Note From the Author:

These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.

If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.

Connecting the Dots: Short Stories & the Patterns of the Human Experience

The bustle of cities, the safety of buildings, the guidance of parents, the control of governments, and the instruction of schools are not enough to keep people from feeling isolated and disjointed. Most of the time, these things are capable of keeping us going fast and safe, yet somewhere within the walls of our humanity lies the need to feel a part of something greater. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Am I connected to anyone else on this spherical globe of a planet or am I simply a wandering, wondering speck?

In different words, the short story as an art form attempts to address such questions, while allowing the questions to remain as mysterious as people know them to be. The following five short stories -- Donald Barthelme's "The School," Stuart Dybek's "Pet Milk," Ron Hansen's "Nebraska," Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," and Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl" -- speak in their own way about the connectedness of humanity, a topic which short story writers typically keep tucked in their breast pocket, where their hearts can feel it. The characters in the stories seem to be looking for those patterned areas of life that they hope will add meaning to their everyday existence, however exciting or mundane that may be.

It is worth mentioning the large number of people in these unusual stories. Short stories typically narrow their focus to a choice few significant characters in order to delve deeper into their psyches, situations, and relationships. However, there are times the short story writer must zoom out to a larger, more universal perspective to show how humanity is connected. "Nebraska" is a character sketch of a small country town, one in which the town itself could be considered one big character. Dozens of people are mentioned throughout, none of them focused on for long at all. The descriptions of the people are such that they could live anywhere. Their problems, relationships, emotions, and goals are similar to the rest of humanity. Young boys are still slapping their hearts and crying, "Oh! I am pierced!" (Williford 339). Catholic Churches are still "grayly holding [towns] at bay" (341). And the Union Pacific is still chugging into the station in the morning and back out again in the evening. This small Nebraska town is not meant to be seen as insignificant; it is every town filled with normal people trying to make it through life.

Whether the focus is on life in a small town or a concentration camp, the connections short stories draw between people and their environments continue to prove electrifying. In "The Shawl," Stella blames the voices on Rosa's imagination, but Rosa insists she can hear "real sounds in the wire" around the concentration camp, "grainy sad voices" (519). In this story darkened by suffering and loss, it is of mild comfort to hear other voices speaking to you. The voices are real to Rosa, "lamenting voices strummed so convincingly, so passionately, it [is] impossible to suspect them of being phantoms" (519). In her time of greatest need, the voices speak to her, telling her "to hold up the shawl, high, ... to shake it, to whip with it, to unfurl it like a flag" (519). The reader is not told who the voices are but is left to imagine them as earlier victims of similar brutal camps, offering a cyclical view of humanity and the afterlife that allows those who have passed away to guide, empathize, and weep with those who are still here.

This cyclical view of people also arises in "Girl, "The School," and "Pet Milk," leaving the reader to interpret the hovering, eerie gloom. The mother in "Girl" is adamant about her beliefs concerning womanhood and will do whatever she must to convince her daughter that a proper woman behaves in a certain way. Although the daughter's thoughts never enter the story, the reader gets the impression that her mother's forced attempt to make her a proper woman will end in estrangement and tragedy. In "The School," the narrator walks the reader through the tragedies that have recently invaded the lives connected with the school. Through the details of calamity after calamity, the reader learns that the lives of the characters are tied together with the impending fear that someone or something they have grown to love is going to die. However, their anxious despair is glazed over momentarily as the children burst into cheers at the arrival of their new gerbil. The main character in "Pet Milk" works the opposite direction, beginning with today and remembering his way backward through his connected relationships with people -- first, to his grandmother who drank pet milk in her coffee just like he does; second, to the girlfriend he was kissing on the train and wishes he could still have in his life; and finally, to the boy standing on the train platform who the main character longs to go back and be, if only for a moment.

Whether the people in these stories exist in the color-filled world of Nebraska, the cursed environment of the school, the desperate courtyard of the concentration camp, or the conductor's compartment on the train, they are all searching for some real experience that will help make sense of their existence. In her book One Writer's Beginnings , Eudora Welty says, "Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, and how to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists" (Quotations 1). Like Welty's allusion to "the thick of the tangle" suggests, short stories work best when they are not entirely sequential, and four of our five short stories exist as artistic tangles with a perceptible thread running throughout.

These threads and patterns are what hold the stories together and give them their effectiveness. In "Pet Milk," Rudi may have the audacity to say that "It's not a microscope," that the main character is just supposed to drink and not think about things, but that will not stop him from searching for patterns within the swirling cloud in his glass of Pet Milk or liqueur. In "Girl," the mother may yell until she's blue behind the ears that "You are not a boy, you know," thinking she has figured out the patterns and knows what a good woman is supposed to be. It makes sense that a pattern exists. It has to. Why would she be looking if it didn't exist? Someone might need to explain to Rosa in "The Shawl" that the voices crying "Maamaa, Maaamaaa" in the fence are not the voice of her daughter out in the courtyard crying "!" Edgar in "The School" will need a way to answer his students when they say that death is "a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended," because he's not sure he's right (Williford 95). He doesn't "know what's true and what's not," yet he believes that "life is that which gives meaning to life" (95). He wants to hurry past the reality of death because he doesn't know where everyone goes after they die.

Maybe they absorb into life's electric fence to give guidance to the future Rosas of the world. Maybe they lie peacefully in Nebraska's Batchelor Funeral Home in "a dark brown suit ... fingernails finally clean" (341). Maybe they're waiting somewhere between the "TRANSIENTS WELCOME" sign and "the old cemetery just before Wilson Avenue" (259). Maybe they're "living" with the children who were thrown away even before they became children because someone knew "how to make a good medicine" (410). Or maybe they will enter the students' lives again just like the new gerbil, offering another chance at a new start, even though the core of Edgar's being knows that things will end up the same. It's not "just a run of bad luck" (94). "It's a bloody shame!" (95). Death just keeps coming.

In her book Mystery and Manners , Flannery O'Connor states that "[i]t is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind" (Scriptor 1). Her words might help Edgar sort out this whole death and life paradox, this great mystery of life that continues to fascinate short story writers. Edgar seems to want an answer as much as his students do. Writer Alice Munro would tell him that "the complexity of things - the things within things - just seems to be endless. [N]othing is easy, nothing is simple" (Alice 1). Death is the same way. It isn't something that can be explained in a classroom lecture to grade school students. Its complexity is what Rosa feels in her "place without pity," one in which she is "sure that Stella [is] waiting for Magda to die so she [can] put her teeth into the little thighs" (Williford 517). This fear of death and competition over life is perplexing, at the least, and mystifying when stuck in the thick of it.

Mary Gordon, in the O. Henry Awards Prize Stories 2001 , describes the first prize short story as marking "the deep strangeness of the project of being alive" and "daring to assert the primacy of complexity and mystery" of the human experience (Dark). Similarly, even though Edgar from "The School" may need to know what he is talking about, part of life's meaning comes from becoming absorbed into this life. We must ignore death and focus on living. "Nebraska" explores similar ideas. It's difficult to imagine Ron Hansen accidentally inserting thirteen different colors that he references dozens more times throughout the story. The names of the cities, the unifying diversity of color, the revealing descriptions of other cities in the encyclopedia, and the sound of "the train saying Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska " all work together to show the peculiar connectedness of the living as well as the dead (342). When Mrs. Antoinette Heft steps outside for a smoke, she finds herself gazing "up at stars the Pawnee Indians looked at," and she realizes she knows this town and country by heart (342).

Often, interactions with physical environments like that starlit sky are able to woo people like Mrs. Antoinette away from their worries, if only for a moment. To the people of "Nebraska," death may be a matter of high importance because of its practicality, but it's not any more important than the closeness of the houses, "each a cousin to the next" (339); the "fruit trees ... so closely planted that they cannot sway without knitting" (340); and the "rowdy farmboys overlapping inside" their jacked-up cars (340). In "Pet Milk," the main character notices something not quite right about the color of the pet milk and understands that "there's something of the past about it" (256). Later, Kate is "moving her hips to pin [them] to each jolt of the train," "trying to catch the rhythm of the ride" with her body (259). The reader gets the feeling that with each lurch of the train Kate and the main character are unified in some sort of energy of the present, much the way Rosa and "The Shawl" are united to Magda through the voices in the fence, and much the way the "Girl" is connected to her mother through the repeated warnings not to look like the slut the mother knows the girl is "so bent on becoming" (409).

Life has the ability to sweep us away and lure us to forget about the inevitability of death. It's almost as if we are all students in Edgar's classroom and the puppy "is already there, right in front of [us], running around on the floor and yap yap yapping" (94). There isn't any way he can take it away from us because it's there and has our focus. We are enraptured with the situation even if the dog isn't supposed to be there because of some regulation, and we are willing to forget that the dog is next in our line of unfortunate deaths, its number about to be called. Short stories have that capability. Within the same set of pages, they make us feel the joy of the puppy and the anxiety of the new gerbil. They rally us around a mute girl's first audible noises and make us watch a guard carry her away and toss her into the electric fence. They focus us on the lives of a town of Nebraskans but leave us with the image of the made-up corpse in the funeral home. They insert us into the rhythmic moving bodies of a young couple on a train then pull us out the window into the body of a longing, waving boy. They finish giving us all we need to know to be a woman yet leave us longing to be anything but what mother tells us to be. That is the power short stories have to knit us into the fabric of humanity while at the same time wrenching our hearts as we gape in awe at the unexplainable.

Works Cited

"Alice Munro Quotes." 3 May 2006. < quotes/authors/a/alice_munro.html>.

"Quotations on / about: lost; LOST from famous people. quote quotes." 3 May 2006. < lost/page-50/>.

" : Two months later, Dan Rather to step down." 3 May 2006. < rather_to_step_.html>.

Williford, Lex and Michael Martone, eds. The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American Stories Since 1970 . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Click to Leave Comments

[back to top]