A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.

The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.

As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.

William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.

— Wikipedia, Naturalism

FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM

  • Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
  • Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
  • Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
  • In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the storyworld and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
  • Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
  • Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
  • How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
  • We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,

POST GOTHIC

Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.

STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice:

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.

We learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.

The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, and what John Truby would call the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.

At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.

TV Tropes

Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.

Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

WEAKNESS/NEED

The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.

I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:

  1. The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
  2. Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
  3. Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
  4. Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.

Each of these types has her own stock weakness. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.

Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:

As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.  […] We did not say she was crazy then.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.

There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.

But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their weakness is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.

DESIRE

It’s more about what Emily does not want.

She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.

OPPONENT

The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.

The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.

PLAN

Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.

BATTLE

The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory).  The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.

SELF-REVELATION

Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—

The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

 In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.

The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.

Dump Junk by Annie Proulx

dump junk annie proulx

“Dump Junk” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Bad Dirt collection. This is a revisioned fairytale based on The Magic Porridge Pot and similar.

Proulx’s shorts stories in many ways allude to, cite, and subvert a number of myths, legends, fairy tales, and folktales converging as common cultural patrimony.

— Benedicte Meilon, The Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature edited by Stephanie Durrans

STORYWORLD OF “DUMP JUNK”

Continue reading “Dump Junk by Annie Proulx”

Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill

Monster Movie Poster women who kill

There is a strong audience appetite for women who kill men. Storytelling seems to be going through the Age of the Woman Killer right now, with the popularity of Dirty John (podcast and TV series) and a much publicised movie about the Lorena Bobbitt case, which originally happened in the early 1990s. On Netflix you’ll find many TV series about murderers, as well as some about specifically female murderers. (Killer Women with Piers Morgan, Deadly Women.) In these shows, of course, the gender of the killer is presented as her defining attribute.

Among the many reasons why we love crime stories in general, I have wondered if stories about killer women serve to offer men the rare opportunity to consider what it might be like to be scared of a woman. But actually, my theory doesn’t hold up. The stories we tell about women who kill tend to reposition dangerous women back into the role of victim. Very few truly scary women are permitted to remain in our stories without a narrative arc which puts her safely back into her meek, feminine role.

However, I think the discussion around the #metoo movement is finally starting to change the way we tell stories about women who kill.

Continue reading “Stories We Tell About Women Who Kill”

The Wamsutter Wolf by Annie Proulx

The Wolf of Wamsutter Annie Proulx

“The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx is a short story included in the Bad Dirt collection. The title of the collection comes from this story.

STORYWORLD OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

This particular setting can be geolocated.

Wamsutter is a town in Sweetwater CountyWyoming, United States. The population was 451 at the 2010 census.

Wikipedia

As of this moment, there’s no mention of Proulx’s short story on the Wikipedia page. I’d have thought someone’d include that, since Proulx is a well-known American writer and, as a result, tends to put places on the map.

If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. An old highway and the newer Lincoln Highway divide the 1.5 square miles of red dirt town into three portions. The Google car didn’t bother driving all the way in, but allows us a glimpse of the place from the periphery.

McCormick Road Wamsutter

With its bright blue sky, low horizons and red earth vista, this little town could almost exist here in Australia, maybe somewhere near the SA, NT border. The idea that a wolf could live in Wamsutter is already ridiculous. Pan out a bit and you’ll find plenty of greenery nearby-ish.

However, something tells me this is not a story about wolves, per se…

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”?

Buddy, a man in his mid-twenties is having some bad luck. The jobs he’s taken since finishing school at 16 all seem to end. While house-sitting for his parents back home, the place gets burgled. Buddy gets the blame from all sides. He decides to move to a tiny town called Wamsutter, and try his luck finding work there.

But the bad luck continues when he learns the trailer right next door belongs to the sociopathic bully from high school, Rase Wham. Rase has shacked up with Cheri, from the same year and now they have a pack of kids.

Also hanging round is a man who thinks of himself as a genuine mountain man from an earlier century, though it’s clear he makes far more use of modern conveniences than he’s prepared to let on.

One night Rase breaks his son’s arm. Buddy comes home to find Cheri and her kids all in his trailer, messing it up, stinking it out. He drives them to the hospital and, that night, Cheri gets into bed with him and he has sex with her, nearer the non-consenting end of the rape continuum. He considers it rape.

He can see her plan is to get rid of Rase and turn Buddy into her new partner, so he hotfoots it out of there, and makes the decision to head on up to Alaska, about as far away as he can get from Rase. Buddy’s father knows what Rase is like and on the phone encourages Buddy to high tail it out of there without even stopping to gather his things.

But after Buddy arranges the job in Alaska, he does need to go back for his things. He runs into the family while he’s there. The young child whispers that the wolf got his father and that the mountain man friend is his new daddy now.

SYMBOLISM

Wolf symbolism is used in various different ways throughout the story. We know someone is Proulx’s designated wolf (baddie) but she saves that until the end.

POLITICAL ISSUES

Is “The Wamsutter Wolf” an example of ‘hixploitation‘? We are certainly encouraged to laugh at these people. I found myself laughing out loud then cringing at the next terrible turn point. I’m in no doubt that this is Proulx’s exact intention. People who literally live in trailers among trash make for easy comic targets. We tend to other them. But their struggles are real.

Ultimately, this is a story of domestic violence, and one woman’s way of dealing with it. Our viewpoint character, Buddy Millar, manages to get out of that mess, just as the reader can shut the book. But Cheri has to find a way to go on living, and she proves more genuinely ‘mountain’ than her pretend mountain man saviour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAMSUTTER WOLF”

Though “The Wamsutter Wolf” is a far more successful example, the plot and characterisation of “The Wamsutter Wolf” reminds me of “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield.

  • Both short stories star an unappealing woman who disgusts the viewpoint character by her unkempt appearance and rabid sex drive. The reader is invited to share in the viewpoint narrator’s disgust of her.
  • In both cases she’s wound up with kids she didn’t plan for (or against).
  • Each story ends with a revelation, from the naive but knowing offspring, that the uncouth woman (perhaps unaided, perhaps not) has gotten rid of her abusive husband by killing him.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The concept of ‘main character’ is problematic in “The Wamsutter Wolf” because we have a viewpoint character and the story of his life, but we also get, through his point of view, the story of Cheri. This is a story-within-a-story.

Buddy has decided to work straight out of school rather than go to college, so he’s at the mercy of temporary work which keeps drying up.

Our sympathy is firmly with him. We learn that while house-sitting for his parents, the house gets broken into. Buddy goes out of his way to recover what items he can, but still gets the blame, despite the fact this could’ve happened while his parents were at home themselves. I had a lucky escape myself at the same age, when I couldn’t get out of housesitting for my boss while she went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Her place was broken into soon after my house-sitting duties ended. I counted myself lucky it didn’t happen on my watch.

Buddy has a dislike for intellectualism. He sees any sort of knowledge as fake and annoying, which is why he dislikes his cousin Zane, whose speciality is wolves. Yet he could leverage Zane’s connections and get a decent job if he didn’t feel so negatively. By the end of the story Buddy will learn to make use of his connections.

He will also learn to appreciate his father, despite them being at loggerheads a lot of the time.

DESIRE

Buddy Millar wants steady work but he also likes to take the bad dirt roads no one else uses. These two desires don’t mesh well together, since there doesn’t tend to be much work in remote areas.

However, if these desires are going to mesh anywhere, they’ll mesh in Alaska, which is where Buddy is headed by the end of the story.

When he gets drawn into the neighbours’ business he has a strong desire to extricate himself immediately.

OPPONENT

The romantic opponent, if you will, is Cheri Wham, who had the hots for Buddy in high school and decides he’s her next baby daddy after Rase proves himself an irreconcilable abuser.

Proulx draws the comparison between Cheri Wham and the pack rats who have moved into the abandoned trailer Buddy finds. The imagery is extended with Proulx depicting Cheri a fat woman, since pack rats are larger than your ordinary rats.

Most of this applies to Cheri as well as to packrats:

Each species of pack rat is generally restricted to a given type of habitat within its range. Pack rats live anywhere from low, hot, dry deserts to cold, rocky slopes above timberline. Pack rats build complex houses or dens made of twigs, cactus joints, and other materials. These contain several nest chambers, food caches, and debris piles. Dens are often built in small caves or rocky crevices, but when close by human habitations, woodrats will opportunistically move into the attics and walls of houses.

— Wikipedia

PLAN

Buddy is a passive character for much of the story, going along with whatever else is happening. He doesn’t want to go into the rathole of a trailer for a grimy coffee, but he does. He doesn’t want to have sex with a woman he finds contemptible, but he does. We put up with these foibles from him because he sometimes does the right thing — he takes the boy to hospital when no one else will.

Eventually he is kicked out of his passivity when he begins to fear from his life. When he makes plans to move to Alaska, that’s when we know Buddy won’t be swept passively into anyone else’s dramas so easily from now on.

BATTLE

The big Battle scene is the one where Buddy thinks Rase might come over to his trailer and kill him. It feels like a scene straight out of No Country For Old Men, with a man sitting behind a door, gun to the ready. But the scene is ultimately anti-climactic.

Proulx could have made a conflict-filled meal out of the phone call between Buddy and his father, in which Buddy tells part of a story and leaves out the more incriminating part (the fact he had sex with Cheri). Writers often default to this under the belief that more conflict is always good, and that characters should never be totally honest with each other. But Buddy is completely honest with his father, which actually feels like a bit of a subversion of what we were expecting. Proulx does cut the conversation in two–the first half happens with the mother, then Buddy has to wait a full day before learning if his dad will help him out. During this time, Buddy’s battle is with himself.

SELF-REVELATION

The big plot revelation (which I should’ve seen coming, having recently read Mansfield’s identical plot) is that Graig or Cheri or both have killed Rase Wham.

All through the story I wondered who Proulx was going to designate as ‘the’ wolf (of Wamsutter). This is revealed to us in the final sentence. The wolf is Graig the wannabe mountain man, who has his own pack now.

Buddy’s Self-revelation is that his father ultimately has his back no matter how tough he acts. He thought his father was tough, but now he’s really been up close and personal with tough. His attitude towards his own cousin therefore takes a turn — he is able to rely on family connections to find work, so with a renewed appreciation for family, he relies upon his annoyingly know-it-all cousin to find him something.

Perhaps he’s partly learned from Cheri to make the most of your connections.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

With Cheri’s life pattern now established we extrapolate that she’ll remain with Graig for as long as he treats her well, then, if all goes well, once he starts abusing her she’ll quickly find a new man to be her protector.

Meantime, our viewpoint character Buddy Millar (our Buddy, not Cheri’s) will move on to a new job. We’re left with the feeling that this time his work will be protected and that his life is looking up from here on in.

Like consent itself, happy endings fall on a continuum.

Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker

“Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker is a short story in five parts, included in various collections. We can read it for free online. The ‘Good Sport’ girl is the grandmother of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Cool Girl’.

When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, our culture had a new phrase to describe the kind of woman who spends her time modifying herself to men’s fantasies: The Cool Girl: Continue reading “Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker”

Why ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Is A Problematic Phrase, Grammatically

A few weeks ago Gillette dominated social media for producing an advertisement criticising what is now more widely known as ‘toxic masculinity’. Many responded negatively to this message, arguing various versions of:

  • Masculinity is not toxic
  • Not all men are toxic
  • Masculinity is wonderful, actually, and needs to be celebrated

Counterarguments largely contained an explanation of what ‘toxic masculinity’ means, or is supposed to mean: That toxic forms of masculinity are toxic.

Though I feel uncomfortable with this part of the phrase myself, I’ll leave aside the etymology of ‘toxic’, and how the scientific definition remains different from the pop psychological usage. That’s a different conversation. ‘Toxic’ in this context means ‘deadly’ at worst, ‘damaging’ at best.

Fast forward a few weeks and Donald Trump Jr. is at a rally. He uses the phrase ‘loser teachers’:

“I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it’s not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth. You don’t have to do it. Because you can think for yourselves. They can’t.”

Note that I’ll also leave aside the various interpretations of ‘socialism’, except for a meme:

socialism never works

Donald Trump Jr’s use of ‘loser teachers’ is an interesting counterexample because ‘toxic masculinity’ is a phrase generally used by progressives, mostly defended by progressives, whereas the phrase ‘loser teachers’ was used by a conservative, and is mostly defended by conservatives.

In case you missed that analog, here is a comment on a post by School Library Journal’s Facebook feed after SLJ posted an article refuting that ‘teachers are losers’. The poster self-identifies as a teacher, but does not consider herself a ‘loser teacher’.

loser teacher

ADJECTIVES, NOUNS AND WORD ORDER

  • ‘Toxic masculinity’
  • ‘Loser teachers’

Both are identical in their construction: An adjective modifying a noun.

There are many ways linguists talk about adjectives, and one major distinction is between ‘attributive’ and ‘predicative’ adjectives. Attributive adjectives are placed before the noun they describe:

  • blue fish
  • tall person
  • swimming dolphins

Predicative adjectives are placed later in the sentence, after a verb.

  • The fish is blue
  • The person, who is tall
  • Those dolphins that were swimming

As you can see, there are various ways of joining an adjective phrase to a noun phrase… when the adjective is in predicative position.

Adjectives in predicative position afford the speaker more nuance. When an adjective comes after the noun in this way, we are able to make use of a comma (in written English) and of pauses + intonation (in spoken English).

This allows us to distinguish between a ‘restrictive’ adjective phrase and a ‘non-restrictive’ adjective phrase.

Restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity which is toxic.

Non-restrictive adjective phrase:

  • We need to get rid of masculinity, which is toxic.

The first sentence, sans comma, conveys the idea that there are various forms of masculinity, but in this case we’re only talking about a certain kind of masculinity — that which is toxic. Subtext: The speaker believes other forms of masculinity are fine.

The second sentence, with a comma, conveys the idea that there is one broad form of masculinity, and that broad category is toxic. Subtext: The speaker doesn’t approve of masculinity in general.

Another useful word is ‘appositive’. An appositive adjective appears right beside the noun it describes. ‘Toxic masculinity’ and ‘loser teachers’ are both appositive adjectives. (These adjectives are also attributive, but attributive adjective phrases can be very long, e.g. super-duper hairy-ass poo-bum twit. Only ‘poo-bum’ is appositive, because it’s right next to the noun it describes.)

Linguists have noticed that appositive adjectives tend to be heard as non-restrictive, whereas relative clauses and prepositional phrases coming after the noun (postnominal PPs) tend to be heard as restrictive.

In other words, when we say ‘toxic masculinity’, the listener is likely to infer that masculinity, in general, is toxic.

When Donald Trump Jr. says ‘loser teachers’, the listener is likely to infer that all teachers, in general, are losers.

This is a feature of language, before personal politics even come into it.

PESKY PRAGMATICS

This chart is a useful breakdown of linguistic fields, which I found somewhere on the net:

linguistic structure

Pragmatics muddy the waters, because unfortunately, people are not computers. No matter how careful we are with our language, the other person (the interlocutor) will bring their life experiences to its interpretation. Sadly for cross-political communication, we interpret a sentence according to information we already possess, or according to politics to which we already subscribe.

When a progressive person hears ‘toxic masculinity’, we expand that in our head to ‘toxic forms of masculinity’. When a conservative hears ‘toxic masculinity’ they expand that in their head to ‘masculinity is toxic’.

When a progressive person hears ‘loser teachers’, we expand that in our head to mean ‘teachers are losers’. When a conservative hears ‘loser teachers’, they might choose to hear ‘specific teachers who also happen to be losers’.

WHAT CAN SPEAKERS DO ABOUT THIS?

Two critical concepts:

  1. If someone says ‘loser teachers’, or ‘toxic masculinity’, or any adjective + noun combo, listeners will interpret that as ‘all nouns are adjective’ unless their existing personal politics intervene. If Donald Trump Jr. did not mean to convey the message that teachers in general are losers, he picked his words badly. (Whether he was indeed speaking of a small sector of teachers is another question, and I remain skeptical.)

Unfortunately for progressive feminists like me, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has the exact same problems, to do with the intersection of syntax and pragmatics. I fully acknowledge there are aspects of masculine indoctrination which need to change, yet I feel the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ shuts down the conversation rather than opens it up. The exact cohort who needs to be talking about these problems only hear ‘all masculinity is bad’, ‘I am bad’, ‘I am ashamed’, ‘I’m not allowed to feel ashamed — the only negative emotion I’m allowed to feel is anger’. That anger is directed back on the speaker. Everyone remains miserable.

The linguistic fix should be an easy one: We could replace ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘toxic forms of masculinity’.

2. Unfortunately this rubs up against another universal fact about human language and its evolution — speakers convey ideas using the fewest words possible. But when aiming to persuade, good communicators will occasionally resist this tendency to abbreviate and condense. Sometimes, briefer is not better. ‘Toxic forms of masculinity’ may seem wordy, but is a better place to begin the conversation. As for ‘losers’? Donald Trump Jr. is right. It does seem America’s teachers are losing out. But calling anyone a ‘loser’ is a very broad, deliberate insult, and nothing good can come of it.

The Contest by Annie Proulx

THE CONTEST ANNIE PROULX

‘The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.

Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).

“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.

STORYWORLD OF “THE CONTEST”

This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.

Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.

The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.

The A.V. Club review

There’s a definite magic realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”

Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.

Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”

The structure is very interesting. I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singular (But on this particular day…).

Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.

But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.

Here’s where it switches over:

On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.

It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.

Unless we know this town, the singular portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.

The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their weakness is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.

Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.

The Observer review of Bad Dirt

This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon.

DESIRE

The men want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)

OPPONENT

In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.

But the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The real opposition is between country bumpkins and a sophisticated blow-in.

PLAN

There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. Just hang around waiting for it to grow. And how does one turn that into a fully-fleshed story?

Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.

A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.

But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.

BATTLE

The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.

The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.

“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didnt’ tell me about it before he went.”

SELF-REVELATION

Part of the humour revolves around the observation (revelation) that it takes outside intrusion to band a community together. Otherwise they’ll just keep fighting each other.

 NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.

Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.

Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.

 

TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS

  • If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
  • If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
  • Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.

Storytelling in Apple’s Advertisement “Share Your Gifts”

“Share Your Gifts” is an Apple commercial.

Classic story structure can be found in anything, from songs to narrative poems to advertising campaigns. Compared to when I grew up with free-to-air television only, and a commercial radio station that was always on, I’m rarely exposed to advertising these days. I use an adblocker and we pay to stream ad-free TV.  My husband convinced me to move to Canberra, sight unseen, after telling me that Canberra has a by-law which bans billboards. I was sold.

We’re all avoiding commercials these days, right? But when I do see one, it seems corporations have lifted their advertising game.

Apple’s 2018 Christmas advertising campaign is something I might even watch for fun, despite the ostentatious use of Apple products. I may not have even picked it as a commercial, since filmmakers get free Apple products by showing unrealistic numbers of Apple computers in their stories (which I deduce is how we get TV accountants using Macs, even though accountants would more realistically be using PCs.)

Last week, Apple revealed one of its biggest marketing secrets in federal court: The company relies heavily on free product placement in television shows and movies.And Apple has a fascinating history of product placement, which it doesn’t like to talk about.

Business Insider

STORY STRUCTURE OF SHARE YOUR GIFTS

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The main character (a woman in an oversized red jersey) is too afraid to show her creative work. Her psychological weakness is underscored by the lyrics of the soundtrack, “Come Out And Play” by Billy Eilish:

Hmm, hmm
Wake up and smell the coffee
Is your cup half full or empty?
When we talk, you say it softly
But I love it when you’re awfully quiet
Hmm, hmm quiet
Hmm, hmm
You see a piece of paper
Could be a little greater
Show me what you could make her
You’ll never know until you try it
Hmm, hmm
And you don’t have to keep it quiet
And I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say, but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and play
Look up, out of your window
See snow, won’t let it in though
Leave home, feel the wind blow
‘Cause it’s colder here inside in silence
You don’t have to keep it quiet
Yeah, I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and play

DESIRE

Sophia wants human connection, and to be seen and recognised for her work, but her fear is holding her back from really connecting with others via her art.

How do we know this?

Mostly because fear of showing your creative work is a fairly universal feeling among creatives. But also because of her disappointment in herself. If she didn’t want to share her work with others, she would be able to take joy in the act of creating it, without the subsequent burden of self-criticism.

OPPONENT

This is a classic example of a story in which the main character is her own worst enemy. The only thing holding her back is her own lack of confidence.

But stories still require some other opposition, even if it’s functioning as a proxy, or a visual outworking, of the character’s own neuroses.

Here we have a dog, who wants to see her owner’s work but isn’t allowed.

Then we have the wind, opposition from the natural world, which eventually blows the papers away.

PLAN

Sophia’s plan is a non-plan — she is the classic passive hero who is forced out of her comfort zone. She literally ties down her creative work in a box.

BATTLE

The wind blows the papers out of her hands and into the wild, where she is likely to be judged.

SELF-REVELATION

Since the wind blows the creative work right into the hands of people who will appreciate them, the wind is revealed to be a false opponent ally.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In something this short, there’s no time for a lengthy New Equilibrium phase, so we extrapolate that from now on this woman will not be afraid to show her work to others, and that she will be happier as a result.

 

As part of this campaign, Apple shared a ‘behind the scenes’ video, in which we learn — of course — that Apple computers were used in the making of it. Billie Eilish also made a video showing how she uses a Mac to make music.

It seems to me the main message Apple wants to push is that ‘making use of computers as part of your creative process does not remove the hand of the creator’. I’m guessing that’s why they paid a team of fabricators to create an actual set, rather than create the world itself on a computer.