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2 POINT OF VIEW
For other illustrations of the relatively scarce second-person point of view, see
Richard Hugo’s poetry collection 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (New York: Norton,
1977): “In Your Fugitive Dream,” “In Your War Dream,” “In Your Young Dream,” and
others. These poems also appear in Hugo’s collected poems, Making Certain It Goes
On (New York: Norton, 1984).
William Faulkner, A ROSE FOR EMILY, page 31
Over the past years whenever we have polled college students about their favorite
short stories, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” has usually ranked first. The story has
immense appeal to students for its memorable title character, brooding atmosphere,
and eerie surprise ending. It is also a story that immediately rewards rereading and
study, especially since it is rife with foreshadows.
The style of “A Rose for Emily” is unusually conventional for Faulkner. There
are no elaborate periodic sentences or stream-of-consciousness narration. The simple
and direct style reflects the particular speaker Faulkner chose to tell the story.
The genre of the story is Gothic—more precisely, Southern Gothic—which may
be another factor in its popularity. It includes typical Gothic devices such as a locked
room, ancient servants, dusty chambers, and the decayed mansion as well as an
oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere of disturbing mystery and implicit evil. This
story provides a good introduction to the genre for students.
Studying “A Rose for Emily” may also help prepare students for Faulkner’s “Barn
Burning” (Chapter 5), whose central character, the son of a sharecropper, is Colonel
Sartoris Snopes. Both stories demonstrate the powerful effect of genre in shaping an
Here are some possible answers to the questions given at the end of “A Rose for
Emily.” Other answers, of equal merit, may occur to you and your students.
1. What is meaningful in the final detail that the strand of hair on the second pillow is “iron-gray”? After Homer Barron’s mysterious disappearance, Miss Emily is not
seen on the streets of Jefferson for almost six months, although her Negro servant continues to come and go from the house with his market basket. When the townspeople
next see Emily, “she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few
years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron gray”—the
color her hair stays until her death at age seventy-four (par. 48). The narrator sets up this
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detail early enough so the reader knows, and will not have forgotten, that this long “vigorous” iron-gray hair belongs to no one other than Emily Grierson. From the detail that
the strand of hair is iron-gray, it appears that Emily lay beside Homer’s body recently,
many years after it was already rotten. In fact, she had probably lain beside it many times,
for the pillow next to the body is clearly indented with a head.
2. Who is the unnamed narrator? For whom does he profess to be speaking?
The unnamed narrator is a townsman of Jefferson, Mississippi, who has for some
years watched Emily Grierson with considerable interest but also respectful distance.
He openly describes his perspective as average; he often uses “we” in the story, never
“I.” Sometimes he uses “they” to distance himself from certain perceptions that the
townspeople have of Emily, her behavior, or her house. His tone and manner are
informed but detached, and surprisingly cool given the horrific conclusion. He mixes
his own observations with town gossip to provide a seemingly reliable view of Jefferson’s opinion of Miss Emily.
We must also note that while traditionally the narrator has been assumed to be
a man (perhaps a stand-in for Faulkner?), the text never clarifies this. It is possible
that the narrator is a fellow townswoman, or even a distant female relation. How
might this change your students’ reading of the story?
3. Why does “A Rose for Emily” seem better told from his point of view than
if it were told from the point of view of the main character? The story would be
radically different if it were told from Emily Grierson’s point of view. Miss Emily
would hardly be able to tell her own story with any kind of detachment. While the
narrator notes and reports many things about Miss Emily’s history and personality, he
is not the man to analyze or ponder their significance.
The careful reader, however, soon understands several important factors affecting her. Miss Emily’s father has somehow kept her down—dominating her life and
driving away suitors. She also has difficulty accepting loss or change. She will not, for
example, initially admit that her father has died or let the doctors or the minister dispose of the body. Miss Emily seems starved for affection and emotionally desperate
enough to risk censure from the town when she takes Homer Barron as her lover.
At the end the reader also sees her determination in killing Barron, though her
motives are open to question. Such ambiguity would have been lost without a thirdperson, omniscient narrator. When the story ends, readers still wonder if Emily wanted
to exact revenge for Homer’s apparent refusal to marry her, or was she trying to keep
him with her “forever”?
4. What foreshadowings of the discovery of the body of Homer Barron are
we given earlier in the story? Share your experience in reading “A Rose for
Emily”: did the foreshadowings give away the ending for you? Did they heighten
your interest? Students will want to make sure of exactly what happens in the story.
Just as Emily Grierson had clung to her conviction that her father and Colonel Sartoris were still alive, she had come to believe that Homer Barron had faithfully married her, and she successfully ignored for forty years all the testimony of her senses.
The conclusion of the story is foreshadowed by Emily’s refusal to allow her father to
be buried, by her purchase of rat poison, by the disappearance of Homer Barron, and
by the pervasive smell of decay.
In fact, these foreshadowings are so evident it is a wonder that, for those reading the story for the first time, the ending is so surprising. Much of the surprise seems
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due to the narrator’s back-and-forth, non-chronological method of telling the events
of the story. We aren’t told in proper sequence that (1) Emily buys poison, (2) Homer
disappears, and (3) there is a mysterious odor—a chain of events that might immediately rouse our suspicions. Instead, we hear about odor, poison, and disappearance,
in that order. By this arrangement, any connection between these events is made to
seem a little less obvious, adding to the story’s Gothic tone.
Faulkner’s mysterious story also resembles a riddle, argues Charles Clay Doyle of
the University of Georgia. The resemblance exists not so much in the story’s structure or rhetoric,
as in the tricky way it presents clues, clues that tell the truth but at the same
time mislead or fail to enlighten. The pleasure of discovery experienced by readers of the story resembles the pleasure we take in learning the answer to a riddle:
we are astonished that the solution, which now seems so obvious, so inevitable,
could have eluded us. (“Mute Witnesses: Faulkner’s Use of a Popular Riddle,”
Mississippi Folklore Register 24 : 53–55)
Furthermore, Doyle identifies an allusion to a well-known riddle in Faulkner’s final
description of Emily’s chamber: Homer’s “two mute shoes and the discarded socks.”
The riddle is, “What has a tongue but can’t speak?” (Answer: a shoe.) Taking the
phrase “mute shoes” to echo the riddle, Doyle thinks the shoes are a pair of silent witnesses who, in their way, resemble the narrator himself, who shows us the truth but
does not state it outright.
5. What contrasts does the narrator draw between changing reality and
Emily’s refusal or inability to recognize change? “A Rose for Emily” contains many
contrasts that demonstrate Emily’s refusal to recognize change. For example, this
refusal is suggested in the symbol of her invisible watch (par. 7), with its hint that
she lives according to a private, secret time of her own. Her once-beautifully decorated house seems an extension of her person in “its stubborn and coquettish decay”
(par. 2). Years later the house becomes “an eyesore among eyesores” amid gasoline
pumps, garages, and cotton gins; it refuses, like its owner, to be part of a new era. The
story contains many such images of stasis: when Emily confronts the aldermen, she
looks “bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water” (par. 6)—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the discovery of Homer’s long-guarded dust.
6. How do the character and background of Emily Grierson differ from those
of Homer Barron? What general observations about the society that Faulkner
depicts can be made from his portraits of these two characters and from his
account of life in this one Mississippi town? Both the character and background of
Emily Grierson from Homer Barron could not be more different. She is an “old maid”
at age thirty, Southern, aristocratic, never having worked a day in her life. He is a
Northern day-laborer, crass, crude, and experienced—a man not interested in marriage or settling down. Grieving after her father’s death, Emily has isolated herself
from the town, seeing no one except her Negro servant. She is thin and pale white,
with a face “tragic and serene” (par. 29). When the townspeople decide to pave their
sidewalks, Homer Barron comes to town as the foreman with the construction crew.
The narrator describes him as a “big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes
lighter than his face” (par. 30). Laughter follows him wherever he goes, and he soon
knows everyone in town and carouses with younger men at the Elks Club.
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That the Grierson house was “set on what had once been our most select street”
(par. 2) and that “people in our town [. . .] believed that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were” (par. 25) only heightens Emily’s
transformation after taking Homer as her lover. Emily’s scandalous behavior surprises
the townspeople as they witness a rare occurrence: Emily laughing with a man whom
she clearly likes. She rides with Homer on Sunday afternoons “in the glittering
buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a
cigar in his teeth”—images that all suggest her “fallen” state (par. 33).
Some have read the story as an allegory: Homer Barron is the crude, commercial
North who invades, like a carpetbagger. Emily, with her faithful ex-slave, is the Old
South, willing to be violated. In an interview with students at the University of Virginia, Faulkner played down such North-South symbolism. “I don’t say that’s not
valid and not there,” he said, “but . . . [I was] simply writing about people.” (The
whole interview in which Faulkner discusses this story, not very helpfully, can be
found in Faulkner in the University, Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, eds., UP of
Still, it is clear that Emily, representing an antebellum first family, receives both
Faulkner’s admiration and his criticism for resisting change. “The theme of the
story,” according to C. W. M. Johnson, “can be stated: ‘If one resists change, he must
love and live with death,’ and in this theme it is difficult not to see an implied criticism of the South” (Explicator VI [No. 7] May 1948: item 45). But Faulkner’s criticism, Ray B. West, Jr., feels, is leveled at the North as well. West makes much of the
passage in which Faulkner discerns two possible views of Time (55). If, for the South,
Time is “a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches,” then for the North it
is a mere “mathematical progression” and “a diminishing road.” West would propose,
for a statement of the story’s theme: “One must neither resist nor wholly accept
change, for to do either is to live as though one were never to die; that is, to live with
Death without knowing it” (Explicator VII [No. 1] Oct. 1948: item 8).
7. Does the story seem to you totally grim, or do you find any humor in it?
Although “A Rose for Emily” is both Gothic and grim, it also contains several
moments of humor, a feature that is particularly Southern. (Teachers may wish to
compare Faulkner’s humor with Flannery O’Connor’s, for while both are Southern
writers, they each have their own flavor.) For example, from a certain point of view,
Emily’s refusal to change, and the way in which she never has to pay taxes, is funny.
When the deputation comes to visit her, they rise when she enters the room, and she
does not ask them to sit down. She simply repeats “I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
When she tells them to see Colonel Sartoris and to look at the city records, some
readers may laugh, for the Colonel has been dead for ten years! By the story’s end, we
learn again that she has never had to pay taxes, and the reader realizes that for all of
her Southern “innocence,” she is a strong-willed woman who knows how to get her
way. In addition, the description of the four men who cross Miss Emily’s lawn like
burglars, not to steal from her but to deal with the rotten stench, may cause some
readers to laugh.
8. What do you infer to be the author’s attitude toward Emily Grierson? Is
she simply a murderous madwoman? Why do you suppose Faulkner calls his story
“A Rose . . . ”? However fascinating or well-written this story may be, some readers
may object: how can anyone wish to pay tribute to a decayed old poisoner who sleeps
with a corpse? The narrator patiently gives us reasons for his sympathy.
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As a girl, Emily was beautiful, a “slender figure in white,” fond of society. But her
hopes were thwarted by her domineering father, whose horsewhip discouraged suitors from her door. The narrator notes that after her father’s death, the townspeople
begin to pity her: “being left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized” (par.
26) and “we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had
robbed her, as people will” (par. 28). Her strength and pride vanquished all who
would invade her house: the new Board of Aldermen who tried to collect her taxes,
the Baptist minister sent to lecture her on her morals, the relatives from Atlanta who
eventually departed. “It is important,” Ray B. West, Jr., writes, “to realize that during
the period of Emily’s courtship the town became Emily’s allies in a contest between
Emily and her Grierson cousins, ‘because the two female cousins were even more
Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been’” (“Atmosphere and Theme in Faulkner’s
‘A Rose for Emily,’” Perspective [Summer 1949]: 239–45).
Having satisfied their natural interest in the final horror of the story, students
can be led to discuss why “A Rose for Emily” isn’t a mere thriller. Discuss the story’s
title with your students: after all, no actual rose ever appears in it. Perhaps Emily herself is the white rose of Jefferson (like the heroine of The White Rose of Memphis, a
novel by Faulkner’s grandfather). The usual connotations of roses will apply. A rose
is a gift to a loved one, and the whole story is the narrator’s tribute to Emily.
Years ago, Joanna Stephens Mink of Illinois State University, Normal, divided
her class into several groups and conducted a mock murder trial of Emily Grierson,
which ended, after spirited debate, with an acquittal of Miss Emily by reason of
insanity. For Professor Mink’s full account, see “We Brought Emily Grierson to Trial”
in Exercise Exchange, Spring 1984: 17–19. Inspired by her example, Saul Cohen of
County College of Morris in New Jersey later tried a similar experiment. In this
instance, enough suspicion was raised about the actions of Miss Emily’s servant to
create reasonable doubt, leading to a straight acquittal. Professor Cohen’s account
appears in Exercise Exchange for October 1990.
Your students might enjoy another view of the story expressed in this limerick
by a celebrated bard, Anonymous:
Miss Emily, snobbish and cranky,
Used to horse around town with a Yankee.
When she’d wake up in bed,
With the dust of the dead,
She would sneeze in her delicate hanky.
MyLiteratureLabTM Resources. Biographical information, critical overview, bibliography, and links for Faulkner. Longman Lecture, critical essay, comprehension
quiz, and essay questions on “A Rose for Emily.”
ZZ Packer, BROWNIES, page 38
ZZ Packer’s short story “Brownies” first appeared in Harper’s in November 1999. The
next year, it was chosen by E. L. Doctorow for inclusion in the well-known series The
Best American Short Stories. In 2003, “Brownies” became the opening story of Packer’s
critically acclaimed short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. The eight stories
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in this debut collection present the often-neglected point of view of African American teenage girls. The Publisher’s Weekly review praised Packer for keeping “the tone
provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and
dignity of the characters and their difficult choices.” That her protagonists sometimes
lack self-knowledge is part of the point. Her girls are growing up in an America filled
with racism and struggle; they fight against poverty, they long for education, and they
desire to be heard. Packer’s particular insight in “Brownies” is that, raised in a racist
society, these young black girls have also developed their own racist stereotyping of
white girls. Their stereotypes are so strong, in fact, they fail to recognize the other
Brownie troop as developmentally disabled. The deep-seated nature of racism highlighted in Packer’s story may lead readers to question if it is possible for true equality
to be realized for all Americans, especially when prejudice comes from both sides. To
“suddenly [know] there was something mean in the world that I could not stop” is a
harsh epiphany for any character, especially one as young as Laurel in “Brownies.”
Packer’s story is rife with figurative language. Ask your students to spend a few
minutes in class re-reading the story, looking for specific examples of metaphor or
simile. You might want to discuss the pattern of white images throughout the story
(e.g., white towels, white pigeons, a white tooth).
Although the story lacks any direct reference to the decade or year in which it
takes place, ask your students if they can find any clues. For example, the references
to Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson suggest that the story is set in the mid1980s, when these two singer/songwriters were at the height of their popularity. One
definitive date can be determined when Laurel mentions that Janice hums Jackson’s
smash hit song, “Beat It.” Originally released on his multi-platinum record Thriller
in 1982, “Beat It” was released as a single in February 1983, won two Grammys,
and remained at the top of the charts for most of the year. “Karma Chameleon,”
another song the girls hum, is a Boy George song that hit number one on the U.S.
charts in 1984.
Teachers may also want to look at the Girl Scout website (www.girlscouts.org) to
discuss the irony of the Girl Scout mission compared to the behavior of the story’s
In Girl Scouts, girls discover the fun, friendship, and power of girls together.
Through a myriad of enriching experiences, such as extraordinary field trips, sports
skill-building clinics, community service projects, cultural exchanges, and environmental stewardships, girls grow courageous and strong. Girl Scouting helps girls
develop their full individual potential; relate to others with increasing understanding, skill, and respect; develop values to guide their actions and provide the
foundation for sound decision-making; and contribute to the improvement of society through their abilities, leadership skills, and cooperation with others.
Here are some possible answers to the questions given at the end of “Brownies.”
Other answers, of equal merit, may occur to you and your students.
1. What is the effect of having Laurel (nicknamed “Snot”) narrate the story?
“Brownies” could not be effectively narrated by any character other than Laurel. She
listens, she observes, and she critiques the behavior of her own Brownie troop.
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Although she is not courageous enough to refuse to participate in her group’s victimization of Troop 909, she is critical of Arnetta’s choices.
However quietly she does so at first, Laurel is the only girl who verbally challenges Arnetta’s assertion that Troop 909 called “Daphne a nigger” by saying,
“Maybe you didn’t hear them right” (par. 36). Later, during Arnetta’s secret meeting,
Laurel says even more boldly, “but what if they say, ‘We didn’t say that? We didn’t
call anyone an N-I-G-G-E-R’” (par. 62). Arnetta’s reply to Laurel’s reasonable objection is, “Snot . . . Don’t think. Just fight. If you even know how” (par. 63). That
brusque dismissal demonstrates Laurel’s outsider status even though she is also a part
of this group. This perspective gives her some objectivity as she looks at the camping experience with a critical and observant eye. However, Laurel is not strong
enough to fight against Arnetta and the group mentality that wants revenge. As the
girls travel through the woods to find Troop 909, the narrator confesses, “I felt I was
part of the rest of the troop; like I was defending something” (par. 122). Even though
she has no idea what they are defending, she gives into a group mentality echoed in
Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” Similarly, “Brownies” shows that people sometimes follow a vicious leader because of tradition, fear, and self-preservation.
2. How does the setting of the story affect the action? How is the Brownie
camp different from the girls’ everyday world? All the young girls have traveled by
bus to a summer camp in Georgia, a setting that proves particularly important in its
themes of group dynamics and racism. They are removed from their usual environment, the south suburbs of Atlanta, where whites and blacks rarely interact. At their
almost all-black elementary school, the narrator’s Brownie troop is a dominant group
led by Arnetta, who especially enjoys ridiculing and persecuting other kids in school.
The camp brings together an all-black Brownie troop and an all-white Brownie
troop—a new experience for the girls.
That these girls are at a camp as a Brownie group brings a particular irony to the
story’s action. As the premier leadership development organization for girls in the
United States, Girl Scouts exists to help “young women discover their potential,
connect with others and take action in their communities and the world”
(www.girlscouts.org). The girls in this story are out of their comfort zones. Away from
their homes and school, we see that their attitudes, revealed through actions, are
inconsistent with the Girl Scout motto of “Courage, Confidence, Character.”
3. What is Laurel’s opinion of Arnetta? Does it change in the course of the
story? Although Laurel never directly states her view of Arnetta, she clearly views
this group leader with a mixture of fear and suspicion. There is significant tension, and
perhaps dislike, between these two young girls. Arnetta controls her Brownie troop by
saying vulgar words and intimidating everyone around her; she is a bully who wants
to fight. She decides to teach Troop 909 a lesson and runs the “secret meeting.” It is
Arnetta who “said she’d heard one of the Troop 909 girls call Daphne a nigger” (par.
15), and it is Arnetta who says they smell like “wet Chihuahuas” (par. 3). Ironically,
only the consummately hypocritical Arnetta has memorized Mrs. Margolin’s religious
aphorisms (par. 6). Laurel notices that “Arnetta always [gave Mrs. Margolin] what she
wanted to hear” (par. 7), a method she uses to deflect attention from her decidedly
un-Christian attitude, which is full of revenge, envy, and prejudice.
Early in the story, Laurel highlights a seemingly insignificant moment from a past
Brownie meeting that reveals a few characteristics of Arnetta. Laurel says that “once,
Arnetta killed the troop goldfish by feeding it a French fry covered in ketchup” and
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justified this action to Mrs. Margolin by claiming that “the goldfish had been eyeing
her meal for hours, [so] then the fish—giving in to temptation—had leapt up and
snatched a whole golden fry from her fingertips” (par. 7). Arnetta easily creates a
ridiculous story—that the gullible Mrs. Margolin believes—to shift the blame away
from herself. This foreshadows Arnetta’s actions with Troop 909 at camp.
It is clear that Laurel struggles with Arnetta because during the “secret meeting,”
Arnetta turns to Laurel and asks, “Snot, you’re not going to be a bitch and tell Mrs.
Margolin, are you?” (par. 34). For Arnetta to ask such a question, there must have
been a time in the past when Laurel did tell on Arnetta, and the grudge remains. But
Laurel is right to question Arnetta as the entire fight was based on a false accusation.
When Arnetta twice accuses two innocent girls (one of whom does not even speak),
she tries to do what she did before with the goldfish: put the blame elsewhere to get
herself out of trouble.
4. How does the narrator initially view the white Brownie troop? Does her
background influence her initial perspective? Consult the text for examples. As
they get off the bus at camp, the white Brownie troop is immediately branded by the
black girls for no reason other than their skin color. Their experiences at their
school—located in the suburbs of Atlanta—reinforce such stereotyping, especially
since there is only one white student at Woodrow Wilson Elementary (par. 13).
For example, when the black girls joke around in school with the idea of what
behaviors are, or are not, particularly associated with “Caucasians,” their own prejudices are highlighted. They tease a boy for his unstylish jeans; they belittle anyone
different from them. They use the word “Caucasian” so often that it loses its meaning altogether: “if you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you
ate like a Caucasian” (par. 12). These earlier prejudices carry over into their view of
the white Brownies.
Their assumptions about white girls come from TV commercials and from
impersonal encounters with white people; none of them have any authentic relationships with any white girls or boys. Because whites are the minority group in the
south suburbs of Atlanta, the girls confess that “it was easy to forget about whites.
Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought
about” (par. 14). But at camp, the black girls are forced to deal with a group of ten
girls who look different than they do. Their “envy and hatred” is based on jealousy
and longstanding resentment, because they are forced to look at the white girls’
“long, shampoo-commercial hair, straight as spaghetti from the box” (par. 14). A war
theme is set up early when the black girls declare the white girls to be “invaders” (par.
14) who were “doomed from the first day of camp” (par. 1).
The reader’s (and the narrator’s) sense of the situation is initially clouded by
Arnetta’s dubious accusation that the white girls called Daphne a “nigger,” a word that
triggers in the troop (and the reader) hurtful racist associations. Packer is such a good
storyteller that by the time we get to the restroom scene, we, like the black girls, focus
only on the offensive nature of the word “nigger,” which arguably none of the white
Brownies ever said. That word has become a convenient reason for the fight that was
planned before any girl in Troop 909 ever opened her mouth. Ask your students to reread the opening paragraph to see that the true motive for the fight has little to do with
words, and everything to do with the skin color of the “doomed” Troop 909.
5. Much of “Brownies” is very funny. What role does humor have in the
story? It is often said that humor helps us listen to difficult subjects or be open to
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things that we’d rather not hear. The humor in “Brownies” feels particularly Southern, as if we are reading a story by Flannery O’Connor (which makes sense as the
story is set in Georgia). The humor offsets this dark and disturbing story by providing some lighthearted moments.
ZZ Packer’s dialogue is often droll. For example, Octavia says, “I mean, I really
don’t know why it’s even called camping—all we ever do with Nature is find some
twigs and say something like, ‘Wow, this fell from a tree’” (par. 44). The story also
brims with religious humor. In paragraph 6, it is particularly funny when Laurel
describes that “Mrs. Margolin was especially fond of imparting religious aphorisms by
means of acrostics—“Satan” was the “Serpent Always Tempting and Noisome”; she’d
refer to the “Bible” as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” (par. 6). Lastly,
Packer’s descriptions of the adult women is especially funny and shows Laurel’s erudition and wit. For example, the leader of Troop 909 has a “severe pageboy hairdo of
an ancient Egyptian” who lays “on a picnic blanket, sphinx-like, eating a banana”
(par. 40). Later, when the tearful white girls all crowd around her, “it reminded [Laurel] of a hog I’d seen on a field trip, where all the little hogs gathered about the
mother at feeding time” (par. 148).
6. What realization does the narrator have at the end of the story? How does
this change her understanding of her father and of racial dynamics more generally? In the end, the story is really about Laurel (“Snot”)—her growing sense of
morality and what it means to grow up as a black girl in America.
As the girls leave camp, Laurel remembers an unusual moment from her past
when her father asked a Mennonite man to paint his porch. She shares this memory
with the girls on the bus, who—except for Daphne—have little appreciation for her
revelation. Having lived through the futile racist drama at camp, Laurel finally
begins to understand what her father meant when he said: “it was the only time he’d
have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free” (par. 193).
This seemingly incongruous moment from Laurel’s past proves essential to a full
understanding of “Brownies.” When Daphne silently chooses to bend over and clean
the restroom without any thought of receiving a Brownie patch as a reward, she
speaks louder than Arnetta to Laurel and to the reader. The incident with Troop 909
mysteriously leads Laurel to understand her own past and what her father meant,
“though I didn’t like it” (par. 194).
The realization that “when you’ve been made to feel bad for so long, you jump
at the chance to do it to others” (par. 194) offers neither hope nor promise that these
Brownies will be leaders with “courage, confidence, or character” who will break a
cycle of racial stereotyping. Of all the girls, Daphne alone asks Laurel if her father
thanked them, and when Laurel replies, “No,” the full epiphany comes to her as she
“suddenly knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop” (par.
195). This, coupled with Laurel’s earlier statement that “We had all been taught that
adulthood was full of sorrow and pain, taxes and bills, dreaded work and dealings
with whites, sickness and death” (par. 96), leaves the reader to question whether or
not Laurel will even try to stop the meanness.
7. What does the story suggest about racial stereotyping? Many literary works
reveal the pernicious effects of racism from whites to blacks, but in this story, the
racism is reversed. Here the retarded white girls are innocent “victims” to prejudice
and misunderstanding. This fact suggests the story’s theme: that it is easy for all people to misjudge one another, especially when assumptions are made solely on the
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basis of skin color or race. Ultimately, the story reveals that there is more to any
human being than the color of one’s skin. After all, Troop 909 is more defined by
their gender and disabilities, rather than race or ethnicity.
“Brownies” also demonstrates that all forms of prejudice are learned from a very
early age. The narrator’s hatred strikes the reader from the story’s opening sentence:
“By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to
kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” That this desire is based
only on racial stereotyping is clear from the second sentence: “Troop 909 was doomed
from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice
cream; strawberry, vanilla.” It shocks the reader to learn later that all the girls in
“Brownies” are only in the fourth grade, and therefore between eight and ten years old.
Laurel’s epiphany suggests the obvious: since her racism is, in part, learned from
her father, it will take strength and willpower for her to break this cycle of prejudice
and “something mean in the world” (par. 195). Not only will she have to transcend
both her own family’s racism and the larger racism of society, she will need courage
to stand up to the Arnettas of the world, who unjustly accuse others. Perhaps one of
the most disturbing aspects of this story is that girls ages eight to ten paradoxically
have a view of race that is both innocent and sophisticated—and often ignorant—
both of their own and of others.
Two relevant online interviews with Packer may also interest teachers or students. At the current time of writing, we found:
In Nidus (No. 9, Summer 2005), Packer talks with Jeff Janssens and
S. Zoe Wexler about her writing and revision process, her experience at Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, and her perspective on writing about race: www.pitt.edu
In an interview on WordSmitten.com, Packer talks about researching her new
novel about the Buffalo Soldiers (the black cavalry troops who fought in the
Indian Wars). She makes some interesting comments about the way in which
victims become victimizers, which are very relevant to an understanding of
Edgar Allan Poe, THE TELL-TALE HEART, page 52
In The Uses of Enchantment, the celebrated study of the psychological dimension of
fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim maintains that people who read fairy tales to children
should not talk to them about what the stories mean. Thus, it could be argued that
a story such as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is not meant to be picked apart and subjected to analysis. XJK remembers that once, after a class had read a Poe tale, a wonderful controversy broke out when someone complained, “this story doesn’t really say
anything.” Everyone tried to sum up the story’s theme, he reports, but failed miserably, and at last decided that there is a place in literature for stories that don’t say
anything in particular, but supply their readers with memorable nightmares and
dreams. Many a writer of horror stories might summarize his or her intentions in the
famous words of Joe the fat boy in Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers—“I wants
to make your flesh creep”—and leave it go at that.
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On the other hand, “The Tell-Tale Heart” must have something more than a
good scare going for it to have attracted the attention of so many critics over the
years. Daniel Hoffman, for instance, in his highly personal and deeply stimulating
Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1973), sees the old man as a father-figure, even a
Father-Figure, and suggests that in striking at his eye “the young madman strikes,
symbolically, at his sexual power.” Hoffman also says that the narrator “is full of the
praise of his own sagacity, a terrible parody of the true sagacity of a Dupin or a
Legrand. For what he takes to be ratiocination is in fact the irresistible operation of
the principle of his own perversity, the urge to do secret deeds, have secret thoughts
undetected by the otherwise ever-watchful eye of the old man.”
This and other demonstrations of the narrator’s imbalance come at the very
beginning of the story, and they provide the context in which we will evaluate everything else that he says and does. The teller of Poe’s tale is a classic unreliable narrator. The narrator is not deliberately trying to mislead his audience; he is delusional,
and the reader can easily find the many places in the story where the narrator’s
telling reveals his mistaken perceptions. His presentation is also deeply ironic: the
insistence on his sanity puts his madness on display. The first paragraph alone, brief
as it is, should provide fertile ground for students sent to find evidence of his severe
disturbance. From there, you can lead the class into a discussion of the subsequent
manifestations of his madness—his perception of the old man’s eye as a thing in
itself, independent of its admittedly benevolent possessor; his extreme attention to
details and matters that others could find insignificant; his fixation on a single objective for an insanely long period of time; his need to flaunt his brilliance, even if only
to himself, by inviting the police into the house, and so on.
Is it his own heart that the narrator hears at the end, as Hoffman and others
have suggested, or is it the wholly imaginary manifestation of his own guilty conscience? No one can say for certain, and perhaps no one should. As suggested above,
the claim that the story contains no larger meaning represents one extreme of possible responses, but it may be an equally extreme response in the opposite direction to
impose a strict—and potentially reductive—interpretation upon every last detail. At
least some of the story’s considerable power lies in the fact that we can’t explain
“The Tell-Tale Heart” was adapted for television in the PBS television series The
American Short Story, and is available on DVD. Additionally, an A & E biography of
Edgar Allan Poe is also available on DVD.
IDEAS FOR WRITING ON POE
1. As students love creative writing assignments, you might consider giving
them the chance to rewrite “A Tell-Tale Heart” using a different narrator. Edgar
Allan Poe paid very careful attention to the technical details of his stories. He knew
that craft led to effects and so he planned every detail of his stories from theme to
character to point-of-view. As Daniel Hoffman shows, “The Tell-Tale Heart” wouldn’t
be half as effective without the madman himself as its narrator. Indeed, its climax
would not occur without that point-of-view choice. An omniscient narrator in this
case might reveal the mysteries that give the story its power (the idea that the dead
man is in fact the narrator’s father, as Hoffman suggests; the paranoia of the narrator
would also be moot for an omniscient voice).
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2. Terror and humor are sometimes not far apart. Students can certainly tell stories of times they were terrified (about to be spanked, perhaps, for a childhood infraction) when their seemingly inappropriate response was laughter.
Flannery O’Connor noted that one of the great influences on her own writing
was Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. She echoed him in the creation of bizarre characters
and also in his use of the grotesque—mixing elements of humor with moments of
horror. A stolen wooden leg, for example, is both hilarious and horrendous. The
paranoid narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is also amusing—the way he “thrusts” his
head into the room of the sleeping victim, for example. One can imagine him caricatured in a skit on Saturday Night Live.
3. Father and son relationships in Poe’s stories are virtually never good. Sons
want to kill fathers and fathers want to kill sons, either explicitly or implicitly. Poe
felt himself to be a victimized son, first of David Poe who abandoned him, his
mother, and his sister; and later of John Allan, his oppressive foster father. Biographical information works well in understanding relationships among characters in
MyLiteratureLabTM Resources. Biographical information, critical overview,
bibliography, and links for Poe. Longman Lecture, video essay, and critical
essay on “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
James Baldwin, SONNY’S BLUES, page 56
“Sonny’s Blues” may be James Baldwin’s most frequently anthologized short story. It
was first published in 1957 and later appeared in his story collection Going to Meet
the Man in 1965.
The narrative structure of “Sonny’s Blues” is more complex and interesting than
it may seem at first glance. The story reads so smoothly that it is easy to overlook the
fact that it begins in medias res. “Sonny’s Blues” opens with the title character’s arrest
for the sale and possession of heroin; it ends in a jazz club with the older brother’s
ultimate understanding and acceptance of Sonny. This linear narrative is interrupted, however, by a long flashback that describes the uneasy earlier relation
between the brothers. Since their parents are dead when the story opens, we meet
the father and mother only in the flashback.
The inner story is the narrator’s spiritual and emotional growth into a person
who can understand his younger brother’s artistic life and who will help him fight to
conquer his drug addiction. There should be no doubt that Baldwin, the former boy
street preacher, saw the narrator’s inner growth as in some sense religious. Nowhere
is this more obvious than in the story’s final sentence, when the Scotch and milk
becomes “the cup of trembling” as it “glowed and shook above [his] brother’s head”
(par. 237). This biblical reference, from the Old Testament book of Isaiah 51:17-22,
is a complex image for Baldwin to have chosen. UC Davis lecturers Dr. Anne
Fleischmann and Dr. Andrew Jones interpret this symbol as follows:
In these passages, God tells the Israelites that He knows they have suffered His
fury, that they have been afraid of His wrath and of their enemies (“drunken the
dregs of the cup of trembling”). God promises here that they will no longer drink
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from the cup of trembling or feel His wrath and that the cup of trembling will
instead be put into the hands of their enemies. As an allusion at the end of the
story, this passage implies hope that those, like Sonny and his brother, who have
been afflicted with fear and suffering, will no longer be tormented. (“Class Lecture on ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” <cai.ucdavis.edu/uccp/sblecture.html>)
Keith Byerman, in his article “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny’s
Blues,’” argues that the Scotch and milk drink is “an emblem of simultaneous destruction and nurture to the system; it cannot be reduced to one or the other. Sonny’s acceptance of it indicates that he will continue on the edge between the poison of his addiction and the nourishment of his music” (Studies in Short Fiction 19 , 371).
In fact, music is such an important part of this story that you may consider
devoting some time in class to playing some blues and jazz songs for your students.
The references to Louis Armstrong and Charlie “Bird” Parker suggest parallels with
the narrator and Sonny. Even as many African Americans saw Armstrong as someone who sold out to white culture, so does Sonny see his elder brother as someone
who has forgotten his heritage in his attempt to rise to a middle class lifestyle. The
narrator does not lack an appreciation for music, however, as references to sound,
music, and songs abound in the story.
Here are some possible answers to the questions given at the end of “Sonny’s
Blues.” Other answers, of equal merit, may occur to you and your students.
1. From whose point of view is “Sonny’s Blues” told? How do the narrator’s
values and experiences affect his view of the story? Although the story’s title
implies that it is about Sonny, this is actually a story narrated by the unnamed older
brother about his own transformation. The basic conflict of the story is the narrator’s
inability to understand and respect the life of the younger brother he so clearly loves.
Baldwin carefully establishes the brothers as opposites. The narrator is a cautious, respectable family man. He teaches math and is proud of his professional standing. Living in a Harlem housing project, he consciously protects himself and his family from the dangers that surround him. He wants to avoid the illegal, dishonest
activities of those around him, and he chooses to work hard rather than obtaining
money the “easy” way through drug dealing. His identification with Louis Armstrong
rather than Charlie Parker reveals much about his view of race and culture. Notice
how intensely he appears to dislike Sonny’s friend, the drug addict, when he encounters him in the school courtyard at the beginning of the story. However, the narrator
is also compassionate, and it is important to see, in the same episode, how quickly he
recognizes and responds to the addict’s battered humanity. That gesture prefigures his
reconciliation with his brother by the end of the story.
2. What is the older brother’s profession? Does it suggest anything about his
personality? The older brother is an algebra teacher, which seems to be an appropriate profession for him. He is a methodical, analytical thinker, who doesn’t want to
get his hands dirty in helping Sonny. Although he deals with equations, factors,
problems, and solutions in his job, he doesn’t seem able to translate this capability
very well into his life. He isn’t truly close to anyone, even his wife. He is blinded to
his own role in Sonny’s troubles, erroneously believing that the answer for Sonny is
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for him to make the same choices in life: find a decent job, move to the projects, get
married, start a family. The older brother has forgotten his promise to their mother
to take care of Sonny, and has, in one sense, given up on his younger brother. The
narrator doesn’t realize until the end that there isn’t just one solution for Sonny’s
blues, or his own.
3. How would this story change if it were told by Sonny? The story, of
course, would be entirely different. We only see Sonny through the lens of his
older brother; if Sonny were the narrator, we would see everything from a different setting and point of view. Sonny, in contrast to his older brother, is a romantic artist who is not afraid of taking risks to pursue the things he desires. His passion for music makes him impatient with everything else. He drops out of school
and ends up selling and doing drugs. In the end, it seems that music is the only
thing that saves him, especially since the older brother failed to keep his promise
to take care of him.
4. What event prompts the narrator to write his brother? The first sentence of
“Sonny’s Blues” tells the whole story: “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on
my way to work.” The “it” referred to here is soon revealed when the narrator
explains, “He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment
downtown, for peddling and using heroin” (par. 3), and the “he” is Sonny. That the
older brother learns about this in the newspaper demonstrates that he has been out
of touch with his brother for many years. That the older brother is using public transportation to go to his job shows that he has taken an opposite path than his drugusing brother.
The other compelling motivation that spurred the narrator to actually write to
his prodigal brother is the death of the narrator’s small daughter from polio: “My
trouble,” the narrator confesses, “made his real” (par. 176).
5. What does the narrator’s mother ask him to do for Sonny? Does the older
brother keep his promise? The mother is the central moral figure of the story, but
we never meet her in “real time” since she is dead. We do, however, hear her voice
several times as a flashback. Her last conversation with the narrator ultimately
becomes a crucial part of his impetus to reconcile with Sonny. When the narrator
promises to take care of his kid brother, his mother warns him it will be hard, but it
is clear the narrator doesn’t fully understand what she is asking him to do. She has
seen enough of the world’s trouble to be fatalistic: “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening,” she tells him, before adding, “But you got to let him know you’s
there” (par. 104). Baldwin’s story tells the story of what happened to Sonny because
his brother failed him. Unlike Sonny’s drug addict friend at the beginning, the narrator doesn’t see that he is, in part, responsible for Sonny’s demise. In one sense,
“Sonny’s Blues” is the story of the narrator’s slow, difficult process of living up to the
promise he gave his mother.
6. The major characters in this story are called Mama, Daddy, and Sonny
(the older brother is never named or even nicknamed). How do these names
affect our sense of the story? The names are generic, which allows the reader to
place his or her family in the story. Generic names allow us to focus on the characters as family members, tied to each other irrevocably. In this sense, the story
can represent any family that suffers a particularly tragic event and its universal
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7. Reread the last four paragraphs and explain the significance of the statement “Now these are Sonny’s blues.” How has Sonny made this music his own?
The outer story of “Sonny’s Blues” is the title character’s rehabilitation from drug
addiction, reconciliation with his estranged brother, and recognition as a jazz pianist.
The final scene in the nightclub ends with a religious vision of the blues. Listening
to the group leader, Creole, play, the narrator says:
He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music
tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to
tell us what the blues were about. They were not about anything very new. He
and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale
of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never
new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, and it’s the only
light we’ve got in all this darkness. (par. 234)
That passage not only offers as good an explanation of the blues and jazz as one is
likely to find anywhere; it speaks cogently on the purpose of all art. It is worth reading out loud in class and having students pause over it.
The final scene of “Sonny’s Blues” is set in a dark, smoky nightclub, and its lyric
quality marks a noticeable shift in tone from the realistic narrative style that preceded it. As the closing episode gains force along with the music it describes, it
becomes a kind of vision for the narrator. In intellectual terms (for, after all, the narrator is a reflective math teacher), the vision brings him to a deep understanding of
the human importance of art and the terrible cost of its creation. In emotional terms,
his comprehension of jazz is inseparable from his sudden and profound understanding of Sonny’s identity and motivations as an artist.
The blues have indeed become Sonny’s as he is finally able to use his artistic
talent to give voice to his pain, thereby reaching out to his elder brother, who is
grieving the death of his young daughter. This moment of connection is profoundly
important to the character development for both brothers. In one sense, the whole
story is a kind of blues composition, as both Sonny and his brother have “the blues.”
They both have it and live it. The final image of the Scotch and milk suggests that,
for the first time, the brothers will finally play the blues—in different ways—for the
Unless the reader can accept the narrator’s capacity for this transforming insight,
the story is flawed by the sudden change of tone at the end. Several critics have
expressed their problem with the conclusion. They feel that Baldwin’s authorial
voice has replaced the narrator’s. As Joseph Featherstone said in an initial review of
Going to Meet the Man, the volume in which “Sonny’s Blues” first appeared:
The terms seem wrong; clearly this is not the voice of Sonny or his brother, it is
the intrusive voice of Baldwin the boy preacher who has turned his back on the
store front tabernacles but cannot forget the sound of angels’ wings beating
around his head. (New Republic, 27 Nov. 1965, reprinted in Kenneth Kinnamon’s “Twentieth Century Views” collection, cited in “Resources” below.)
On one level, Featherstone’s criticism makes sense. The tone of the final scene
is elevated and religious. It is quite unlike the narrator’s opening voice. However, a
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reader wrapped up in the power of the final scene is entitled to respond that the
entire story up until then exists to justify this passage. “Sonny’s Blues” is not merely
the story of the narrator’s experiences; it is the tale of his inner transformation. The
final scene is the demonstration of the older brother’s spiritual growth, which his earlier experiences of death and loss have motivated. In understanding and accepting
Sonny, he has enlarged his soul enough to understand Sonny’s life and music, too.
Before students plunge into the secondary material on Baldwin, they should be
encouraged to read the author’s own essays. Baldwin was one of the finest essayists of
his time, and there is no better introduction to his work than the title piece in Notes
of a Native Son, Baldwin’s passionate memoir of his Harlem youth. If your students
want to read more stories by James Baldwin, direct them to “Going to Meet the Man”
or “Come Out the Wilderness,” both published in Going to Meet the Man.
There is a large, interesting body of criticism on James Baldwin’s work. Kenneth
Kinnamon’s “Twentieth Century Views” critical collection, James Baldwin (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1974) remains extremely useful. John M. Reilly’s cogent sociological essay, “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community,” will be
interesting for students writing on the story. Sherley Anne Williams’s “The Black
Musician: The Black Hero as Light Bearer” examines the metaphoric role of the
musician in Baldwin’s work, with special attention given to “Sonny’s Blues.” Bruce
Bawer’s insightful overview of Baldwin’s fiction, “Race and Art: James Baldwin,” in
his critical collection The Aspect of Eternity (St. Paul: Graywolf, 1993), will be very
useful for students planning a paper on the author. Bawer surveys Baldwin’s career in
a biographical context and candidly evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the
novels. Quincy Troupe’s James Baldwin: The Legacy (New York: Simon, 1989) contains memoirs, tributes, and appreciations by fellow writers, including Maya
Angelou, William Styron, Toni Morrison, and Chinua Achebe. Carolyn Wedin Sylvander’s James Baldwin (New York: Ungar, 1980) also provides a reliable survey of the
author’s work, though her discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” is brief.
A UC Davis course, “Literature and Social History,” taught by Dr. Anne Fleisch –
mann and Dr. Andrew Jones, has a particularly helpful online portal on “Sonny’s Blues”
with pictures, links, and music, available at: <cai.ucdavis.edu/uccp/uccpdefault.html>.
MyLiteratureLabTM Resources. Biographical information, critical overview, bibliography, and links for Baldwin. Longman Lecture, reading and interpretation
questions, writing questions, evaluation questions, and comprehension quiz on
WRITERS ON WRITING
James Baldwin, RACE AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITER, page 77
Baldwin was an essayist of genius—forcefully intelligent, penetratingly insightful,
and passionately consumed with pursuing his ideas to their inevitable conclusions.
He wrote extremely well on most topics he addressed, but none so completely
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Chapter 2: Point of View 41
engaged his creative powers as himself. “One writes out of one thing only,” he
remarked, “one’s own experience.” Baldwin’s talent for seeing both sides of an issue
is never so apparent than in his autobiographical writing since he alternately views
his own life as both representative and singular. One sees this open-minded ability—
indeed what John Keats called “negative capability”—to embrace opposites in this
excerpt from Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes,” in which the author examines the
many imaginative sources of a writer.
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