College English / Literature: Lecture Six

Listen. A guy gets sent to jail for life. They put him in a cell with another lifer and after a while he hears someone down the hall yell "Thirty-seven!" and everyone else in the cell block laughs. Then another guy yells "Fifteen!" and everyone laughs again. And a short while later, someone else yells "Twenty-Two!" and again, everyone laughs.

Finally, he turns to his cellmate and asks him "What's with the numbers? Somebody yells a number and everyone laughs. What's the deal?"

"Oh that" the cellmate replies. "It's jokes. You see, we're all lifers here and we've told every joke we know so often that we finally just gave each one a number. Now, we just call out the number and everyone knows what joke that is."

The guy laughs. "Pretty clever," he says. "O.K. if I try one?"

"Be my guest."

"Fourteen!" the guy yells, but there's nothing. Not even a snicker.




And still nothing. So the guy turns to his cellmate. "What's going on?" he sasks.

The cellmate shurgs. "Beats me," he says. "But you know how it is--some people can tell a joke and...some can't."

The point of this--at least MY point--is just what it says. Some people can tell a joke, or tell a story, and some can't. Of course, with jokes, it's all in the timing. With stories, it's another matter. I believe that people can be taught how to write a good story--maybe not a great story, but a good one. And as you move through this course I'm hoping you'll learn the difference.

Before we go any further, I want to make sure that you've read the stories in the reading list through the sixth one, Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums." That's one of my favorites. I've probably read it 100 times and I cannot find a single flaw. There's nothing irrelevant in it anywhere, nothing that could be changed without weakening it. But I'll probably make references to the earlier stories, since language is such an important element.

What the Writer Does NOT Say
That's just as important as what he DOES say. Part of making a story work well is in leaving things to the reader to figure out. A good writer does not want to be obvious. I believe it was Earle Stanlet Gardener, creator of the Ellery Queen character and a long list of great mystery/detective novels, who said that he believed the ultimate murder ystery is a book where no one can figure out who the killer is, but when it's revealed, the reader says "Of course!" The trick to that is to put in just enough information that the readers don't feel like you've kept something from them, but enough so they accept the resolution as making complete sense. So...the writer has to decide just how much to say.

Speaking Metaphorically
Back to the joke. Have you ever been in a group of people where someone told a joke and everyone laughed except you? And if you're really obvious about it, you say "I don't get it." Well, that may be what happens when yu read some stories, but you're spared the embarassment of the "I don't get it" because there's no one else around. [Of course, you might have a similar reaction of someone responds to your on-line story comments by remarking that you missed the point.]

The Chrysanthemums happens (and was written in) the thirties. In those days, farm families were not uncommon. And farm families included kids. (There wasn't much in the way of birth control then.) But there are none on Henry and Elisa's farm. A reader in those days would have noticed that. It's significant.

The Chrysanthemums is a good example of how the writer gives you just enough to figure out what's going on. You have to see that the Tinker is a liar whose only interest is in getting a pot from Elisa and you have to see that Elisa is taken in by him. More importantly, you have to see what's going on in a scene like this:

Elisa is sexually frustrated. Do you see that? Steinbeck never says it, but he lets Elisa words and actions speak in a way that makes it clear. "the stars are rise up and up...Every pointed star gets driven into your body...Hot and sharp and...lovely." It's pretty erotic, and yet she just talkng about sleeping under the stars. But just in case you miss that, Steinbeck adds the action of her reaching out to touch him, and then describes her next action as "crouched low like a fawning dog."

If you didn't see any of that when you read the story, don't feel bad. I'd say 25% of my students don't get it until I point it out to them. Perhaps they don't read well, since a lot of the understanding comes from the "sound" of it. Things like breaks in the wording and exclamation points are directions for the reader. Steinbeck uses the breaks in the wording to make you pause and the exclamatin points for emphasis. Say this outloud: You rise up and up. And then say it with the exclamatin point: You rise up and up! if you don't hear a difference, you may have a reading problem and that's going to cause you some difficulty in this course--(it probably has already).

Speaking Symbolically
I titled the previous section "Speaking Metaphorically" because that's what you call this kind of thing. The major metaphor in this story is the Chrysanthemums themselves. They're Lisa's "babies." She says "You can raise them from seed, but it's much easier to root the little sprouts..." and later she offers to help Henry "I've a gift with things all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters' hands that knew how to do it." This establishes the flowers as a symbol, another kind of metaphor. Once the writer establishes something as a symbol, he can use it to tell us things without having to say it directly. Thus, at the end of the story when Elisa sees flowers dumped at the side of the road she doesn't start to cry just because she lost her pot or because the Tinker lied to her. She's also suffering sorrow from an awareness, even if it's not conscious, that she cannot have children. That's why "she was crying an old woman." Old women can't have children.

Now, you may be asking yourself, what's the advantage to all of this? Why shouldn't the writer come straight out and tell us these things? Why beat around the bush?

Wait a minute. Did I say "beat around the bush?" Why didn't I just say "be indirect?" That's what I meant, isn't it? Well, yes it is. But if you stop to look at that expression, and the thousands of others like it, you may begin to understand this literary element and the fact that people are rarely able to say anything straight out. We nearly always speak in some kind of metaphor, using symbols rather than the real thing. And the more sensitive the subject, the more we "beat around the bush."

For example, when your closest friend's mother died, would you go up to her and say, "I heard that your mother is dead." Not likely, unless you're a really insensitive clot. More than likely you'd use a metaphor. "I heard that your mother passed way," is better. But why? Is it because that's what everyone says? No. It's because the metaphor eases the blow (and that's a metaphor too).

Metaphors and symbols are the part of our language that keeps us in touch with our emotions. Try talking for a day without metphors or symbols. It's not easy. Understanding what the metaphors and symbols mean--that's the key to understanding what's really going on.

Now...go and read...carefully.

Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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