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Comparison and Contrast
THE STRATEGIES

In some ways, the comparison-and-contrast essay is the most functional of all the expository forms. It is so fundamental to our thinking processes that students are asked to make comparisons in virtually every college class: this novel with that novel, this historical cause with that historical cause, this scientific theory with that scientific theory. Of course, the whole college experience is a matter of making comparisons: this class versus that class, this major versus that major, this career versus that career. Because students constantly face the problem of comparisons, they see the logic in learning a systematic procedure for discovering, organizing, presenting, and evaluating alternatives.

To teach the comparison-and-contrast essay, you must illustrate the two basic strategies for gathering and presenting information on two subjects—the divided and the alternating patterns. The introduction to this section describes these two strategies, but it also encourages your students to compare them and to consider how each one can assist them in composing an essay with a specific purpose for a specific audience. They should learn the strengths and weaknesses of each strategy and then assess the difficulty of their subject, the knowledge of their audience, and the purpose of their essay before they select a strategy. They may decide to experiment with each strategy (to see how a pattern affects the meaning of their essay), or they may decide to combine patterns (to underscore the complexity and importance of their subject).

Whatever their decision, they must remind themselves that the mere presentation of information in an organized pattern does not make a successful comparison-and-contrast essay. Comparisons must be made for some purpose—to assert a thesis or to arrive at a conclusion about the items being analyzed. Such is the case even when a comparison is made in the restricted space of a paragraph. Notice that David McCullough begins his paragraph with a broad assertion (FDR and Truman “were men of exceptional determination”) and then restricts that assertion to a more specific topic (“Truman was more of a listener. . . .” or “Roosevelt loved the subtleties of human relations”).



THE READINGS

Similarly, the readings in this section illustrate how the various patterns of comparison-and-contrast essays can be used to argue a thesis. Mark Twain’s “Two Views of the River” provides a short but memorable example of the divided pattern to demonstrate how knowledge changes perception. All of the information on the first subject—the poetic (impressionistic) view of the river—is presented in one unit. Then all of the information on the second subject—the practical (nautical) view of the river—is presented in a second unit. Twain draws his conclusions about these two views at the end. In contrast, Deborah Tannen’s “Rapport-Talk and Report-Talk” illustrates how the alternating pattern can be used to good effect in a long essay. Because she has many points of comparison and because her subjects appear to be similar on the surface, the uses a point-by-point pattern to demonstrate that women and men approach conversation quite differently.




Scott Russell Sanders and Ann Roiphe compare two complex subjects. Sanders demonstrates that his vision of his own ideological self contrasts sharply with the worldview it has imposed upon his son. By recognizing the contrast between their perceptions, Sanders may be able to heal the rift between the two of them. Anne Roiphe compares her parents’ marriage with her first marriage as a basis for discussing the complicated motives for and outcomes of divorce. Both experiences support her thesis that divorce is a necessary social construct.

Witi Ihimaera uses comparison-and-contrast strategies to weave a funny and poignant story about a young Maori man in New Zealand who is pressured by his friends and family to adopt the social graces of white society while attending a government ball. In the process, he learns that contrast is not necessarily a bad thing in culture.



THE WRITING

The writing assignments suggest that students try out all the strategies of the comparison-and-contrast essay. For example, assignments 1 and 2 encourage students to look for similarities and differences in items in the same class—the same place viewed from two points in time and the same person viewed from the perspectives of two different cultures or communities. The first assignment suggests Twain’s divided pattern as a model; the second suggests Tannen’s alternating pattern as an illustrative example. Assignment 3 invites students to analyze the effectiveness of a specific feature in Deborah Tannen’s essay (the kind of evidence she uses to distinguish between “boy” and “girl” talk). Assignments 4 and 5 invite students to see the same event from two points of view (as different people, cultures, or media would represent them, and assignment 6 asks them to compare and contrast two sides of a controversial issue (as Tannen does).



MARK TWAIN “Two Views of the River

Purpose

Twain’s purpose in comparing his “Two Views of the River” is to contrast the bliss of ignorance with the wariness that comes with experience. This essay, a strict comparison and contrast, juxtaposes descriptions of the same section of the river as viewed by the same man. The difference, which is the focus of the topic, lies not in the river, but in its observer: Twain, first as a young apprentice and later as an experienced riverboat pilot.

Each description of the river is presented in its entirety and appears to be a complete picture. Twain’s memory of the early scene is a painstakingly detailed romantic tableau of the river at sunset. He compares the many hues of the “boiling, tumbling rings” that enliven the surface of the water with the tints in an opal. His second view of the river, based on conjecture, is built upon the same elements as the first, but the pilot’s expertise allows him to expose the dangers inherent in the scene. Thus, besides natural beauty, the opal-tinted rings signify “a dissolving bar and a changing channel.” The awe of the apprentice is replaced by the caution of the older pilot. This essay laments the sacrifice of naive appreciation to the rote calculation of expertise. Twain seems to believe that he has lost more than he has gained in learning his trade, especially since naiveté is absolutely irretrievable.

Audience

Twain anticipates that his audience will be familiar with just one of the attitudes he compares: the poetic response to the river at sunset. Nearly everyone has marveled at the beauty of nature, and most readers have seen a river or other body of water at sunset. Therefore, Twain begins with the familiar; presenting the apprentice’s view first, he uses that common ground as a reference point for his technical description of the river. He does not expect that his readers want to learn to navigate the Mississippi, nor would most want to be robbed of their blissful appreciation of the river’s beauty. Twain’s audience is likely to answer his final question as he would, that education at the expense of wonder is no gain.



Strategy

A striking fanciful comparison between riverboat pilots and physicians, both of whom sacrifice appreciation of beauty to professional understanding, concludes the essay, but the best evidence supporting Twain’s thesis is a strict comparison and contrast, organized around a divided strategy. The essay is short enough for readers to remember the separately presented experiences. Arranged in this fashion, the essay achieves the effect of re-creating Twain’s early view of the river before he describes the disillusioning second, repeating key words and phrases including “floating log,” “slanting mark,” “tumbling [rings],” “silver [streak],” and “dead tree.”

Twain also lists his points of comparison in the same order in both descriptions in order to facilitate comparisons. The points of comparison are listed in the order in which they appear to the narrator. Close, low objects appear before distant, high ones. The river is presented first in visual terms. Red, gold, black, ruddy colors, and silver dominate the scene. In the second view of the river, its beauty is obscured by danger signals, such as wind, rising water, a hidden reef, a troublesome shoal, a snag.

The riverboat pilot’s naive awe of the river is forever replaced by his knowledge of its dangers. Any reader who doubts Twain’s assertion that the majesty of the river “could never be restored to [him] while [he] lived” need only reread the first paragraph of the essay while trying to forget the second.



SCOTT RUSSELL SANDERS “Mountain Music

Purpose

The incredible, Oedipal chasm between fathers and their teenage sons is the subject of Scott Russell Sanders’s essay. He reconstructs an enlightening conversation with his seventeen-year-old son Jesse that occurred during a hiking trip in the Colorado Rockies. Sanders’s purpose for the trip was to discover the reason behind the frequent quarrels between himself and his son, and, in that respect, the journey was successful. He learns that his liberal, enlightened worldview “was casting a shadow over Jesse’s world.” The essay compares a father and son, but more importantly, it examines how Sanders sees the way he lives his own convictions before and after his son describes their effect on his own worldview.

Sanders ascribes some of the strife between himself and his son to normal, adolescent growing pains. However, he realizes that “Jesse was troubled by more than a desire to run his own life,” and he is vexed by “more than the pain of letting him go.” The essay opens with an argument between father and son about where to make camp for the evening; each accuses the other of “spoiling the trip.” Jesse is portrayed as sullen and angry as he leaves his aging father behind on the trail. Back at the car, he is even more disgruntled because he isn’t allowed to drive. He seems like a petulant child, and his father, who can “bear the silence no longer,” appears to be in control when he invites Jesse to vent his emotions. Jesse’s response—that his father hates “everything that’s fun” (television, movies, video games, music, advertising, billboards, lotteries, developers, logging companies, big corporations, snowmobiles, jet skis, malls, fashions, cars, fast food, and the Internet)—crystallizes into a realization of the fundamental difference between the two: Sanders’s activist point of view has given his son a dark vision of the world he must inherit. In the end, the father must resolve to change himself in order to change his son.

Audience

That other fathers find themselves in similar situations is obvious to Sanders, who says, “I knew that teenage sons and their fathers are expected to fight.” His is a cautionary tale to those dads who might be similarly quick to blame the dissonance in their relationships on the immaturity of their sons. It is also an alarm sounded for other members of his generation, whose antiestablishment, antimaterialistic, Green, old-time-rock-and-roll stance makes them appear pessimistic and resigned to the generation that succeeds them. When Sanders and many of his readers were his son’s age, his was the radical, forward-thinking outlook. Faced with the reality of the escalating technology, urban development, and status-consciousness of the world into which he was born, Jesse finds his father’s outlook bleak and “wimped out.” Sanders realizes that being “anti” isn’t good enough for his generation at middle age; they must “learn to see differently” and “look harder for . . . sources of hope.”

Most of Sanders’s mature readers will see that Jesse overstates his case. Sanders identifies some of his son’s attacks as “unfair” and a “caricature of [his] views.” But there is enough truth in Jesse’s accusations to make him question the impact that his philosophies have had on his son. He agrees that “life’s meaningless without hope” and is “stunned” when his son points out that Sanders “can’t enjoy anything.” The father suddenly sees that he is the lone dissenter against “a chorus of voices” that tell his son “the earth is an inexhaustible warehouse, . . . consumption is the goal of life, [and] . . . money is the road to delight. . . .” Sanders knows those voices are dead wrong, but he and his generation must find a more enticing way of countering them than by “hating everything.”

Strategy

Notice how serene the surroundings are before Sanders and his son quarrel. In the essay’s first line the “Rocky Mountains of Colorado . . . [rise] . . . like the promise of a world without grief.” On the first morning of their trip, the author is “soothed by the roar” of the river as he surveys a bucolic scene where animals peacefully graze close by. Sanders recalls his lifelong “yearning toward” the mountains, explaining that this is his first trip to a site to which he has long been “drawn.” After Jesse sprints ahead on the trail, his father observes that “nothing about the Rockies” had changed, yet “what had seemed glorious and vibrant” has turned “bleak and bare. . . . as though anger had drilled a hole in the world and leached the color away.” He fails to really notice the butterflies and hawks around him and begins to feel that the majestic “whole panorama” of the Rockies “might have been cut from cardboard, for all of the feeling they stirred in [him].” His cloudy interior landscape dwarfs even the Rockies.

Much of Sanders’s worldview is called into question through irony in this essay. Right after he proclaims that their environs are “wild enough,” he and Jesse are met on the trail by “grandparents and kids.” Jesse is denied keys to the car because the car-rental company’s insurance couldn’t cover him, but Sanders confesses his own inattention to the “swerving road,” saying “I cannot remember steering.” He is similarly blind to the rich scenery he has come here to enjoy; his attention is finally wrested by “a zone of burger joints and car-care emporiums” along the highway. He had hoped that Jesse would “meet the Rockies with clear eyes, with the freshness of his green age.” Instead, his plan to get away from it all has further proven to his son that he despises the “real world.”

ANNE ROIPHE “A Tale of Two Divorces

Purpose

By comparing and contrasting her parent’s marriage with her own, Anne Roiphe shows the benefits for society of liberal divorce laws. She portrays her mother, an heiress, as being “fearful of horses, dogs, cats, cars, water, balls that were hit over nets,” and so forth to explain why her mother never sought the divorce she occasionally threatened and certainly needed for her own sanity. Roiphe claims that, at age twenty-seven, she herself “married a man whom [she] thought was just the opposite of [her] father.” Learned patterns are well ingrained in the human psyche, however, and she eventually came to see that her husband was “more like her father than not,” and that she, like her mother, “had no faith, no confidence, no sense that [she] could fly too.” Unlike her mother, she divorced her husband, realizing that her “divorce was related to her [mother’s] undivorce,” and that leaving her husband was necessary to spare her daughter from having a maternal role model who would lead her to “perpetual grief and [the] thought of herself as . . . unworthy of the ordinary moments of affection and connection.” She shows how divorce, as well as the lack of it when it is actually necessary, can be equally destructive to children.

Roiphe argues that “in twentieth-century America we place so much emphasis on romance that we barely note the other essentials of marriage that include economics and child rearing.” Her father married her mother because “she was his American dream”; he “loathed poverty,” and so he married for money. Her own husband was unable to hold their child because “he was either too drunk, out of the house, closed into his head,” or neurotically obsessed with his own success, yet she had married him out of romantic notions about his being an artist. She says women often marry for the wrong reasons, and she argues that women are not “in need of the perfect orgasm” but require, instead, “a body to spoon with in bed, a story that [couples] could tell together. . . .” Now that her own children are of marriageable age, Roiphe sees the institution with a mother’s protective vision. She hopes that her own stories will encourage others to marry for the right reasons or divorce if that is the right thing to do.

Audience

Almost everyone in America has been touched by divorce, and Roiphe recognizes that her story is interchangeable with those of many of her readers. She asserts that all divorce stories sound the same, and yet each is as “unique as a human face.” That is certainly the case in comparing her own divorce with the one her parents should have sought. Roiphe knows that the two divorces she describes will sound familiar to her readers. Originally published in a collection called Women on Divorce: A Bedside Companion, this essay is most likely to be in the hands of recently divorced women or those summoning the courage to ask for divorces. Therefore, she is free to examine the institution mainly from a woman’s point of view.

Roiphe also marshals forces against the political right who bemoan America’s escalating divorce rate, saying that she listens “with tongue in check to all the terrible tales of what divorce has done to the American family.” Her own situation and her mother’s suggest that divorce can be the best alternative for some women and their children. She gives some credence to the argument that the so-called corruption of family values may cause children to be lost and wounded, but she counters that many things can damage the psyches of the young, such as the death or untreated depression of a parent, addictions, or economic problems within the family. She argues that divorce is best avoided by making a good marriage in the first place, something that everyone is not able to do.

Strategy

Comparison-and-contrast strategies work very well in this essay to show how the seemingly sharply differing stories of Roiphe’s own marriage and that of her parents were fundamentally the same. She describes the contrasting backgrounds of her parents in order to show why their marriage was such a disaster, and she gives details from her parents’ daily miseries. Her father told his wife “she was unbeautiful,” stayed out in bars, had relationships with other women, lost money, and somehow convinced her that no other man would have her if she left him. Roiphe’s marriage was several years along when she noticed that her “husband was handsome and thought [her] plain, . . . poor and thought [her] a meal ticket, . . . dwarfed of spirit and couldn’t imagine another soul beside himself”; a husband who “had other women” and “went on binges and used up all [their] money.” This essay is built around two fundamentally comparable marriages with one sharp contrast: Roiphe was able to leave her husband, and her mother was not.

Roiphe surmises that her decisive action saved her daughter from a fate similar to her own, but the outcome of her divorce is contrasted with the effect divorce has had on her stepdaughter. Even now, as a married woman and mother herself, Roiphe’s stepdaughter trembles and tenses as she speaks of her parents’ divorce. Her reactions cause Roiphe to admit that “divorce is never nice.” Nevertheless, she argues that divorce must always be available and that each person must weigh his or her options carefully. Roiphe remembers herself at seven, sitting on the edge of her mother’s bath after expressing the desire that her parents stay married to one another. “God,” her mother responds, “Help me.” Roiphe explains that her mother “had asked the wrong person.” Neither her young daughter nor God could help Roiphe’s mother at that point; she had to make the choice to help herself.

DEBORAH TANNEN “Rapport-Talk and Report-Talk

Purpose

Tannen’s book That’s Not What I Meant!, from which this essay is excerpted, analyzes the results of her cultural anthropological study comparing the public and private conversational styles of men and women. Her thesis is that communication between the sexes often fails, or is perceived as failing, because of gender differences in attitude toward speech. She cites evidence that men do not value the private speaking, or “rapport-talk,” in which women frequently engage “on the telephone; or in social situations with friends, when they are not discussing topics that men find inherently interesting.” Characteristically, men prefer “public speaking,” which is “primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status” by “exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance.”

Tannen’s comparison and contrast is twofold. She compares the speech patterns of men and women, as well as their differences in various contexts. The first half of the essay explores the behaviors and perceptions of men and women in private speaking situations, and the second part addresses those discrepancies in public speaking circumstances. For instance, she reports that, because men do not value rapport talk, they are often perceived by women to be disinterested in establishing or maintaining relationships, whereas women who engage in rapport-building discourse in work-related conversations are frequently perceived by men as being unqualified or illogical. Her purpose is to increase awareness of the differing conversational styles of both sexes in order to facilitate clearer communication and avoid conflicts.

Audience

The result of in-depth research and observation, Tannen’s comparison and contrast goes well beyond the simple generalizations she cites (“‘All women are demanding’; ‘All men are self-centered.’”) to explore communication patterns and perceptions of men and women under various circumstances. To avoid confusing her audience with seemingly conflicting information, Tannen relies upon subheadings to make the transitions and points of comparison in her essay distinct. She alerts readers to discussions of the purpose, amount, intimacy, and importance of talk for both men and women in both private and public communication situations. For example, her heading “The Wordy Woman and the Mute Man” summarizes her approach to discussing the amount of private talk in which each group normally engages, while the seemingly contradictory subheading “The Talkative Man and the Silent Woman” introduces an exploration of the amount of public speaking with which each group appears to be comfortable.

Tannen tries to address readers of both sexes in her essay, usually balancing her point of view to include the perceptions of both men and women. For example, in discussing cartoons that depict men engrossed in newspapers while their wives sit isolated behind a newsprint curtain, Tannen points out “that what’s not funny is that many women are deeply hurt when men don’t talk to them at home, and many men are deeply frustrated by feeling they have disappointed their partners. . . .”

Perhaps because Tannen herself is a woman, and all discourse, even written scientific discourse, is subject to the biases and customs she identifies in this essay, it seems that Tannen cannot avoid writing for a mostly female audience. She consistently identifies the woman’s point of view most succinctly, pronouncing, for instance, that “men’s silence at home is a disappointment to women,” or claiming that women’s traditionally passive role in joke telling “is a hazard for women.” Probably because women’s patterns of social interaction historically have been devalued by society, Tannen’s empathetic analysis of female conversational style seems destined to be most widely and patiently read by women.



Strategy

Tannen demonstrates the degree to which her study validates information that is, subconsciously at least, already common knowledge in our society. The wide-ranging evidence confirming her hypotheses includes “sources as lofty as studies by psychologist” Dale Spender, and folklorist Carol Mitchell, “as down to earth as letters written to advice columnist” Ann Landers, and “as sophisticated as [the] movie” Divorce American Style. She also cites cartoons and quotations from interviews conducted as part of her own linguistic studies. Such evidence furnishes her essay with a wealth of examples, in addition to corroborating testimony.

One striking example Tannen uses to illustrate women’s reluctance to engage in report talk is her description of the Diane Rehm radio talk show discussion of abortion. Tannen depicts the show’s audience as “evenly split between women and men,” yet “90 percent of the callers to the show [were] men.” This phenomenon is difficult to rationalize, but Tannen relates her own experience to the problem. She reveals that she has “been the guest on innumerable radio and television talk shows” where she is “comfortable in the role of invited expert,” yet she has “never called in to a talk show [she] was listening to, although [she has] often had ideas to contribute.” She attributes this to women’s preference to participate in private discussions with “their friends and family over lunch, tea, and dinner,” and their disinclination to “seem self-aggrandizing” or have their “comments ignored or not valued” in a more public context. However, in relying upon personal experience, Tannen risks the hazard she cites from the research of Celia Roberts and Tom Jupp, who discovered that “women’s arguments did not carry weight with their male colleagues because they tended to use their own experience as evidence. . . .” Author, heal thy self.

LAURA BOHANNAN “Shakespeare in the Bush

Purpose

When an English scholar tells Laura Bohannon that Americans “misinterpret the universal [in Shakespeare’s works] by misunderstanding the particular,” she counters that “human nature is pretty much the same the world over,” and argues that “the plot and motivation of [Shakespeare’s] greater tragedies would always be clear everywhere.” After three months of studying a copy of Hamlet while visiting an African homestead on the Tiv during rainy season, Bohannon is even further convinced that “Hamlet had only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious.” Then she attempts to tell the story to a group of African tribesmen. Convinced that by explaining or changing “some details of custom,” she can adequately convey Shakespeare’s classic tale of tragic revenge, she sets out to relate the “one possible interpretation” to her African audience. As she embarks on the story, Bohannon thinks that this is her “chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible.”

The tribesmen insist that Bohannon “explain what [they] do not understand” as they have done for her when telling their own stories. Consequently, they interrupt frequently to re-tell aspects of the story that don’t ring true in their own culture. By the time Bohannon has finished narrating the plot of Hamlet, the men have recast it as a story about witches, Claudius’s honorable protection of his brother’s wife, Laertes’ murder of Ophelia in order to sell her body, Polonius’s failures as a hunter, and Claudius’s plot to kill Laertes. Hamlet, the hero of the English play, is judged to be out-of-line by the African audience for avenging his father’s murder, mistrusting an omen from his father, and setting up Rosencrantz’s and Gildenstern’s murders. The essay thus refutes Bohannon’s initial belief that the meaning of Shakespeare’s work is universally agreed upon.

Audience

Bohannon’s essay displays a double awareness of audience: she must translate concepts from Shakespeare to African tribal culture, and she must relate African tribal norms to her British and American readers. Her telling of Hamlet includes many substitutions such as chief for king, omen for ghost, age mates for school friends, machetes for swords, and beer for wine. Ironically, Bohannon, who is an anthropologist and scholar visiting the tribe, attempts to translate the concept of “scholar” but fails because the qualities associated with her word choice suggests “witch.” She quickly learns that, while she can usually adapt specific words to fit African ideas, she cannot escape the differences in cultural norms between Shakespeare’s England and the contemporary Vit. She is frustrated because she could not have anticipated the men’s objections to Hamlet’s behavior nor the twisted motives that they ascribe to Laertes and Claudius to make the story logical by their standards. She admits that, with that audience, “Hamlet was clearly out of [her] hands.”

This comparison of Shakespeare as understood by Anglican and African audiences depends on Bohannon’s audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s text and its popular interpretations. Aware that most of her readers are not familiar with life in a modern African homestead, Bohannon interjects definitions and explanations into her essay. She tells her readers that in an elder’s hut, “important people shouldn’t ladle beer themselves.” She explains the men’s disapproval of her reading in her tent since “looking at paper” in their culture means pouring over bills and receipts. She intrepidly defines zombies as “dead bod[ies] the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat.” Dialogue in the essay reveals that African chiefs take many wives so that they can offer beer and food to many guests without levying taxes on their people.

Strategy

Bohannon uses dialogue to show the differences in cultural assumptions between herself and her audience. Generally, the Africans ascribe much more to witches than she had realized. First, her audience argues that Hamlet is “bewitched” since everyone knows that “only witchcraft can make anyone mad, unless, of course, one sees the beings that lurk in the forest.” This revelation is so unique that Bohannon switches from storyteller to anthropologist/observer and takes out her notebook to record the Africans’ concept of “madness.” Ophelia’s madness is similarly dismissed when the tribesmen tell Bohannon that “the girl . . . not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown.” By reporting these conversations as they occurred, Bohannon invites readers to experience the humor and frustration she found in the situation.

The punch line of the story comes when the tribesmen and Bohannon echo one another with similar thoughts. An old man in the hut says, “People are the same everywhere,” but he is defending his interpretation that the story is the predictable plot of “the great-chief who wished to kill Hamlet.” Like the English colleague who informed Bohannon that Americans “have difficulty with Shakespeare,” the tribesmen tell her, “The elders of your country have never told you what the story really means.” The tribesmen also believe that there is only one correct reading of Hamlet—theirs.

WITI IHIMAERA “His First Ball

Purpose

Comparing and contrasting the two dominant cultures in New Zealand is one of Witi Ihimaera’s purposes in writing this story. The Maori people are the indigenous inhabitants of the island, and the Pakeha are the European immigrants and their descendants. When Tuta, a Maori, receives an invitation from the wife of the Governor-General to attend a state ball as a representative of his coworkers, he is offered a chance to see how the other half lives. His family and friends are intrigued by his opportunity, but Tuta himself remains skeptical. The many preparations he must make to be schooled in Pakeha manners show the differences between the cultures; dress, table manners, dance, and social graces among the elite white citizens differ sharply with Tuta’s habits. Some readers will be familiar with Pakeha writer Katherine Mansfield’s story about a similar incident, and they will be able to compare the two stories to further understand the differences between the cultures.

Documenting Maori culture and making sure that it is recorded in the literature of his native land is one of Ihimaera’s life goals. He created Tuta to illustrate the habits and customs of working-class Maori in contemporary New Zealand. He also wants to show the independence and pride of his people. Tuta rejects the Pakeha, especially after they demean him with their patronizing attentions at the ball. Although their manners are supposedly superior to those of Tuta and his friends, the Pakeha behave badly in this story, ridiculing Tuta’s name and his ignorance of their expensive hors d’oeuvres.

Indirectly, the story also champions those cast out as “others” everywhere in the world. Ihimaera’s message is that there will always be “others.” That is why Joyce appears at the end of the story and tells Tuta, “Before you . . . it was me.” She has been excluded because she is “six feet six at least.” Tuta’s and Joyce’s ultimate response to the ball show that outsiders who cannot join the elite can nevertheless “beat them if [they] want to” by simply refusing to play the game.



Audience

The story alludes to George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (or its musical version, My Fair Lady) when Ihimaera notes that “Mrs. Simmons felt quite sure that Professor Higgins didn’t have it this bad.” This literary convention suggests that the author is not writing for fellow Maoris but rather for whites, particularly people of European descent. Notice, too, that Ihimaera describes the habits Tuta must unlearn, such as preferring to wear purple, keeping his hair long, shuffling his feet, drinking beer, and “hot rock” dancing, but the author assumes that his readers are familiar with the social graces the protagonist must quickly acquire.

Tuta and Joyce are the most likable people at the ball. When they agree to stop mimicking the “beautiful people” at the party, they also have the most fun. Ihimaera’s audience undoubtedly includes readers who find themselves inside and outside the elite set. He explains that conformity should not be the goal of a diverse society. Tuta decides to truly represent his mother, “Mrs. Simmons, Desiree Dawn, and the boys—Crazy Joe, Blackjack and Bigfoot” by behaving as a true Maori citizen at the ball. He thinks that outsiders will have to enter society “on their own terms . . . as the real people they [are] and not as carbon copies of the people already on the inside.” This message is directed at the socially elite and inferior alike.

Strategy

Tuta is a touchstone for readers throughout the story. When his coworkers, friends, and family members get excited about his invitation to the ball, he remains skeptical and reluctant to go along with the scheme. His first response is that the invitation must be a joke being played on him by one of his friends; in the end, he learns that it is a joke being played on him by society, especially by those who mock him at the ball. Throughout the story, Tuta remains unimpressed by high society and its impractical concerns. He wonders why the meals at balls are served in courses when it makes more sense to “just stick all the kai on the table at once.” His well-grounded responses foreshadow his realization at the ball that fitting in should not entail acting like his oppressors.



Everyone in his circle who tries to prepare Tuta for the ball must go against his or her own grain in doing so. Tuta’s mother, who assumes the invitation is a summons to court, asks her son, “Oh, Tuta, what have you done?” Nevertheless, she cautions him to make polite conversation at the ball. Mrs. Simmons betrays her own Maori roots when she speaks in her own lingo to someone at Government House on the telephone. Tuta’s drag-queen friends attempt to teach him to dance differently than they normally would. His friends who drive him to the ball can’t find a suitable limousine, so they festoon a Jaguar as if it is being used in a wedding. It is no wonder that Tuta has little objection to dancing with Joyce in spite of her unusual height; Desirée Dawn, a “six-foot transvestite,” had coached him to dance at the ball. He is most at home among outcasts.

Copyright © Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


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