“The Quiet One” by Dan David (New Zealand)

There is a group of novels and short stories that concern themselves with the social traumas suffered by adolescents – especially by the kind of adolescents that grow up to be writers of novels and stories. And, for the first two thirds of “The Quiet One,” we assume that Dan Davin has simply made another contribution to this already well-populated genre. Like most narrators of stories in this genre, Ned is a sensitive young man, set apart from his somewhat loutish companions by his ability to perceive and articulate the pattern of these empty weekend nights. Again, typically, he is not capable of walking away from this pattern, even though he recognizes it as a “the game.”

Not until his encounter with Marty does Ned (and Davin’s story) break away from the self-enclosed world of adolescent agonies. The terrible fact of Dulcie’s abortion and death interrupts “the game,” with its bruising, but at the same time protective, rules. Hearing of her death, Ned suddenly finds himself in that “other country” where “the sort of thing that happens once the gloves are off” actually takes place, where he is sized up by someone he admires and is not found wanting, where not knowing what to say is somehow the right response. Ned has the maturity to know that although this is the place he yearned to be, he would rather be “anyplace else in the world.” Davin’s accomplishment is that he reminds us that a boy grows up, not in a steady purposeful ascent to maturity, but through a slow accumulation of inglorious episodes like this one.

Moebius Strip

  1. Cut a strip of paper 27cm long and 2cm wide.
  2. Print the following on one side, using equally spaced words formed of capital letters with no punctuation: IN THE MIND BUT THEN THE MEANING IS.
  3. Now turn the paper over by turning it away from you. On this side print: IN THE WORD BUT THEN THE MEANING IS.
  4. Make a moebius strip by twisting the paper once and gluing the ends together.

You have just create a circular sentence. Read the sentence carefully. What does it suggest about the process of reading? About the process of rereading? About the relative importance of the word and the reader’s response to that word? And finally, consider the sentence as a physical object, as a moebius strip, a three-dimensional circle. Can the insides and the outsides of the strip be distinguished from each other? If not, what does this suggest about our search for the “real” location of a story’s meaning? And about the relationship between the “inside” mind of the reader and the “outside” words of the story?

“The Painted Door” by Sinclair Ross (Canada)

Read “The Painted Door” by Sinclair Ross.

Write an essay in which you develop your thesis from one of these topics:

  • man-woman conflict
  • the role of nature
  • fate and irony
  • the place of art and beauty
  • the possibility of redemption and atonement
  • the possibility of communication
  • the effects of loneliness on the self and on relationships


“The Painted Door” is partly an anatomy of a sin – and of a repentance that comes, tragically, scant hours too late. As the recorder of that sin, Ross is severe, portraying Ann as a woman just good enough to be fully culpable, in a way that the handsome but morally vacant Steven is not and cannot be. Indeed, the reader may ask whether the two crucial elements in Ann’s tragedy – her contrition and regained love for John, and John’s grief-stricken retreat back into the storm – are reasonable to be predicted given what we know of the characters, or are imposed on the story as part of Ross’s indictment of Ann as a woman unworthy of John.

But the story can also be seen as a portrayal of a seduction – or perhaps a series of rapes culminating in a barely noticed seduction. For Ann’s moral will is assaulted by the storm, and her nerves and mental balance are battered by isolation, long before Steven arrives to confront her with nothing more aggressive than clean-shaven jowls and an easy smile. In fact, during the hours of mounting sexual tension beside the stove, Ann seems to be seduced not so much by Steven as by her own overstrained, terrified, feverish imagination; the “act” is so understated, and Steven so passive throughout, that it is possible to miss that point that Ann and Steven have not just bundled together for warmth. Her storm-induced hallucinations, then, are powerful, even decisive agents in her seduction; but in the end it is Ann, not the elements, whom Ross taxes with kindness.

Other topics for discussion:

realism, surrealism vs classicism, romanticism

Apollonian and Dionysian Dichotomy

“Temptation of Eve”

Jeanne d’Arc

Wild Geese vs After the Harvest

Dream Interpretation

Sheryl Sandberg



Golden Age, Golden Mean, Golden Rule

Persistance of Memory


“The Hobby” by Eric McCormack (Canada)

Eric McCormack’s “The Hobby” is a story about age and retrospection; it is also about artistic creation and, more broadly, about love. What does a person do when she/he looks back at the largest, most consuming, work of his/her life and knows it to be over? One response, of course, is to take up a hobby. Another is to withdraw; yet another, to deny one’s work is over: to “rage against the dying of the light”-to use Dylan Thomas’s phrase-or, as McCormack puts it, “[to defy] the darkness.”  The retired engineer in this short fiction can be said to adopt all three responses at once.

What is it to care about something as deeply as this man does? To wish it carefully and passionately into being? Surely there is some creative power in such a love, in such a hope. Is this not the hope that inspires legends of sub-creation from the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea to the story of The Velveteen Rabbit? But there is a flip side to this kind of creativity: if the world of one’s creation were to come to life (see Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection) might it not draw people out of their own world-perhaps onlookers, perhaps the artist himself? And what would happen then?

In “The Hobby,”  this possibility is given a double spin, since the author as well as the old man and his hosts are sucked into the world of the old man’s creation. And it is a world not without its terrors, for though it is possible that the tunnel is just a tunnel, it seems more likely that it is a metaphor for the final darkness into which first the old man-but eventually his hosts and the author-must eventually travel.

Look for a definition of the word hobby, and then compare it with the following definitions:

In the 1400s the word hobby referred to a shaggy, medium-to small horse or pony. In the 1500s the similar word hobbin or dobbin was often used by workers as a name for a plough horse. By the 1700s it could also refer to a small wooden horse on which a child might ride. Children often spent many hours rocking on these horses.

By 1760 Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy used the word metaphorically to describe a person who had, in the perceiver’s eyes, an excessive interest in something. Certainly the concept of an all-consuming passion for some project is given memorable attention in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817).

By 1840, having a hobby was seen as a respectable and desirable way of passing one’s time. It was said of a certain nobleman of the period that “the library was one of his hobbies.”

“A Report for An Academy” by Franz Kafka (Czechoslovakia)

The protagonist in this story has no name-at least none that he consents to be known by-and he has no status, being caught between the world he has abandoned and the world in which he has “established” himself, but of which he is not truly a part. He speaks the language of his new world with precision-perhaps with too great a precision. He insists both on the completeness of education and on the deliberateness with which he undertook it. In his view, it is that deliberateness, that ability to use the active rather than the passive voice in describing his experience, that sets him apart from those of the same background who are merely “trained.” He represents all immigrants, converts, successful aspirants from an illiterate background to society’s haut monde, differing from them all only in one modest particular. He was born an ape.

In other words, Kafka’s former ape is not an ape, but rather any human being who, in order to absorb another culture, has estranged him/herself from his/her own. But such a reading narrows the story’s scope, for “Report” is full of asides, subordinate clauses, and other seemingly parenthetical observations that are related only remotely to the immigrant experience. And these passages are too numerous to ignore. Furthermore, to define “Report” as an allegory would be to put the reader in the shoes of a member of the academy-an auditor standing “well back from the barrier,” well back from the true voice of “the other” and it does not seem to be Kafka’s intention that this should be the reader’s experience. Kafka has mined “Report” with passages that concern all of us, passages dealing with freedom, the illusion of freedom, captivity, the awareness of captivity, and the possibility or impossibility of finding a way out. These are topics on which no prudent academy would be likely to solicit a report. But these are topics that concern the speaker and they are mirrored in the asides of his report, making it, therefore, much more than a simple report.

Kafka (himself, as a German Jew, doubly a minority in mainly Roman Catholic Czechoslovakia) invites us to discover that it is not only the majority who want to maintain the integrity of the barrier, but also the “other,” the one who teases with “frank” speech, emotive metaphors, and invitations to reflect on common experiences, but finally insists on difference with the asseveration, “all I have done is to report.”

Complete the following sentence and then follow it up with a one page report:

“I wish to thank the members of the academy (or council, or committee) for asking me to submit this report concerning my former existence as ____________.”

You should try to imagine that you were this thing/person that you have chosen and have only recently metamorphosed into your present state. You may wish to consider some of the following questions:

  • What is a report (as opposed to a story or journal entry)?
  • Who or what is “the academy?” How do you feel about appearing before it?
  • Did you prefer your former existence or do you prefer this one?
  • Why did you make the change? Were you forced to do so, or was the change voluntary?
  • Explain how the language you used in your former existence was slightly (very?) different from the one you use now.
  • Do you find it difficult to make this report? Explain why or why not.

“The Tower” by Marghanita Laski (England)

There is the known world; that is, the world we think we know, the world we perceive with our senses. And then there is the unknown, a world conceived, if at all, only by the mind. In this gap between the reach of our senses and the reach of our mind, arise all of our dreams and all of our nightmares. Does my family tree, my unusual name, my singular appearance, my sudden attraction to, or repulsion from, this person, object, or place mean that I am singled out for some specific fate? “Yes,” say the writers of fantasy: H. G. Wells, “The Green Door,” C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. And “yes,” too, say many of the writers of horror.

“The Tower” is based on two of these sources of horror: the sense that some people are fated for certain experiences, and the sense that some people—in certain places—can pass through doorways into other worlds or, as here, into the domain of another power.

But Laski makes her story different by eschewing the usual roller coaster of horror and maintaining the possibility of normalcy right up to the final words. How many more steps are there? Is there any end to this ghastly descent? Who or what is waiting for Caroline?

“The Sea Devil” by Arthur Gordon (United States)

There is a striking parallel between “The Sea Devil” and the plot of Everyman, a medieval morality play. Everyman’s action begins in heaven: God, looking at mankind’s sinfulness, summons Death, his mighty messenger, to call Everyman to a general reckoning.  Everyman searches high and low for something to stand by him in his hour of need and finds only his own Good Deeds. Good Deeds, and her sister, Knowledge, instruct Everyman in the right way to behave. Thus, at the eleventh hour, Everyman is saved.

“The Sea Devil” is a secular morality tale based on a similar structure: it is a retributive, although uncaring, Nature whom this modern Everyman offends by his tacit belief in man’s proud mastery over Nature. It is this pride that puts him in danger of death and devil (both figured in the giant ray), while his good deed (kindness to the baby porpoise) and his ability to reason finally save him.

Whereas the moral of Everyman is that we should forsake sin and devote ourselves to good deeds, which alone are pleasing to God; the chief moral of The Sea Devil is that we should never let our pride and greed blind us to the fact that we along with beast and bird and fish are all Nature’s creatures. In any fair battle, Nature is more able to turn her giant fist against us than we are to turn ours against her.

But the moral here is somehow not as convincing as the one in Everyman, perhaps because it is constantly being undermined by the diction, pacing, and tone of the whole tale. The man may free the half-dead mullet and vow never again to go casting alone at night, but the reader cannot forget how much of the tale is a celebration of the fierce exhilaration of the hunter at the moment of ambush.

  1. Review the traditional literary conflicts:Character v. Character, Character v. Nature, Character v. Machine, Character v. Self, Character v. Supernatural, Character v. Society, Character v. Destiny. Can you think of other categories? Recall stories, films, novels, poems, myths, and television programs that would fall into the character-against-nature category. Make a list and add suggestions from other students.

“Another Part of the Sky” by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

In Collins, the principal of an experimentally liberal reformatory Nadine Gordimer presents a man who possesses a few temperate faults and several moderate virtues, who is extraordinary only in certain ways and in small degrees, who is somewhat given to introspection, and who is reasonably self-aware.  Why, then, should his final realization—that he has not room enough in his caring for the whole world—why should this rather commonplace epiphany have “filled him with desolation…stiffened him from head to foot with failure,” create a “moment of knowledge” so agonizing that “he did not know how he would live through” it?  Our knowledge of Collins does not prepare us for it.

Perhaps our shock and bewilderment are meant to mirror Collins’s own; after all, we know of him only what he consciously knows of himself.  There are, however, two cases in which the words of his inner dialogue give away more than he probably realizes.  In the first of these instances he imagines his runaways living in a “cave of hunched faces painted with cosy fear by the light of a paraffintin fire…[a]troubled dreamlike existence of struggle and fear and horror,” and in the second he refers to his life as a struggle “to read the suffering faces of the nameless, the dispossessed whom God made it incumbent upon him that he should spend his life reading.”  These passages suggest that he sees himself—though he would almost certainly recoil from the thought—as a Christ-like messenger to the Platonic cave (The Republic, Book VII) of south Africa’s lowest caste.  It is his task to lead boys away from the flickering fire, the “hovel of smoke,” the “half-discerned murk,” drawing like Socrates on “some memory beneath their experience,” eventually accustoming them to the world lit by the sun of public and private order, if not that of philosophic truth.

But in Plato’s analogy no one who has been led into the world of the sun ever returns (save against his will) to resume his old place in the world of the cave:  more importantly, Christ, even a type of Christ, never fails in self-sacrificing charity to mankind.  It is not surprising, when we consider the models in whose terms Collins sees the world, and against which he, albeit unconsciously, measures himself, that he should be crushed by a sudden perception of the face and extent of his failure, and should not even reflect on the fact that it is a failure common to all humanity.  Nor is it surprising that Collins, so easily seduced by words as to forget reading them, should be so preternaturally irked by words, and especially by the contrast between their perennial promise of wholeness and their delivery of partial truths.  The words in the newspapers have only belied him; the words in the core visions of Western culture, the words that shape and sustain Collins’s “part of the sky,” have betrayed him to a “desolation” and a taste of “bitter juice” which are merely, terrifyingly, human.

“Invasion of the Airline Stewardesses” by Erika Ritter (Canada)

From its first appearance in English literature (in the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood”) to the present, the dream vision has been the traditional vehicle by which an ordinary person becomes the bearer of important news—often a warning of some future event—to others.   In Invasion of the Airline Stewardesses  Erika Ritter infuses this vehicle with her own parodic wit, poking fun at the popularity of the film on which the piece is based, at airline jargon, and perhaps even at her own irritable reaction to that jargon.  But her “haunting airborne dream” can also be seen as a serious dream vision, albeit “specially designed [for our] listening pleasure.”  Although she refuses to preach, Ritter seems to be genuinely concerned about the invasion of jargon and meaningless phrases into our language, and has chosen a memorable confection to let us know of that concern—a confection that both entertains and persuades.

  1. Read Alden Nowlan’s “A Matter of Etiquette” from Between Tears and Laughter. Nowlan makes the point that while the kind of language we might use when addressing the Queen is very different from the kind of language we might use when digging a sewer, each has its own “prescribed sentences” that are accompanied by “formalized gestures.”  Many cartoons are based on a situation in which a certain kind of discourse is used in a totally inappropriate context.  See any copy of The New Yorker or any of Gary Larson’s Far Side collections.
  2. Construct responses with other students to the question, “How are you?” in the following situations:
  • in the school corridor, your principal asks….
  • in his/her office, your doctor asks…
  • at breakfast, your mother asks…
  • after a regular practice at school, your coach asks…
  • on the sidewalk after school, your best friend asks…

Think of additional situations and responses.

“Fairie Tale” by Janice Elliott (England)

If many modern and postmodern fictions are about the process of writing stories, Janice Elliott’s “Fairy Tale” is about that process being at once motivated and overwhelmed by the writer’s own desire—a desire she obviously shares with us, her readers—to hear stories. And the story she, and we, really want to hear is not just any story, but our story, the story in which we are hero/heroine, the story in which our dreams come true.

In other words, we want to hear a fairy tale. But if we start out to tell ourselves one (and who else is likely to undertake the task?), we find we have a more demanding audience than we expected—our sophisticated, critical, feet-planted-firmly-on-the ground selves. Unlike children, adults are not content to hear their own names glorified with the title of princess or knight. They want the best of both worlds—the dream career and the knight in shining armour: the perfect house, congenial neighbours, an understanding mate, and a secret lover, a felicitous forest, and children who fall asleep at convenient times. In adult fairy tales, a person can enjoy both the status of “good woman”/”good man” and “boundless ecstasy” beside a bubbling brook. But, like that other fairy-tale character, the old woman in the vinegar bottle who wants to be God, the importunate adult wants safeness that entropy can beseige even perfection. Therefore, like Elliott, the adult must create a fairy tale whose plot is forever deferred by innumerable ironic asides and by countless new beginnings. In adult fairy tales there can be no “happily ever after” because the tale itself never ends, but, like Finnegan, begins again—and again—and again.