Analysing Four American Short Stories - Joyce Carol Oates: Capital Punishment (1992)
LINKÖPINGS UNIVERSITET Emelie Andersson
American Short Stories HT 2012
American Short Stories
Joyce Carol Oates: “Capital Punishment” (1992)
- Analyze the father and daughter relationship in this story in terms of their feelings for one another. How do these feelings illustrate their differences or similarities?
Fundamentally, their feelings for one another seem to be typical of that of a relationship between a child and its parent. There is deep-rooted love as well as annoyance, and an inability to see matters from a different perspective than one’s own – hence all their quarrels. When Hope was younger she looked up to her father, which eventually led to her becoming more like him as she grew older. Hope’s admiration for her father made her resemblance him not only in looks, but also in way of being. He seemed like a grown up version of a pushy bully, which made her the same in her adolescent – not only toward her peers, but also toward her own father. She commented on his table manners, pushed him around by shouting orders such as “[…] Daddy, don’t you dare!” as he tried to turn off the TV at the last paragraph on page 266, and he complied without hesitation. She is his soft spot, and I think that goes back to Mr. and Mrs. Brunty’s relationship. He is afraid that Hope will act like her mother, which is why he seems to be stepping around on his toes whenever she becomes bossy and promptly want things to go her way.
As the story unravels, it seems as though Mr. Brunty has a history of violence. Both in the second paragraph on page 268, where it seemed as though he’d hit Harriet, and in the third last paragraph on page 273, where he is close, but refrains from, as he remembers hitting his daughter in the past. This explains why she still has respect for him, even in her defiant teens.
Both of them are proud beings with superior behavior. They worry about each other, him as he gets a phone call after her demonstrating against the death sentence of the inmate on page 269, “Is she all right? Is my daughter all right?” in the third paragraph and “She isn’t hurt? You’re sure?” by the bottom of the same page. t isn’t until she is older, toward the end of the short story, that she seems to regard him with more respect. This shows the love between the daughter and father.
- The article “How Fiction Works” discusses different kinds of narrators. What kind of narrator and point of view do we have in this story? How does the point of view influence our sympathies?
In this story we have a limited omniscient narrator, although, the narrator changes. In the beginning of the story Hope is the narrator, and then it changes to and fro between her father and her. I experienced her point of views as less likeable since she seemed immature and naïve, but yet we sympathize with her since we actually get her point of view. However, I found it easier to sympathize with Mr. Brunty since he often was the victim of Hope’s bullying.
Alice Munro: “Boys and Girls” (1968)
This is a preview of the whole essay
- What kind of narrator do we have in this story?
It is a participant narrator.
- This story brings up the theme of gender, the question of individual identity versus traditional male/female role patterns. Give examples from the text that help to build up this theme in the story and briefly comment on your choices.
On page 171, first paragraph; “These stories were about myself, when I had grown a little older; they took place in a world that was recognizably mine, yet one that presented opportunities for courage, boldness and self-sacrifice, as mine never did.” This is her as an individual, not as a “girl”. She yearns for adventures, which we learn as she later explains her stories.
Page 172, middle to end of the third paragraph; “My father did not talk to me unless it was about the job we were doing. In this he was quite different from my mother, who, if she was feeling cheerful, would tell me all sorts of things – […], the names of boys she had gone out with later on when she had grown up, and what certain dresses of hers had looked like […]. Whatever thoughts and stories my father had were private, and I was shy of him and would never ask him questions. Nevertheless I worked willingly under his eyes, and with a feeling of pride. One time a feed salesman came down into the pens to talk to him and my father said, ‘Like to have you meet my new hired man.’ I turned away and raked furiously, red in the face with pleasure. ‘Could have fooled me,’ said the salesman. ‘I thought it was only a girl.’” This passage gives us several examples. We learn that her father is very private as an individual and doesn’t talk much, while her mother can be very chatty, talking about boys and clothes in a typically “girly” way. The girl goes red with pride when her father acknowledges her as a good worker by calling her a “hired man” (typical that he says man. You didn’t hire women for that kind of labor) and the salesman torts “Could have fooled me, I thought it was only a girl.” Girls normally didn’t do that kind of chores, either. And only a girl sounds like an offence.
First paragraph, page 173; “[…] saying she did not have time to do it properly, and it would stay tied up all day. It was true, too; she really did not have time. These days our back porch was piled with baskets of peaches and grapes and pears, bought in town, and onions and tomatoes and cucumbers grown at home, all waiting to be made into jelly and jam and preserves, pickles and chili sauce.” Typical female chores, staying in the kitchen or tending to the house.
Second paragraph, page 173; “I heard my mother saying, ‘Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help.’” To the father. As if the daughter’s help isn’t sufficient, that Laird would be more of a help because he is male and would get bigger and stronger than his sister.
- Give examples of details that help to create the setting of this story. Briefly comment and motivate your examples.
On page 169, by the end of the first sentence in the first paragraph; “[…] and sold their pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Montreal Fur Traders.” This indicates that the family lives somewhere in Canada, Hudson Bay being in the North of Canada, and Montreal the second largest city of Canada.
Page 171, middle of the first paragraph; “[…] (it discouraged me that the real war had gone on so far away from Jubilee).” She apparently lives in an area called Jubilee.
Page 170, last paragraph; “[…]and I sang ‘Danny Boy.’ I loved the sound of my own voice, frail and supplicating, rising in the dark. We could make out the tall frosted shapes of the windows now, gloomy and white.”. This passage indicates that it is later than 1913, since the song “Danny Boy” wasn’t released until that year. We also get to know that this short story is set during the winter.
Page 174, middle of the second paragraph; “After the war the farmers were buying tractors and gradually getting rid of horses altogether, […]”. This lets us know that the story is set somewhere in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, since that is after the war. We assume the narrator means WW2, since it was around those years that cars started to get more common.
Amy Tan: “The Joy Luck Club” (1989)
- This history takes place during one evening in San Francisco, but through the use of flashbacks the perspective widens, both in the terms of time and place. What are the different time periods covered by the story and how does the chronology of the events compare to the order of narration? What is the effect of narrating the evens in this order?
We get glimpses from both present (around 1987), and past time; all the way back to about 1937, 1949 and somewhere around 1965. So, the time periods that this short story covers is about 50 years, from 1937-1987.
The story is not written chronologically; it jumps from 1987 explanations from 1949 stories June heard during her childhood around 1965 1937, where the story told takes place, and back again to present time.
You get a deeper effect by reading the short story in a non-chronological order. If you’d read it in a “straight line”, from start to finish, you wouldn’t develop the same compassion for June’s mother or understanding for the mother’s feelings toward the Joy Luck Club. At first, you only get the shallow version of how things happened – she had only packed three fancy silk dresses when she and her husband went to America, how selfish!; she apparently left her babies to die by the roadside, how can she live with that burden? – but as the story unravels we go deeper and deeper into the story and have to change our beliefs about her, our first impressions of her, in a way that I think is similar to how June had to deal with the process. It wouldn’t have been as an interesting story if the sequence of events had been chronological.
- In this story the tension between generations is also a tension between cultures, between Chinese and Chinese-American culture. Note examples of such tension in June’s relation to her mother and to her aunts.
Page 605, paragraph 7; “A friend once told me that my mother and I were alike, that we had the same wispy hand gestures, the same girlish laugh and sideways look. When I shyly told my mother this, she seemed insulted and said, ‘You don’t even know little percent of me! How can you be me?’ And she’s right. How can I be my mother at Joy Luck?” This amplifies the feeling that June and her mother are somewhat alien to each other, they are from different cultures and will never truly understand one another.
On page 607, paragraph four; “That’s it. I keep thinking the others will start talking about my mother, the wonderful friendship they shared, and why I am here in her spirit, to be the fourth corner and carry on the idea my mother came up with on a hot day in Kweilin. But everybody just nods to approve the minutes. Even my father’s head bobs up and down routinely. And it seems to me my mother’s life has been shelved for new business.” This passage shows us a culture clash, where June is expecting the others to have a grieving progress that often goes with Americans, where they mourn and show their respects. But the Chinese doesn’t dwell on the past, they keep things moving. They don’t cry because it’s over – they smile because it happened.
Page 609, paragraph eight and nine; “’There’s a school of thought,’ I said, ‘that parents shouldn’t criticize children. They should encourage instead. You know, people rise to other people’s expectations. And when you criticize, it just means you’re expecting failure.’, ‘That’s the trouble,’ my mother said. ‘You never rise. Lazy to get up. Lazy to rise to expectations.’” June’s mother was always criticizing June for not being this or being that. Furthermore amplifies the feeling of tension, of frustration and misunderstanding, like in the following example:
Page 614, paragraph nine; “My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meaning and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more.”
Page 611, paragraph 11; “’So what’s the difference between Chinese and Jewish mah jong?’ I ask Auntie Lin. ‘Aii-ya,’ she exclaims in a mock scolding voice. ‘Your mother did not teach you anything?’”
On page 617, paragraph two; “I am crying now, sobbing and laughing at the same time, seeing but not understanding this loyalty to my mother.” She never truly understands the bond that her mother and aunts shared.
And paragraph 17; “And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.” I think that the daughters of these ladies are pretty much the same regarding attitude toward their mothers. They don’t understand what they have gone through, the sacrifice they’ve made by even coming to America. Why would they throw away their customs?
Chitra Divakaruni: “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” (1998)
- This story contrasts life in America with life in India.
- What are these contrasts?
Mostly in ways of living, their customs – Americans don’t have their parents-in-law living at their house. Everything seems “bigger and better” in America; softer beds, hours spent in front of the TV, big gardens – but no one seem to really appreciate what they have.
In India, parents-in-law can be bossy towards their daughters-in-laws without it being weird. Women should take care of the house and all its chores while the man goes off working during the day. Mrs. Dutta finds her grandchildren impolite and thinks it odd that their mother doesn’t scold them when being rude. Another thing that’s weird is that the children are allowed to close their doors against their parents – she barely knows the meaning of the word privacy.
The handling of laundry is different, too. Mrs. Dutta can’t even imagine her son, the man of the house, taking care of the laundry. Also, Molli has a completely different set of underwear which puts Mrs. Dutta to shame. She can’t grasp why they can’t let their laundry dry in the outdoors, either, nor why the neighbors are so unfriendly – why should they be?
Mrs. Dutta doesn’t understand the humor used in TV shows, nor why her family watches it so frequently or the concept of Molli and Sagar displaying their love toward each other in public.
- What is Divakaruni’s method or technique for bringing them into the story?
She weaves them in very smoothly, in everyday-happenings around the house.
- Can you think of any way in which the author may have guided our feelings for the different characters in this story?
Well, yes. We get to know Mrs. Dutta and her thoughts in a way that only expresses her good intentions, and it makes it hard for us to see it from the family’s POV. We don’t get to see what Molli, for instance, really thinks about Mrs. Dutta’s efforts until the end when she has a breakdown and confesses to her husband. Since we only got Mrs. Dutta’s POV, we thought about the other characters in the family in the same way that she thought about them – rude and behaving and strange behaviors.
Questions relating to all short stories
- What kind of themes can we find in these short stories? Can we see similar themes? Are there themes that unite the stories, themes that separate?
We can find several themes in these stories. There are the relationships between different generations, how they differ within a family, how the children and parents evolve in different directions – growing apart rather than growing together.
- All four short stories depict American society; its time and values. Give three examples of your own to show how these stories reflect the society which gave rise to them.
Racism or suspicion toward immigrants or afro-americans. (Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter, Capital Punishment, The Joy Luck Club)
The debate regarding death penalty in America (Capital Punishment)
Providing for oneself, making a living for oneself. Almost capitalism. (Capital Punishment, Boys and Girls, The Joy Luck Club, Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter)