“The Falls” (1996) is a short story by American writer George Saunders. Two men walk along a river and face a moral dilemma. Should one risk one’s own life in the hope of saving two drowning girls?
Will Macken discussed this story with Deborah Treisman in December of 2021, on the New Yorker Fiction podcast.
Saunders allows readers to get to know two characters. Then he throws them into the same emotionally fraught reaction and shows us how they react.New Yorker Fiction podcast
The title is multivalent:
- The literal meaning of ‘falls’ meaning ‘waterfall’.
- The graceless jump into the river
- The potential fall from grace if rescue is not attempted
SETTING OF “THE FALLS”
Half an hour or so
As a non-American myself, this discussion alerts me to extra meaning specific to a USA context. This, for example:
There’s a disconnect between how the interior monologue of Morse presents himself to the reader as a hapless individual without material resources, yet another character describes him completely differently, as a member of the power elite. Macken points out that right wing culture will often characterise left wing culture as the power elite. Cummings can’t see the world for what it is, and is an example of someone so set in their convictions he’s a wacko.New Yorker Fiction podcast
(I hadn’t noticed that the right commonly describe the left in this way even when the right wield the real power, though now I’m alerted to it, manifested so clearly in America, I’m sure this is true of Australia, too.)
Throughout the story, every time Morse starts to become maudlin and bitter he pulls himself back into more positive thinking.
(This, too, feels specifically American to me, as outlined by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Smile or Die.)
The school sat among maples on a hillside that sloped down to the wide Taganac River, which narrowed and picked up speed and crashed over Bryce Falls a mile downstream near Morse’s small rental house, actually, which nevertheless was the best he could do and for which he knew he should be grateful…with the crooked little blue shack covered with peeling lead paint“The Falls” by George Saunders
Saunders himself is Catholic school educated, which partly explains why the story opens with a middle-aged man crossing the St. Jude grounds ‘just as the school was being dismissed.’
The neighbourhood seems like a gentrified suburban utopia but also contains this immense danger: the waterfall.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT
Morse rents a cheap house in an area with expensive houses set along a river. This sets up a deep-level conflict between haves and have-nots. To live in the worst house on a good street feels worse than living in an even worse house which is nevertheless the best house on the worst street.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE FALLS”
The author had said that this story is atypical for him. This isn’t Saunders’ usual way of structuring a story.
A man called Morse walks through school grounds wondering if people think he’s a weirdo or some pervert. Behind him on the path he sees another man, who he considers a weirdo. Cummings doesn’t acknowledge him. Morse worries why not. Morse goes home to greet his exuberant young kids and be chided by his wife for wanting a moment of peace after his hard day at work.
The point of view switches to the ‘odd duck’, Cummings, who sees himself as as struggling genius. He despises Morse, who he considers a ‘smug member of the power elite’. In contrast to Morse, who worries constantly about what others think of him, Cummings is followed by an Imaginary Audience, and an imaginary interviewer who listens to his opinions and gives them importance. Cummings is a faux-intellectual character who reminds me of some of the men who populate the Modernist short stories of Katherine Mansfield, back when young men from families of means enjoyed years of tertiary education before turning into professional flaneurs. We are not surprised to learn that Cummings considers himself a writer. He imagines he’ll be remembered long after his death, having lived life as a nobody, F. Scott Fitzgerald style.
Struggling financially because of the declining popularity of his works amid the Great Depression, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood where he embarked upon an unsuccessful career as a screenwriter. While living in Hollywood, he cohabited with columnist Sheilah Graham, his final companion before his death. After a long struggle with alcoholism, he attained sobriety only to die of a heart attack in 1940, at 44.F. Scott Fitzgerald entry at Wikipedia
Although Cummings considers himself a writer, out on an idea-gathering walk in the park, his thoughts are far more concerned with finding fame and admiration than on creating an actual work of art. Cummings is a pathetic figure.
The point of view switches back to Morse, who describes the gentrified/hipster neighbourhood and high-school boys playing soccer. The boys intimidate him simply by their presence. They remind him of his own high school years in which he painted his ass blue to gain admission to a club. There was no such initiation, and the ‘friends’ took photos and showed them to his prom date (now his wife). That year, one of the boys tried to swim to Foley’s Snag and died after being swept over the Falls one night. In the moment, two red-headed girls sail by in a green canoe. They call something to him and Morse doesn’t hear. This sends him into one of his thought-spirals in which he imagines entire arguments. However, he is cognizant of himself doing this and is able to pull himself out. He reflects on his very ordinary life working at a company called Blascorp, which reminds me of the fictional Initech corporation of Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999).
This section ends with a cliffhanger: The two red-headed girls are speeding towards the Falls and they don’t have oars.
Back to Cummings, who is strolling along contemplating the imagery of trees, his mother who spilled grape pop on his masterpiece and so on. He considers himself lucky not to be Morse, living the little boxes made of ticky-tacky life. He fantasises about attracting a beautiful girlfriend. He rounds the corner, ‘euphoric with his own possibilities’ and sees the girls in the canoe, who are now screaming. Their faces are bloodied. He thinks he should do something, but first freezes, then looks for help but finds ‘only a farm field of tall dry corn’, which is obviously a metaphor (but for what?)
Whereas Cummings has frozen, Morse is running. He tries to persuade himself why he shouldn’t risk his own life to save these two girls but ultimately fails. He dives in.
Morse: The name of a code often used by people in distress. Also a shortening of ‘remorse’. For me the name feels like a blend of ‘mouse’ and horse’, especially after reading the thumbnail character description, in which he is ‘tall and thin and as gray and sepulchral as a church about to be condemned’.
Once Morse is established, as a highly self-conscious, awkward, self-effacing character, we meet Aldo Cummings, through Morse’s eyes. Cummings is ‘an odd duck who, though nearly forty, still lived with his mother. Cummings didn’t work and had his bangs cut straight across and wore gym shorts even in the dead of winter.’
On the surface, Morse has everything he needs already: A wife (Ruth) and two children (Robert who plays piano, and Annie, who eats cardboard pianos), a place to live.
Morse can’t understand his own desire to be liked by the odd duck Aldo Cummings, but he needs to be liked and acknowledged by everyone, and he doesn’t like to think he’s caused offence.
One way to create empathy for a main character: Give them an unpleasant or demanding spouse. Very often with male characters, the wife is a ‘nag’. When we first meet Ruth:
Ruth came out to remind him in an angry tone that he wasn’t the only one who’d worked all day.“The Falls” by George Saunders
Bear in mind, Morse has got home from work and requires ‘a few minutes of centred breathing’, which a mother with children doesn’t get. Ruth, too, has been working all day, in the unpaid labour of keeping house and parenting. Unlike Morse, I doubt Ruth has had time to take a pleasant walk.
Men take time from female partners for exercise, Australian study finds: Men’s longer hours of paid work ‘buy’ them less family work and more time to be healthy than women, researchers say.
Although it falls back upon the reader to be fair to Ruth and not feel too sorry for Morse, I remain suspicious of all these fictional wives, introduced in stories as demanding. The creators of Breaking Bad did the same to Skyler White in the pilot, then opined later about how viewers were so mean about her, and how viewers should investigate their own biases rather than blame the way the story is written… No. I, personally, am tired of male writers introducing wives in this way. The first thing we learn about a character carries the most weight. First impressions, readers are like ducklings, etc.
Treisman and Macken point out that Cummings is essential to the story, so that Morse has ‘that other pole to work against’. I would say more simply that Cummings is essential to the story because every story requires an opponent, and in this story, that happens to be two men, each weirdos in their own way.
Traditionally, story opponents ‘want different things’, or they want the same thing but only one of them can have it.
Here, the opposition works a little differently.
As said on the podcast, each man has a different level of ambition. Morse wants only enough to take care of his family.
Morse wishes he could be someone who had done great things but knows he doesn’t have it in him. Cummings has delusions of grandeur.
Cummings is not of the material world. He turns everything into an image or metaphor. He tries to squeeze dramatic juice out of everything (the fat cloud over the bridge). Morse has concrete things happen to him, which drags us towards a concrete ending.New Yorker Fiction podcast
As mentioned on the podcast, Saunders encourages the reader to see both men with compassion. Importantly, Morse does view Cummings with some compassion. That adds a dimension to this character.
At the same time, Saunders makes jokes about his characters, often at their expense. He does this by including ridiculous details: Forgetting his son’s birthday invitations and coming close to putting a pony on Visa, for instance, and the high school memory in which Morse was tricked into painting his ass blue.
Two men were only hoping to go for a quiet walk.
Serving as story climax, Saunders sets up a take on the old first-year philosophy student Trolley Dilemma, which asks, “Would you kill one person to save five?” The scenario involves a ‘trolley’ (not a supermarket trolley, as I would say in my dialect) but more like a tram.
Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.
As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.
However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.
So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?The Conversation
Saunders changes it up for this story. In the Trolley Dilemma, the one person sacrificed is the hypothetical lone worker. Here, that one person is each man himself. Do they themselves, try to save the girls or stand by and let nature take its course?
DOES HE ATTEMPT A RESCUE?
Readers get the answer.
Via the internal musings of Morse, we understand he already considers himself the hero of the story. He’s not the girls’ father, he’s not Christ, he’s needed at home.
Yet he dives in anyway.
THE CHARACTER ARCS
This is the part of the story where we learn if the main characters have changed and, if so, how much?
Cummings has more energy than Morse, but also runs up against the dry field of corn. That’s the end of his moral dilemma. Morse throws his long body out over the water. Morse succeeds in escaping himself and what’s in his head, sacrificing himself for the two girls in the canoe.
By the time Morse dives in, he is no longer concerned about how other people see him.
THE MORALITY EPIPHANY
We can end this story in Aesopian fashion: The man who considers himself exceptional will fail when true bravery is required. True courage requires humility.
Early in the story Morse distracts himself by singing Stars and Stripes Forever and slapping his legs. This off image of the patriotic seems connected somehow to the ending. If you’re reading for plot you don’t get the ending. You get a mystery instead. (No hermeneutic closure.) Maybe the girls die. Maybe Cummings dives in too. Anything could happen. However, this story isn’t about whether the girls live or die, but about who rose to the occasion.
Likewise, Alice Munro’s short stories sometimes build around a central crime (e.g. “Free Radicals“), but Munro’s stories are not crime stories per se. Interest does not revolve around who committed the crime and how they are found and punished. Instead, crimes and disasters can be used in story to reveal character.
I feel “The Falls” by George Saunders addresses specifically masculine concerns. The ending is completely in line with these specific rules of masculinity, in which masculinity is so much at stake that to lose it by failing to rise to an occasion to save someone — young girls, no less — would be a death in itself. The rules of masculinity are so strict that to not attempt rescue jeopardises a family man’s entire life. He imagines his wife would take the kids and leave. By the time Morse has dived in to attempt rescue, he isn’t making a choice. The rules of manhood make the decision for him, propelling him towards his fate.
To me, it’s inconceivable that Morse doesn’t die. This attempted rescue will be the one important thing for which he is remembered. A story in which a mediocre man attempts a daring rescue would be entirely in line with various other juxtapositions presented all through the story.
THE POTOMAC DISASTER AND BYSTANDER MERGING
Mackin and Treisman both mention the Potomac, referring to the 1982 air disaster of Air Florida Flight 90 which attempted to get out of Washington National Airport but slammed into the 14th Street Bridge before crashing through ice into the Potomac River. (This happened due to a series of pilot errors.)
“The Falls” contains elements of that particular disaster because of the daring rescues that local news crews captured on camera, because they happened to be there at the time. A National Park Service helicopter flown by Don Usher was involved in the rescue of people in the water, as well as bystanders on shore. Passengers helped each other. One passenger, Arland D. Williams Jr., died while trying to rescue others. The bridge is now named after him. One bystander, Lenny Skutnik, was successful, later invited by the President to the State of the Union address.
For more on The Potomac Air Disaster, watch Seconds from Disaster, Season 3, Episode 6.
Treisman mentions a Saunders interview. After Saunders had written “The Falls” he read an article. (Notably, he read this afterwards, so it did not inform the story.) Saunders read that if someone sees someone in distress, a phenomenon can happen in which bystander and distressed person merge. To the bystander, it feels as if they themselves are in peril. The self momentarily disappears. The article cited rescuers who lived to tell the tale after rescuing people drowning in the Potomac crash.
There are essentially two perspectives on altruistic acts: self-interest (egoistic) and selfless (altruistic).
The egoistic perspective, defined by Psychological Egoism and rooted in the Theory of Universal Egoism, states that every action has an underlying self-interested or self-benefiting motive that drives the action itself. And this isn’t necessarily always explicit or conscious. Within the realm of altruistic acts, the egoistic perspective argues that we help others not because we are innately selfless, good people, but because we have something to gain from it (could be subconscious, shaping our behavior without us being aware of it). For instance, we “selflessly” help a stranger because the action makes us feel good about ourselves, or increases our self-esteem and self-image, or impresses those around us, filling our need for attention or respect, or simply because we want to gain the person’s favor for future purposes.The Brain Bunch
WHAT THE STATS ON BYSTANDER RESCUES?
I wondered what percentage of drowning rescues are successful, when the bystander is not a professionally trained rescuer. I found a Turkish study from 2021:
- The drowning person was rescued exactly one third of the time. (33%)
- But in 46% of Turkish cases, there were multiple drowning fatalities (say, the primary drowning person and the rescuer both died).
- Conditions in favour of successful rescue: beach/sea rescues, while swimming, during summer.
- Attempted rescues that happened on weekdays rather than weekend was twice as likely to fail.
- Of the bystander rescuers who drowned, 90% were male.
Likewise, a 2020 Australian study found that the vast majority of bystander rescuer drownings happen to men (81%). Most are attempting to rescue a family member or friend under the age of 18. In Australia, beaches are the site of a higher percentage of drownings. However, a much higher proportion of Australian bystander rescues are successful. (93% according to a 2012 study.)
What does this mean for an American context? Australian rescues are more successful because of a strong swimming culture in this country, so unless Morse has a fairly strong swimming background, I don’t like his chances.
Also, this fictional rescue isn’t a swimming incident, but a kayaking incident. It does not take place at the beach, where there are specific manoeuvres that can be learned to get people back to shore. (Swim out of the current along the beach and then back to shore at an angle following the breaking waves. Mainly, don’t panic, because a rip can’t pull you under.)