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1 READING A STORY
For a second illustration of a great detail in a story, a detail that sounds observed instead of invented (besides Defoe’s “two shoes, not mates”), you might cite a classic hunk of hokum: H. Rider Haggard’s novel of farfetched adventure, She (1887). Describing how the Amahagger tribesmen dance wildly by the light of unusual torches—embalmed corpses of the citizens of ancient Kor, left over in quantity—the narrator, Holly, remarks, “So soon as a mummy was consumed to the ankles, which happened in about twenty minutes, the feet were kicked away, and another put in its place.” (Pass down another mummy, this one is guttering!) Notice the exact specifi- cation “in about twenty minutes” and the unforgettable discarding of the unburned feet, like a candle stub. Such detail, we think, bespeaks a tall-tale-teller of genius. (For this citation, we thank T. J. Binyon’s review of The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard in the Times Literary Supplement, 8 Aug. 1980.)
When you introduce students to the tale as a literary form, you might point out that even in this age of electronic entertainment, a few tales still circulate from mouth to ear. Ask them whether they have heard any good tales lately (other than dirty jokes).
TYPES OF SHORT FICTION
- Somerset Maugham, THE APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA, page 6
Maugham’s retelling of this fable has in common with the Grimm tale “Godfather Death” not only the appearance of Death as a character, but also the moral or lesson that Death cannot be defied. Maugham includes this fable in his play Sheppey (1933), but it is probably best known as the epigraph to John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra (New York: Random, 1934).
Students may be asked to recall other fables they know. To jog their memo- ries, famous expressions we owe to Aesop (“sour grapes,” “the lion’s share,” “dog in the manger,” and others) may suggest the fables that gave them rise. At least, the fable of the hare and the tortoise should be familiar to any watcher of old Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Aesop, THE NORTH WIND AND THE SUN, page 7
Aesop’s fables are still so familiar to many students that they may be tempted to treat them condescendingly as “kids’ stuff.” His fables are also so compact that they seem slight. It may help students initially to point out that in classical times the notion of a special literature for children as opposed to other groups did not exist. Aesop told his stories to a mixed audience probably consisting mostly of adults. It might even be interesting to ask a fundamental question such as whether a story is necessarily dif- ferent if it is directed toward adults or children.
Most fables involved animals endowed with human traits of character and con- sciousness. We have deliberately chosen a fable that endows astronomical bodies— the sun and the moon—with character traits to demonstrate the range of imagina- tive possibilities open to the fabulists. (The Bidpai fable that follows provides a more conventional example of the animal tale.) Any student interested in pursuing the effect of such cosmic fables on contemporary literature might want to investigate two books by Italo Calvino—Cosmicomics (1965) and t zero (1967)—whose characters include planets, physical forces, and mathematical ideas.
Bidpai, THE TORTOISE AND THE GEESE, page 8
Bidpai’s Sanskrit fables remain little known in English, but they occupy an important place in Asian literature—from Turkey and Iran to Indonesia and India. Translations and adaptations abound in the East as extensively as Aesop’s fables do in the West. The Panchatantra, or Five Chapters, was intended as a sort of moral textbook.
The frame-tale presents a learned Brahmin teacher who used animal tales to instruct his students, the three amazingly dimwitted sons of a king. (Remedial edu- cation, it appears, is nothing new.) The moral code espoused by the fables is con- sistently practical rather than idealistic. Shrewdness and skepticism, they suggest, are necessary traits for survival in a world full of subtle dangers. The vain and impul- sive tortoise in the fable reprinted here is unable to control himself even when his life literally depends on it—a useful lesson for those who must navigate the danger- ous waters of a royal court filled with jealousy and backbiting.
Chuang Tzu, INDEPENDENCE, page 10
Chuang Tzu’s parables are famous in Chinese culture, both as works of intrinsic lit- erary merit and as pithy expressions of Taoist philosophy. Parables are important lit- erary genres in traditional societies. They reflect a cultural aesthetic that appreciates the power of literary artistry while putting it to the use of illustrating moral and reli- gious ideas. Clarity is a key virtue in a parable or moral fable. Its purpose is not merely to entertain but also to instruct.
Chuang Tzu’s celebrated parable suggests the uneasy relationship between philosophy and power in ancient China. It was not necessarily a safe gesture to decline the public invitation of a king, and the refusal of employment could be construed as an insult or censure. Chuang understands that the only safe way to
turn down a monarch is with wit and charm. He makes his moral point, but with self-deprecating humor.
In his indispensable book Essentials of Chinese Literary Art (Belmont, CA: Duxbury, 1979, p. 46), James J. Y. Liu of Stanford University comments on the sly rhetoric of this parable:
Instead of solemnly declaring that worldly power and glory are all in vain, Chuang Tzu makes us see their absurdity by comparing them to a dead tortoise. At the same time, life unburdened with official duties is not idealized, but com- pared to the tortoise dragging its tail in the mud.
The Tzu following Chuang’s name is an honorific meaning master. The philosopher’s historical name was Chuang Chou. The Chinese surname is conventionally put first, so Chuang is the proper term to use for the author.
This parable was a favorite of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was fascinated by the Chinese fabular tradition.
Jesus’s “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11–32) is found in the chapter on “Theme.” It may be interesting for students to compare the differing techniques of these two classic parables from different traditions.
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, GODFATHER DEATH, page 11
For all its brevity, “Godfather Death” illustrates typical elements of plot. That is the main reason for including it in this chapter (not to mention its intrinsic merits!). It differs from Updike’s contemporary “A & P” in its starker characterizations, its sum- mary method of telling, its terser descriptions of setting, and its element of magic and the supernatural. In its world, God, the Devil, and Death walk the highway. If stu- dents can be shown these differences, then probably they will be able to distinguish most tales from most short stories.
“Godfather Death” may be useful, too, in a class discussion of point of view. In the opening pages of Chapter 2, we discuss the ways in which this tale is stronger for having an omniscient narrator. If you go on to deal with symbolism, you may wish to come back to this tale for a few illustrations of wonderful, suggestive properties: the magical herb, Death’s underground cave, and its “thousands and thousands” of flick- ering candles.
This is a grim tale even for Grimm: a young man’s attentions to a beautiful princess bring about his own destruction. In a fairy tale it is usually dangerous to defy some arbi- trary law; and in doing so here the doctor breaks a binding contract. From the opening, we know the contract will be an evil one—by the father’s initial foolishness in spurning God. Besides, the doctor is a thirteenth child—an unlucky one.
Possible visual aids are reproductions of the “Dance of Death” woodcuts by Hans Holbein the younger. Have any students seen Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, and can they recall how Death was personified?
Anne Sexton has a sophisticated retelling of “Godfather Death,” in which the doctor’s guttering candle is “no bigger than an eyelash,” in her Transformations (Boston: Houghton, 1971), a collection of poems based on Grimm. “Godfather
Death” is seldom included in modern selections of fairy tales for children. Bruno Bet- telheim has nothing specific to say about “Godfather Death” but has much of inter- est to say about fairy tales in his The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Knopf, 1976). Though Bettelheim’s study is addressed primarily to adults “with children in their care,” any college student fascinated by fairy tales would find it stimulating.
THE SHORT STORY
John Updike, A & P, page 16
Within this story, Sammy rises to a kind of heroism. Despite the conventional attitudes he expresses in the first half of the story (his usual male reactions to girls in two-piece bathing suits, his put-down of all girls’ minds: “a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar”), he comes to feel sympathy for the girls as human beings. He throws over his job to protest against their needless humiliation, and in so doing he asserts his criticism of supermarket society, a deadly world of “sheep” and “hous- eslaves” whom dynamite couldn’t budge from their dull routines. What harm in a little innocent showing off—in, for once, a display of nonconformity?
Sammy isn’t sophisticated. He comes from a family of proletarian beer drinkers and thinks martinis are garnished with mint. His language is sometimes pedestrian: “Really, I thought that was so cute.” But he is capable of fresh and accurate observa- tions—his description of the way Queenie walks on her bare feet, his comparison of the “clean bare plane” of her upper chest to “a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.” (Could Sammy be capable of so poetic an observation, or is this Updike’s voice?)
Carefully plotted for all its seemingly casual telling, “A & P” illustrates typical elements. The setting is clear from Updike’s opening paragraph (“I’m in the third checkout slot . . . with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers”). Relatively long for so brief a story, the exposition takes up most of the story’s first half. Portraying Queenie and the other girls in loving detail, this exposition helps make Sammy’s later ges- ture of heroism understandable. It establishes, also, that Sammy feels at odds with his job, and so foreshadows his heroism. He reacts against butcher McMahon’s pig- gishness: “patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints.” Dramatic conflict arrives with the appearance of Lengel, the manager, and his confrontation with the girls. Lengel catches Sammy smiling—we can guess the clerk is in for trou- ble. Crisis and climax are practically one, but if you care to distinguish them, the crisis may be found in the paragraph “I thought and said ‘No’ but it wasn’t about that I was thinking,” in which Sammy hovers on the brink of his decision. The climax is his announcement “I quit”; the conclusion is his facing a bleaker future. The last sen- tence implies not only that Sammy will have trouble getting another job, but that if he continues to go through life as an uncompromising man of principle, then life from now on is going to be rough.
In “A & P” and the fairy tale “Godfather Death,” the plots are oddly similar. In
both, a young man smitten with a young woman’s beauty makes a sacrifice in order to defend her from his grim overlord. (It is far worse, of course, to have Death for
an overlord than Lengel.) If this resemblance doesn’t seem too abstract, it may be worth pursuing briefly. The stories, to be sure, are more different than similar, but one can show how Updike is relatively abundant in his descriptions of characters and setting and goes more deeply into the central character’s motivation—as short- story authors usually do, unlike most writers of tales.
For a good explication of this story, see Janet Overmeyer, “Courtly Love in the A & P,” in Notes on Contemporary Literature for May 1972 (West Georgia College, Carrollton, GA 30117).
Updike himself reads this story and five others on Selected Stories, a set of two audiotape cassettes (169 minutes) produced by Random House (ISBN 0–394–55040–4). This is a crisp, dry reading that brings out the humor of “A & P.” This is also available on CD from Caedmon.
MyLiteratureLab Resources. Photographs and biographical information for Updike. Interactive reading, student paper, and critical essay for “A & P.”
WRITERS ON WRITING
John Updike, WHY WRITE?, page 21
Although John Updike was one of the most prolific contemporary novelist-critics active in American letters, he wrote surprisingly little about his own creative process. Perhaps he was so busy examining the work of other writers that his critical atten- tion was mostly focused outward. A certain native reticence, however, must also surely be at play. His 1975 essay “Why Write?” is therefore a key document in under- standing his artistic perspective.
The passage excerpted is an elegant defense of imaginative writing as a special means of human communication not reducible to an abstract message. Art’s indirec- tion, silences, and complexity are essential to its essence. “Reticence is as important a tool for the writer as expression,” Updike asserts. Genuine writing is “ideally as ambiguous and opaque as life itself.”