Strolling Through a Story: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Hiltons’ Holiday” (1895)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story free.

(A quick note: It is currently December 2018. I wrote this essay back in March 2015 but never published it. For reasons many and various, my blogging dwindled from that time until now. I’m back at it, with several more essays written in that first half of 2015 that will be posted in the coming weeks.)

It is a common assertion among fiction writers that there must be conflict if one dares to write a story. Generally, I agree with this assertion, but it doesn’t always have to be true. Art reaffirms life, and life is not always about conflict. Depending on when and where one grows up, life is more often about simple moments and enjoyable exploration. In her short story, “The Hiltons’ Holiday,” Sarah Orne Jewett demonstrates how a story can be a gentle stroll, rather than a tense clash of values. Yet, despite lacking a plot and a central conflict, it is nevertheless engaging.

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Source: Wikipedia

As plotless as a story can be, “The Hiltons’ Holiday” is, in a sense, nothing more than the title suggests: John Hilton and his daughters go on a holiday. The Hiltons are farmers, including John Hilton, his wife, and his two daughters, Katy and Sarah Ellen. John and his wife sit on their porch one evening talking about their daughters, who are at the new schoolteacher’s home for a fun gathering. John says he wants his daughters to see more of the world than just the farm: “I want ‘em to know the world, an’ not stay right here on the farm like a couple o’ bushes” (Jewett 148). He wants to take them to the nearby town of Topham for a day so they can see a slice of the larger world. His wife agrees and they make plans for the next day. John takes his daughters into town. Along the 17-mile road they traverse via horse-and-wagon, John stops and talks with several neighbors. This makes the girls anxious to get to town, yet the journey itself is exciting: “[Katy] liked to see the strange houses, and the children who belonged to them; it was delightful to find flowers that she knew growing all along the road, no matter how far she went from home” (152). Finally, they arrive in town. They meet old Judge Masterson, a friend of John’s mother when they were children. Meeting a man whom their own father regards highly, the girls are awed. Again, for Katy it is a memorable experience: “For the first time in her life the child had felt the charm of manners; perhaps she owned a kinship between that which made him what he was and the spark of nobleness and purity in her own simple soul” (155). Afterward, the Hiltons visit another friend of John’s, they pick flowers, and they buy candy and a new hat for John in local stores, all of them feeling that “[i]t was a famous day” (155). They return home and regale John’s wife—the daughters’ mother—with tales of the holiday, and the story ends, simply, with life moving on with a pleasant memory behind them and the hope of an exciting future ahead. The story is as plotless and without conflict as any story can be. Yet it is thrilling. How did Jewett make it so?

To answer that question, it is important that we identify this story as what it is, a milieu story. Science fiction and fantasy author Orson Scott Card encourages writers to use the “MICE quotient” to determine what kind of story they will write: Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event (76). All of these types of stories will include elements of the other, but will focus chiefly on the chosen type. A character story, therefore, shows a character’s development, and other elements like ideas or events are designed around that central aspect of the story. If the story is about an event, then the purpose of characters is not necessarily to change (though they might), but to be eyes and ears through which readers can experience the event. A milieu story, however, is not so often used in literary fiction. This story structure focuses on the world of the story: the land, the people, the laws, the culture, etc. A reader wanders through the world for no other reason than to be amazed. Fantasy writers often use this technique. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is a milieu story: most of the trilogy is about the characters simply seeing amazing things. The conflict, character development, and events are important and well handled, but the chief purpose of the story is to explore the milieu of Middle Earth. On a far less epic, but no less valid, scale, Jewett hands us a milieu story in “The Hiltons’ Holiday.”

Remember, this story occurs in the late 1800s when Americans were still taming the Wild West. The Hiltons might be farmers who acquired land via the Homestead Act: “Each small homestead looked its best and pleasantest” (Jewett 152). Topham Corners might be one of the many railroad towns that sprung up after the end of the Civil War, where “corners” suggests that several roads lead to it from rural farms. Several pages of the story are dedicated to describing the sights, sounds, smells, and people that the Hiltons encounter during their holiday in Topham Corners: “In the chief business street of Topham a great many country wagons like the Hiltons’ were fastened to posts, and there seemed to our holiday-makers to be a great deal of noise and excitement” (155). It is a town bustling with activity, but does this mean the story is without conflict?

In a structural sense, yes, there is absolutely no conflict in the story. In an historical sense, however, no: consider what it takes for these farmers to take a holiday. Consider John’s thoughts on the matter, even though it was his idea: “The magnitude of the plan for taking a whole day of pleasure confronted him seriously” (Jewett 150). Before they left, John awoke before five in the morning and milked the cows, at the very least taking care of that chore. Then he comes up with at least three “excuses” to go into town: get a new straw hat, buy a new farm hoe, and buy some turnip seeds for planting. Finally, the Hiltons must journey 17 miles over dirt trails via horse and wagon, a time-consuming part of their day; of course, later, they must also travel 17 miles home. So, the underlying conflict of this story is easy to forget, but important to remember: it was no simple thing back then to take a holiday. But John felt it was important for his daughters. Though they might be content on the farm, he says, “I don’t know’s bein’ contented is all there is to look for in a child. Ambition’s somethin’ to me” (148). It works, too: Katy, whom we might say is the central focus of the story, is awed by Topham Academy, where her grandmother went to school and where, John tells her, she might go to school one day as well; Judge Masterson charms Katy; and the girls enjoy the pleasures the town has to offer. Jewett helps us feel their excitement as they enjoy their holiday. By the story’s end, we’re inclined to agree with Mrs. Hilton, who says, “You an’ the little girls have had a great time. They was full o’ wonder to me about everythin’, and I expect they’ll talk about it for a week. I guess we was right about havin’ ‘em see somethin’ more o’ the world” (158). That’s it. That’s the story’s purpose and theme, carried with never an ounce of plot or real conflict. And it was delightful.

It is true that, generally, stories need conflict to be worth reading. However, it is also true that, sometimes, we need to stop and smell the flowers, and relish in a world all its own, a world to which we are new, which shines brightly and smells sweetly, and in which men are “honest as daylight” (Jewett 149). Settling America’s Western frontier was one of the most challenging events in human history, yet even then, there were simple pleasures to enjoy. Let’s be like Katy: let’s see the world with fresh eyes full of ambition.

My review: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed such a plotless, carefree story. It helped to remember the difficulties those pioneers faced on a daily basis, so one has to bring in one’s own knowledge of history and circumstance to recreate fully the setting of this story (remember playing Oregon Trail as a kid?). Jewett built excitement in the reader by showing how excited the characters were. She uses a lot of dialogue to develop her characters, which was appropriate. I hope to encounter more stories like this in the future, where I can simply relax and relish in the joy of a beautiful place well described—but I hope such stories are few and far between, because, after all, I prefer plot and conflict.

Favorite quotes:

  • “Dark woods stood all about the old Hilton farmhouse, save down the hill, westward, where lay the shadowy fields which John Hilton, and his father before him, had cleared and tilled with much toil—the small fields to which they had given the industry and even affection of their honest lives.” (145-6)
  • “The little dog sat apart, and barked as if it fell entirely upon him to voice the general excitement.” (151)
  • “There was a tone in her father’s voice [as he told a familiar story] that drew Katy’s heart toward him with new affection. She dimly understood, but Susan Ellen was less interested. They had often heard this story before, but to one child it was always new and to the other old.” (153)
  • “‘The best of young folks is, they remind us of the old ones.’” (156)
  • “They did not know why their father was so pleased with [their portrait]; they would not know until age had dowered them with the riches of association and remembrance.” (157)

Works Cited

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2001. Print.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “The Hiltons’ Holiday.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 145-58. Print.

 

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

 

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Painting People: Henry James’ “The Real Thing” (1892)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. You can read the story online for free here.

Writers will sometimes tie their themes to a particular element of story-telling such as character or setting. (They will often tie their themes to plot as well, but this is a given—at least for good stories.) When a writer ties his theme to a particular story element, that element gives the reader a lens which brings the theme into much sharper focus. In his short story, “The Real Thing,” Henry James uses characterization—in terms of both description and personality—as a means of focusing on his theme. The result is that we “see” the abstract theme in more concrete terms, which both strengthens its affect and, perhaps more interesting, displays the author’s skill as a writer.

James uses character description in a purposeful manner with several layers. First, it is important that James “paints” his characters well because his story’s narrator is a painter. Thus, it’s no wonder that the narrator would give us very descriptive images of the models he engages for portraits. The first purpose served by describing characters is to characterize the narrator as a painter with a sharp eye. (The narrator, by the way, never describes himself; he also never describes a fellow painter who visits him later in the story; James, as author, thus hints at the concept of the distance of the artist in the artist’s work.) Character description also serves purposes of contrast. The narrator’s two models, who offer him “the real thing” that they think models should have, look like idyllic people (though a little older than what we might ascribe to the ideal). By contrast, the painter’s “uglier,” more experienced models look almost like caricatures or subjects of Norman Rockwell paintings with so much expression on their faces that they can look like anything. This contrast comes into sharp focus toward the end of the story when the two idyllic figures return to the studio to see the narrator utilizing the two ugly figures. We see the two ugly figures in a dramatic and interesting pose, but we see the idyllic figures as we’ve always seen them: pretty, upright, proper—in a word, uninteresting. Both sets of models have, at different points in the story, thought and said disparaging things about the others, but it means little to the artist, our narrator painter, whose only concern is which models serve him best. Character description thus adds tension to the story as well, for it is clear that each set of models are vying for the artist’s attention via their looks.

This leads us to consider the theme and its relationship with the character descriptions. James alludes to his theme when the narrator says, “A studio was a place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of feather-beds?” (142). Even in this somewhat abstract statement, we find another characterization of the idyllic couple with “the real thing”: he calls them feather-beds. While feather-beds have all sorts of enjoyable qualities—soft, stable, luxurious, conforming to the body—they make terrible windows, or telescopes…or artist’s eyes. In short, we can’t see anything through a feather-bed. The theme of “The Real Thing” is rather bold: Art is not about the real, but the ideal. I say it’s bold because James handles it boldly. Throughout the story, the narrator observes the idyllic couple. He first thinks he can make use of them as models for the more proper characters in the novel he’s illustrating. The problem is that their body lines are so tight and upright that he has no wiggle-room as an artist. An artist is not a documentarian. We do not record what we see: we interpret what we see. Some of what we see is incredibly useful for this, and some of what we see needs to be unseen if we hope to remain creative. The story’s painter-narrator is not a portrait maker. Photography is now part of the world’s artistic atmosphere, so painters’ portraits are not in as high demand. Instead, painters return to the dramatic part of painting: capturing life, story, motivation. The narrator’s idyllic models only serve the purpose of photography—holding very still with little to no expression. The narrator’s ugly models, on the other hand, are so full of life that they can twist, mold, and bend to the narrator’s purpose, which, given the nature of a novel with forward-moving scenes, is always changing.

There are two parts to James’ theme: the first part is shame; the second part is idealism. The parts tie together subtly. First, the idyllic couple feels shame for serving the purpose of anything but models for the pristine. The narrator finds himself so distracted by their beauty that he can’t use them for anything but that either. The problem is that, because he is so distracted, he overemphasizes their features, such that they often appear a foot, or more, taller than they really are—a six-foot woman and a seven-foot man. At last, he sees use for the man as a model for a servant rather than a gentleman, but the narrator worries he’ll hurt the man’s feelings if he suggests this, and the narrator really doesn’t want to spend time dealing with that. On the note of servitude, the narrator often expects his models to be servants, too: they’re tasked with simple things, like preparing tea for themselves and him. The idyllic couple can’t think of themselves as servants. Toward the story’s end, they “stoop” to servitude, since they need money, but the narrator sees it’s no use for them—that they are ashamed—and charitably sends them away with some money.

The second part of the theme is idealism, which I touched upon earlier. The idyllic couple can’t imagine the ugly couple as models for princesses or gentlemen…but the narrator can. Again, he is an artist, and his purpose is not to record nature—like a photographer, journalist, or documentarian—but to select from life and recreate it by his own interpretation. Thus, the narrator puts his ugly models in certain poses which serve his creative purposes, and by the end, we see nothing of the models’ original faces, but only the idyllic form the narrator intended. Do the ugly models mind? They do not. Why should they? They understand their purpose as models and they respect the purpose of the studio: “a place to learn to see” beyond what’s really there. The ugly models are not ashamed if the narrator does not use their faces or even their bodies as they are. The idyllic models, on the other hand, would be ashamed. Although the idyllic models offered the narrator “the real thing,” what the narrator actually needed was “‘the ideal thing’” (144), that quality of artistry in his ugly models that served the purposes of the studio, the painter-narrator, and the publishers and readers for whom he paints.

James’ “The Real Thing” defends the nature of art itself as a process of select recreation, rather than servitude to what is: in other words, the artist is not after the real thing; instead, the artist searches for the ideal thing and then, through his art, presents it to the world. It is a statement of artistic integrity when the narrator finally looks at the gentleman of his idyllic pair and says, “‘I can’t be ruined for you!’” (James 143)—that is, I cannot sacrifice my art to your feelings. James ties his theme to his character descriptions to solidify his theme: art is about the ideal, not the real. By “painting” characters with words for us, it elevates his own skill as an artist because he defends art in two realms—painting, the realm of the story’s events; and writing, the realm in which the story actually exists as literature. His theme stands out sharply by the story’s end, leaving us with the sense that we understand art the way the painter-narrator does: we see beyond the real thing and find ourselves exhilarated by the ideal thing.

My review: I thought it was clever that James made a painter the center of his story: I felt very aware that I was reading a painter, whose work we usually see. I enjoyed this artistic shock. As the story progressed, I wasn’t entirely sure what theme James would arrive at, so I kept on guard in case he was going to reject beauty itself as ideal. I was delighted when, instead, he rejected pretension and declared that beauty is ideal and is an act of select recreation, as my favorite author, Ayn Rand, puts it. James’ story is an excellent artistic commentary on art!

Favorite quotes:

  • “I feared my visitors were not only destitute but ‘artistic’—which would be a great complication.” (128)
  • “I didn’t easily believe in them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur.” (130)
  • “‘Oh, you think she’s shabby, but you must allow for the alchemy of art.’” (133)
  • “I adored variety and range, I cherished human accidents, the illustrative note; I wanted to characterise closely…” (135)

Work Cited

James, Henry. “The Real Thing.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 124-45. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ ChrisC_Writes.

Son vs. Father: Ambrose Bierce’s “A Horseman in the Sky” (1889)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Read the story free online here.

The theme of Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is simple to say yet difficult to follow: Duty supercedes family. Due to the story’s theme, which strikes a personal chord with me, it is difficult for me to decide how to proceed with this criticism. Do I comment on the theme? Do I comment on the story structure? It seems easier to do the latter, so I’ll start there and see if I can work my way around to the former.

Source: aventalearning.com

Source: aventalearning.com

Bierce’s structure for “A Horseman in the Sky” is deceptively simple. For example, the plot is simple: a young Union soldier during the Civil War is asleep at his post; he wakes up to see a Confederate officer a few yards away from him; the soldier knows the officer has seen the Union base below, and if the officer gets word back to the Confederate Army, it will be a devastating defeat for the Union Army; so the Union soldier does his duty and kills the Confederate officer. This plot could serve many stories. Here, though, it is the seam running through a rather intricately woven fabric.

Armed with a simple plot, Bierce is able to use more complicated plot techniques, such as flashback. After Bierce shows us the young Union soldier sleeping at his post, he uses flashback to hand us a simple but important plot point. The soldier, Carter Druse, is the son of a plantation owner in Virginia. At dinner one evening, Carter tells his father, “‘[A] Union regiment has arrived in Grafton. I am going to join it’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s father responds wisely.

The father lifted his leonine head, looked at the son a moment in silence, and replied: “Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you. Should we both live to the end of the war, we will speak further of the matter. Your mother [is ill]… It would be best not to disturb her.” (Bierce 120)

It is a simple flashback, adorned with little setting detail and hardly any character description (except the father as “leonine,” or lion-like), but it creates a point of tension that becomes the crux of the story, the very thing which carries it off in supreme fashion. A simple plot and minimal flashback thus simultaneously establishes tension, foreshadowing, and the basis of the climax. This flashback, therefore, is a master stroke of story structure.

Bierce’s next trick is creating dynamic yet smooth shifts in points of view. He begins as the omniscient narrator, able to look upon Carter as he sleeps on post. We stick with Carter through the flashback, and when we return to the present we are with him when he wakes up and sees a Confederate officer several yards away. Before we continue with point of view, we should pause and admire another tactic of structure: description. Bierce, as the omniscient narrator, describes the valley, a nearby cliff face, Carter’s own outdoor post atop the ridge, and the road leading up to and down from the ridge, in exquisite detail. We see the blue skies, green trees, and purple mountains. We see the Union Army camp in the small, secluded valley below. Further, when Carter wakes up, we see the Confederate officer as a work of art:

[Carter’s] first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal pedestal, the cliff, motionless at the extreme edge of the capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky, was an equestrian statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, but with the repose of a Grecian god carved in the marble which limits the suggestion of activity. The grey costume harmonised with its aerial background; the metal of accoutrement and caparison was softened and subdued by the shadow; the animal’s skin had no points of high light… The face of the rider, turned slightly to the left, showed only an outline of temple and beard; he was looking downward to the bottom of the valley. Magnified by its lift against the sky and by the soldier’s testifying sense of the formidableness of a near enemy, the group appeared of heroic, almost colossal, size.

For an instant [Carter] had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that commanding eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. (Bierce 121)

This detailed description is nothing short of necessary to the melodrama of the story’s climax, which we’ll return to shortly. As the plot continues—slowly, so that it has time to wield a tension-filled flashback and exquisite description—Carter struggles with his duty: “Is it, then, so terrible to kill an enemy in war—an enemy who has surprised a secret vital to the safety of oneself and comrades—an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all his army for its numbers?” (Bierce 122). No, he decides, and shoots the officer. Suddenly, we’re snatched from the point of view overlooking Carter to a new, unnamed Union soldier below: “At that moment an officer of the Federal force…saw an astonishing sight—a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!” (122-3). Here, Bierce cashes in on his previous exquisite description of the horse and officer: imagine that Grecian statue-like image flying through the air above you! Bierce accomplishes several things with his shifting point of view coupled with setting and character description, namely, when the climax begins—when Carter fires his gun, shoots the officer, and scares the horse so badly that it leaps over the cliff—the shift in point of view is sudden to us, and we’re still dealing with that quick shift when we’re hit with another shock, the image of a horseman in the sky.

Finally, Bierce brings together all of his structural elements—plot, flashback, tension, setting, description, and point of view—to carry out the height of the climax. We’re with the surprised soldier for a few more brief moments, then we see a sergeant running up to Carter’s position to ignite the climax and the end of the story:

“Did you fire?” the sergeant whispered.

“Yes.”

“At what?”

“A horse”…

“See here, Druse,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “it’s no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“My father.” (Bierce 124)

Getting full use out of his shifting point of view, Bierce ends the scene and story from the sergeant’s point of view, which mimics our own as shocked readers: “The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. ‘Good God!’ he said” (Bierce 124).

Now, perhaps I’ll touch on the theme. Carter saw his father on top of the horse. Carter, a Union soldier, deemed his father an enemy, an officer in the Confederate Army. His father had told him, “‘[W]hatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s duty as a Union soldier is to help win the war for the Union. However, he can’t shoot his father. So he shoots his father’s horse, knowing the horse will leap off the cliff with Carter’s father astride, killing his father. Setting aside considerations of animal cruelty due to war’s collateral damage, the theme comes into light: Duty supercedes family. Because it is easier to say than to do, Carter, in a way, does not do it: he shoots the horse, not his father. But he also does perform his duty: he knows his father will die. Was Carter right or wrong?

At present, I am no fan of my own father. It would not surprise me if, during the Civil War, I should find myself on the side of the Union while he finds himself on the side of the Confederacy (literally that). Our personal matters are not so dramatic as that right now, but we have drawn lines. Well, I have drawn lines, as Carter did in the story. So, to the question of, “Was Carter right or wrong to kill his father?” my answer is, “Right.” Duty is a choice, a voluntary decision to pursue and defend a certain cause based on one’s own judgment. Family, however, is an accidental quality: a son does not choose his father (though a father chooses his son in the sense that he chooses to have a child). The logic and ethic are simple: what we choose supercedes what we cannot control.

To the man who says, “Carter should not have killed his own father; family comes first,” I say, “To hell with you.”

I admire Carter’s father’s wisdom. He knew, and made it clear to Carter, that they might very well find themselves in such a position as occurs in this story. Carter’s father accepted that. Though he may have felt disappointment, even disgust, with his son’s decision, he nevertheless did his fatherly duty—the duty he owes to his son, whom he chose to have—to make Carter aware of what could happen. Carter accepts it. Once said and accepted, both men are clear: we have placed duty above family, and it’s right that we did. In a sense, too, Carter honored his father by following his advice: “Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.” Carter conceived his duty to be that of a soldier defending the Union, and even though he may have felt turmoil over that conception, he was nevertheless right. Family is accidental; duty is chosen. We are creatures of free will; that’s our nature. As such, our first loyalty is to ourselves and our own judgment. If a man judges that members of his family are unworthy of his loyalty, then his only moral course of action is to obey his own judgment and accept its consequences.

I think it’s time I stop writing this now…

My review: This is an excellently crafted story that shows how simple structure elements can yield a complex overall effect. Bierce’s theme is top-notch: the son versus his father as tied to the soldier versus the enemy. It’s a story I’ll read many times in the years to come. It’s a story I’ll share with my son when he reaches the right age. For him and me, I hope it will only be a lesson, instead of a reality.

Favorite quotes:

  • “He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, that being the just and legal penalty of his crime.” (119)
  • “No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war.” (120)
  • “‘Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.’” (120)
  • “[H]is hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound.” (122)
  • “Duty had conquered; the spirit had said to the body: ‘Peace, be still.’ He fired.” (122)

Work Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. “A Horseman in the Sky.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 119-24. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ ChrisC_Writes.

Men of Character: Bret Harte’s “The Gentleman of La Porte” (1880)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story online for free.

Men of strong, just characters are worthy of note and celebration. In his late nineteenth-century story, “The Gentleman of La Porte,” Bret Harte uses the short story form to celebrate the character of a strong, just man.

There is no plot in “The Gentleman of La Porte”: it is simply a character sketch. A certain “Gentleman” lives in a little triangle valley called La Porte. He is a financially stable man who enjoys good hygiene and style: “As one of the locators of ‘Eagle Mine’ he enjoyed a certain income which enabled him to live without labor and to freely indulge his few and inexpensive tastes. After his own personal adornment—which consisted chiefly in the daily wearing of spotless linenhe was fond of giving presents” (Harte 113). The Gentleman, therefore, is a man who lives comfortably within his means and, as the financially stable often do, offers “gifts” to people. His disposition is also worthy of note: “His deficient sense of humor and habitual gravity, in a community whose severest dramatic episodes were mitigated by some humorous detail, and whose customary relaxation was the playing of practical jokes, was marked with a certain frankness that was discomposing” (112). Although his fellow townsmen think that the Gentleman is thus a rather odd and proper character, they nevertheless trust his disposition such that they elect him Justice of the Peace (113), at which point we come to know him as Judge Trott.

Bret Harte Source: http://steamboattimes.com/mark_twain_friends.html

Bret Harte
Source: steamboattimes.com

He serves the community well, but has some unexpected peculiarities. Judge Trott “exercised his functions with dignity” but showed “a singular lenity [leniency] in the levyings of fines and the infliction of penalties” (Harte 113). If a person found guilty could not pay a fine, Judge Trott has the court’s Clerk lend the guilty person the money until it is repaid…and until then, Judge Trott pays the court the amount lent. Later, when a criminal refuses to pay the fine and demands jail time, Judge Trott goes down to the prison after the trial and plays a game of poker with the prisoner and the Sheriff, during which the prisoner wins money for his own bail. We wonder if Judge Trott lost the game on purpose. He is just in his rulings, but lenient in his doling out punishment, such that some of his actions are seen “as incompatible with Judge Trott’s dignity, though not inconsistent with his kindliness of nature” (114). Judge Trott’s odd qualities of justice and leniency, where the leniency almost cancels out the justice, might lead some to criticize him. Others, however, might praise him for showing mercy and killing them with kindness, as the principle goes.

Do not mistake Judge Trott’s kindness for weakness, however. Although he is lenient, he has limits and he intends justice to prevail: “It is certain, however, that his lenity would have brought him into disfavor but for a redeeming exhibition of his unofficial strength” (Harte 114). Two events highlight his “unofficial strength.” First, a haughty lawyer from Sacramento is disrespectful in court. When Judge Trott warns the lawyer that he could hold the lawyer in contempt, the lawyer scoffs and says he could pay the fine without a problem. Trott replies, “‘I ought to add…that I don’t purpose to [hold you in contempt]. I believe in freedom of speech and—action!’” and then Judge Trott takes off his official robe, descends from the bench, grabs the lawyer by his shirt, and tosses him out of the window (114). Whoa! Clearly, there are limits to the Judge’s patience.

The second event highlights this especially. A young woman who operates the “Wheel of Fortune” in a local gambling saloon one day destroys the wheel. After testimonies are finished, the jury doesn’t even leave the room and immediately offers a verdict of not guilty, though the woman is clearly guilty. Judge Trott asks the foreman to confirm the verdict, which the foreman does, rather haughtily, and Judge Trott thus says, “‘Mr. Clerk…record the verdict, and then enter my resignation as Judge of this court’” (Harte 114). The townspeople explode with confusion, some begging Judge Trott to reconsider, and others—such as the members of the jury—saying he has insulted them. Nevertheless, he quits for good.

Later, the woman who was found not guilty, Miss Jane Thomson, comes to Judge Trott and asks why he resigned. She thinks he did so for her sake. He replies truthfully, “‘No…I could not remain Judge of a court that was obliged to record a verdict so unjust as that given by the jury in your case’” (Harte 116). During this discussion, Miss Thomson learns that Judge Trott is going blind. Mention of it is made earlier: “More than one irreverent critic had suggested that he had probably lost his own eyes in some frontier difficulty, and had hurriedly replaced them with those of his antagonist” (112). This is an interesting thought and powerful statement on the Judge’s character! Of course, too, we should note that it’s no coincidence that this man of justice is blind.

Some time passes and the townspeople learn that the Judge has gone to San Francisco with Miss Thomson, who has married him. It causes a scandal in La Porte, where people believe the Judge conspired with Miss Thomson and her partner-in-crime, Jake Woods, who left her and went elsewhere. It is not the case, but the Judge—even if he knows about it—does not care to change their minds. He knows who he is and what has happened, and that’s all that matters. A man who knew about the Judge says in the Judge and Miss Thomson’s defense:

Gentlemen, when a gal like that throws over her whole life, her whole profession, and a square man like Jake Woods, to marry a blind man without a dollar—just because he once stood up for her—on principle, damn me ef I see any man good enough to go back on her for it! Ef the Judge is willing to kinder overlook little bygone eccentricities o’ hers for the sake o’ being cared for and looked arter by her, that’s his lookout! And you’ll excoose me if, arter my experience, I reckon it ain’t exactly a healthy business to interfere with the domestic concerns of the Gentleman of La Porte. (119)

Whether it’s enough to maintain the Judge’s good name, we aren’t sure. Again, though, it does not matter because the Judge is a self-contained man of a morally upright character.

Rugged individualism and strong morality were once the defining characteristics of an American. Harte illustrates such a character in “The Gentleman of La Porte.” It is a story without a plot, without a significant antagonist, and without a change in the protagonist. It is simply a story about a man we should admire and, at least in some ways, strive to emulate—a gentleman of kindness, justice, and self-esteem.

My review: Although it has a bit of a slow start, the story is well paced. It reads almost like journalism—it literally offers quotes from certain townspeople on the character of the Judge—and this style is appropriate to the story’s purpose (that is, form follows function). There is enough drama to keep the story interesting, as when the Judge throws the lawyer out of the window, and when the Judge and Miss Thomson have their personal interview outside his frontier home. Its theme—just men are above reproach in the pure sense—subtly reveals itself without becoming didactic. Harte’s use of dialects is a little thick, but understandable, and provides a necessary contrast between the characters of the townspeople and Judge Trott. Overall, it is an excellent character story!

 Favorite quotes:

  • “‘He’s that proud he won’t have anything to say to us.’” (116)
  • “It is only the inexplicable in a man’s ugliness that a woman never pardons.” (116)
  • “‘You are mistaken, my dear young lady…deeply mistaken, if you think I feel anything but kindness and gratitude for your offer—an offer so kind and unusual that even you yourself feel that I could not accept it. No! Let me believe that in doing what I thought was only my duty as a Judge, I gained your good-will, and let me feel that in doing my duty now as a man, I shall still keep it.’” (118)

 Work Cited

Harte, Bret. “The Gentleman of La Porte.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 109-19. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ChrisC_Writes.

Money Makes an Honest Man: Mark Twain’s “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” (1893)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read this story for free.

At first, I was worried that Mark Twain was going to make the theme of his short story, “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note,” something along the lines of, Money corrupts good souls. Instead, Twain shows that money does not corrupt a man’s character, it simply reveals it. And in this case, the revelation is virtuous!

Henry, a twenty-seven year-old mining-broker’s clerk in 19th century San Francisco, finds himself, by accident, adrift at sea. He’s rescued by a small brig bound for London. He earns his passage as a common sailor. When he arrives in London, his nice clothes are nearly rags and he has just a dollar in his pocket. In a few short days, he’s nearly starving and ready to risk shame by picking up a half-eaten pear from a London gutter and eating it. But two gentlemen catch his attention and bring him up to their living quarters, which show them to be wealthy men. Henry joins them. They send him away with a £1,000,000 bank-note. Henry doesn’t know it yet, but the men have a bet: one of them says that a person with that bank-note would surely be arrested once found out; the other says that a person with that bank-note could make it an entire month without being jailed. Henry, a desperate American stranger with an honest and intelligent face, is exactly what they need as the subject of the bet. They send Henry away with the bank-note in an envelope. He doesn’t know about their bet and doesn’t know about the money until he exits their quarters and looks in the envelope. All he sees is money, not the sum, and immediately rushes off to a cheap diner to finally eat.

Source:

Source: commons.wikimedia.org

When he discovers the sum of the single bank-note, he’s shocked, but he plays it cool and asks the diner’s owner for change. The diner can’t make the change, but he’s thrilled to see a “millionaire” eating in his establishment and quickly opens a tab for Henry. Later, Henry is desperate for a new suit, even if it’s ill-fitted. He goes into a tailor’s shop and asks for the cheapest suit they have. The tailor gives him a new but ill-fitting suit. Again, Henry offers the bank-note, which the tailor cannot change, but which also sends the tailor into a flurry to outfit Henry with the shop’s finest suits, shirts, and other clothing, putting it all on an account for Henry. Thus, Henry finds that, simply by asking for change from the bank-note, which no one can provide, it nevertheless opens up every store in London to him on credit without his paying a cent: “Could I afford it? No; I had nothing in the world but a million pounds” (97). Everyone accepts the word of a supposedly rich man. Now lodged in a hotel and living comfortably, Henry begins to change the London scene…

He becomes known as “‘vest-pocket million-pounder’” (Twain 99), for that is where he keeps his bank-note. Newspapers take notice of him, such that he is mentioned in every paper in continually increasing notoriety, even over duchesses and dukes. All the while, Henry worries that a “crash” is coming, but when it comes, he will deal with it as best he can. In fact, he devises a simple strategy. The note that accompanied the bank-note said that he was part of a bet, and that if a particular one of the gentlemen won the bet, then Henry would receive “any situation that is in my gift—any, that is, that you shall be able to prove yourself familiar with and competent to fill” (96). Henry decides that he will ask for a sum of £600 per year to begin with, and eventually earn his way up to £1000 per year. This will repay his debts to the people who have opened accounts for him, “[b]ecause, you see, with all my borrowing, I was carefully keeping within my means” (100) and when the month ended, “my employer back from his journey, I should be all right once more, for I should at once divide the two years’ salary among my creditors by assignment, and get right down to my work” (101). Henry is thus very aware of his situation and the fact that he is but a pauper with a million-pound bank-note. He’s incurred debts, but he trusts that the gentleman who wins will be able to provide him with plenty of money to pay off those debts. Henry is a man of conscientious character, which his million pounds reveals.

Again, though, there’s the repeated hint of a “crash” coming, as Henry calls it, because ultimately, he still isn’t sure what the bet is or how he is to win it for the gentleman. But he doesn’t stress over it. Instead, he tells himself, “[L]et it go. That disposes of the indeterminable qualities” (Twain 96). This is the situation he’s in, and he has to make the best of it. What about the crash, though? Does it ever happen?

Henry meets a beautiful society lady and they fall in love in that quick, happy way of youths. Suddenly, with this girl in his life, he decides to ask for £1300 per year to start with, up from £600. This, of course, appears ominous, for as his lady warns him, “‘Oh, please remember that if we ask for too much we may get no salary at all’” (Twain 107). (Indeed, money has revealed her character to be as conscientious and judicious as Henry’s.) But there’s more to the story. Henry happens to meet an American colleague of his who came to London in hopes of selling a mine and making a small fortune, but it hasn’t worked out for him. Henry has a brilliant idea. He knows that the mine is actually worth a great deal, but his friend just can’t seem to sell it. So he tells his friend to use his, Henry’s, name, with its notoriety above and beyond even dukes. The plan works wonderfully. When the 30 days are up, Henry returns to the gentlemen and reports that he has earned £200,000 of his own money thanks to the £1,000,000 bank-note they’ve lent of him, of which he’s not spent even an ounce. Thus, he can pay off his own debts and still have money left over to start anew in any career he chooses.

The gentlemen are astounded and impressed. When the gentleman who has won the bet asks Henry what he wishes for his prize, Henry says, “‘I’m just as grateful as I can be, but really I don’t want one’” (Twain 108). Henry is content with his good fortune, and the literal fortune he has earned from it. (By the way, Henry made small fortunes for other people too, indirectly, such as the diner who opened an account for him. When London heard that the “vest-pocket million-pounder” ate almost exclusively at that cheap little diner, the diner gained fame and earned more customers than it could handle. The tailor shop also made money. Henry’s friend, who sold his mine, also made money. The resulting fortune from the million-pound bank-note is probably more than twice its worth! In true capitalistic fashion, an American turned money into more money and made not only himself rich, but others as well!)

The story ends happily: Henry’s beautiful lady is actually the daughter of the gentleman who won the bet. Henry quickly changes his mind about the prize and asks to hold a certain station: “‘Son-in-law’” (Twain 108). The “deal” is made, although it’s not really a business transaction, but rather a merry circumstance of love. The gentleman actually gives Henry the million-pound bank-note as a wedding gift, which the couple displays in a frame on a wall in their home. Henry tells us, “And so I always say, ‘Yes, it’s a million-pounder, as you see; but it never made but one purchase in its life, and then got the article for only about a tenth of its value’” (109). And we say, “Awwww!”

Money does not corrupt; it simply reveals a man’s character. Henry lapsed a bit when he began dreaming of larger and larger salaries per year, but a lapse in judgment does not a corrupted man make. Instead, he recovered from his mistake before he made it. His journey, too, is surrounded by circumstance and coincidence, and some literary critics might say that coincidence weakens the structure of a story. That’s often true. However, Twain uses coincidence as it relates to life. We may quote Thomas Jefferson as an expression of the story’s theme: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Henry was an intelligent and honest man who was stricken with luck (thank goodness for being set adrift at sea!) and made an honest fortune from it. Now that’s a real American!

My review: Coincidence often hurts a story, but Twain makes full use of it and does so brilliantly! What’s more, Twain hints at a disastrous ending, but doesn’t bring it around. The message is that bad things can happen, but if we act responsibly, we can either avoid bad things or deal with them when the time comes. And what is life but a pleasant string of coincidences to the man who makes his own luck? Wonderful story!

Favorite quotes:

  • “‘My friend, you shouldn’t judge a stranger always by the clothes he wears.’” (97)
  • “But a white-hot idea came flaming through my head, and I gripped my jaws together, and calmed myself down till I was cold as a capitalist.” (106)
  • “‘What, man! Certificate of deposit for £200,000. Is it yours?’ ‘Mine. I earned it by thirty days’ judicious use of that little loan you let me have. And the only use I made of it was to buy trifles and offer the bill in change.’” (107)

Work Cited

Twain, Mark. “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 92-109. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ChrisC_Writes.

Plotless Phantasmagoria: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story for free.

“Ligeia” is why Poe fans read Poe. Its effect is wholly phantasmagoric, with no distraction of plot.

The novelist Ayn Rand defines plot as “a purposeful progression of events” (17). However, while Edgar Allan Poe frequently plots his stories well, his measure of a great story has always been the effect it has on the reader. Of the short story, Poe says, “A skillful literary artist…having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out…then invents such incidents [and] combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect” (Sullivan xiv). The effect is king, and everything else—including plot—must serve it. That’s why, when we read Poe’s stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” we are left with vague memories of the plots, but full memories of the horrors, i.e., the effects. Poe’s “Ligeia” reveals his love for the effect above all else by stripping the story of everything except effect.

There is no plot in “Ligeia.” The main character has a wife, Lady Ligeia, who dies. He takes a new wife, Rowena, and she also dies. Then Ligeia returns as a ghost and (presumably) takes over the body of Rowena. The nameless narrator can’t distinguish between the two women except a wild quality of expression in the eyes, which is how he knows that Ligeia has returned to him in all her ghostliness. While this is a progression of events, it is not purposeful, and is, therefore, not a plot (Rand 20). A does not lead to B and then to C; instead, A happens, then B happens, then C happens, and that’s that. Why is “Ligeia” interesting then? Hasn’t Poe failed us in this lack of an exciting plot? No, because he leaves us with an effect, one that his fans herald him for: the effect of the horrific, the Gothic, the phantasmagoric. Although he is a master of plot (as evidence, I refer you to the other stories noted above), in “Ligeia,” he instead relies on perhaps the most fundamental element of effect: description.

Most writers use as few words as possible to describe settings and characters, so that they can get on with the elements of their plot—action and dialogue. Poe is an apt example. However, in “Ligeia,” he ignores action and dialogue almost completely and instead describes the setting and characters with extreme detail. Poe spends nearly a page describing Lady Ligeia’s beautiful features, including commentary on the description: “Yet her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen. ‘There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion’” (50). The strangeness of Ligeia’s features is her eyes, not because of their shape or color, but because of their “expression” (51). We’ll return to this shortly, but it is a well-executed set-up leading to the overall effect.

The narrator goes on to speak of his marriage to Rowena after Ligeia dies. He describes the bridal chamber. He says, “There is no individual portion of the architecture and decoration of that bridal chamber which is not now visibly before me” (Poe 56), and he describes it clearly, including its vaulted ceilings, pentagonal shape, a huge single-pane window that adds a “ghastly” effect of sun- or moonlight over the room, a ceiling of “gloomy-looking oak,” a huge incense burner in the ceiling vaults, and “most grotesque specimens of semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device” (56). He includes the page-and-a-half description with a summation: “The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole” (57, emphasis added). The story concludes with Rowena alternately dying and returning from the dead to die again—suggesting a supernatural influence, which leads to the ghostly return of Ligeia in Rowena’s corpse, identified by the narrator only because of the expression in her eyes.

That’s it. The story ends. It is just something that happened, without much—if any—purposeful action taken on any of the characters’ parts. The expression the narrator describes in Ligeia’s eyes is perhaps the one unifying element of the story, and the element is one of description. Poe did not forget to include a plot. In fact, he purposely left it out of “Ligeia.” Instead, we might estimate that his intention with this story is to highlight what he believes is the most important element of a short story, and why his fans love him so: he is a master of horrific effects that stay in one’s mind long after the details of the plot have faded into obscurity.

My review: Since I’m a great fan of plot and character development, I didn’t much enjoy this story. I’ll admit, though, that I stuck with it to the end because I just had to know what was going on with Ligeia. When she returned, the effect was such that I felt like I had seen a ghost, and I was happy then to find the story was over. Maybe that’s what Poe intended.

Favorite quotes:

  • “She came and departed as a shadow.” (50)
  • “Yet her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen. ‘There is no exquisite beauty,’ says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, ‘without some strangeness in the proportion.’” (50)

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 49-61. Print.

Rand, Ayn. The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. Ed. Tore Boeckmann. New York: Plume, 2000. Print.

Sullivan, Nancy. “Introduction.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. xiii-xvii. Print.

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ ChrisC_Writes.

“Poisonous thing!”: the Accursed Woman in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story for free.

As with any well-structured story, the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” shocked me. What makes writers such as Hawthorne masters of the short story is that they assiduously apply themselves to two principles of good writing: nothing is accidental; and it’s more than what it seems at first. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne uses these characteristics to hint at his theme throughout the story, but he states it unmistakably at the end when poor Beatrice says woefully, “‘Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?’” (48). At that point we realize that what we saw as happenstance is in fact purposeful, and what we thought the conclusion would be is actually heading toward a different end.

Let’s discuss the accidental qualities in writing. Good authors rarely have accidents in their stories: elements that are meaningful but that could have been otherwise without much affecting the story. In particular, I’ll note Beatrice Rappaccini’s beauty. When our hero, Giovanni Guasconti, first sees Beatrice, we read this description of her: “[She was] arrayed with as much richness of taste as the most splendid of the flowers [in Rappaccini’s garden], beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy” (Hawthorne 28). Translation: she’s freakin’ hot. I mean, she isn’t just pretty, she’s vivacious. At first, we think we know what Hawthorne’s doing: he’s given us a pretty girl to look at, and upon seeing her, we understand why Giovanni is taken with her. So, Hawthorne purposely made Beatrice pretty, but it seems somewhat superficial. She could have been far less vivacious and still caught Giovanni’s attention. Because she could have been otherwise, I would call this an accidental quality of the story.

However, it’s far from accidental.

Instead, Beatrice’s beauty is intricately tied to the poisonous flowers around her with which she’s grown up all her life. How do we find that out? Our handsome hero suddenly becomes vivacious himself. On his way to meet Beatrice again, Giovanni checks himself in the mirror “and said to himself that his features had never before possessed so rich a grace, nor his eyes such vivacity, nor his cheeks so warm a hue of superabundant life” (Hawthorne 44). Coupled with the description of Beatrice earlier, it’s clear that Giovanni’s and Beatrice’s vivaciousness is no accidental quality. It is, in fact, the result of her being among the flowers, whose qualities have physically affected her, and him being among her such that her qualities have physically affected him. That is, he’s infected.

At this point, we expect a certain type of conclusion in which Giovanni confronts Beatrice and her odd father, Dr. Rappaccini, whose mutant flowers have caused this poisonous vivaciousness, for indeed, we find out that Giovanni and Beatrice are actually poisonous to other people! Giovanni first accuses Beatrice of knowingly affecting him. “‘[P]oisonous thing!’” he calls her. “‘Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself—a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity!’” (Hawthorne 46). Strong words there, Giovanni. We might expect it though. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s become something that can’t dwell in the world without being feared, and he has a capacity to kill his fellow human beings simply by breathing, something he certainly can’t control except by killing himself. He thus suggests that Beatrice and he kiss, suspecting the kiss will kill them both and rid the world of their monstrous nature. Enter Rappaccini, who admits that this is an experiment and hopes his daughter will thank him for ending her isolation by giving her a young man with whom she can be physically intimate without killing, for that is the real effect of Beatrice’s “poison” on Giovanni.

Okay, so far, so good. Tragic love story of a scifi/horror nature. We see Rappaccini’s megalomania and we extrapolate a theme: It’s dangerous to advance science to the detriment of human life, and to use human beings as unwitting victims. It’s a rather broad theme that is relevant today, given current advancements in genetics.

However, Hawthorne has a much simpler, much broader, and much more fundamental theme in mind: The prejudices of man against woman. That was Hawthorne’s theme all along. But he knows it’s an old theme, easily identified and thus often overlooked. He let it be overlooked in his own story, and then put the spotlight on it right when it would have the most impact: the end.

He spaced out his hints toward this theme well and made us sympathize with a protagonist that we thought was the victim of a shameful plot. Well, Giovanni was at the center of a shameful plot. However, he was warned about whom the plotter might be by his friend, Professor Pietro Baglioni: “‘Signor Giovanni, I will stake my life upon it, you are the subject of one of Rappaccini’s experiments!’” (Hawthorne 35). Giovanni dismisses the warning. And, when he finally sees that he’s been affected, whom does he accuse but Beatrice? She has no idea what’s happened. She bears his accusations with empathy and insists that she wishes him no harm and has no designs against him. She’s even willing to take the possible antidote that Baglioni gave to Giovanni earlier. Rappaccini then enters and explains his designs. Again, we’re led to that theme of shamefully placing science over innocent, unknowing human victims. But then, Beatrice makes the true theme apparent. Having taken the antidote, only to discover that it is actually poisonous to her because of how physically affected she is, she says to Giovanni with her last breaths, “‘Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?’” (48,  emphasis added).

Indeed, like the worst of his sex, his prejudice against women blinded Giovanni to truth. He adored Beatrice only as “the beautiful and unsophisticated girl” (Hawthorne 41) he thought she was. As noted above, he later calls her a poisonous thing and says that she has filled his veins with her poison and made him “as hateful, ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself” (46). And what is it we commonly accuse women of but poisoning men with passion that blinds them? Giovanni finds himself poisoned by Beatrice’s love, thinking she has dragged him to this horrible state to satisfy herself. He accuses Beatrice of what he knew to be her father’s sin: sacrificing other people to one’s own desires; and she calls him on it.

Hawthorne masterfully executes a story with no accidental qualities and with a meaning far more important than a simple scifi plot. Indeed, science fiction, well used, is one of the best genres in which to work to discuss themes of overarching importance and relevance to humans throughout history. Hawthorne shows us why and how that’s the case in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a decidedly science fiction-type story with a very literary theme. Nothing is accidental, not even Beatrice’s beauty. Nothing’s what it seems to be at first because a story about science and megalomania is also about something far more fundamental: the blindness caused by sexism.

My review: A truly pleasurable read! Hawthorne begins simply but quickly adds unexpected qualities that hold the reader’s interest—for example, a gardener who dotes upon his flowers, but goes to great pains to avoid touching them directly. Oddities like this abound in the story, and, as I elaborate upon above, they lead little by little to a cohesive purpose that shocks and pleases. Not a word is wasted, and Hawthorne beautifully describes characters and settings in a manner that simultaneously delights our senses and advances the plot. Also, Hawthorne illuminates at least two very different yet exquisitely intertwined themes. “Rappacini’s Daughter” is a wonderful story whose structure is worth study and emulation. (Also, it is fun to note that long before there was Batman’s nemesis, Poison Ivy, there was Rappaccini’s daughter!)

Favorite quotes:

  • “But there is an influence in the light of morning that tends to rectify whatever errors of fancy, or even of judgment, we may have incurred during the sun’s decline, or among the shadows of the night, or in the less wholesome glow of moonshine… [H]e was inclined to take a most rational view of the whole matter.” (29)
  • “It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baneful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it.” (34)
  • “Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.” (34)
  • “The instance that he was aware of the possibility of approaching Beatrice, it seemed an absolute necessity of his existence to do so.” (36)
  • “‘I would fain have been loved, not feared,’ murmured Beatrice, sinking down upon the ground.” (48)

 Work Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 25-48. Print.

Thanks to Cyndi Sabo for editing this post.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @ChrisC_Writes.

In Defense of Brom Bones: Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story.

 Washington Irving’s classic story of the headless horsemen playfully focuses on the “hero,” Ichabod Crane, who is really nothing of the sort. In fact, if anyone reads the story and believes that Ichabod’s antagonist, the stout and manly Brom Bones, is a bully who pushed down little old Ichabod, well, that reader is sorely mistaken!

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Brom fits a classic description: “He was broad shouldered and double jointed, with short, curly black hair and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance” (Irving 10). Brom certainly looks like a bully when he’s contrasted with the description of Ichabod: “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame loosely hung together” (3). What’s more, Ichabod is sort of the classic nerd: well-read and a singer as well a singing teacher (5). Brom, on the other hand, is “famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship” and the “bodily strength acquir[ed] in rustic life” (10). That is, Brom’s a hard worker in this sleepy Dutch Hudson River town.

The two men pit themselves against each other to win the prize of the luscious Katrina Van Tassel, whose father is master of a farmland rich with abundance of food and rustic luxury. And when the scrawny guy and the brawny guy are after the same girl, aren’t we usually hoping the scrawny guy wins? Well, he doesn’t. Brom wins the girl. And it’s right that he did.

A brief consideration of Ichabod’s ridiculous character tells us why we should herald his downfall. First, Ichabod’s the bully. For example, he picks on the strong children because they are strong, and spares weak children because they are weak. The teacher at the town’s schoolhouse, Ichabod doles out punishment thusly:

[H]e administered justice with discrimination rather than severity; taking the burthen off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. Your mere puny stripling, that winced at the least flourish of the rod, was passed by with indulgence; but the claims of justice were satisfied, by inflicting a double portion on some little, tough, wrong headed, broad skirted Ducth urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch. (Irving 4)

If the puny kids show up late or don’t do their homework, Ichabod simply threatens them but doesn’t hit them. But if it’s one of the strong kids who shows up late or doesn’t do his homework, that strong kid gets twice the lashings. Ichabod makes the strong bear the lashes of the weak, though they commit the same crime. Aside from the consideration that corporal punishment is itself questionable, even if it is acceptable, Ichabod is still a big bully who punishes the strong for being the strong by making them bear the punishment of the weak.

Let’s look at Ichabod’s so-called love for Katrina, too. He’s in it for the farm, the food, and the luxury of old Van Tassal and his daughter: “The pedagogue’s mouth watered, as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare” (Irving 8). Ichabod imagines himself heir to Van Tassel’s estate if he can win Katrina:

[H]e rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit…[and] his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might readily be turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. (Irving 8) …He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendour… Then…he’d turn his back upon the old school house; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade! (16)

What happens? The evening wans and the partygoers depart. Ichabod professes his love for Katrina, who promptly rejects him. Embittered, Ichabod rides out into the night on his horse (borrowed from Van Ripper mentioned above), where he suddenly encounters none other than the headless horseman! Ichabod races forward in a surge of fear. The horseman gives chase. Ichabod looks behind him to see that the horseman is preparing to throw his own severed head at Ichabod. He does and it hits Ichabod. Ichabod goes crashing to the ground.

The next day, Ichabod is gone. Only his hat and a shattered pumpkin are found. Later, we learn that Brom Bones chuckles whenever the part of the story about the pumpkin is mentioned. Why? It’s obvious that the horseman was Brom himself, armed with a pumpkin in the place of a severed head! (For those who think it’s not obvious, move along, nothing to see here!) Brom’s goal: scare the hell out of Ichabod Crane! It wouldn’t be hard to do, so buried in mysticism as Ichabod is. He is a fan and believer, after all, of Cotton Mather’s infamous fire-and-brimstone sermons (Irving 5).

We learn that a traveler from New York says that Ichabod is safe and sound in that city, though, of course, no one from Sleepy Hollow will ever care to investigate that claim, being so steeped in superstition. Brom marries Katrina and inherits her father’s estate with her. Should we be disappointed? Should we condemn Brom for his actions? No! If anyone should have Katrina and the estate, it’s Brom. Brom is a hard worker. He’s even earned the trust of the townspeople such that they often come to him for judgments between disputes (Irving 10). Sure, he probably had eyes on Katrina’s land as much as on Katrina herself, but should we blame him? Katrina’s a grown woman who can have her pick of men. She picks the strongest and best and turns away the weak and abusive, namely, Ichabod Crane, whose intention for her land was, not to upkeep it, but to sell it. We are told that Ichabod “was a huge feeder…an Anaconda” (4)! Indeed, all he can think of is gobbling up Van Tassel’s estate rather than maintaining it.

What happened to Ichabod but a prank that he was asking for? He knew Brom was after Katrina, too, like all the men did. Except none of the other men challenged Brom. Ichabod did. Did he expect that because he was weak, then—according to his own warped sense of justice—he wouldn’t have to bear the consequences of challenging the strong? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making the challenge, and we might feel proud of Ichabod for getting in the game, and may the best man win! But, when the chips were down, we find that Ichabod never had what it took to play. He’s a manipulative bully and a laughable coward, scared as he was of a pumpkin thrown at him in the night. Of course, that would be a scary thing, there’s no denying that. But, when dawn came and Ichabod saw light and life were still ahead of him, he abandoned the schoolhouse and scurried off. That’s his right. And we might feel some sympathy for him. But please, let’s never think of him as a hero. Brom’s the hero, the knight errant who won the princess, like he should!

My review: Well-executed story structure, but the build-up to the climax was a little long. Ichabod isn’t an interesting enough character to carry the story for the reasons I gave above regarding his character. Instead, what carries the story is Irving’s subtle promise that something will happen with the Headless Horseman. The payoff is enjoyable, but barely worth the wait.

Favorite quotes:

  • “…and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man, than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.” (7)
  • “Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats…” (17)
  • “These magic books and the poetic scrawl were forthwith consigned to the flames by Hans Van Ripper, who from that time forward determined to send his children no more to school, observing, that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing.” (23)

Work Cited

Irving, Washington. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 1-25. Print.

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