“There are times even now, when I awake at four o’clock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly in the waters by the pier.” — MacLeod (223)
“At such times only the grey corpses on the overflowing ashtray beside my bed bear witness to the extinction of the latest spark and silently await the crushing out of the most recent of their fellows. And then because I am afraid to be alone with death, I dress rapidly, make a great to-do about clearing my throat, turn on both faucets in the sink and proceed to make loud splashing ineffectual noises. Later I go out and walk the mile to the all-night restaurant.” — MacLeod (223)
“My father did not tan—he never tanned—because of his reddish complexion, and the salt water irritated his skin as it had for sixty years. He burned and reburned over and over again and his lips still cracked so that they bled when he smiled, and his arms, especially the left, still broke out into the oozing saltwater boils as they had ever since as a child I had first watched him soaking and bathing them in a variety of ineffectual solutions. The chafe-preventing bracelets of brass linked chain that all the men wore about their wrists in early spring were his the full season and he shaved but painfully and only once a week.” — MacLeod (233)
Macleod is by no means a prolific writer. But the stories (and novel) he has produced are painstakingly constructed works of art. With his muscular (yet incredibly eloquent) prose he makes every line count, and can transform even the most inhospitable of settings—from a fisherman’s disorderly bedroom to a raging sea—into something beautiful (even sublime). Although “The Boat” is symbolically rich (and I will use this story to segue to next week’s reading of Laurence, which also uses powerful symbols), I would like to focus here on setting. The story presents to the reader a variety of settings, not limited to, but including: the boat, the bedroom, the house, the seaside fishing village, Cape Breton, the Maritimes, and Canada. I’d like to connect these various settings to the characters in the setting by asking: how does setting affect the characters’ behaviour in this story? Choose a character—the narrator, his mother, his father, his sisters, the tourists—and offer your thoughts.
What do books symbolize in this story?
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
“Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance to his hermitage.’’ — Melville (47)
“Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitting to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folder paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tiding for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” — Melville (63)
“Many critics who focus on the characterization of Bartleby attribute his supposed state of forlorn hopelessness to the adverse effects of consumeristic Wall Street America on the working classes. Why, rather than a product or victim, do we not understand Bartleby as potentiality, not as someone to pity, but as someone whose actions we ourselves should strive for in their very unattainability? Does Bartleby in the least allude to melancholia? To feeling downtrodden? To a sense of personal failure? No, he is unrepentantly affirmation and life-embracing in his radical passivity.” — Todd Giles, in TheExplicator (2007)
I assigned the Melville story because Bartleby is one of the most memorable characters in short fiction—I have seen t-shirts for sale which bear the line “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby remains one of the more perplexing characters in short fiction in particular, and in prose fiction in general. This said, I would like to leave discussion of Bartleby as a character for our meeting, and instead would like to focus here on the story’s ending. After we read the Bowering story last week, I explained that short fiction is often a difficult genre, and that this difficulty is sometimes most evident in a story’s ending. A plot’s denouement does not always provide us with the resolution we hope for, and though this is often a frustrating reality of short fiction, we should see it as an opportunity, an interpretive challenge. With this in mind, what are your thoughts on how Bartleby ends? The ending is symbolically rich, what with the dead letters and the narrator’s desperate cry: “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!” What do we do with the symbol of the dead letters? Finally, should Melville have left out this final section, or does it provide the reader (and the narrator) with a much-needed explanation of Bartleby’s mystifying behaviour?
At night the lake was like black glass with a streak of amber which was the path of the moon. All around, the spruce trees grew tall and close-set, branches blackly sharp against the sky, which was lightened by a cold flickering of stars. Then the loons began their calling. They rose like phantom birds from the nests on the shore, and flew out onto the dark still surface of the water. No one can ever describe that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home. “They must have sounded just like that,” my father remarked, “before any person ever set foot here.” Then he laughed. “You could say the same, of course, about sparrows, or chipmunks, but somehow it only strikes you that way with the loons.” — Laurence (171)
What do the loons symbolize?
What do you think of Laurence’s representation of First Nations people in this story?
“I am with those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” “I want to go home and into bed.” “We are two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.” “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.” “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.” — Hemingway (155)
“Turning off the light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.” — Hemingway (156-157)
Consider the following excerpt from an essay on Hemingway: “Hemingway’s story begins late at night in a cafe. An old man is drinking, watched by two waiters who are not differentiated. In Dialogue I, comprising seven speeches, there is no way of knowing who begins the exchange, hence no way of knowing which waiter refers to the old man’s attempted suicide and which asks questions about it. In Dialogue 2, comprising three speeches, there is similar indefiniteness. . . . Even at the beginning of Dialogue 3 . . . it is still not possible to identify with assurance the opening speaker.” — George H. Thomson, in Hemingway Review (1983) What do we do with narration in this short story? How do we assign meaning to a conversation when we can’t always tell who is speaking? Does this narrative difficulty matter?