Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Literary elements in "The Reprieve"

Take-home exam for Engl 105, Part 2.

In "The Reprieve", what prominent literary element and/or device works to effect an excellent characterization?

"Reprieve" is a quiet little piece that follows the protagonist, Leo, from the pit of his self-pity to the realization that, well, despite all he's been through, he's lucky to be alive. Nothing much really happens by way of action: in the real time of the story, Leo is just waiting for his wife Edna to come back from an emergency call.

The motion of the story instead comes from the workings of Leo's mind. The narrative goes deep into Leo's thoughts and recollections. The author situates us in Leo's head as we see everything through his perspective.

At key points in the story, we enter the stream of his consciousness. Thus, we find out how he feels about himself, his wife, and his son. For example:

"How swiftly the boy had vaulted the fence between boyhood and manhood. Leo knew he should be grateful for that had hoped for it, in fact.... But now the transformation came so soon after his stroke, he couldn't help but think his illness was the pole the boy had used to vault the fence."

These lines reveal the tension that a father feels, on the one hand the fulfillment of a paternal hope, and on the other, the fear of irrelevance.

"His wish to argue was quenched by his almost childish excitement that driving gave him. He had been in the backseat far too long, he thought."

These lines indicate someone maniacally cherishing release from long-suppressed frustration. This is someone who used to be in control and was held back too long.

Such a level of characterization can only be possible by going deep under the skin of the character.

Leo's long internal monologues serve as transition points for the story. The story is divided into four parts: now (Leo waking up, wife leaving for the emergency), recent past (his reckless drive), a more distant past (the stroke), and back to the present (another incipient stroke, narrowly averted.) These parts are written more conventionally. Leo is still firmly in the frame, but the narrative camera is held back a little to show the events that happened to Leo. The internal monologues then serve as reflections for Leo as he looks back on what transpired.

But the question arises: why wasn't the story written in the first person? After all, we are following everything from his perspective. The answer, I believe, stems from the cold objectivity that omniscient view can provide. By choosing the first person, we would have been buried too deep in the character, no longer able to view the significance or relationship of the unfolding events.

By shifting ever so subtly between his recollection of the events and Leo's internal editorial, the author enables these components to reinforce each other and so achieve a richer characterization for the story.

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