“The Littlest Hitler” by Ryan Boudinot

It’s all about victimization. Boudinot manages to explore different roles that people had in the Holocaust in this story: victim, victimizer, and those so scared of becoming victims that they do nothing.

It’s ironic, though rather satisfying, to think of a tiny Hitler being picked on. The idea of Adolf Hitler, who is such a symbol of victimizing other people, being reduced to calling himself “lint” in order to escape the taunts and jeers of nine-year-olds is quite gratifying. Okay, yeah, you feel sorry for little Davy for not realizing how people might interpret his dressing up as Hitler for Halloween. The reader sympathizes with Davy for becoming the victim of the cruel politics of popularity in elementary school.

But even from his lowly position, he feels no qualms at making Cyndy his victim, even after she shows him such compassion, holding him when he cries and not telling older boys that he was crying. His nine-year-old consciousness understands the power he can gain by not denying people’s assumption that he and Cyndy had been “doing something raunchy” inside the maze.

The maze incident elevates Davy’s status from victim to victimizer, and he becomes more aware of his new position when he encounters the kids whose parents forbade them from trick-or-treating. He feels a moment of great compassion for the kids, realizes how fortunate he is, and wants to give them his candy. However, he feels “too embarrassed, [he’d] make his father angry. [He’d] call too much attention to the fact that they couldn’t go trick-or-treating. So [he chooses] to do nothing.”

The ending suggests a slight, though not complete, change in Davy’s attitude. He wants to throw his candy in the fire, but reason overtakes him. I mean, who but an idiot would throw away a whole Snickers bar? But he does seems to feel more compassion for the victims, the Jews more specifically, as he lowers his hand to the fire, seeing how close he could get before it hurt.

“What Sacagawea Means to Me” by Sherman Alexie

I thought that I would never read another piece of literature written by Sherman Alexie after the disaster that was FYE and Smoke Signals (Sorry, Kim), but I’m glad that I surprised myself and read this essay because it’s quite good. My favorite sentence:

The Lewis and Clark expedition was exactly the kind of multicultural, trigenerational, bigendered, animal-friendly, government-supported, partly French-Canadian project that should rightly be celebrated by liberals and castigated by conservatives.

Alexie surprised me with how fair he is toward white people and white culture. But his viewpoint with which I am more familiar surfaced as well. Alexie sees white and Indian cultures as at odds with each other and, therefore, he describes himself as a contradiction because he is the son of a half-white/half-Indian woman. He lists other contradictions of American culture:

This country somehow gave birth to Maria Tallchief and Ted Bundy, to Geronimo and Joe McCarthy, to Nathan Bedford Forest and Toni Morrison, to the Declaration of Independence and Executive Order No. 1066, to Cesar Chavez and Richard Nixon, to theme parks and national parks, to smallpox and the vaccine for smallpox.

The final paragraph of this essay is a grudging acceptance of the contradictions of this country and the acknowledgement that he himself is a contradiction.

Alexie’s expectation and seeming desire for a more homogeneous culture surprises me. Not that I want more Ted Bundys to appear just because I’m bored of everyone acting too sane, but different people and opinions are what gives cultures depth and richness. Alexie sees the dualities of the culture but does not seem to recognize the degrees of moderation which can be embodied.

“A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” by Jonathan Safran Foer

I tried to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, it being a best seller and all, a couple years ago. I think I only made it to page 50 when slogging through the abstruseness became too tiring. But I really enjoyed this essay.

Ostensibly the essay begins with attempting to simplify writing dialogue, assigning punctuation to silences, changes in intonation, and other elements of conversation. Foer’s task becomes more intricate when he begins assigning punctuation to represent meaning. By the end of the essay, the punctuation has made reading the dialogue more complex than simple. But one realizes how complicated human communication is. Amidst his classification of punctuation, Foer uses more conventionally written pieces of prose (explaining the “Heart Disease” portion of the title) that effectively convey the emotions his punctuation intends to express. However, the final conversation between Foer and his father is very compelling with Foer’s shorthand. And probably the conversation is more compelling and less melodramatic than it would be in a more traditional prose form. Foer’s punctuation fits well into Western ideals of minimalism and subtlety in art.

"Cathedral" by Raymond Carver

With the relationship of the narrator to the blind man, Carver seems to be exploring notions of reality as defined by material things. When Robert asks the narrator to tell him about cathedrals, the narrator is at a loss. He tries telling Robert the facts that he has learned from watching the special that is currently on television, but finally admits that he doesn’t know much about cathedrals. He turns to facts like, “[their] supports are called buttresses…Sometimes the cathedrals have devils carved into the front…In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God” and such. Such descriptions do not describe the visual experience of a cathedral; the narrator cannot describe the material reality that he has come to take for granted.

When the narrator begins drawing the cathedral with the blind man, he is at first paralyzed by his notion of reality. He says:

First I drew a box that looked like a house. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy.

But his determination, fuels his drawing and he keeps going, even when Robert tells him to close his eyes. Disconnecting with the sense for which he is trying to compensate for Robert ultimately becomes a liberating experience:

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do. “Well?” he said. “Are you looking?” My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. “It’s really something,” I said.

Without his visual conception of reality, the narrator feels free.

"Death by Landscape" by Margaret Atwood

Before I begin, the episode in this story of the girls “burn[ing] one of Lucy’s used sanitary napkins”…. Ewwwwww! See, this is why I would make a terrible Wiccan.

Anyway, “Death by Landscape.” In this short story, Atwood explores the importance of storytelling and how it shapes reality. Cappie’s “Indian” ritual that precedes the fateful canoe trip molds the girls’ consciousness of the significance of their short journey. Indeed,

when Cappie says this…Lois can feel the water stretching out, with the shores twisting away on either side, immense and a little frightening.

Cloaking a canoe trip as the “Indian” ritual serves to shape Lois’ conception of the journey as monumental and slightly treacherous, meaning her survival of the trip will seem more significant. And by engaging the girls with language that represents a culture known for their wilderness skills, Cappie’s ritual imbues them with a greater sense of self-sufficiency. Cappie also accomplishes this with the pretense that they are braves going into war.

Storytelling becomes important to Cappie later in the story as well. When Lucy goes missing with no explanation, Cappie is left with a gap in her reality that she must fill by storytelling. She coerces Lois into giving her a semi-confession that she had something to do with Lucy’s disappearance. Even though Lois does not actually confess, merely bursts into tears, “She’s got what she wanted”—Cappie has something filled the gap in her reality. Lois also seems to fill the gap with storytelling. Seemingly in Lois’ mind, Lucy became part of the landscape, which is why every landscape painting she owns, “Every one of them is a picture of Lucy.” Because “Everyone has to be somewhere.”

"The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf

Death is the antagonist. Not a particularly novel concept, but such is the case in this essay:

But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death.

Death is “the enemy,” it is “indifferent, impersonal…[and] Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth.” But death opposes not only the little moth but everyone and everything, of which Woolf grudgingly admits acceptance at the end of the passage. And by the end of the essay, and the end of the little moth’s struggle, Woolf seems to admire the insect:

The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

The moth “decently and uncomplainingly” seems to state its acceptance of its vulnerability to death’s power. Perhaps just as the moth struggles against death, so does Woolf struggle with her, indeed, all life’s vulnerability to death with this essay.

“Strange” seems to be an important word in this essay. Life is strange, death is strange, the moth is strange…. The peculiarities seem to fascinate Woolf.

Woolf’s writing in this case does not reflect her usual stream-of-consciousness style, but her use of what she refers to as “the woman’s sentence” in A Room of One’s Own is in full force.

“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

Geez, this is going to bug me! I’ve read this story before, but I don’t remember in what context.

Obvious reading: a woman free from man’s influence finally experiences a sense of true freedom and the harsh retraction of that freedom, and prospect of returning to an oppressive lifestyle, leads to the most drastic rebellion, or alternative, DEATH.

This story…..is a little harsh. I suppose I should take historical context into account, but the ending still comes off as a little harsh, considering how little the reader knows about Brently Mallard. Granted, Chopin mentions that Louise felt trapped in her marriage, but Brently does not come across as a complete monster. If he did, then perhaps I would understand the deadly reaction Louise had to Brently not being dead after all. As it is, Chopin seems to suggest that marriage is a prison for women. And why does she have to be like that?

The description of Louise’s emotions when she is coming to terms with Brently’s death is rather, er, sexual:

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself, a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “Free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.

This “something coming to her”—perhaps her liberation—seems to almost rape her, but her ultimate embrace of the “something” mimics an orgasm.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—I think I was 13 or so—but it was one of the first “serious” short stories that I read and really enjoyed. Bierce’s irony, manipulation of the reader, and exploration of human self-deception create a truly unique storytelling experience. As much as Bierce wants the reader to believe that Peyton Farquhar is escaping from his hanging, he writes Farquhar’s getaway in such a subtly fantastic manner so that the reader knows subcobsciously that the man is not really escaping but becomes so involved in the fantasy that the reader still hopes that he is escaping. Only the most oblivious reader can ignore the omninous tones of Farquhar’s eyes feeling congested and his tongue feeling so swollen that he pushes it out of his mouth.

Farquhar’s fantasy of escape seems somehow appropriate considering the character details the reader learns in the flashback. Farquhar thinks of himself as capable of being a hero—he attempts something very dangerous at the suggestion of a complete stranger. He sees himself capable of extraordinary things even though he is only a farmer. Thus, his fantasy includes extraordinary incidences of his eluding his pursuers. I’m not certain that every person would make such an elaborate fantasy as Farquhar constructs. He notes that the person who takes the first shot of him has gray eyes—and those with gray eyes supposedly have the best accuracy—but the shot misses him. The grapeshot fired at him goes over his head in “some kind of farewell.”

“Extradited” by Isabella Valancy Crawford

Perhaps I am looking for homoeroticism in all the wrong places, but I thought that this story kind of suggested it. The relationship between the husband and his “friend” seemed a little, well, friendly for them to be just friends. The wife suspects the friend to be of questionable character, and while he did commit a crime he redeems himself in the reader’s eyes by dying trying to save the child at the end. However, the wife seems to feel no remorse at his passing. She seems pleased that he husband will no longer be distracted from their life.

The wife seems to be acting out of the stereotypically feminine desire to preserve and maintain the home and she views the friend as a threat to that home. By trying to save the child, the friend displays an equal amount of effort to preserve the home. So perhaps he truly was a threat to the wife because he was her equal in that regard.

"Kew Gardens" by Virginia Woolf

This story is so richly and beautifully descriptive. Woolf seems to observe with the eyes of someone who has never experienced the mundane realities of life. She writes:

The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, their red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour.

While the narrator seems to be a completely impersonal someone, the story seems to be told from the perspective of a snail. Because of this fact, Woolf describes everything in almost microscopic detail.

Her choice of using the snail is an interesting one. While that perspective is highly inventive, I’m not certain that it builds quite enough trust with the reader. Personally, I am less likely the accept observations made on the human condition if said observations were made by a snail. And because Woolf is so interested in humanity I don’t think the snail serves her as well as a more human narrator would. The fluidity of Woolf’s shifting her focus from the snail to the different couples who pass through Kew Gardens reminded me of the shifting perspective in To the Lighthouse.

Woolf also explores the efficacy of language. The young couple converses “words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far.” And the two older women “piec[e] together their very complicated dialogue.” Words ultimately seem to fail Woolf: “Nell, Bert, Lot, Cess, Phil, Pa, he says, I says, she says, I says, I says—”

"A Continuity of Parks" by Julio Cortázar

In “A Continuity of Parks,” Cortázar rather cleverly interweaves two stories: that of an estate owner reading a book about two lovers and two lovers plotting to kill an estate owner reading a book. This technique reminds me of the DVD cover of Memento. How far do the layers go? (I’m sure there’s a word for that sort of thing. Like “gestalt” or something.)

But this story seems to exist solely for the plot twist, like an M. Night Shyamalan movie; it seems to stop before it really gets started. Cortázar calls the reader’s conception of reality into question, but besides that fact I didn’t find much interesting in this text.

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever

I liked this story a lot. Actually. A lot more than I thought I would.

This story has some interesting themes. Jim and Irene Westcott appear to be the most ordinary couple at the beginning of the story. The appearance of the radio causes them to confront the aspects of life that do not fit into their average world. But by the end, the darker side of their relationship reveals itself. Irene engages in voyeurism and indulges in the sinister radio and her indulgence provokes a dark response from Jim. Cheever seems to be suggesting that everyone has a dark side to them—there is no ordinary family.

Technology is presented in a very foreboding light. The radio is a sinister object that reveals the cracks in the Westcotts’ relationship. The Westcotts – “Neither of them understood the mechanics of the radio—or of any of the other appliances that surrounded them” – are helpless to technology and become the victims of the radio.

'Bodily Harm' by Margaret Atwood (1981)

This novel is the third that I’ve read by Atwood. I enjoyed it more than The Edible Woman but not as much as A Handmaid’s Tale.

Like Marion in The Edible Woman, Rennie feels disconnected from her body. Rather than feeling consumed like Marion, Rennie feels betrayed by and unable to control her body. One of the motifs that Atwood uses throughout the novel is Rennie’s attraction to the surface and her inability and unwillingness to probe more deeply. With a breast cancer diagnosis, she becomes forced to confront the treachery of her insides as well as other people’s. Her trip to St. Antoine, where no one seems to be what they appear, accentuates this need.

Another motif Atwood uses involves hands. Each of Rennie’s relationships is characterized by a different image. There is a repeated image of Jake trapping Rennie’s hands in his own, of his domination over her during sex. Paul often grips Rennie by her elbow, which isn’t quite as domineering but still suggests that Paul has control over her. With Daniel, Rennie speaks of awkward and stolen holding of hands—a more egalitarian but not a comfortable image. Finally, there are Lora’s hands, which Rennie finds disgusting and comments that she would never hold those hands, stained with nicotine and reddened at the cuticles from nervous biting. Therefore, one of the final images of Rennie

holding Lora’s left hand, between both of her own, perfectly still, nothing is moving, and she knows she is pulling on the hand, as hard as she can, there’s an invisible hole in the air, Lora is on the other side of it and she has to pull her through, she’s gritting her teeth with the effort, she can hear herself, a moaning, it must be her own voice, this is a gift, this is the hardest thing she’s ever done

is a very powerful one.

At one point, Paul tells Rennie that he finds American women tedious to talk to because they are spouting “women’s lib” and worrying about wearing bras when he has seen many parts of the world in which people can’t eat. And, indeed, ideologies like feminism seem to emerge in communities in which everyone’s basic needs are met. So what is Atwood’s point exactly? Her prose is quite feminist, therefore I can’t imagine her dismissing feminism as frivolous. But at the end of the novel, I don’t see that it has been deemed beneficial in an impoverished place like St. Antoine or Ste. Agathe. Or even redeemed from Paul’s cut down.

The ending also confused me. Did Rennie escape? The sections in which she describes her release were written without quotation marks, which seemed to characterize the flashback sections. So I’m not sure.

"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin

In this story, Baldwin draws attention to the limited options available to Blacks in the 1940s. The narrator notes that:

boys like the boys we once were had been found themselves smothering in these houses, [coming] down into the streets for light and air and [finding] themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left somethingof themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.

The two brothers of this story have managed to escape the smothering environment of Harlem and have succeeded in different ways. The narrator has conformed to white cultural ideals and became a teacher. Sonny, however, embraced his Black roots in the form of jazz music.

"The Horse Dealer's Daughter" by D.H. Lawrence

Perhaps I’ve been thinking too much about the ocean in my womb, but the relationship between Mabel and Jack in this story reminded me of Wiccan concepts of the god and goddess. Within the story Mabel is associated quite strongly with death. She thinks of “this life she followed here in the world [being] far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother,” which might have led to her suicide attempt. And, to be a little frivolous, she kills the conversation at the beginning of the story with her refusal to answer certain questions. Jack, as a doctor, is associated with life and he rescues Mabel from her suicide attempt. In this way, they are complementary (like the god and goddess).

But Mabel, though more strongly associated with death, can also create life—at least in Jack. When Jack sees Mabel walking toward the pond, “His mind suddenly bec[omes] alive.” When Mabel regains consciousness from her suicide attempt, Jack feels “as if she had the life of his body in her hands” and he feels “his heart hurting him in a pain that was also life to him” when he holds her sobbing body. Often in feminist Wicca, the goddess is associated with both life and death—it’s a menstruation thing. Indeed, Mabel’s submersion in the pond and its earth-smelling water connects her further to this Wiccan concept of the goddess, which celebrates the life and decay of the earth. The decay—the stench of the water—characteristically disgusts Jack, as a feminist witch would say. According to feminist Wiccan thought, men have defined the messier parts of womanhood (menstruation, childbirth) as….well, messy. And wrong. Here comes the sappy, feminist part….perhaps by submerging herself in the earthy water, Mabel was attempting to embrace symbolically the ickier parts of her femininity, but Jack pulls her back into the world of male-defined femininity.

As in The Rainbow, Lawrence emphasizes that humans’ aloneness becomes resolved through a connection between a man and a woman. Mabel and Jack achieve this connection and enter another spiritual plane of sorts. But at the end of the story, they have returned from this alternate plane and Mabel doubts the fortitude of that connection. There is also an idea of connection in this life/death stuff. Jack describes a “pain that was also life to him,” which Mabel created, blending a more deathly concept (pain) with life.

"Yellow Woman" by Leslie Marmon Silko

In this story, Silko explores boundaries – boundaries between reality and myth, between modern and traditional Indian culture, between Indian and other cultures.

Through this tale, Silko seems to attempt to preserve an Indian myth, that of the Yellow Woman and the ka’tsina mountain spirit who became her lover, by including it in a story set in contemporary times. This myth adds mystery to the narrator’s relationship with Silva. Most likely, Silva is simply a man who rustles cattle, but his calling the narrator “Yellow Woman” calls into question his true identity, for both the narrator and the reader. The space in which “Yellow Woman” and Silva’s relationship takes place becomes a place of myth and tradition. The narrator mentions knowing of pick-up trucks and highways, but with Silva they ride horses and sleep on blankets on the ground. When the narrator returns to her home at the end of the story, she also returns to reality and modernity—the reference to her grandmother preparing Jell-O is rather jarring.

In Silva’s mythic world, the narrator experiences a feeling of liberation and Silko does not seem to judge the narrator for her adultery. But her relationship with Silva does not appear to offer much freedom. The narrator speaks of feeling Silva’s body “all around [her], pushing her down into the white river sand.” When she tries to pull away from him at one point he says, “You don’t understand, do you, little Yellow Woman? You will do what I want.” And there are other images of Silva entrapping her in some small way, like refusing to release her wrist when she tries to pull away. However, at the end of the story the narrator desires to find Silva waiting for her on the bank of the river some day in the future.