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Category: Short Story Study (page 1 of 8)

The Juniper Tree by Lorrie Moore

“The Juniper Tree” is a short ghost story by American writer Lorrie Moore, published in the collection Bark (2014). Or is it a ghost story? I interpret this story as a metaphor for the death of middle-aged friendship, and the mourning process one goes through when deciding to let a friend go.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE JUNIPER TREE

LITERAL INTERPRETATION: A friend dies of cancer in hospital. Our narrator meant to visit but never did. Two other friends rope her into a visit to the dead woman’s house. They see her ghost and everything is quite uncomfortable as the narrator is out of the loop. Our narrator remembers the last time she saw her dead friend in good health — they had a minor clash over a man. The dead friend slaps a pie in her own face to lighten the situation but our narrator is not amused. She decides she needs to go to more conferences to meet new friends.

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: This is a story about the end of a friendship. The first cracks appeared when the two women found themselves dating the same man (not at the same time — it’s a small dating pool in this town). A frank remark about the man’s infidelity lengthens the crack. When our narrator says a premature goodbye after dinner, they are no longer firm friends. Narrator realises she does not want friends who do wacky things like throw a pie in their face for shits and giggles. (I see this as a failed attempt on the part of the dying friend, to lighten the mood.) Narrator deals with the end of the friendship by imagining the friend has actually died. Inspired by the ghostly image of her white-faced (merengue covered) former friend, the ‘dead’ woman morphs into a ghost. Narrator never really put a firm end to the friendship. She meant to keep nurturing it, but made excuses and now she hasn’t visited her in hospital and next thing she’s dead. This scene with the ghost is the narrator’s conscience reminding her that friends are actually few and far between and friendships need nurturing. She imagines visiting this dead friend with two other former friends — each with their own major flaws — one is missing an arm, the other is mentally ill. These are external manifestations of psychological problems which our narrator has decided not to bother with, consequently cutting them loose. By the end of the story our narrator has said her goodbyes to these former friends, psychologically preparing herself to move on to new ones.

The title is therefore ironic. The Juniper tree symbolises rejuvenation, healing and longevity, yet this is a story about death.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE JUNIPER TREE FAIRY TALE

“The Juniper Tree” is also one of the darker fairy tales collected by the Grimms, which includes murder, guilt transferred onto a loved daughter and accidental cannibalism. Does that have anything to do with this? While the plots are different, the stories share certain images and emotions:

  • Whiteness. The fairy tale is white noir, with the white of the snow. Moore’s short story has the white of a meringue and therefore the ghostly white face of the dead.
  • The fairy tale features a decapitated boy, whose head stays on with the help of a scarf. Moore uses this imagery.
  • Both stories feature jealously. The fairytale is about a second wife whereas Moore’s story is about a subsequent girlfriend.
  • In the fairy tale the second wife hates the first born son because he will inherit all her husband’s wealth, according to the customs of the day. (Dealing with primogeniture is a common reason for female ‘evil’ in fairy tales.) In Moore’s story, we see the narrator give birth to some misdirected hatred as she begins to come to terms with her boyfriend’s philandering, expecting fidelity. (This is common in contemporary tales.)
  • Both stories include a woman hearing voices that are not her own.
  • Both stories end with grief and sorrow disappearing. Both are stories of catharsis.
  • Both tales are about dark feelings. If we indulge in these dark emotions, bad things will happen. In Moore’s short story we have a woman who is likely to end up lonely.
  • Both stories feature singers, and the singers trade. In the fairytale, typical fairytale treasures are traded, whereas in Moore’s story we have friends being traded.
  • Structurally, both stories have two distinct parts. The fairytale seems to begin an entirely new narrative arc once the bird flies away. Moore’s story features two main scenes: The encounter with the ghost and the final supper before the friend dies.

Lorrie Moore has said in interviews that short story collections based around a theme feel contrived, so I extrapolate that a modern short story hewing too closely to a fairytale would seem similarly contrived to this writer. Moore’s ‘retelling’ of “The Juniper Tree” is therefore an excellent case study for short story writers who are interested in taking flashes of imagery from a classic; we are free to use as little as we like.

 

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Short Story Study

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948) is an excellent example of a short story which contains so much you might as well have read a novel. What can writers learn from this story?

STORY WORLD OF THE LOTTERY

Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. As I re-read this in 2017, I’m thinking of what’s going on right now in Australian politics as citizens vote whether or not to afford marriage equality to all.

SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION

The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

This is a ‘storybook village’, replete with a square, a post office, a bank. I’m not sure readers of 1948 would have seen this village as particularly cosy. Certainly by 2017 any village with all of those amenities still in operation feels like an island of convenience. We are told the population of this village is about 300 people. I live in a village of 3000 people, so I am confident everyone here knows everyone else. It is clear Jackson wants this village to feel cosy… at first.

Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.

The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers

(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)

SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX

The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

FEMINIST MESSAGES

The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner.  The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?

Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.

This outcome, says Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOTTERY

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.

The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.

DESIRE

The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.

OPPONENT

Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:

  • The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
  • “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
  • “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
  • Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.

PLAN

They will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.

BATTLE

The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.

This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:

  • Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
  • “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
  • “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
  • “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.

There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

SELF-REVELATION

The village has no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.

  • Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
  • The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.

 

RELATED READING

The Lottery is a cultural influence on more modern works such as Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.

As for story structure, The Last Spin by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.

11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss

Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“Brokeback Mountain” is a heart-wrenching short story in part because of its density and one-sitting experience. This is an amazing feat. I mean, it’s so short, right? Normally you need the build-up of an entire novel to induce such strong reactions in readers. Or at least the soundtrack, cinematography and expert acting of a film. Annie Proulx’s short stories have the wordcount of short stories but the emotional resonance of epics.

Brokeback Mountain

You can no longer buy a Brokeback Mountain collection without being reminded that there is also a film adaptation.

 

“Brokeback Mountain” was published in the New Yorker in 1997, but came to most people’s attention in 2005 when it was adapted for screen and won critical acclaim.

Read the full text at The New Yorker. Continue reading

55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literatureedited by Stéphanie Durrans

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her weakness is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s weaknesses are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort of kind of knows her husband is the local mass murderer.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

BATTLE

Rather than a battle this story gives us the aftermath of a battle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps.

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming

“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.

the governors of wyoming is set in a place like this

WADE WALLS

Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.

Renti – female, chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style. Continue reading

A Lonely Coast by Annie Proulx

"A Lonely Coast" involves a dark highway drive along a dark highway such as this

The first thing that feels different about “A Lonely Coast” in the Close Range collection by Annie Proulx is the voice. It’s written in second person, then switches to first in the second paragraph. The previous stories were all written by a third-person unseen narrator with an intimate knowledge of the milieu and deep understanding of character. Immediately I am wondering: Why has Proulx chosen first-person for this one? Also: do we have an unreliable narrator on our hands? Of course, all first person narration is on the ‘unreliable continuum’. But since Proulx normally writes in third, I suggest a good reason for the switch up.

STORYWORLD OF “A LONELY COAST”

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Annie Proulx’s “A Pair A Spurs”

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

STORY WORLD

SURROUNDING CULTURE

Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:

The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?

This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.

Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named. Continue reading

Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the storyworld seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

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People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water by Annie Proulx

“People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water”: When it comes to neighbours who’ve been through terrible hardship, no one asks all that much of you. You’re not going to fix their problems, but you can extend just a little kindness and that’ll go a long way.

This is another story about a community rather than an individual. These stories tend to say something about how communities work, treating these groups of people as a flawed individual. I see what people mean when they call Annie Proulx ‘deterministic’. If an individual hero has some choice in how s/he acts, a community is not a sentient being — once a certain social group has been formed, things must take their course. I am feeling that way lately about the state of politics. We’re entering a new age of right-wing horribleness, and there doesn’t seem much we can do about it until ‘things have taken their course’. The best I’m hoping for in 2017 is that this far right thinking will swing back hard the other way, afterwards. After what? I don’t know.

STORY WORLD OF “PEOPLE IN HELL JUST WANT A DRINK OF WATER”

The term ‘geographical determinism’ is the full phrase used to describe the work of Annie Proulx. Alex Hunt explains what that means in The Geographical Imagination Of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism. It occurs when a text retains elements of local colour fiction but the characters are limited by the surrounding geography and climate. It’s sometimes known as ‘environmental determinism.’

Determinism was popular with geographers in the early decades of the 20th century (when this story is set) but fell out of favour because it became linked to justifications for imperialism and racism. Jared Diamond, who in 1997 wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel did a lot to restart the conversation about determinism and basically made it okay to talk about that again. Annie Proulx was of course writing these Wyoming stories at this exact time. There must have been some sort of zeitgeist. Now it is okay to look again at the ways in which a physical environment (climate, natural resources, disease, plagues) shape individuals and cultures.

You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country – indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky – provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut. Continue reading

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.

Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.

STORY WORLD OF “THE BLOOD BAY”

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