Issues of identity are far-ranging and very personal. It would be absurd to assume that this section of my unit could cover all issues. It doesn’t purport to. Rather, various stories have been chosen in the hope that they will at least scratch the surface of a problem which has long puzzled twentieth century man. I hope the choices of stories will, in their diversity, cause students to begin to think about where they are headed, who they are, or what obstacles must be hurdled in the quest for the fulfillment of self. I hope that each student will recognize at least one of the issues of identity, and that this recognition will allow him comfort, or the beginnings of positive introspection.
The stories to be covered are “The Lie”, “The Somebody”, “The Almost White Boy”, “A Minority”, and “A Turn With the Sun”. Issues of identity include:. false identity molded through social status, identity amidst an uncaring environment, racial identity and the absurdity of prejudice, integrity and identity, and changing personal values and identity. All of the stories consider the plight of the adolescent.
In introducing this segment of “The Short Story: A Slice of Life”, a teacher might simply allow discussion of the themes mentioned above. These themes might be listed, and students asked to provide examples from their own life experiences. Such a discussion will be difficult to “pull off”, but will be well worth the effort. It might be interesting to note the similarities and differences between student-generated “stories” and the stories told by authors.
“THE LIE” BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
: When this story opens, we are quickly engaged in the world of the wealthy and powerful. Eli Remenzal, a fourteen year old, is traveling with his parents and the driver of their Rolls Royce to Whitehall, the alma mater of his father and many other members of the Remenzal family. The Remenzals have, in fact, been attending this boarding school for generations, and, as a result, have made many financial contributions to Whitehall; many buildings are named for the family. (Eli’s father, Dr. Pemenzal, continues in this tradition as a benefactor of a new dorm.) The school admissions policy is equitable, however. (This is not the male counterpart of a finishing school.) The school seeks only those boys who display scholastic potential, and many are awarded scholarship funds. Eli finds himself in a terrible predicament, for he has been turned down as an applicant for the school, and, having destroyed the rejection letter, finds himself heading for Whitehall with parents who have assumed he is to be welcomed with open arms. (It is important to note at this point that Dr. Remenzal states that Eli will not be treated any differently from other boys despite the family influence.) Of course, the truth is eventually revealed to the father, and Dr. Remenzal’s true identity is seen. He displays his scorn for fairness and equality in an attempt to influence the board of directors regarding Eli’s rejection. The board does not capitulate to the doctor’s power tactics. Eli (who knows his limitations) will not be allowed to attend Whitehall. Eli chastises his father for trying to pressure the school, and expresses the shame he feels as a result of his father’s actions.
Criticism: (Key Elements : point of view, irony, characterization)
Vonnegut chooses the omniscient point of view in the telling of this story. This affords the reader an “honest” appraisal of all characters. Though characters may try to hide from themselves, they cannot hide from the reader. The characters’ interactions are most interesting, for within these interactions most of the story’s irony may be found. For example, during the journey to the school Eli’s mother, who is not of a wealthy background, states what her husband thinks, but will not admit to. That is, Eli is part of a powerful continuum,; he is of the elite, and will be afforded the rewards of being born into wealth. The irony occurs when we note that Eli’s mother holds her son’s feelings foremost, while his father would sacrifice him to the image of the Remenzal family. There are many ironies in this story. The lie is not the son’s denial of the rejection letter; it is the lie his father perpetuates in holding onto a limited societal identity; the son knows who he is while the father does not. Though we feel empathy for the shame Eli feels with his father’s “rejection” of him, we are most keenly aware of a mask of power, and the impotent soul who desperately hides behind it.
“THE SOMEBODY” BY DANNY SANTIAGO
: This story takes place in a decaying neighborhood of the East Side of Los Angeles. Chato awakes to a dreary day of too many babies in the household, parents who seemingly care little for him, and the loneliness of the deserted neighborhood where all have left save his family. When Chato leaves the house “for good”, he is soon accosted by the graffiti of a once rival gang. This is a disturbing reminder for Chato as his long-disbanded gang had allowed him to feel part of something, and this is what he desperately needs now. Chato spends the day writing his name on various buildings and streets. He does stop for a while at the Boys Club, but soon leaves because the place is “boring” and an adult there talks “at him”. He is soon back on the street, and only once runs into someone he knows. Although he momentarily thinks of spending some time with her, he thinks his image would be destroyed in doing this, for she is unattractive. With the story’s end, Chato is making plans to write his name all over Los Angeles. At this point he believes that he doesn’t have to be a sports figure or anything else to be known; all will know “Chato de Shamrock”.
Criticism: (Key Elements: point of view, setting, symbolism)
This disturbing view of a confused and lonely adolescent derives much of its impact from its first person point of view. We are privy to Chato’s thoughts which are often based on fantasy rather than reality. Chato desperately wants to “be somebody”, and often misreads others’ reactions to him. For example, a teacher’s simple act of kindness becomes (for Chato) proof that she wishes to adopt him. Though Chato must take some responsibility for his life in choices which will enhance or destroy him, the reader comes to understand his reactions to the remote uncaring environment which surrounds him. Once in a while he is correct in his assessment of others. For example, Chato recalls that a doctor callously told him that his handwriting showed that something was wrong with him; having seen the doctor’s handwriting, he correctly diagnoses this callousness in describing the doctor’s writing as “ugly like a barb wire fence with little chickens stuck on the points”. Though Chato is confused, it would be less than fair to say that those around him are any more sane. The signature, “Chato de Shamrock”, symbolizes the alienating affects of society, and Chato’s own special needs. “Chato” is a self-given nickname which means “cat” in Spanish. “de Shamrock” names the street that once comprised a neighborhood for Chato. He is, in effect, a stray cat who has no “family”, and society has “forgotten” that he exists. At the end of the story Chato finally describes his signature which has rays “shooting out of it like from the Holy Cross”. This description, saved for the end of the story, reminds; us that “loving thy neighbor” is difficult in a neighborhood of neglect and alienation.
“THE ALMOST WHITE BOY” BY WILLARD MOTLEY
: This story’s first lines state its primary conflict; “By birth he was half white. Socially he was all Negro.” Jim, the son of a white father and a black mother, is described as grey-eyed, blonde-haired, and white-skinned. The author then relates one of Jim’s memories of early childhood; he and his parents stared into a mirror, and Jim’s father having asked Jim to note the color of each member of the family, states that Jim must remember that “people are just people”. A series of brief memories follow as Jim recalls the various problems he and his family have experienced: the hatred of blacks, the condescension of whites, loneliness, (Jim’s) denial of his heritage, etc. The author then turns to present time to fully exemplify the pain this adolescent will suffer. Jim falls in love with a white girl, Cora. The remembrance of his father’s statement, “people are just people”, enables him to tell Cora right away of his background. Though she professes acceptance, many hints are given as to her true feelings about Jim. She does not allow him to walk her to her door, she halfheartedly accepts an invitation to meet Jim’s parents, and then vows never to return, etc. We are also given a glimpse of her bigoted father. Yet, for four months she will not leave Jim. With the story’s end, we learn of her motivation; she wishes to “use” Jim sexually. Jim responds to her overtures with a statement of his love for her, and a proposal of marriage. She retaliates with a series of racial slurs, and runs from Jim in an ultimate betrayal. Jim, alone and devastated, once again states the now chilling phrase, “People are
Criticism: (Key Elements: plot, irony, foreshadowing, characterization)
Willard Motley leaves no room for misunderstanding this tragic story, for the story’s structure: initial statement of conflict, brief examples of the ramifications of this conflict, and the final “story” of Jim, will not allow the reader to turn away. This story is powerful and chilling, for the statement, “People are just people”, haunts us with its original and ironic meanings. The author deftly uses elements of foreshadowing so that Cora’s final betrayal, though shocking in its intensity, is really no surprise. His characterization of Cora, with descriptions of her family background, is full. She is not merely a stereotyped bigot, but the product of a family and a society which promote the horrifying absurdity of racism.
“A MINORITY” BY FRANK O’CONNOR
: This story, which takes place in Ireland during World War II, contrasts two boys’ reactions to being in the minority, or non-Catholic, while attending a Catholic boarding school. Denis Halligan is gregarious and a born leader. He ultimately converts to Catholicism, for he wants to be part of the group (so as to be able to exercise his leadership abilities). Willy Stein is a loner and a juvenile delinquent of sorts. He is often annoyed by the proselytizing of the school, and reacts by shooting spitballs during Mass. Though he believes he is a Protestant, and remembers little of his Jewish parents who were killed in a concentration camp, he will not relinquish what he perceives to be his background. Denis admires Willy, at first without realizing why. Not willing to give up his relationship with Willy, Denis at one point tries to convert him. Denis’ argument (for conversion) is, “They’re only two of us and hundreds of them. And they’re right”. Willy responds by saying, “And if there were hundreds of us and two of them, we’d be right, I suppose”. What Denis finally learns is that in converting to Catholicism he has rejected his father. (Denis had not thought long or hard enough to realize that his father, estranged by divorce, would have no recourse in a custody battle for Denis once Denis had become Catholic.) Though Denis initially reacts to this information with a rage that is directed at Willy, he soon admits that Willy, “a dirty little delinquent whom everybody despised and pitied, (was) transfigured by a glory that he (Denis) would never know.”
Criticism: (Key Elements: characterization, setting, theme, allegory)
“A Minority” is a parable of sorts. In a sense, each boy represents a particular stance one might adopt when confronting one’s own identity. This is a story of nonconformity—and conformity as well. The author relates the problem all men must face, but wisely avoids providing a definitive answer. Frank O’Connor, in fact, sees a place for both boys in society. Though the reader may admire one more than the other, O’Connor is careful to present each character in a sympathetic way. Perhaps realizing that many readers would idealize Willy, the author is careful to make important statements about Denis: “He was brought up to respect every form of religion.” “,..he was a born officer and he would never have deserted his men.” Though Willy is brighter than Denis, and perhaps represents what we’d all like to be, both characters, with the story’s end, have proven their worth, for both have integrity. (Willy—with his stance, Denis—in his honesty with regard to self-appraisal.)
This story can also be seen as an allegory. Denis then stands for those who refused to think, and therefore allowed fascism free rein. Willy then stands for those who thought, and were punished for it.
“A TURN WITH THE SUN” BY JOHN KNOWLES
: Lawrence, a student at Devon, a New England boarding school, is the subject of this story of changing values and identity. The story opens on an April afternoon with a triumphant moment for Lawrence: he has just scored his first goal at lacrosse. (This is an important feat, for the school’s highest rewards go to its athletes.) The author then turns to the past in a series of flashback scenes which indicate the metamorphosis Lawrence has undergone since his first days at Devon. What the reader learns is that Lawrence has suffered in his quest for acceptance and identity; he has tried many methods in the pursuit of acceptance, and found little compensation for his trouble. Early on, Lawrence had been ignored by classmates because of an “uncool” or immature scene at a country inn. He then perceived popularity to be found in the realm of the athlete, and, at this point, regarded the school’s trophy room as sacrosanct. The cups revealed past heroes in their glory; Lawrence desperately wanted the same recognition. Having failed socially with his peers, Lawrence vowed to better himself through self-discipline. He also distanced himself from others in a feigned superior stance. His grades improved, and he also became a promising swimmer for the school team. Still, he had no friends, and was not one of the school’s more confident athletes. When the author turns back to the present, we realize that Lawrence has, in fact, “grown”. He now sees the trophy room for what it is—a crypt of faded memories. His values have changed; he is beginning to realize that recognition, or others’ opinions, have little to do with identity. However, with this realization comes the accidental drowning of Lawrence. (The evening of his first goal, he and two classmates swim in a cold river; with an air of happiness and infinite trust, Lawrence dives into the water and dies without uttering a sound.)
Criticism: (Key Elements: setting, characterization theme, flashback
John Knowles is able to capture the pain of adolescence amidst the stilted background of the preparatory school. This environment appears to magnify peer pressure, and the perceived need for conformity among students. Recognition is doled out only to those who display prowess on the sports field; there seems to be little room for the individual in this environment where “one-up-man-ship” reigns. Yet, we must remember that other boys cope with being “second”; Lawrence at the outset is confused, for he is looking for values in society. With the ending of the story, he has begun to look inward; he has attained at least a limited identity. (Of course, it is unfortunate that his environment could offer little guidance for Lawrence. Knowles seems to underscore this point.) The author makes good use of symbolism in his choice of the trophy room. When the “chapel” becomes a “crypt” in Lawrence’s mind, we realize that he has begun to come to a true understanding of his environment and himself. The use of flashback scenes allows the reader a dramatic view of this metamorphosis.