All posts by hgmeeker

FINAL PAPER: Analysis Of Kingstons’ “No Name Woman” from “The Woman Warrior”

Question: In what ways does Kingston defend her aunt by denouncing the problem of Chinese culture while still attempting to be respectful of her ancestry?

The story, “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston recounts the tale of a young woman who became pregnant while unmarried and is forced to suffer the consequences. This story blurs the lines between truth and falsehood, making it difficult to decipher accurate information about the no name woman. Kingston illustrates the struggle of Chinese American immigrants to assimilate and debates the difference between authenticity and personal experience. If one reads the work just as the story of the aunt, one misses the underlying message regarding Chinese society and its detrimental effect on women. This work is a story within a story; it describes the aunt’s journey, but it also serves as a diary for the author to help resolve her mixed emotions.

Confucian familial structure stemmed from the men down. The men were the heads of the house and the leaders of society. The children, more specifically the sons, were to do as they were told and model their behavior after their fathers. Having female children, especially if you did not have a son already, was shameful, and many baby girls were abandoned. If the family was behaving according to tradition, virtue would flow down the chain of command. A woman’s duties included bearing and raising children, footbinding (if wealthy), cooking, cleaning, and serving her husband. A woman could not own land or file for divorce; once she entered a marriage she was bound to her husband. Women were gentle beings, who were viewed as delicate and fragile, devoid of their own opinions and thoughts. Kingston views this disrespect of women as a weakness of Chinese culture.

The first line hints at the secretive nature of Chinese society, another cultural weaknesses that troubles the author. “You must not tell anyone” (Norton 1507). Kingston is illustrating the concept of the inner circle. Chinese citizens tend to close off communication and analyze their words before speaking for fear of negative repercussions. The talk-story Kingston is about to hear is shameful; negative history follows generation after generation. The family in Chinese society is the most important unit, and all actions of the family members affect the entire group. Ironically, Kingston works diligently throughout this story to uncover her aunt’s history, something that her mother and father have worked hard to keep hidden. She is differentiating herself from her culture by publishing the very secret that continues to perturb her.

The author describes America as the “Gold Mountain,” or the epitome of opportunity and success. Chinese citizens were fed up with their oppressive war-lord governmental system. Many made the decision to move to America, hoping to live the American dream and achieve success. This move exposed the Chinese to a new culture, giving them a reference point to compare their society to. Their illusion of what it meant to be American was shattered. This was the exact same for Kingston, living in America made her realize that no one shares a common experience; we may all be American but we all perceive America differently. This idea was the basis for her questioning the truthfulness of her aunt’s history. Her mother’s experience is unique and personal, just as Kingston presumes her aunt’s experience was. Kingston never would have written this novel if she had not immigrated to America. This move gave Kingston the freedom of expression and the comparative mindset she needed to observe her culture analytically.

Kingston introduces the villagers, who represent one source of stress to the family system. They’re the ones who suspected the aunt of being impregnated by another man and violently storm the house. “As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks” (Norton 1508). Their friends and neighbors, feeling burdened by the weight of Chinese society and tradition, must destroy the house and livelihood of friends and comrades. They wear white masks not only to conceal their identity but also to hide their grief. The color white in ancient Chinese society is associated with mourning. These villagers are mourning the loss of a member of their community. Contradicting tradition, some may believe the aunt was raped or believe that the whole family should not suffer. However, if they betrayed tradition, they would be ostracized. One of the pillars of Chinese culture is networking and familial ties. If someone is banished, they’re an “other,” or someone with no ties or connections to Chinese culture. This instance begs the question of when to stand up for what is right even though the consequences may be severe. Sometimes traditions are rooted so tightly that change is frowned upon, even when it is correct. Kingston breaks away from this idea when she chooses to defend her aunt and view her story as oppression rather than direct betrayal.

Kingston’s mother threatens her, exclaiming, “You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful” (Norton 1508). This stresses the importance of this secret being kept within the family. Kingston goes on to explain that her mother enjoys testing her. However, Kingston isn’t one to trust the story; she begins to question the validity of the tale by exclaiming, “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies” (Norton 1509). As desperate as the Chinese Americans were to maintain their tradition and culture, they were also desperate to fit in and assimilate. This questioning of the validity of the story renders the reader incapable of distinguishing between what is authentic to Chinese culture and what is personal fiction. Kingston is rejecting the idea that Chinese culture is authentic and real, trying desperately to separate herself from that viewpoint. Kingston is claiming that Americans, when they ask Chinese citizens about their culture, take that one unique experience and apply it universally. These people serve as synecdoches for an entire culture.

Kingston’s imagination then begins to run wild, filling in the blanks of her aunt’s history with overdramatic storylines. Her aunt is one of the victims of Chinese culture, she serves as a symbol of the way the patriarchal system suppresses women. Kingston feels the responsibility to represent her aunt and speak for her. The aunt, according to Kingston’s version, was a victim of a man’s lust. This story shows the skewed nature of ancient Chinese society. It is even more unbearable for Kingston, especially because her own mother is supportive of the actions towards her aunt. It is clear that her aunt cared for the child because she carried the baby over to the well and held it tightly in her arms during their final moments together. The aunt chose to perform this act because she and her child were isolated from society and devoid of hope to regain status. Her baby would enter the world without network ties and anyone to care for it, and the thought of the horrible life her child would endure made her uneasy. This situation reinforces the idea that one person’s actions haunt an entire family.

The ghost imagery continues to resurface throughout the story. This imagery indicates the close ties the Chinese have to ancestors and their belief in the after-life. In this case, however, the aunt does not have anyone to provide for her in life after death, so she is constantly begging others for food, wandering hungry. She haunts Kingston as well, serving as a constant reminder of the consequences that can occur as a result of one’s actions. Kingston is torn; there is a presumption in speaking for her aunt even though she may have wanted to silence herself. Kingston is anxious about the use of her aunt as a political symbol for the impropriety of Chinese culture.

The elements of Chinese society merge together towards the end of the story. “The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated size that fit one roundess inside another, round windows and rice bowls-these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family” (Norton 1513). Everyone has their place in the tight circle that is Chinese society. The roundness indicates that the family functions as a whole unit, with each generation dependent on the other. The grandparents depend on their kids to take care of them in old age and the cycle continues as the parent’s age. One of the biggest disgraces in Chinese society is neglecting the elderly. Chinese tradition is what fuels this circle; it establishes the cultural norms and practices that define what it means to be Chinese. Not only does this circle represent familial relations, it also represents the circle of life.

This story, although it is a story about an aunt whose life fell into disarray, is in fact a historical recollection of Chinese society and a questioning of Chinese identity. The story first lays the background of the Confucian system and the need for immigration to America. It illustrates the roles of women and men in Chinese society, with women being subservient to men. In addition to laying the foundational Chinese traditional principles, the story demonstrates what occurs if one steps out of line: banishment, disgrace, and loneliness. Kingston gives the reader insight into the history of Chinese culture, which serves as a rigid guideline for the problems encountered throughout this story. Kingston is trying to come to terms with her identity in Chinese society, while continuing to give her aunt a lost voice. By writing this novel, she’s shining light on the plight of her aunt, showing respect for Chinese culture, and illustrating the problems that led to her aunt’s suicide.

George Saunders – “The Semplica Girl Diaries”

“SG’s very much on my mind tonight, future reader.

Where are they now? Why did they leave?

Just do not get.”

The “Semplica-Girl Diaries” is an unsettling story told through the lens of a father in his 40’s. After attending a party at his neighbors house, he realizes that the multiple garages, exotic animals, and large mansions are far from anything he could ever provide for his daughter. With a stroke of luck, however, he wins a 10,000 dollar lottery and spends the money on an extravagant party for her, complete with a set of Semplica girls. The Semplica-Girls are women who live in such poverty that they are forced to sell themselves to the wealthy as lawn ornaments. The women in this story are strung up by strings through their brain in large groups and suspended to serve as symbols of wealth and status. The Semplica girls mirror the treatment of immigrant workers in our society today. The narrator is seemingly happy with this arrangement: people admire his lawn, he’s competing with his neighbors, and his daughter is popular. However, Eva, his youngest daughter decides to fight back and frees the girls, plunging her family into deep debt. Ironically, the youngest child, whose mind is supposedly the most malleable, is strongest in her morals. She serves as a glimmer of a hope in a dismally morbid futuristic society.

After I finished reading this story, I realized that the narrator has much more in common with the Semplica girls than he realizes. He’s been keeping both an emotional and physical distance from them throughout the story, but when he begins to think about their home countries and lifestyles, he begins to realize that they are more similar than he thought. The above quote demonstrates this. They’re both willing to make sacrifices for their family. He spent excessive amounts of money on his daughters to ensure that they had comfortable lives. On the other hand, the Semplica girls were willing to sell their bodies and their pride to provide for their families in impoverished countries. Both the narrator and the Semplica girls have an aspiration and a desire to better the lives of those around them. The only difference being that the dad was born to a life of privilege. I believe the reason that he blocked himself from any relation to the Semplica girls was because he saw too much of himself in their reflections.

Introduction to Rita Dove

Rita Dove’s poetry is greatly influenced by her real life experiences, as well as Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Heinriech Heine. Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952 to Ray Dove (the first African-American chemist to work in the U.S. tire industry) and Elvira Hord. She has two younger sisters and an older brother. Dove says, “my parents instilled in us the feeling that learning was the most exciting thing that could happen to you, and it never ends, and isn’t that great.” She discovered her gift for word manipulation in early childhood. “I wrote, but I always thought it was something that you did as a child, then you put away childish things. I thought it was something I would do for fun. I didn’t know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers.”

After earning a National Merit Scholarship and ranking among the Nation’s top 100 high school seniors in 1970, she accepted a Presidential Scholarship to the University of Miami, where she pursued poetry. She completed her education on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Tübingen in Germany. While she was a teaching fellow at the Writer’s Workshop of the University of Iowa, she earned an M.F.A. in creative writing.

In 1979, Dove married novelist Fred Viebahn, a translator of German editions of her works. They have one daughter. Shortly after the marriage, she published “The Only Dark Spot in the Sky” (1980) and a poetic slave memoir entitled “The Yellow House on the Corner” (1980).

Dove taught creative writing at Arizona State University and received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1987. In 1992 she was named United States Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress. At age 40, Dove was the youngest person to hold the position and the first African American to hold the Poet Laureate position, due to the recent title change.

Dove reached literary maturity when she published a forty-four-poem tribute to her grandparents entitled “Thomas and Beulah.” It won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, which was the first prize awarded to a black female since Gwendolyn Brooks’ last won it in 1950. President Bill Clinton presented her with the 1996 National Humanities Medal, the highest honor for scholars. In addition, President Barack Obama presented her with the 2011 National Medal of Arts, making her the only poet to hold both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Dove has twenty four honorary doctorates, earning her fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Humanities Center. She and her family live in Charlottesville, VA, where she currently teaches at UVA.

 

REVISED: Essay on Jean Toomer’s “Georgia Dusk”

“Georgia Dusk,” after first read, appears to paint a colorful, optimistic picture of hard-working life in Georgia. Toomer shatters this illusion in the third stanza when he draws our attention to dark imagery, as illustrated by the use of words such as “sawmill” and “sawdust piles.” If we don’t address this drastic shift, then we may miss the meaning behind the poem. When analyzed with a more skeptical eye, one comes to realize that the poem is drawing attention to the destructive nature of the slave south on the African American community.

The title, “Georgia Dusk,” provides us with a setting and context for the poem. Dusk is the fusion of light and dark, a time when the sun has just set but the moon has yet to take charge of the sky. Dusk, although beautiful, represents vagueness and ambiguity; it is a time when the line between a beginning and an end turns hazy. The smoky imagery, as evidenced by use of the term “dusk,” implies the joining of the light and dark, day and night, black and white. Here is our first hint at mixed race. Dusk implies Toomer’s ongoing struggle with self-identification. He feels that he is constantly stuck in a dusk-like period; he identifies with both African American and white societies. “The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue” and “The setting sun, too indolent to hold,” indicate that the sun is no longer clinging to the sky to prolong day, while the sky is too tired to pull back the sun. Light and dark imagery plague this first stanza; the “flashing gold” gives way to “night’s barbecue,” both of which illustrate colors of a sunset. There is an ongoing tug of war between these two periods.

As dusk settles, another day of work ceases and “moon, men, and barking hounds” come together in celebration of the survival of another day. This feast becomes more indulgent as Toomer chooses the word “orgy” as a descriptor. This word implies passion, song, dance, and drink. The “genius of the South” he describes in that same line is anyone who is able to take such a dismal situation and turn it on its axis to create a scapegoat for optimism and positivity. The musical imagery follows, indicated by the line, “Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.” This line serves as a lamentation for whoever created and fostered the discovery of the soul music that keeps these slaves going even when all hope seems lost. In the end, the camaraderie and joy that song brings to these people cannot be rivaled, and it licks their wounds and provides an escape from their gloomy lives. In addition, the rhythm in this quatrain is important. The first and fourth lines (“hounds” and “sounds”), as well as the second and third (“South” and “mouth”) are coupled together in a rhyme scheme. The hounds, men, and moon that gather for the feast are the ones surprised at the power of song from the soul illustrated in the fourth line. The second and third lines indicate the focus of one “genius” to turn negative energy into positive energy by transforming the slaves’ experiences through song. These two lines are in the middle of the stanza, indicating that the genius serves as the bridge and glue between the songs from the soul and the hounds, moon, and men.

These memories of “king and caravan, high-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man” trudging along a swamp singing skips back over slavery to imagine an elevated past for these people, a past where they thrived as kings and priests. The “chorus of cane,” however, rises above the high-priests and king’s songs. Although beauty was previously present here, it has given way to ongoing destruction. This stanza is an indication of the people grappling with the past, as they continue to have their voices drowned out by the elite white class. The musical imagery in this stanza, terms such as “strumming” and “chorus” indicate the importance of song to a lost people in rediscovering their place in society. The only way they can feel at peace is through voices coming together in song. Toomer calls these people together to rise “above the sacred whisper of the pine, give virgin lips to cornfield concubines.” Their efforts are soon thwarted, however, as the “dreams of Christ” fade and pass quickly, leaving behind a shadow of despair.

All the imagery I’ve described so far is connected to an underlying theme: time. The dusk is a metaphor for the current period of history. Slavery has just ended and people are unsure with which culture to identify. It is complicated to remember and claim as one’s own these cultural practices that grew out of oppression and bondage characteristic of the slave south. In the fourth stanza, “former domicile” illustrates the problems for former slaves of re-envisioning the south as their home. Toomer’s saying that if a former slave remains in the south at this time, rather than moving to the north, they need to rethink the past and culture to make it tolerable, as well as their own. It is difficult to envision their history as their own because it was written and controlled by white power. There has been some effort to destroy the past, as evidenced by the ghosts of trees imagery, but it continues to linger in the African American culture. Toomer builds on this unclear history when he discusses the “vestiges of pomp” in the next stanza. The past is a vestige and no one knows how to deal with it. It’s hard for former slaves residing in the south to resolve that circumstance with the idea of a comfortable home. Toomer believed that there was real culture among the slaves, but by basing that culture off of slave society with a white handprint, you’re reconstructing a culture that’s not entirely your own. In other words, you get caught up in those small ambivalences. For example, slave spirituals, although they are beautiful songs, are tainted by slavery and white influence. How can you claim those cultural practices as your own when they grew out of oppression? Further evidence for this situation is illustrated in the final stanza when Toomer uses Christian imagery. These dreams of Christ parallel the former slaves’ dreams of the past. Just as Christ rose again, so will the African American race. It’s a sign of purification and enlightenment.

Toomer is calling attention the struggle of the African American community. They are trapped in a dusky period in history, unsure which culture to claim as their own and how to move forward. Up to this point, much of their cultural history had been controlled by the white race. Toomer claims that they need to create their own culture in order to cleanse themselves of white control.

Deconstructing Kingston’s “No Name Woman”

 “Like a great saw, teeth strung with lights, files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing the rice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water, which drained away through the broken bunds. As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks” (1507-1508).

Stripped down: saw, teeth strung, files, tearing, disturbed black water, drained away, white masks

This passage illustrates the tight knit nature of Chinese society and the destructive role it plays in the lives of these immigrants. The aunt carries on an adulterous affair, which leads to the discovery of her illegitimate child. This causes her neighbors and friends to take up arms and raid her home. The destructive imagery used here mirrors the destructive nature of Chinese society, specifically the role of women. Kingston’s aunt gives into risky sexual passion and is cast away by her village, a result just as powerful as death itself. Kingston is trying to make sense of ancient traditions and customs, while adjusting to a completely new culture. She paints a picture of a society where women and men have strict duties and jobs, with little room for private lives. Interestingly, Kingston mentions how the time period also affects the impact adultery has on the community. If the adultery had been committed during a time when food was abundant, it would have been considered a mistake and possibly been overlooked, but since the resources were scarce, adultery became a serious crime! This baby became a burden to not only the no name woman but the entire community itself, who would have to take it upon themselves to assist in the child’s upbringing and well-being.

When stripped down, this verse consists of violent words and imagery implying punishment and torture. Breaking the rules in this society was grounds for banishment. Once one was removed from the tight inner circle of the Chinese society, the duty of trying to make a life in a foreign environment was very difficult. Kingston’s choice of words is quite interesting. The saw shows the dependency on agriculture, but also foreshadows industrialization. She continues to describe how the teeth tear open the rice, which is a staple crop of Chinese culture. The next descriptors she uses, black water and white masks, indicate no color at all. This could represent the two sides: to the Chinese villagers, the issue of adultery is black and white, with little grey in between. It could also represent the black and white nature of Chinese society itself; change is frowned upon and the people continue to live in the past. In addition, the color white in Chinese culture is a color of mourning, as if these villagers are saddened by having to outcast the no name woman and are using the masks not only to provide anonymity, but to hide their sorrow.

The author placed these terms together to convey the rigidity and cruelty of Chinese society if customs were violated. This passage also illustrates the concept of separate spheres, or the roles that men and women play.

A Close Reading of “Georgia Dusk” by Jean Toomer

“Georgia Dusk”, after first read, appears to paint a colorful, optimistic picture of hard-working life in Georgia. However, when analyzed with a more skeptical eye, one comes to realize that the poem is drawing attention to the destructive nature of the slave south on the African American community. The light and dark imagery used throughout the piece indicates that darkness, although it brings rest from a long day’s work, also brings danger and chaos. The destructive imagery parallels the common experience shared by these workers. All of these interactions come full circle in their relation to time. Let us examine each of these areas in order to discover how these images play into the overall theme of this poem, the idea that external beauty masks reality.

The title, “Georgia Dusk,” provides us with a setting and context for the poem. Dusk is the fusion of light and dark, a time when the sun has just set but the moon has yet to take charge of the sky. Dusk represents vagueness and ambiguity, a time when the line between a beginning and an end turns hazy. The smoky imagery, as evidenced by use of the term “dusk,” implies the joining of the light and dark, day and night, black and white. Here is our first hint at mixed race. Dusk implies Toomer’s ongoing struggle with self-identification. He feels that he is constantly stuck in a dusk-like period; he identifies with both African American and white societies. “The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue” and “The setting sun, too indolent to hold,” indicate that the sun is no longer clinging to the sky to prolong day, while the sky is too tired to pull back the sun. Light and dark imagery plague this first stanza; the “flashing gold” gives way to “night’s barbecue,” both of which illustrate colors of a sunset. There is an ongoing tug of war between these two periods.

As dusk settles, another day of work ceases and “moon, men, and barking hounds” come together in celebration of the survival of another day. This feast becomes more indulgent as Toomer chooses the word “orgy” as a descriptor. This word implies passion, song, dance, and drink. The “genius of the South” he describes in that same line is anyone who is able to take such a dismal situation and turn it on its axis to create a scapegoat for optimism and positivity. The musical imagery follows, indicated by the line, “Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.” This line serves as a lamentation for whoever created and fostered the discovery of the soul music that keeps these slaves going even when all hope seems lost. In the end, the camaraderie and joy that song brings to these people cannot be rivaled, and it licks their wounds and provides an escape from their gloomy lives. In addition, the rhythm in this quatrain is important. The first and fourth lines (“hounds” and “sounds”), as well as the second and third (“South” and “mouth”) are coupled together in a rhyme scheme. The hounds, men, and moon that gather for the feast are the ones surprised at the power of song from the soul illustrated in the fourth line. The second and third lines indicate the focus of one “genius” to turn negative energy into positive energy by transforming the slaves’ experiences through song. These two lines are in the middle of the stanza, indicating that the genius serves as the bridge and glue between the songs from the soul and the hounds, moon, and men.

These memories of “king and caravan, high-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man” trudging along a swamp singing skips back over slavery to imagine an elevated past for these people, a past where they thrived as kings and priests. The “chorus of cane,” however, rises above the high-priests and king’s songs. Although beauty was previously present here, it has given way to ongoing destruction. This stanza is an indication of the people grappling with the past, as they continue to have their voices drowned out by the elite white class. The musical imagery in this stanza, terms such as “strumming” and “chorus” indicate the importance of song to a lost people in rediscovering their place in society. The only way they can feel at peace is through voices coming together in song. Toomer calls these people together to rise “above the sacred whisper of the pine, give virgin lips to cornfield concubines.” Their efforts are soon thwarted, however, as the “dreams of Christ” fade and pass quickly, leaving behind a shadow of despair.

All the imagery I’ve described so far is connected to an underlying theme: time. The dusk is a metaphor for the current period of history. Slavery has just ended and people are unsure with which culture to identify. It is complicated to remember and claim as one’s own these cultural practices that grew out of oppression and bondage characteristic of the slave south. In the fourth stanza, “former domicile” illustrates the problems for former slaves of re-envisioning the south as their home. Toomer’s saying that if a former slave remains in the south at this time, rather than move to the north, they need to rethink the past and culture to make it tolerable, as well as their own. It is difficult to envision their history as their own because it was written and controlled by white power. There has been some effort to destroy the past, as evidenced by the ghosts of trees imagery, but it continues to linger in the African American culture. Toomer builds on this unclear history when he discusses the “vestiges of pomp” in the next stanza. The past is a vestige and no one knows how to deal with it. It’s hard for former slaves residing in the south to resolve that circumstance with the idea of a comfortable home. Toomer believed that there was real culture among the slaves, but by basing that culture off of slave society with a white handprint, you’re reconstructing a culture that’s not entirely your own. In other words, you get caught up in those small ambivalences. For example, slave spirituals, although they are beautiful songs, are tainted by slavery and white influence. How can you claim those cultural practices as your own when they grew out of oppression? Further evidence for this situation is illustrated in the final stanza when Toomer uses Christian imagery. These dreams of Christ parallel the former slaves’ dreams of the past. Just as Christ rose again, so will the African American race. It’s a sign of purification and enlightenment.

The imagery throughout this poem provides key contextual clues to the reader. The light and dark imagery, as well as the destructive imagery, help to illustrate the tension and fear the workers face. Song provides an escape from the dark depths of hard labor, but unfortunately, as illustrated by the final line, that escape is solely temporary; it’s a mirage that hides the darkness. The external beauty masks the reality, oppression, and injustice of slavery. Time is one of the most important metaphors illustrated in this poem. The African American community is facing a dusky period in history; they are unsure which culture to claim as their own and how to move forward. Up to this point, much of their cultural history had been controlled by the white race. Toomer claims that they need to create their own culture in order to cleanse themselves of white control.

Comparison of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man”

“Balloon” – “As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes.” (606)

“Petrified Man” – “Mrs. Pike is a lovely girl, you’d be crazy about her, Mrs. Fletcher.” (1097)

Both “Balloon” and “Petrified Man” embody the common phrase, “everything is not what it seems.” In “Petrified Man,” the characters’ are opaque; their perceptions are masked by gossip and temptation. Mr. Petrie is the epitome of this idea; he appears to be a simple man performing in a freak show. Digging below the surface, however, allows Mrs. Pike to realize that he is a hidden criminal wanted for rape. The perceptions of the characters throughout this story are open to reader interpretation, infused with a slight bias coming from the gossip of the beauty parlor. It is not until the end of the story that Mr. Petrie’s identity is revealed. In addition, the perceptions of Mrs. Pike vary as well. Leota originally believes her to be a kind woman, while Mrs. Fletcher is a bit more skeptical. In short, the view of each character is tainted by biases infused throughout the story.

This perception is similar in “Balloon.” Barthelme devotes paragraphs to explaining the diversity of reactions after he first blows up the balloon and places it onto the streets of Manhattan. The meaning of the balloon varies for each character in the story, but also the reader as well. He illustrates the deeper meaning of language throughout this story, using one word and branching the meaning to broader ideas. For example, when a man associates the term “sullied” with the balloon, Barthelme expands on the idea that this man sees the balloon as an interloper between “the people and their sky.” He complicates the idea further by suggesting that the January sky is a worse sight than the underbelly of the balloon, and this renders the man annoyed yet pleased with the sight of the balloon. Barthelme uses this as evidence for his underlying point that communication of true feelings is very difficult. In addition, the narrator illustrates that the imagery representative of the balloon to him varies for every person that comes into contact with it, and their opinions vary highly from his original intention. They give meaning to something he otherwise cited as meaningless.

These two stories relate in their perceptions. Just as the views of Mr. Petrie and Mrs. Pike change throughout “Petrified Man,” the perceptions of the balloon vary from individual to individual. However, conveying your true feelings towards someone, such as trying to get a word in in that bickering beauty parlor or illustrating your thoughts and reactions towards the balloons, is difficult, challenging, and impacted by the viewpoints and opinions of those around you.

“No, I despise freaks, declared Mrs. Fletcher.” (1097)

I find this quote to be one of the most ironic quotes in the story. One of the main themes throughout this story is that everything is not as it seems. All the characters portrayed have underlying personalities that the reader must decipher. The real “freak show” lies within the beauty shop itself. Mrs. Fletcher spends her time criticizing and judging others, just as she does with Mrs. Pike. Leota runs a beauty shop that fuels itself on gossip. Leota is a flaky character; she appears to defend Mrs. Pike in the beginning of the story but turns on her later when she identifies Mr. Petrie, seemingly jealous of the fact that Mrs. Pike used her magazine to find the ad and make some quick cash. And of course, Mr. Petrie appeared as another act in a freak show, but he turns a wanted criminal and rapist. This story is a series of illusions. These women plan their lives around Lady Evangeline’s readings; she determines how they make decisions. The harsh language used here, especially the word despised, indicates Mrs. Fisher’s denial to acknowledge her inability to fit within societal norms. She lacks confidence in herself and her marriage, masking it by jesting at others and pointing out their flaws. For example, she becomes infuriated when she realizes someone in the town gossiped about her pregnancy. The only character that seems exempt from this freak show is the young child Billy Baron, who serves as a voice of reason within the story. He has not yet been damaged by the society of these women.

“Creamy” – Toomer 959

Creamy is one of the descriptors used in “Fern” by Jean Toomer. This word is representative not only of Fern’s identity but of the identity of the African American race and culture as a whole; they are a melting pot for oppressed cultures and people. The description of Fern as a “creamy, dusky colored women,” indicates that she is neither black nor white, but mixed race. This identification parallels with Jean Toomer himself, who is also mixed race. They’re both searching for their identity within society. In the story, Fern is a woman whose beauty infects men to the point where they have no control over their affections. However, it’s important to note that white men do not seek her out. This evidence suggests that the white population is blind to Fern’s beauty, just as they are to the rich African American culture, and they continue to pass her by due to the color of her skin, as evidenced by the man passing by in the buggy.

Fern is also “creamy” in that she is a mixture of many different religions. Toomer describes her using the words “Jewish cantor,” indicating the strong religious ties of the Hebrew people to the land of Israel, just as African Americans have strong ties to Georgia, the center of slave-America. The “cantors” he goes would have been songs longing for the homeland and one’s cultural identity. He indicates the connections to Georgia when he says, “When one is on the soil of one’s ancestors, most anything can come to one…”

One interesting thing to note about Fern is her eyes, which seem to take on their own character throughout the story. Her eyes capture the men around her; “men saw her eyes and fooled themselves.” Her eyes seem to encompass all aspects of nature and religion. The narrator claims that her eyes “held God,” as well as “the whole countryside.” Her eyes serve as a symbol for the unattainable goals and dreams of the African American race at this time, as well as their search for identity. Cultural identity is difficult to maintain due to blurred lines and lost history. Most men are mesmerized by her eyes and long to do “some fine, unnamed thing” for her at best. “Nothing ever really happened.” Her eyes serve as a grave for African American dreams. One gets swallowed up by her eyes only to realize that nothing impressed her and nothing ever changed.