Tropes of Conveyance: An Elemental Reading of four American Short Stories

The following is an example of  something I call "Elemental Criticism" This piece emphasizes the importance of the natural world to the craft of creative writing, and offers a unique approach to literary criticism.


The Bioregional Classroom

Tropes of Conveyance

 Understanding and awareness of the natural world is central to understanding the use of metaphor, simile, and symbol in literature. For one thing, all metaphors, similes, et cetera come out of the natural world. In other words, nature comprises the body of metaphor. In this light, the classical division of nature into the four constituent elements of earth, air, fire, and water, benefits both the serious student of literature and the professional writer in that these categories provide a way of discussing nature’s immensity in four easily comprehensible parts. What is more, the vehicles of some of the most effective metaphors, similes, etc are literally elemental. In this discussion, I wish to examine in detail four stories (each of which uses one of the four classical elements as one of its central figurative themes) to discuss the power and effectiveness of such tropes in literature.

     Sometimes, as is the case in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the elemental is construed as dangerous and threatening to the protagonist. In the case of “The Lottery,” the element of earth is made malevolent by traditional practices maintained by the villagers. Earth truly dominates this story – after all, a fertility rite is at the heart of this tale. The “earthy” nature of the annual “lottery” is made clear by the words of Old Man Warner, “’Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’” Clearly the lottery is tied closely to the natural processes of the earth, specifically those related to the cultivation of corn.

But it is the shockingly violent nature of the ritual associated with the fertility right that makes the elemental injurious (at least to Mrs. Hutchinson). Even the method the villagers employ to kill the unfortunate “winner” of the lottery evokes the element of earth; the villagers use stones to kill Mrs. Hutchinson at the end of the story. Also, imagery of elemental earth is often used to characterize traditions as timeworn and unchanging, “set in stone,” etc, and it is clear that the lottery is indeed a long standing tradition, and one that is slow to change.

In Shirley Jackson’s “Fever Flower,” the elemental appears as well, this time in the form of fire. The very title indicates the prominence of fire in this tale, and indeed, fire – and things associated with fire, e.g. heat, passion, impermanence – comprise the central themes of this story. Even the first sentence of this story evokes the heat of fire, “Summers, even the dew is hot.” The scene thus described is a scorching one, and also of significance here is the fact that, traditionally, summer is the season associated with fire.

The marriage between Hugh and Catherine, which has been over for two years when the story opens, seems to have burned out as quickly as flames. Katherine’s description of the marriage supports the connection between her unsuccessful marriage and fire -- her recollection is reminiscent of someone who has watched a building devoured in flames and who feels relief when the flames finally burn out, “She did not look back on her marriage with anger or any feeling stronger than a kind of vague relief that it was finished at last” (510).

Maureen, Hugh and Katherine’s daughter, is a child born of the flame of her parents’ passions, and surrounded still by the heat of their desire to see her grow up according to their wish. Grau makes this clear in the passage where Annie, Katherine’s domestic servant, imagines Katherine and Hugh bathed in fire, “The lusts of the flesh. The chaff which shall be cast into the fire. Hell fire. Which was like the summer sun, but stronger seven times. In her mind, she saw clearly, Katherine and Hugh revolving slowly in a great sputtering leaping fire while she stood at the edge, watching…” (519). But Annie seems to realize that she cannot protect Maureen from the “lusts of the flesh” indefinitely, and the final words of the story hint at this, Maureen lies upon her bed, “beautiful and burning” (521). By using the metaphor of fire consistently throughout the story, Shirley Ann Grau conveys, with relatively few words, a complex tale with sophisticated, well drawn characters, and touches upon the provocative themes of lust, passion, and impermanence.

The element of water dominates in “Sinking House.” In fact, the central conflict of the story arises when, upon her husband Monty’s death, Muriel turns on all of her taps, leaves them on until they begin to flood her neighbor’s yard. Her neighbor, Meg, investigates the flooding to find that Muriel is, as Meg puts it, “…nuts. She is. Really.  I mean she’s out of her gourd” (452). As the story progresses however, Meg comes to understand Muriel’s situation – the grief she feels at her husband’s death and the sense of resentment and sadness over a life spent thinking not of her own interests, but of her husband’s. In the context of this story, water may represent many things. Nevertheless, the classical associations of water seem to be at the heart of this extended metaphor.

Water is a common symbol for emotion, and this seems the most obvious meaning of water in “Sinking House.” It is as though Muriel uses the element of water to express a grief and sorrow so deeply felt that they must find release, like a mighty stream of water dammed too long. Another possible interpretation of Muriel’s actions, and one that still considers the association of water with emotion, is that she has held her true feelings back, perhaps even held back who she truly is, in order to make her marriage work. Working from this interpretation, when Muriel turns on the taps after Monty’s death, it is an expression of independence from her husband. No longer is he there to block the flow -- the water runs freely, and the foundation of the house (the house here is possibly symbolic of the life the couple built together) begins to sink.

Also, the purifying properties of water surface in this story. Muriel certainly seems to be venting emotion by turning on the taps, but the following passage suggests that she is also trying to erase memories of Monty, “Behind her, the house was silent: no faucet dripped, no sprinkler hissed, no toilet gurgled. It was horrible. Insupportable. In the pit of that dry silence she could hear him, Monty, treading the buckled floors, pouring himself another vodka, cursing her in a voice like sandpaper” (457).

At the end of the story, after Muriel is taken away by the police, Meg reflects upon a look Muriel gave her, and on the similarities between her life and Muriel’s. From Meg’s point of view, Muriel’s look as she was being taken away by the police “…wasn’t vengeful at all – it was just sad. It was a look that said this is what it comes to. Fifty years and this is what it comes to” (459). Perhaps partly because of the meaning that Meg attributes to Muriel’s look, she decides to turn on her sprinklers for a moment, mirroring Muriel’s actions at the opening of the story.  Meg sees the similarities between her own life and Muriel’s. She realizes she could end up just as Muriel has – old and alone. She sees that the wand that controls Muriel’s sprinklers is “just like theirs.” Whether one interprets water in this story as symbolic of emotion, independence, purification, or as a mix of the three, the significance of Meg’s actions, and the importance of water in this story, is clear, “And then it came to her. She’d turn them on – the sprinklers – just for a minute, to see what it felt like. She wouldn’t leave them on long – it could threaten the whole foundation of her house. That much she understood” (460).

In “The Blue Winged Teal” by Wallace Stegner, the operative element is air.  Even in the opening sentence we see air in the form of wind, “he stood hesitating on the sidewalk in the cold November wind” (392).  In this story, however, the element of air has been twisted, distorted slightly, as the following excerpt makes clear “...he would find, sour contrast with the bright sky and the wind of the tule marshes, the cavelike room with its black corners in darkness, would smell that smell compounded of steam heat and cue chalk dust, of sodden butts in cuspidors, of coffee and meat and beer smells from the counter, of cigarette smoke so unaired that it darkened the wall” (393). It is common practice in cartomancy (divination by cards) to read the meaning of a card as opposite its standard meaning when that card appears upside down, and it seems that Wallace Stegner draws upon a sort of reversed element of air to expresses some of the themes in this tale. By contrasting the freedom and openness of the tule marshes with the closed rank air of the poolhall, Stegner conveys a sense of constriction and imprisonment that is central to the story.

Another instance of the element of air appears in this story in the form of birds – specifically the blue winged teal from which the story takes its name. The ducks (rendered flightless in death) that Henry brings into the poolhall at the beginning of the story evoke the element of air once more, and because these ducks will clearly never fly again, they may once more represent imprisonment or stagnation. The resolution of the main conflict in this story – the troubled relationship between father and son, is initiated by the remembrance of a set of china on which Henry’s mother painted blue-winged teal wings when she was alive. In the moment when Henry’s father recalls the images of bird wings painted by his wife, it is almost as if the beauty and freedom of birds in flight penetrates the dank, stagnant air of the poolhall like a fresh breeze, clearing the air, if only for moment , between father and son. The element of air appears in this story from beginning to end and helps carry its meaning far beyond the confines of the smoky poolhall that serves as its setting.

The universality of elemental symbolism is probably partly responsible for its strength and for the frequency with such symbolism occurs in fiction. In a short story, such tropes of conveyance allow an author to explore large themes in a relatively limited space. Whether portrayed as malevolent or benign, the importance of elemental imagery in fiction is paramount, and understanding the classical associations of the elements can provide a starting point for deriving possible meaning from a text.