“Reading Blind” by Margaret Atwood sample essay
1. In her commentary “Reading Blind,” Margaret Atwood gives her opinions on factors that make a short story good. She writes that a good story has to have a voice that moves not only across pages but also through time. Most people are first introduced to stories at a young age by the “scandalous gossips” and “family secrets” that children overhear their mothers discussing in the kitchen, or the oral tales with “talking donkeys” and “definite endings” that their grandmother recites to them. All these stories come by voice; and they influence the way each and every person expects from or brings to stories. According to Atwood, a good story has, in many ways, qualities that are similar to those that children want in the tales they are told or overhear. For a story to be successful, it needs to have elements of mystery, proper buildup, unexpected twists, and an “impeccable sense of timing.” It also has to effectively hold the attention of the readers, and gives them a sense of urgency and excitement in the narration.
Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” is one that effectively embodies the voice that Margaret Atwood mentions in her essay. This short story is told through the voice of the main character—a girl from the ghetto named Sylvia. Sylvia’s narration of the events in this story is as raw and as true to life as any fiction can be. In “Reading Blind,” Atwood quotes from Raymond Chandler: “All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that.” The voice in “The Lesson” precisely portraits the speech of a black girl living in the poor urban area with sentences that lack auxiliary or conjugations, and by doing so, reveals the reality like it truly is. In order to closely picture the setting in her story, Bambara has sacrificed the proper and boring ways of the English language and stay faithful to the speech and voices of the people whose stories she depicts.
Only with this unmasked honesty can Bambara create a short story that is so appealing and speaks powerfully to the readers. Intentionally or not, Bambara’s story “The Lesson” closely observes Margaret Atwood’s qualities of a good story; and therefore, it is one that captures the attention of the readers and maintains their interest until the end. 2. In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor stresses the importance of meaning in a short story. It is, she writes, what “keeps a short story from being short.” She goes on further to explain that the meaning drawn from a story are from experiences, and by making statements about the meaning, a person can experience it even more deeply. She uses her own “Good Country People” to demonstrate this point. The plot of this story, a bible salesman stealing the wooden leg of a faithless lady who tries to seduce him, can simply be nothing more than a “low joke.” However, as the meaning of the wooden leg is explored, and the act of stealing the leg is looked into further, it is revealed that this story deals with much deeper issues.
In O’Connor’s opinion, no formula, technique, or theory can really provide guidance for a story. In order to learn to write a story, a person must first write one, then “try to discover what [he has] done.” She also discusses the two qualities of fiction: the sense of mystery and the sense of manners. She stresses that manners collected from the surrounding environments can provide insights into a work of fiction, and also the importance in the depth of personality in the characters. In Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the author explores the problems buried deep beneath the surface sibling rivalry of a Southern family. Both Sister—the overlooked older daughter—and Stella-Rondo—the beloved younger one—has troubled stories that prevent them from committing themselves to a “peaceful” family life. A shallow reader might summarize the plot of the story in one sentence: “A woman is angry at the return of her sister—Stella—when her family turns from her to embrace Stella and her child—Shirley T.; and after a while she leaves home and leaves at the Post Office,” making it an unsophisticated and even somewhat comical drama.
However, as the readers ponders more about the meanings lying deep under each character’s actions: their argument about the nature of Shirley T.’s adoption, the competition for attention of the elderly in the family, and most important of all, the act of breaking away of Sister. When the readers have got past that initial stage of merely comprehending the story, they can start unraveling its hidden meaning and draw their own conclusion and make their own statements about these meanings. “Why I Live at the P.O.” is also a story that draws plentifully from the Southern culture of Mississippi from which the author is from. Welty utilizes her knowledge of the people and environment around her to create characters that are realistic while at the same time mystifying, and thus achieves success in her craft. 3. In his essay “Looking for Raymond Carver,” A. O. Scott makes a statement saying that “More often than not, the big talkers in Carver’s stories are in possession of a degree of class privilege… People who carry on as if they know what they are talking about are regarded with suspicion.
Carver’s greatest sympathy is reserved for those characters who struggle to use language to make sense of things, but who founder in the attempt.” By studying Carver’s two short stories “Cathedral” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” the readers will soon come to the conclusion that this statement is very true indeed. The very first line of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” reads: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” It is made clear that Mel is one of the people of the first group, the ones who talk and flaunt their ability to talk in front of other people. Being a cardiologist might have given Mel a position superior to his friends’, but that fact still does not justify the fact that he talks on. His wife—Terri—does not seem as enthusiastic to discuss the matter of love as he did, however. In the whole conversation, the only idea she is insistent about is the fact that Ed—her ex-lover—loves her.
The dialogues in this story are dominated by Mel, who constantly denies this information. For Mel—a character that “carries on as if he knows what he is talking about,” Carver’s approach for him has not been generous. He describes them with a filter that exposes the flaws and imperfection in their personalities. Mel has a medical degree, and also a past in the seminary. He is certain that the extent of his knowledge gives him the authority to talk; and he utilizes that power with no reluctance. He has a set of ideology of what love should be, and expects that only things that closely follow his criteria can be called love. He deems the actions of Terri’s ex- husband as not only violent and threatening, which they are, but also not love, which they can be. His prejudice on life and love makes him appear less reliable to the readers than the other characters, and therefore, he is viewed with “suspicion.” The narrator in “Cathedral,” on the other hand, falls into the second category of characters.
Even from the beginning of the story, he has always had little to say. He struggles to make a connection in communication with the blind friend of his wife, but does so unsuccessfully and with a lot of troubles. The barrier between him and the blind man is formed not only by their inability to reach each other, but also because of the superior position he has put himself above his wife’s friend. Throughout the whole story, the readers witness his efforts to be relevant to the guest and his wife as well; but he fails to do so. His attempts to communicate with the other characters fall flat, because he is too caught up in his own world. He does not want a person from the outside to come in and interrupt the life he is living, much less a man who knows his wife all too well. He is reluctant and uncertain of this visit and the effects it will have on his life; and that is what causes him in the attempt to make sense of things.
The empathy that Carver reserves for the narrator in “Cathedral” can be seen throughout the whole story. Even with his cynical but ignorant outlook in life, the narrator still possesses some qualities that are admirable to the readers. This character is a man who has the typical characteristics of an alpha-male. He is protective of his wife, and becomes jealous of another man who has gotten close to her. His inability to connect with Robert—the blind man—ultimately boils down to the competition for his wife’s compassion, and even though his thinking is flawed, his desire to keep his wife evokes empathy in the readers. Any person would have felt the same jealousy towards another one who can potentially take what are theirs, and the narrator’s failure to communicate with the friend of his wife, no matter how pathetic, is understood by a universal audience and Raymond Carver himself.
The narrator in “Cathedral” and Mel in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” are two types of characters created by Raymond Carver. Mel is a man who can talk a lot about many things, particularly love; he comes across as a man who is judgmental and closed-minded. The other one, the narrator, while having his own struggles with jealousy and compassion, portraits a more universal and understandable kind of person, and therefore reserves more empathy from the readers and the author himself. By studying these two characters, it can be concluded that A. O. Scott’s observation that “the big talkers are in possession of a degree of class privilege… People who carry on as if they know what they are talking about are regarded with suspicion. Carver’s greatest empathy is reserved for those characters who struggle to use language to make sense of things, but who founder in the attempt” is a true and accurate statement.
Atwood, Margaret. “Reading Blind.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1408-11. Bambara, Toni Cade.
“The Lesson.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 71-6. Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 168-78. Carver, Raymond. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 187-95. O’Connor, Flannery. “Writing Short Stories.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1619-24. Scott, A. O. “Looking for Raymond Carver.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1595-9. Welty, Eudora. “Why I Live at the P.O.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1317-26.
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