Throughout the short story “Barn Burning”, the protagonist, Sarty, is faced with what seems to be an impossible conflict; how deep does blood really run? Saddled with an abusive father, he is constantly put into a position where he questions if staying true to his roots is the right decision. Rather early on in the story, after Abner strikes Sarty, he states, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have no blood to stick to”. This exchange emphasizes the importance Abner hold regarding relation by blood. It also encompasses their father/son relationship quite accurately.
Due to the fact that this moral has been instilled in him for so long, Sarty feels a sense of responsibility towards his father. Even when mistreated, he chose to be compliant no matter how intensely his subconscious attempted to persuade him otherwise. A good example of this can be found on page 117 of the packet-155 of the story, where it states, “I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t,“. The powerlessness he faces is common place even in modern society. For a story written so long ago, it amazes me that many of the themes still occur within our generations. What does this say about how we have progressed, or regressed, as a society?
The underlying theme of this narrative is deception. As the reader progresses through the story, they are keenly aware that both the husband and the wife are deceiving one another in different ways. The husband in the narrative describes his own actions as a “school boy lie” (Colette 327). He disguises himself in costume to remain anonymous at the opera. I think the reader too often jumps to the guilty actions of Irene, and fails to observe the distrusting behavior of her husband. As he judges her seemingly split personalities, he fails to reflect on his own shortcomings as a husband. These shortcomings are exemplified by his perception and description of his wife. On page 327, he depicts his wife’s face as “pink, matt and long, like a delicate sugared almond.” In this moment, he is clearly objectifying Irene. In his mind, she is the beautiful entity that can be fully controlled and understood. As soon as she wavers from his personal image of her, she becomes “like the conger-eels”. It’s interesting to assume that as Irene adds to her elaborate costume, more of her true identity is revealed. Her goal in this story is to achieve “the monstrous pleasure of being alone, free, honest in her crude, native state.” (Colette 331). In essence, she wants to be herself. In order to achieve this blissful state, she approaches the battle field of constricting gender norms by wearing her own suit of armor. Her lace mask and purple hood give her confidence that allows her to strive for her own sexual desires. I think what conflicts her husband the most, is that she only desires to “collect some other passer-by, forget him, and simply enjoy”(Colette 331). He wants to view this dramatic adulterous event, but is instead left dumbfounded by her uncommitted affairs. He is left unsatisfied and confused by the complexity of his wife’s character.
When reading A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings the biggest thing that struck me as odd was not the existence of the “angel,” but instead the reaction of the of villagers to the “angel.” I am not a member of any church, but I’ve picked up on some aspects of religion from popular culture and visits to my conservative hyper-religious family. One thing I’ve noticed is that it is encouraged to fear the Lord and his wrath.
The villagers in the story seem to have no concept of fear when it comes to dealing with the “angel.” Surely there is some unwritten rule in religion that frowns upon capturing and keeping an angel in livestock-like conditions. Also, isn’t there a a commandment that tells people to love their neighbor. I know angels aren’t our neighbors, but I would think that followers of religion would put angels on an even higher pedestal of respect. In disrespecting the angel, the villagers didn’t seem to have any fear of the wrath of the lord. This makes me question how devout the villagers truly were.
To me, “Black Box” is not a story about strong women. It is not about gender roles, or sexism. Indeed, it has nothing to do with feminism whatsoever. “Black Box” is about sexual trauma, and the many ways in which it destroys lives.
In the saltwater, our main character is cleansed, but she still doesn’t feel at home in her body. Her body is not hers; it is property of the government, and it exists to fulfill their mission. She floats above herself, conceptualizes herself as a series of tools used to complete a goal.
This dissociation is common among victims of abuse, especially sexual abuse. It’s a coping method. She feels as though she is separate from her body, as though her body is not her own, separating herself from the physical form touched and changed by people in power.
This story is told in sections, presented in black boxes. It separates you from the action, like she is separated from herself. The language itself is very matter-of-fact; it’s emotional without actually expressing much emotion.
And maybe all of this is just my point of view because I know what it’s like to feel like your body is separate from yourself. I know what it’s like to feel as though you are merely piloting your body like a great machine.
What do you think? What is “Black Box” really about?
In Bloodchild, the Tlic are stated to need to have humans as birthing vessels for their eggs like Thread waisted wasps, however, if you know a bit about biology then you will know that this makes no sense at all. First things first let’s get the biggest one out of the way, we have more genetic similarity with Bacteria growing on the Marianas trench then we do with any type of alien. You see we and the Bacteria both have DNA and are from earth. The Tlic on the other hand are aliens and originated far from earth. It is incredibly unlikely that out of the 1.3 MILLION recorded species that only homo Erectus actually works with the Tlic. but, okay, suspension of disbelief. If it really is only humans that can work, why raise them with human parents? Imagine this, the Tlic take the humans as a baby and raise them with other babies and tell them that they are the larval forms of the Tlic and need eggs implanted in them to grow up. Or, maybe raise the humans to worship the Tlic as Gods and the eggs are some bizzare communion wafer, better yet just clone humans as brain dead flesh vessels. I’m starting to get the feeling that Butler just wanted to write a story about a pregnant man.
“Victory Lap” was one of my favorite short stories we read this unit, and part of why I liked it so much was its unique voice–particularly during the first section, which is told from Alison’s point of view. However, as I continued reading, I became confused. The part of the story that had drawn me in, Alison’s unique voice and perspective, seemed to have little bearing on the larger story overall. As the story went on, it become focused on Kyle–his heroism, his taking action to claim his own power and subjectivity, his breaking free from the control of his parents in order to do what he saw as right and save the day. Alison, fascinating, quirky Alison, whose inner life Saunders had devoted several pages to at the outset of the story, seemed suddenly reduced to the cliche of a “damsel in distress”–a young woman who finds herself in a dangerous situation and cannot get out of it by herself, needing instead to be saved by a man. Why would Saunders write such an interesting character and spend so much time developing her fully, only to suddenly shove her to the margins of the story for the sake of the character development of the male protagonist? I could tell from Sanders’ unique and intriguing writing style that he is a thoughtful, talented writer. Too thoughtful and talented to fall back on a tired, sexist trope. This made me wonder–why did he make the choices he did with Alison’s character? Why did he develop her so fully, then push her to the side so abruptly? Was it possible that Alison’s character was meant to be a satire of sorts, to play with and challenge the concept of the “damsel in distress”?
The first few pages, written from Alison’s perspective, provide a wealth of tongue-in-cheek humor, compelling evidence that Saunders meant to be satirical with her. First, Alison is stereotypically “girly” to the point of being comical. She prances around her house via ballet steps, speaking to herself in French and daydreaming about meeting her Prince Charming. She also daydreams about talking to a baby deer in the woods whose mother has been shot by a hunter:
Are you afraid? she asked it. Are you hungry? Do you want me to hold you?
Okay, the baby deer said.
Here came the hunter now, dragging the deer’s mother by the antlers. Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! She covered the baby’s eyes, and was like, Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy. (5-6)
The scene in which Alison daydreams about talking to the deer with the dead mother invokes classic Disney films such as Bambi and Snow White, as well as the common trope of the maiden able to communicate with and protect woodland creatures. However, the phrase “Her guts were completely splayed” brings fresh humor to the otherwise familiar scene by injecting it with crude realism and making it read more like a parody of one of those Disney stories than the original. In fact, Alison’s entire character reminds me of a parody of a Disney princess. For instance, another way in which Saunders satirizes a familiar female character trope is through Alison’s unrelenting optimism. In her ethics class, she confidently spouts views on life that could be easily plucked from a children’s television program, even as her jaded teacher clearly thinks they are ridiculous:
In their straw poll she have voted for people being good and life being fun, with Mrs. Dees giving her a pitying glance as she stated her views: To do good, you just have to decide to do good. You have to be brave. You have to stand up for what’s right. At that last, Mrs. Dees had made this kind of groan. (10)
Positivity and pure-heartedness are staples of a female heroine of the “Disney princess” variety, and Saunders shows how Alison lives with these ideals in a real world full of real people such as Mrs. Dees who couldn’t agree with them less. The result is quite humorous.
However, the first section of the story also provides small, yet powerful details that humanize Alison and show that she is not merely a caricature. Saunders hints at the fact that Alison sometimes has to deal with issues much more serious than fit with her rosy worldview. For example, she describes a borderline dangerous encounter with a local boy, Matt Drey:
Kissing him last night at the pep rally had been like kissing an underpass. Scary! Kissing Matt was like suddenly this cow in a sweater is bearing down on you, who will not take no for an answer, and his huge cow head is being flooded by chemicals that are drowning out what little powers of reason Matt actually did have.
What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future. (7)
In this quote, it is clear that Alison was in a situation with Matt Drey in which he coerced her into doing something she did not want to do and she was scared. Saunders states outright that it is important to Alison that she has agency. This quote makes it obvious that just because Alison is extremely girly, cheerful, and a touch naive, it does not mean that she is okay with being treated by boys or men however they want to treat her. She is still her own person who does not deserve to be violated. What is interesting to me about the line, “What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future,” is that not only does it stand in a paragraph of its own, but it seems incredibly different in tone from the rest of Alison’s section of the story. This line seems a lot more straightforward and serious than the rest of the story. It doesn’t use any of Alison’s quirky slang, and it mentions very mature, adult things like “career” and “future” that Alison has not mentioned before. This shift in tone made this sentence stand out to me a lot. I believe Saunders included it to make it clear that no matter how girly, cheerful, naive, absentminded, or ridiculous a person, particularly a woman, is, it does not mean that she does not deserve subjectivity and to be in control of herself.
After focusing in on Kyle’s actions for several pages, Saunders returns to Alison at the end of the story. At the end, Alison prevents Kyle from killing the near-rapist by shouting at him to stop. She fulfills the traditional feminine role of preventing violence and showing mercy even to the scum of the earth. Her parents praise her for this, her father telling her that she “Did beautiful” (27). To me, her father’s word choice seems particularly meaningful. Beautiful is a word often used to describe women, especially those who are follow traditional gender norms. It almost seems as though Alison is being praised for being the “right” kind of girl, one who embraces gentleness rather than vengeance. However, being this “right” kind of girl has not given Alison peace of mind. She is still haunted by her traumatic experience, having nightmares about Kyle actually going through with the murder. Saunders makes it clear that just because Alison is the “perfect girl”, princess-like in her innocence and happiness, she is still fully human and still suffers psychological consequences after undergoing something traumatic, just as anyone else would.
Altogether, I believe Saunders subverts the “damsel in distress” trope in two ways: by making fun of it and its associated traits (communicating with woodland creatures, relentless cheerfulness), and by humanizing his “damsel” by showing her feeling both the innate human desire for subjectivity and the realistic effects of trauma.
While reading all of these stories, many of them have interesting power dynamics. The Tlic with the Terran in Bloodchild, the designated mate with the beauty spy in Blackbox, the daughter and the mother from Good County People, the old man and the town’s people from the Very Old Man with Enormous Wings and many more. All of those stories contain a relationship between two parties where one is more so dominating the other.
With every story, I was trying to find mutual recognition between them. In Spiderhead was there mutual recognition between the man in charge and the narrator when the narrator had to first say “acknowledge” before anything was done to him? Was there mutual recognition between the narrator’s friend and Ms. Moore in The Lesson when the main character’s friend accepted the lesson? I’m still not sure. I believe that when a more powerful figure allows their less powerful counterpart a “choice,” it is not mutual recognition. I believe is more so them still lording their power over the other. Like saying “I will give a choice to make you feel like you have power,” but that way, they’re still in power but now only manipulating emotions.
If mutual recognition means that one party sees the other as an equal, I feel like majority of these stories lack that. But if mutual recognition simply means that one party sees the other as an individual with valid feelings and thoughts but still decides to lord power over the other, then the stories do have that. I’m not sure if mutual recognition is up to interpretation, but I believe that if something were to *mutually* recognize another thing, then it would have to see it as an equal being.