Time and Place: Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (2003)

Fewer than 500 words.

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

I am a firm believer in the adage, “Form follows function,” and thus if a device is present in a story, it must serve a good purpose.

Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” begins with a time indication—“Noon” (8)—and we soon find that the time structure is vindicated because the plot and climax depend on it. More than three pages go by before the next time indication—“1 p.m.” (12)—shows up. By that time (no pun intended), we’ve nearly forgotten about the time structure. What reminds us of it shortly before this transition, though, is the conflict that has arisen: the main character, a homeless Native American in Washington named Jackson Jackson (sic), must find $999 by noon the next day to purchase his grandmother’s stolen ceremonial regalia from a pawnbroker. Otherwise, the deal’s off (12). The clock is ticking, and the time structure becomes the device driving the story. This lets us ruminate upon Alexie’s second device: place.

Alexie identifies the places, or settings, in which Jackson finds himself within the prose, instead of tacked alongside the time indication. That’s because Jackson moves between a few places within most of the time slots. Time is the story’s driving factor (nothing tenser than a clock counting down!) but place becomes the story’s tapestry.

We see everything from a 7-11, to a pawnbroker’s shop, to an alley, to a newspaper publisher, to a Korean grocery store, to a bar, and back to the pawnbroker’s shop (and I’m sure I missed one or two). That’s a lot to cover in one story! But that’s the life—we assume—of a homeless man. If we tie that to Jackson’s Native American heritage (whose Spokane ancestors lived there thousands of years before [Alexie 8]), we can think of Jackson living out that stereotypical concept of the wandering Indian living off the land, such as the land is now.

Jackson’s story is a time-driven quest through his native land in search of redemption. There are helpers along the way, like the Big Boss at the publishing house and the good cop Officer Williams, but Jackson is his own worst enemy: every dollar that goes in goes right back out; and yet, he never gives up the search.

Finally, time and place collide as Jackson returns to the pawnbroker. We understand that the pawnbroker’s shop might itself be part of the mythos of this Indian’s quest, for it is not where Jackson remembers it, and no one seems to have heard of it (Alexie 27). He wanders and wanders, and then finds it right in the nick of time. But he doesn’t have the money. The pawnbroker accepts $5—a different $5 than Jackson started with (28)—because it wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the quest.

We are often willing to forgive the hero his sins, overlook his self-bloodied soul, and pardon his empty-handedness if, in the end, he arrives at the right time and the right place.

My review: This is my first introduction to Alexie’s work, although I have heard of him before. I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which this story was written. Cultural-driven literature is not my preference (although one could argue that all literature is culture-driven and it only seems not to be when it’s your own culture), but when a writer makes it accessible—that is, when a writer does not rely on guilt to “move” the reader—I truly appreciate it. I enjoyed this story.

Favorite quotes:

  • “I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully.” (8)
  • “I love the smell of ocean water. Salt always smells like memory.” (13)
  • “‘Just like a man,’ she said. ‘You love money and power more than you love me.’ ¶ ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘And I’m sorry it’s true.’” (17)

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The Seagull Reader: Stories. 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, United States, W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 8-28.

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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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Why *The Grapes of Wrath* is worth the read

The Grapes of Wrath is now my third favorite book, behind first The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. To be clear, I do not agree with or support the politics or philosophy espoused in The Grapes of Wrath which is decidedly collectivist in nature (i.e., communist and altruistic). However, the humanity in the book is astounding. I quote from this edition’s dust jacket:

[The book’s] power and importance do not lie in its political insight but in its intense humanity, its grasp of the spirit of an entire people traversing a wilderness, its kindliness, its humor, and its bitter indignation. (back flap)

Setting aside its politics, the book itself is beautifully devised and written.

The book’s language is wonderful. Steinbeck narrates in clean, descriptive, and heart-wrenching prose, while his characters speak in gritty dialects that make you feel like you’re right there with them. He manages to convey important ideas in very simple language without it feeling phony; quite the opposite, it feels truer, more plainly sincere and human, than anything ever has.

The book’s plot is not quite a plot, which is a purposeful progression of events driven by the values of its protagonist (paraphrased from Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction.) Instead, the book’s protagonists are pushed from behind, from one struggle to the next, where the survival of each struggle is a triumph, but the triumph is undercut by the next struggle. Still, though they are pushed from behind, they are also value-driven, and their values are life, productive work, and family. The constant battle for survival and the overwhelming odds the Joad family faces can make for an exhausting read emotionally…but that only draws you deeper into the narrative, for you feel the exhaustion the Joads feel. While that might not sound pleasant, if you think of it in terms of a novel’s ability to bring you into the story, this novel delivers more than any I have ever read.

Finally, the very last scene is one of the most beautifully melodramatic scenes I’ve ever read in literature. I closed the book with my heart pounding, not sure if I was feeling indignant, triumphant, relieved, or simply, simply, hopeful.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you hate its politics and philosophy, you can’t reasonably deny its power as a work of enduring literature.

What do you think of The Grapes of Wrath?

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Quick review of *The Catcher in the Rye*

I read The Catcher in the Rye in one day, my 32nd birthday, and loved it. In many ways, it hardly has the makings of a book I’d appreciate. It has no plot and no ending to speak of, and its main character, who whines and calls people phony throughout the book, provides nothing to fill the void, so to speak. But there is a subtle genius to the book’s structure. It has to be this way for it to have the right impact: for it to infuriate you and, at the same time, make you examine people and yourself more closely.

Forgive me if you consider what I’ve said to be “spoilers.” I don’t, because before I read it, this is similar to what my sister, Amie, told me…except she hated the book for the very reasons I loved it. Anyway, it didn’t spoil the book for me; instead, it made me more conscious of it as I read it. I do not enjoy plotless novels and whiny characters, but The Catcher in the Rye is the exception to the rule.

What do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Ghastly!

20160111 GhastlyTwo images recently inspired new stories for me. Both images are ghastly—at least, to my usually tempered sensibilities. The stories do not use these images for the sake of being ghastly, but instead serve legitimate thematic purposes. Still, they shocked me, and I wondered if I’d be able to write them. Additionally, I wondered if I should write them. Do I want to put such tragic images into the world, even if they serve legitimate purposes?

Ultimately, I decided I would be able to write them (though it might take a lot of editing to write them well, since they go against my nature), and that, yes, I should put the images out there, because they serve legitimate purposes.

Let me segue for a moment to explain what I mean by “legitimate purposes.” In my view, presenting a ghastly image for the sake of being ghastly is inappropriate in any art form. This is why I don’t enjoy most horror or action films. Regarding action, for example, if Jason Statham is the main star, I know it’s a movie with action for action’s sake, and thus, it’s crap. Some people will say, “Well, it’s just mindless fun.” Well, not for me. I’ve never had mindless fun, and I don’t think it’s possible except for mindless people. Regarding horror, I consider Saw to be a movie that (barely) uses horror for legitimate themes—for example, the movie questions how much we value our own lives, and whether anyone has the right to challenge us in that regard by hurting us (they don’t). However, the Saw sequels are generally horror for horror’s sake, and thus, crap. I’m sure I’ve offended a few people here. Feel free to argue the value of horror/action for its own sake in the comments and I’ll read them.

Returning to my main purpose for this post, the epiphany I came to was this: a writer should tap into the extremes of his sensibilities.

I’m fairly levelheaded. But every now and then I find myself enjoying something shocking, because it balances right on the line of what I can appreciate versus what makes me sick to consider. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the movie Pan’s Labyrinth are examples. Sometimes, my own ideas are like that. The two stories I recently conceived would be my first forays into the ghastly fringes of my otherwise tempered nature.

I think a writer should, from time to time, dare to write his own extremes. Don’t let a legitimate story go to waste because it has a horrific or explicit element. Dare yourself to write it and to publish it. You can always return to center, and you need not go beyond your own extremes… Just, every now and then, take a walk along the fringes.

Have you ever shocked yourself with something you’ve written? Is it an experience you would like to repeat, or are you glad it’s done and gone?

Colleges promote racism and call it ‘diversity’

I’m four classes away from my bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and one of my last classes is a 400-level Interdisciplinary Studies course called “Diversity.” For the last four weeks, I’ve dealt with textbook essays, and fellow students, that assert the ubiquitous existence of racism, sexism, and so forth in America, especially as displayed, as if it were innate to their nature, by—you guessed it—white heterosexual males. Racism and sexism exist, of course, but they are not ubiquitous traits, and they are certainly not innate. Yet, despite textbook and student claims agreeing with that, the subtext is clear: “privileged” white heterosexual males and females are racist, sexist, and uncompassionate “oppressors” to everyone else. I have done, and will continue to do, my best to reasonably argue against these broad strokes and call out the textbook authors and some of my fellow students as the racists they are, who support white guilt and all that other nonsense. (I can do this because I’m Costa Rican. Right? Oh, wait, never mind…I guess it actually makes me a “white-washed traitor.” #whatevs.) Recently, though, I felt cornered. The guidelines for our third short paper were as follows:

Trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or “minority” group to U.S. culture, for example, to music, the arts, dance, or theater. There are many other possibilities! Develop your composition based on an area of interest to you in the arts.

I decided to rebel, a little. I considered kowtowing and completing the assignment as required, but I couldn’t. My mind doesn’t work under compulsion. But I want a decent grade. So I did what I could to be true to my convictions yet fulfill—in some way—the requirements of the assignment. Below is the introduction and conclusion only to my essay (the middle stuff isn’t too relevant to this discussion, but you can read the essay in its entirety here if you want). What do you think? Will I get an A, B, or C on this paper? What grade would you give me if you were the professor? Here we go!


[Intro.] It is inappropriate to require students to focus on artistic achievements based primarily on racial or ethnic considerations. Were I inclined to meet the requirement, further, I would find it difficult. My area of interest is literature, and as I scan my bookshelf, I see that most of the authors whose works I have read and enjoyed are American white males. However, because they are American white males and do not constitute a minority, I cannot mention their excellent contributions to literature. Since my bookshelf contains few writers of other ethnic or racial origins, and since the assignment guidelines encourage me to focus on an area of art that is of interest to me, I will discuss the contributions of the non-white writers and works with which I am familiar; however, I am not familiar with a large enough corpus of any particular race’s or ethnicity’s writers to trace contributions of one group (nor is it necessary for me, or anyone, to be in order to “appreciate diversity”). Therefore, I will briefly discuss a single contribution from three groups with which I am familiar: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

[I go one to discuss each author’s work and analyze it as a positive contribution to US culture, though I spanked Silko’s work a little because it promotes, rather than condemns, cultural divisiveness…but that’s another topic.]

[Conclusion.] Artistic “contributions” should not be judged based on their creators’ races or ethnicities, nor should colleges require students to “trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or ‘minority’ group to U.S. culture.” Such assignments necessarily instill two subtle assertions: race and ethnicity are important distinctions (which reinforces racism); and majorities should not receive attention (which reinforces antagonism). However, we should recognize the skill and grace of authors who consider questions of race and ethnicity in ways that encourage us to break down these barriers, rather than reinforce them in pseudo-intellectual exercises.


That’s it. I considered adding *drops mic* after the last line, but figured that might not be academically appropriate. So, honestly, what do you think of my response to the essay guidelines? Should we focus on art because of the race of the person who created it, or because of the artist’s skill? What grade would you give me? Thanks for reading!

Race Card a


 

Update, 8/14/15: The professor, Dr. Underwood, gave the paper 100% credit, saying, “A superb essay that takes Diversity paper assignments to task. Excellent critical acumen and fascinating examples. A joy to read!” I smiled, took a deep breath, and thought, Good. Maybe there is hope for college curricula. =)

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.