Your first reading of the story should bring to bear the standard opening agenda of curiosity for any story.
(1) As to narrative point of view: Do we have a participant or a non-participant narrator?
If participant, is it marginal or central?
In either case, in what ways and to what degree is the narrator reliable or unreliable?
Is the narration "objective" or "omniscient" (and if the latter, is the narrative omniscience limited in some identifiable way)?
Does the narrator intervene on occasion with editorializing remarks, or does the narrator abstain from doing this?
Even in the first reading, you'll want to be wondering what might have determined the author to decide that the choice he or she makes with respect to narrative point of view might serve what he or she eventually decided on as the larger purposes of the story as a whole. Getting clearer on this will be the business of subsequent readings.
(2) How is the plot of the story structured?
What's functioning as exposition?
What functions as the element that precipitates the rising action of the plot?
What best qualifies as the story's climactic episode, and (within that) climactic moment?
Does the story have a denouement?
If so, is the denouement "open" or "closed"?
Again: even in your initial reading, you're not interested in the answers to these questions in their own right: you want already to be reflecting on what the possible "whys" might be for the author's decisions to shape the plot in the way it exhibits itself to be. For example: what issues are raised by the facts that end up being highlighted by being cast in the role of climax -- or of denouement?
In particular: since you're dealing with a short story (and not a nouvelle or a traditional tale), you can expect that the plot will be made to serve the purposes of characterization, and most particular, the characterization of the protagonist. That is: the plot will not be of interest "in itself," but as an action that raises curiosities that, if we follow them up, take us to somehow important insights into the central personage the story is about.
And the theme of this story -- since it is a short story in the particular sense of the term in which we're using it here -- will be something that arises in turn from our reflections on what we notice about the character of the protagonist.
(3) Concerning the protagonist:
Is the author's portrayal of him round or as flat?
Does Ellison draw him as dynamic or as static?
Does the story turn on an epiphany?
If so, is it the protagonist's -- or just the reader's?
Note that, to the degree the protagonist experiences an epiphany, we have an initiation story.
If the former: is it adequate -- or is there more, available to the reader?
Note that, to the degree the protagonist's epiphany is inadequate, or altogether absent, we have his initiation is incomplete, i.e., potential but not actual.
It's best not to read further in this study guide until you have completed your first reading. After you've finished your initial reading and collected your initial thoughts on the questions outlined above, you can proceed to consider what follows.
(4) Can you put your finger on (say) 3 features of the young man who tells the story that tell us either that he has some sound instinct or that he has an eye for a potentially significant detail?
Foil relationships are important here: what sets him apart from the rest of the people who are present at the "party"?
What is his reaction to the victim?.
What happens after he leaves the scene.
What does he pick up on in the remarks made in the general store the day after the lynching -- the observation by the white sharecropper and the reply by the storeowner?
(5) Are there any details Ellison has built into the story that suggest that the narrator, in the time between experiencing what he did and telling us of his experiences, hasn't gotten very far in understanding the issues at stake in these reactions?
This is a way of asking whether there are insights we are able to reach -- on the basis of what the narrator has told us -- that he himself evidently hasn't arrived at, at least by the time in which we are imagining him to be telling the story? These could be
insights into the mentality of the people who see nothing wrong with what was going on; or
insights into the narrator's reactions to what happened (at the party itself, or in its aftermath).
If there are insights we reach that he doesn't, we then need to ask whether Ellison has provided us with any clues that might enable us to get some insight as to what factors are holding the narrator back from seeing what we have?
So then: in reflecting on your second reading (perhaps by way of undertaking still a third reading), you might press to conclusion some of the curiosities you were exercising in your second reading.
(6) Pick one of the reactions that sets the narrator apart from the people in the town he visits, and explain what we'd notice if we were to think those issues through.
Has he noticed these?
(7) Can you speculate on what it is that Ellison might be inviting us to notice as the probably reason the young man doesn't get as far as you did? If you don't get this far now, don't beat yourself over the head. But this might be something to be curious about when you reread the story one day, perhaps after our course is over with.)
(8) What might Ellison, a black author, be inviting us (bptj black readers and white) to notice, by portraying his white protagonist as he has?
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Contents copyright © 2004 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 08 April 2005 .