Archive for the April ’09 Packet Category

April Critical Essay.

Posted in April '09 Packet, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on April 30, 2009 by Richard Farrell

In this paper, I will look at how three different writers proceed to resolve conflict in their stories, focusing specifically on the crisis, or turning point of the story in each.  It is important to distinguish between the crisis and the climax, two similar but often distinct points.   The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms makes this comparison: “Although the crisis and the climax generally occur together, crisis is sometimes distinguished from climax by critics who use the former term to refer to a purely structural element of plot and the latter term to signify the point of greatest emotional intensity.”  The climax occurs at the point of greatest tension in the story.  The crisis moment occurs when the character’s fortune must change, for good or ill.  My argument is that resolution of conflict is often subtle.  The story can turn on the gentlest of images.   

In Richard Bausch’s story, Aren’t You Happy for Me, a father receives disturbing news over the phone from his daughter.  This story takes place in the confined space and time; indeed, most of scene involves one phone call transmitted in dialogue.  Bausch sets his story in motion with this dramatic premise:  “Dad, I’m bringing him home with me.  We’re getting married.”   We learn quickly that the man Melanie is marrying is almost forty years older than she is; that she is pregnant; that the man is her professor. On the other end of the phone, the father, Ballinger, has news of his own, though this news is kept from the daughter.  He and his wife, Mary, are ending their marriage.   The conversation is tense, especially as Melanie’s mother appears in the scene.  Bausch uses humor and anger to create a very plausible situation filled with problems needing solutions.  The turning point, or crisis, in this story comes near the end, after most of the tension has been released, when Ballinger remembers his own early, marital bliss.  “He sat there, remembering, like Mary, their early happiness, that ease and simplicity, and briefly he was in another house, other rooms.”  These other rooms are like a portal to his soul.  The turn comes when Ballinger calls out his wife’s name.  “’Mary’?’” he said, low; but she hadn’t heard him.  She was already out the doorway and into the hall.”   This name, posed as a question, is spoken into the void of his life.  It is a gesture towards something, but we will not see where it leads.  Perhaps it leads to reconciliation with his wife, or forgiveness for his daughter, or both, or neither.  There is, in his gesture, a point of understanding.   The story ends with Ballinger questioning himself about what he might have said had his wife answered.  The reader is left to consider the same question.

In Christopher Tilghman’s story, In A Father’s Place, Dan’s son Nick visits his family home with a new, combative girlfriend.  The family estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland provides both setting and context.  The land is old and retains the trappings of gentrification: antique furniture, oil paintings of ancestors, and servants. Into this setting come Nick and Patty.  Nick has travelled from New York to his boyhood home. Patty immediately begins to deconstruct the family’s estate and history.  Dan, a widow, seems hardly aristocratic.  He comes across as plain-spoken and grounded, suspicious of this girl and her effect on his son.  Nick has come, under her direction, to work on a book, presumably about the family.  The air is thick and still, both literally, for it is a hot and humid weekend, and metaphorically.

            The primary tension is between Dan and Patty.  However, the real energy of the story is relationship between the father and son, and the unsettling effects Patty is having on Nick.  Nick appears entranced and beholden to Patty, a changed person who has rejected the foundational structures of his life.  The couple stay at the house, and the tension increases.  One day, a strong wind begins to blow on the Chesapeake Bay.  Dan suggests that Nick and his sister go for a sail, thereby isolating and excluding Patty.  The climax occurs here, when Dan confronts her and throws her out of his house.  However, the turning point occurs just before this expulsion.  The natural setting, especially the weather, signals the moment when the story turns.  It starts with a subtle shift in the wind, first noticed as farm smells drift in from the northwest.   Dan “stared out into the dark for a long time before he undressed, and was still half awake when the first blades of moving air began to slice through the humidity.  He was nodding off on his pillow when, later, he heard the crustacean leaves of the magnolias and beeches begin to clatter in the wind.”   Notice the strong language given to the wind, and the way the natural world intrudes, the ‘crustacean leaves’, reminding of the bay itself.  The wind, the leaves, the bay, these things signal for the reader that change is coming.  The turning point in this story is directly related to the climax, which depends on and occurs directly after  the wind begins to blow.

 In William Maxwell’s Haller’s Second Home, an outsider named Haller experiences family life vicariously.  Haller arrives, in late 1941, in the New York City apartment of the Mendelsohns, a well-to-do family who are preparing a birthday party for their daughter, Abbie.  Haller thinks he has a great surprise in store: he’s arranged for Francis Whitehead, another close family friend who went off to Basic Training, to telephone the girl on her birthday.  But Haller’s presence with the Mendelsohns is not nearly as welcome or celebrated as the title might imply.  We see the ingratiating way Haller treats Abbie; we see him make fun of the sons; we see him brag about his travels.  Haller presents as the kind of person most people would not like, yet this family has accepted him, albeit tentatively.  The father all but ignores him.  The mother and children merely tolerate him.  It quickly becomes obvious that this generous family merely contends with his presence in their rich, loving home.  Haller senses this too.  A kitten with a deformed back becomes the double for Haller; no one really wants the cat, but because they are kind people, they do not know what to do with it. Abbie cares for the cat in her room inside a cardboard box.  The family, essentially takes pity on the cat the same way they take pity on Haller.

            The climax occurs when Francis arrives.  Suddenly, the contrasts with Haller’s arrival are shown in stark detail.  The family rushes to the door and marvels at his uniform.  He is welcome and hailed as a hero.  At one point, Haller remarks how it is just like him (Francis) to “leave us all sitting here admiring his empty chair!”  With Francis’s arrival, the family’s (and the story’s) energy and focus shift to him.  Haller is left wandering around, looking for a place to sit down.

            The actual turning point for the story comes that night, when Abbie suddenly remembers the kitten.  “She was almost asleep when the kitten commenced complaining from the box on the floor.  She had entirely forgotten about it in the excitement of Francis’s homecoming.  ‘A little chloroform for you my pet,’ she said, ‘first thing in the morning.’”  In the story, Haller is already off stage.  Only in memory does he appear, and not pleasantly.  The story shifts back to Francis and their love for him, leaving the reader to wonder about the cat and Haller.

Though these three stories are diverse in terms of style, structure and even time period, the common theme of family serves as a backdrop for this analysis.  Each story treats the crisis and conflict differently but each must solve the problem of resolving the conflicts effectively.  By paying attention these resolutions, and with the more narrow focus of finding the crisis, the craft techniques of these writers is revealed.

Ross Murfin & Supryia Ray.  The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd Ed.   (Boston:  Bedford/St.Martins, 2003)

William Maxwell.  All the Days and Nights.  (New York: Vintage Books, 1994)

Christopher Tilghman.  In A Father’s Place.  (New York: Picador, 1990)

Richard Bausch.  “Aren’t You Happy for Me?,”  The Art of the Story, edited by Daniel Halpern.  (New York: Penguin, 1999)