This section of the unit provides a variety of short fiction which will be discussed in relation to
. Though I originally thought of pairing
The Great Gatsby
because of the many similarities between the two works, I eventually opted for a broader view of the particular time period which produced Kane; all of the stories considered were published between 1938 and 141. I felt that it was important to stick very closely to the time period of ane, for my assumption is that artists/writers must reflect a particular political and socia-l climate. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, published in 1925, reflects the Jazz Age. The stories discussed below mirror the state of America just prior to World War II.
A search through many collections of short stories, in order to find appropriate works, resulted in what I think is an interesting array of fiction. Taken together, they speak of one concern—the loss of American idealism. Looked at individually, they speak of individual segments of American society; that is, each story illustrates the effect of the loss of American idealism on a particular class or group. The very existence of separate vehicles (stories or film) which deal with distinct social groups itself underscores a tremendous isolation which is born of a highly stratified society.
The paragraphs below provide the teacher of this unit with brief synopses of the stories along with the articulations of themes. In addition, brief examples of narrative strategies employed by the authors are presented. Thus students are encouraged to think generally about the elements of fiction—and in particular—about the techniques used to delineate character in the short story.
The discussion questions provided for students are meant to: 1.) encourage thematic comparison among the short stories and
and 2.) initiate discussion about the translation of fiction into film through a comparison of cinematic and written techniques.
“Clothe the Naked” by Dorothy Parker
“Clothe the Naked” emphasizes the wide abyss between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in American society. The main character, Big Lannie, lives in squalid poverty while her employers, Southern society women, live in luxurious comfort. The many contrasts delineated in the story serve to underscore the corruption of the wealthy and the necessary acquiescence of the poor in “Clothe the Naked”.
Big Lannie accepts the travails of life which include the loss of her husband and children with dignity and stoicism. She finds joy in raising her blind grandson—despite the ardship and fear this responsibility engenars. In contrast, her employers glide through life free from tragedy—ignorant of pain. Their responsibilities include “planting salvia around the cannon in front of the D.A.R. headquarters.”
Their hardship (losing Lannie as a laundrss when Lannie’s grandson is orphaned) is keenly flat and selfishly handled. “Each arrived at the conclusion that she had been too qood to Big Lannie, and had been imposed upon!
In fact,only one of Big Lannie’s employers will have her back when Raymond is older and .more self-reliant; though this employer, Mrs. Ewing; prides herself on her kindness, the reader is cognizant of her real motive and of her patronizing attitude.
The climax of the story occurs when Raymond goes for a long-awaited walk wearing clothes grudgingly passed on to him by Mrs. Ewing. Instead of experiencing the simple joy of a walk, Raymond is viciously attacked. The author deliberately describes the attack in an ambiguous way, and thus encourages the readr to see the attack symbolically. Raymond is crushed by the uncaring world which Big Lannie has miraculously managed to survive. One wonders what will happen to Raymond once his protectress is gone.
“Clothe the Naked” is dispassionately told. There is little use of dialogue, and the events of the plot are simply related with no authorial comment. Characters are often revealed through the use of sentence structure. Thus short sentences describe Big Lannie’s situations. The powerful simplicity and straight-forwardness of these sentences mirror Big Lannie’s acceptance of fate and her inherent dignity and innocence. “She neither cursed her ills nor sought remedies for them. They happened to her; there they were.”
Mrs. Ewin’s character, on the other hand, is illustrated through complex sentence structure comprised of conditional phrases which mark her as an excuse-bound and essentially delwded character. In order to further contrast the characters of Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing, Parker often juxtaposes the conflicting sentence styles associated with Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing. In this way, Mrs. Ewing’s false complexity and Big Lannie’s elegant simplicity are underscored; “But Mrs. Ewing, admittedly soft-hearted certainly to a fault and possibly to a peril, kept her black laundress on. More than ever Big Lannie had reason to call her blessed.”
“Clothe the Naked” (story and title) describes a loss of idealism and a corruption of values in American society. “The Naked” are the poor who are trampled bL thos who worship materialism and power. “The Naked” are also the only surviving innocents in a corruDt Amrican landscape.
“Slipping Beauty” by Jerome Weidnan
“Slipping Beauty” is essentially a vehicle or.the immigrant’s reaction to American values. In fact, two-thirds of the story is comprised of a seltzer salesman’ monologue on American life. Mr. Yavner tlls of two daughters, Yettie and Jennie. Yettie, the older, worked hard learning how to coo and sew while attending business scool in order to procur a steady job (and a husband). Jennie, the younger, quit school in order to read magazines and smoke cigarettes by day, and run around with jobless boys by night. Much to Mr. Yavner’s dismay, Yettie remains husband-less and work-bound while Jennie is arried to a “nice fellah Cwith3 a steady job by the city.”
Yavner reacts vehemently to te American scene where happiness res ults from the luck of the draw rather than from personal development. Yavner states that there is nothing to learn in America. When a parent’s advice is followed there is no reward while the flouting of parental (old world) values results in “success.” Thus the work ethic seems to result in more work while laziness is rewarded with a life of leisure. In short, the selfish doll is highly regarded in America where imae rather than substance is valued.
“Slipping Beauty” has the structure of the fairy tale or the fable. Mr. Yavner serves as an old-time story-teller of the oral tradition who simply relates the facts and ultimately the moral of the tale. The author provides a brief introductory material which serves as a doorway through which we may view the story teller of years gone by; that is, we are introduced to Mr. Yavner through a “contemporary” character who describes Yavner’s dress, work style, and other idiosyncracies. In this way the author distances us from Mr. Yavner. Both the introductory framing device and the fairy-tale structure of the story serve to underscore the abyss between old world and new world lifestyles, and the reader is called upon to assess the value of the modern existence.
“Prelude” by Albert Halper
“Prelude” is a story of anti-semitism and the spectre of fascism. The immigrant family of father, son, and daughter, the Silversteins, is initially verbally taunted and then finally viciously attacked by a gang of unemployed youths.
The story emphasizes the failure of the melting-pot scheme and the illusiveness of the American dream. The members of the gang are alienated and frustrated, for there is no “American dream” for them. The Silversteins live in isolation in a gentile neighborhood and cannot count or their neighbors for help when thy ar attacked.
The hatred which is born of a segmented or non-cohesive society is ultimately self-destructive; as the daughter points out to her passive neighbors, “ . . . after they get us down they’ll go after you.”
“They” are any of the unbridled disenfranchised members of society who fight (ironically one another) for a piece of America nuch as a dog might fight his own kind for a bone. “They” are also those people who—having lost a sense of dignity or self-worth—are prime candidates for member:ship in a fascist army.
“Prelude” is told from the point of view of Harry, the son. We are privy to Harry’s thoughts with regard to the events of the story as well as his feelings about his father and sistzr. Harry is a sensitive and intelligent character whom we instinctivelv trust as a narrator. His ability to analyze his sister’s rage and his father’s passivity in the wake of the gang attack, establishes his narration as essentially accurate though passionate. The use of this technique of first-person narration draws the reader into the events of the story. We feel as thou3h we know Harry, for he speaks directly to us. As a result, Harry emerges as a realistic creation, and we, the audience, feel that his world may indeed be ours as well.
Questions for Students:
1. Compare/contrast the characters of Charles Kane and Big Lannie with reard to the ideas of power, strength, and success, What is success?
2. Discuss the meanings of the titles of each work.
3. Compare Dorothy Parker’s use of symbolism/ambiguity in “Clothe the Naked” with the symbolism inherent in
(Rosebud,etc.) How would you create the ambiguity of the attack on the grandson (“Clothe the Naked”) in a film adaptation of that story?
4. Dorothy Parker’s use of conflicting sentence structures with regard to Big Lannie and Mrs. Ewing serves to create rhythms which we associate with each character. How do hese rhythms help to delineate character? How might this establishment of rhythm be accomplished in film? Discuss with regard to various film elements. (Use of background music? Pace of dialogue? Visual rhythm through the use of composition?)
5. Why does the author use a contemporary character to introduce us to Mr. Yavner in “Slipping Beauty”? Would such an introduction work in a film adaptation? Why? Why not? If not, what cinematic techniques could you use to create a similar effect?
6. Discuss the theme of isolation with regard to
, “Prelude”, “Slipping Beauty”, and “Clothe the Naked”. Why are the characters in each ork isolated? What is the result of this isolation? Reiterate the film techniques which underscored isolation in
What literary techniques are used to underscore the distance between characters in “Clothe the Naked” and “Slipping Beauty”?
7. Compare/contrast the parental concerns dig-played in
, “Slipping Beauty”, and “ Prelude”.
8. How does the use of first-person narration help to delineate the character of Harry in “Prelude”? How does this first-person narration affect the reader? Why? How could this narrative technique be used in a film adaptation of “Prelude”? or Would the employment of particular elements of film serve the same purpose? Explain.
9. Compare and contrast Mr. Yavner’s (“S1ipping Beauty”) and Mr. Silverstein’s (“Prelude”) feelings about America.
10. Discuss the political and personal repercussions the segmented society as delineated i “Preluae”.
11. Comment on the differences of focus (varying social groups) in the short stories read and the film viewed.
The tacher of this unit may wish to further expand the third section or the reading. portion of the unit should student interest in the time period remain high. Thus I include below additional suggestions for short story reading which will further delineate the concerns of American society just prior to World War II. The following descriptions of these stories are simply meant to apprise the teacher of their essential themes, and they are therefore extremely brief.
“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker
Parker illustrates the vacuousness of two lower-middle-class shop girls who imitate society women in gesture and attitude while dreaming of the procurement of a million dollars.
“Eight-Oared Crew” by Harry Sylvester
“Eight-Oared Crew” describes the relationship between the immigrant class and the third-generation upper-class of an Ivy League School.
“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw
Shaw poignantly reveals the loneliness inherent in an upper-class marriage based on convenience and sex rather than on friendship and love.