, and hear?” The speaker feels, sees, and hears “Harlem” (ll. 18). This can be seen earlier in the poem, with the speaker stating that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (ll. 10). Hughes sets his speaker apart from the rest of his classmates by making it clear that he is one black student in a sea of white. Just as the speaker is physically different from his classmates, Hughes, through the speaker, consciously separates Harlem from New York in the way that he sets off New York parenthetically. “Hear you, hear me,” the speaker thinks, “we two – you me, talk on this page” (ll. 19). It seems as though he is only addressing Harlem as the main influence in his life. Yet, in the following line, the speaker expresses that “(I hear New York, too.)” (ll. 20). By parenthetically dividing the dark Harlem from the light New York, Hughes hints at the truth that identification is complicated, even when someone like the speaker is being integrated into a predominantly white class.

The difficulty of truly self-identifying is furthered as the speaker describes his interests and hobbies, many of which coincide with and conflict with interests of the whites. Hearkening to Zora Neal Hurston’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” the speaker becomes candid with his interests: “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (ll. 21-22). Just as Hurston suggested when she says that “As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions [in blacks], is ruled out,” the speaker wants the reader to know that even though he is black, he still has the same emotions as every other human being on the planet and should be treated as such. The complication comes in when the speaker mentions that he wants records for Christmas, namely: “Bessie, bop, or Bach” (ll. 24). Bessie refers to “the Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith, and bop is a type of popular jazz music at the time. Both of these types of music were typical for the average black person of the time, yet with the inclusion of Bach at the end of this list, there is a tension created. Not only is Bach not a jazz or blues musician, he is a white, European Baroque composer. By including Bach with Bessie Smith and bop, the speaker exhibits the struggle of pinning down an identity, especially when it is culturally imposed upon him. He enjoys jazz and the blues, which tended to be more typically black music during the time, yet he loves listening to Bach which is music that was usually reserved for more privileged white individuals. This cultural conflict in the speaker’s own self-identification causes an interesting tension that is alleviated in the poem.

This tension begins to be calmed as the speaker uses a double negative to justify his own identity to the reader. “I guess being colored,” the speaker admits, “doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-26). The speaker exhibits uncertainty about his own identity in the use of the double negative “doesn’t not” which causes the reader to double-take to figure out what it means when someone “doesn’t not” like something. If the double negative is omitted, the reader could read this as “I guess being colored makes,” or even gives him the liberty to “like the same thing other folks like who are other races.”

The speaker is able to lift the tension by answering the question he poses at the beginning of the poem regarding the truth about racial identity: who is the me when he asks the question, “Me – Who?” (ll. 20). The speaker reaches the grey area of being black and liking both black and white things through referring to himself and the instructor as both “Americans.” He says to his instructor, “You are white – / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (ll. 31-33). He continues stating that “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you” (ll. 34-35). The truth that Hughes, through the speaker, discovers is that racial identification is a difficult endeavor when cultural norms and expectations are heaped upon individuals’ backs. He exclaims that although blacks and whites have their similarities and differences, “we are,” and “that’s true!” (ll. 36). Although the question of “Me – Who?” is a difficult one to grapple with, Hughes urges his readers to retract the accusatory and discriminatory pointer digits with shouts of “You, you, you!” and instead recognize the “We-ness” and oneness that should prevail in the nation. “That’s” what Hughes suggests as being truly “American.”

Just like Hughes is suggesting here, an American voice is hard to pin down. Since America is home to so many people, no one group of people can claim the title of American. Hopefully we can all recognize the voices of Americans of all races, religious affiliation, national origin and so forth.

Also, if you want me to do a close reading of any poem, novel, short story, or play comment below! Thanks, and see you on Saturday.

Frogs and Freytag’s Pyramid

What makes a story a story? Is it the characters? The plot? The lesson being taught? For something to be constituted as a story, does it have to have any of these elements? Some would say that a story is not a story without the “essentials.” Although I am a sucker for good and meaningful stories, I’d have to argue that a story doesn’t need to follow any sort of structure for it to be an enjoyable story with a moral at the end. To be completely real,in the moment, life, for example, sometimes doesn’t follow any sort of structure. We usually look back on experiences and are able to construct a narrative of what happened that most likely ends with us learning something from the experience. It isn’t until we look back that we are able to see the story. But, that discussion is for another day. To understand how a story that lack’s structure can still be a good story, we first have to understand what the structure is that most stories are built around.

Freytag’s Pyramid (Dramatic Structure)

First off, who is Freytag, and why did he make a pyramid?

freytporGustav Freytag (1816-1895) was a German author and playwright. Freytag states in his book Die Technik Das Dramas or Freytag’s Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art (1863) that although Aristotle established laws regarding drama, and this includes literature as well, the rules that he made were over 2,000 years old and that the human race had “grown more than two thousand years older” (1). With humans being both older and more advanced in some ways, Freytag decided that it was high time that these rules went through a modification to fit with the times. He claims that the rules laid down by the Ancients like Aristotle were “limitation[s that] easily seem[ed] to us the death of free artistic creation.” He continues saying that “Never was a greater error” than such a system of restraints put upon storytelling (2).

So, Freytag did what anyone does that has a beef with the system. He changed it. Instead of continuing the use of a Greek sanctioned, mathematical, and mechanical set of rules, he ironically decided to change it out with his own semi-equation-like pyramid. I’m not mathematician, but this new system sure as hecks seems pretty geometric. All joking aside, this pyramid has served as the guidelines for many stories both on the stage and on the page. Think of your favorite movie, television show, or play. Let’s look at Freytag’s pyramid first to get a feel for what it’s all about.

freytag_pyramid

This structure sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I’ll throw a favorite movie of mine and we’ll see how it fits. Batman Begins.

Let’s start with the Exposition. Bruce Wayne goes to the theatre with his mom and dad. He is frightened by the bats in the play. We see that Bruce has a fear he needs to overcome. His parents decide to leave the theatre so that Bruce can feel safe. As they stroll through the wet, dark alleys of Gotham City, BAM! Inciting Incident #1 – Enter Mr. Joe Chill aka “the bad guy.” Chill attempts to rob the Waynes and fails to do so, so he shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne…  BAM! BAM!

batman_beginsBruce is left with a fear of bats, two dead parents, and a lot of heated anger toward Mr. Chill. Bruce, as an adult, decides to kill Chill once he gets out of prison. Someone else beats him to it. He runs away to Asia to join the League of Shadows. There he meets Ra’s al Ghul. Inciting Incident #2 – Bruce realizes that the League of Shadows is bad and that they want to destroy Gotham because they think Gotham is bad. Bruce Runs away and decides to overcome his fear of bats by building the Bat Cave. Rising Action – Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows come to Gotham and try to destroy Gotham. Complication – Ra’s al Ghul burns down Bruce’s mansion. Bruce is upset. Climax – League of Shadows attempts to fill Gotham’s water supply with drugs that make people hallucinate and kill each other. With the help of Commissioner Gordon, Lucious, and Rachel, Bruce is able to locate Ra’s and attempts to stop him. They fight on a train. The rails are destroyed, the train crashes, the city is saved, and Ra’s al Ghul gets ghosted. Falling Action – the city needs to be fixed because of all the crazy chaos that the League insinuates. Bruce has to find a new house because his mansion is ashes. Resolution – Batman becomes the symbol of justice and safety that Gotham needs. Because of how popular Batman becomes, he gets a calling card from the Joker saying that he’d like to hang out sometime. Sequel? Fade to black. Credits.

So, most movies follow this pyramid in some way or another. If you want to test it, just plug in your favorite movie or television show and give it a whirl. But, what happens when this pyramid isn’t followed? Can the story be a good one? Or does this make the story not worth reading or watching. In some cases, a lack of structure can make a story less desirable, but in the case of Mark Twain’s 1865 short story The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County the lack of a central story and the apathy expressed by the narrator toward the only thing that resembles a story can help us see stories in a different light and recognize that not all stories need structure for them to be considered good stories.

jumping frogBeing a contemporary of Freytag, Twain was probably aware of this “new” dramatic structure. But, just like he always does, he tears it apart and shows how ridiculous it is. Twain was a master of his craft. His sharp and oftentimes stinging criticism, accompanied by his use of local and distinct dialects in his characters are among a few of the reasons why he is considered one of the greatest American authors of the 19th century. His fame and influence has survived well into the 21st century. This notoriety also comes from his breaking away from normal narratives of his time and becoming one of the leaders of American Realism in literature.

His amphibious tale does something that sets it apart from a lot of his other works. He takes Freytag’s Pyramid deconstructs it brick by brick. In this short story, Twain gives a personal narrative of how the narrator, in search of his friend’s friend Reverend Leonidas Smiley, is pranked into hearing the long winded legend of the Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County aka Dan’l Webster, as told by the tramp Simon Wheeler. After listening against his will to the story of a frog that “wanted [an] education, and could do ‘most anything,” the narrator realizes his mistake and takes his leave just before Mr. Jim Smiley is about to tell him about a “yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner” (104, 108). So, why is a story about a guy listening to a tramp tell story about a jumping frog worth reading? Well, the story inside the story (the one about the frog) and the narrator’s reaction to the story can help us understand how to see past a story and see real life.

The story itself has no real plot arc. The narrator gets tricked into listening to a pointless story and leaves disgruntled. But, the legend of Dan’l Webster the frog, although it ends in a very flat and unsatisfying way, follows some sort of structure. Exposition – Mr. Wheeler takes a very long time telling the narrator about Jim Smiley because he doesn’t know any Reverend Leonidas Smiley. He tells of how Jim Smiley is a betting man. Rising Action – Mr. Smiley finds a frog that can jump higher than any frog in the county. A stranger in the camp challenges Mr. Smiley’s frog to a contest to see who’s frog can jump the highest. Climax – The frog’s are primed to jump. Smiley fills Dan’l Webster “to the chin” with quail shot (don’t ask me why). Smiley and the stranger say “ready set go,” and… the stanger’s frog jumps while Resolution Dan’l Webster stays grounded. Mr. Smiley stands confounded as to why his frog didn’t jump. After dumping out the quail shots, old Dan’l Webster jumps like he did before. Smiley runs to challenge the stranger again, but isn’t able catch him. Although this story does follow the steps of Freytag’s Pyramid, it really doesn’t follow it in spirit. The resolution leaves the reader confused, a little upset, and like the narrator “lacking both time and inclination” to listen to any other stories.

The genius of this story is that it doesn’t need a story arc to be entertaining or to even present a thought provoking message to its readers. Twain, although a harsh critic of society and humans in general, shows the reality that sometimes stories don’t need to be structured to get their point across. Through subverting the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, Twain helps us understand that sometimes life has little to no structure, even when we try to organize, plan, and prepare. When this is the case in our own lives, all we need to do is see the ridiculous “jumping frog” moments in our day and learn to laugh at the supposed structure and oftentimes lack thereof in life generally.