Use the comment section for this post to engage in a discussion of Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box.”
To see your requirements and parameters for our discussion, see our Reading/Discussing Short Stories guidelines. Strive for a vigorous exchange, including debating differing interpretations, but always strive for mutual recognition of each other, working toward enhancing our collective understanding of the story.
Watch your period’s group presentation on the story and see the DQs below, if you are looking for inspiration.
- Do you think her life went back to normal after she returned?
- What do you think would have happened if she used one of her devices wrong and her designated mate found out?
- Do you think she went on this voluntary mission to feel successful like her husband and father?
- Why do you think she chose now in her life to go be a spy?
- Do you think there is a secret society of spy beauties?
- What does the author do in the story to ‘defamiliarize’ or create a sense of detachment? What does this potentially say about humanity in relation to either patriarchal society, traumatic experiences, or sacrificing for the greater good?
- Why do you think the author decided to publish this story in a series of tweets? What influence does this have on her writing and overall comprehension in readers? What about the various illustrations included throughout the story?
- Do you support the notion that this story is about feminism/female empowerment? Why or why not?
- This story does not align exactly with the stereotypical ‘sci-fi’ genre. Meaning, while it does feature advanced technology and alternative life situations, it still seems plausible in today’s society. This being said, what do you think the story could be an allegory or symbol of other than patriarchy?
- What difference does it make that the story is written in second-person narrative? How do you think this contributes to the paradox of the main character being a ‘black box’ and us readers seemingly reading her black box itself?
- How does having the story in second-person perspective affect the theme?
- Before handing over the recording of her mission she can edit and delete personal thoughts, does she include these personal thoughts intentionally?
- How far is too far when it comes to patriotism?
9 thoughts on “Discussing “Black Box””
In the “Black Box” story by Jennifer Egan, it discusses the narrator’s quest to extract information from a powerful terrorist. She tries to serve her country by doing her job along with her designated mate. However, there is a line between blindly following a leader and doing what you know is right. This definitely relates to the 2020 election today between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And some republicans have switched over to support Joe Biden because they know that it would help the country. Even though they are voting against their own party, they are doing what they know is right. The definition of patriotism is devotion to one’s country. And although it is good to have some patriotism and allegiance to your country, one should never follow blindly. Following what you know and think is right is more important outweighs patriotism in the narrator’s situation.
The “Black Box” is written in a second person point of view, which impacts the story. It puts the reader into the narrator’s shoes. We read each instruction as if we are one of the spies. Second person point of view is utilized to make the audience more active in the story or process. It’s difficult to do well, but author Jennifer Egan is successful. In the first set of instructions, the text states, “People rarely look the way you expect them to even when you’ve seen pictures.” This first line draws the reader into the story. The next sentence states, “The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.” Readers are drawn in to continue on the narrator’s journey.
In the short story “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, Egan questions the line between being a hero and sacrificing too much. The main character of this story has a lot to prove to herself and her father, given he was never around. I believe her missing father is the reason she choose this profession because it was one of the only things that kept her going through trying times, and there were many. For example, there were a few times the main character’s “designated mate” had sex with her even though she is married, has a child with her husband, love’s and misses her husband, and doesn’t want too. But she had no choice. Additionally, throughout the story the main character had to play her role role surrounded by “violent and ruthless” men, given she spent her life “fomenting musical trends”. Another example is when she had to “incapacitate” a person trying to kill her. On top of all of that, she does not get paid and only has a small chance of becoming a real “hero”. Additionally, she stated she “will not be the same person”, she “forgot” about her own mother, did all of these heroic things, and will return home “the same person” before she “left”. Personally, I think the character sacrificed too much of her life and sanity to be a hero for her dad. And I don’t think he would care given he’s never met her, has other children, and is rich and famous.
I really, really loved this story. I thought it was enthralling and the format made it even more interesting. I do think this was a feminist story over all, but it’s definitely questionable. In the end, all of the men’s downfalls are due to their underestimation of women, their own sexist ideas. The success of these missions that the country is carrying out entirely depends on men’s arrogance. The whole point is to take advantage of this underestimation for the good of the country, and then essentially shove it in their face. This story does seem to implicate that a woman’s worth is her beauty by having only attractive spies on these missions, but again that is another example of men’s mistakes being their downfall. This story also does something wonderful, it shows examples of women supporting women. So often in all forms of media poisonous relationships between women are shown and even enforced, for example, Mean Girls, or pretty much any reality TV show. In this story, the other beautys are kind to the protagonist. Even the beauty who eventually shoots her is kind and welcoming at first. The story emphasizes a sort of “we’re in this together” attitude which is amazing. We’re all going to be mistreated and underestimated by men, might as well be nice to each other, right? The protagonist’s bravery is also another enforcement of feminism. She is courageous, strong, smart, and knows what needs to be done. Her character is pretty realistic, and overall is a good representation of feminism in literature.
Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” is written in second-person perspective. This perspective reads like a series of instruction which benefit the story because the narrator is instructing the reader what she and a “beauty” must do. This perspective allows readers to understand the rules of being a spy and what is inside the narrator’s head. The narrator has to abide these instructions without question. This short story highlights the dangers of extreme patriotism. The narrator claims that their love and duty for their country is most important. The narrator has to remind herself that she may not be getting paid but doing it for her country is enough to satisfy her. These instructions enhance the theme of patriotism because the narrator is forced to follow these rules for the sake of her country, despite risking her own life. These instructions force her to unwillingly act in a certain way similarly to her doing this dangerous mission for her country. The instructions and the theme of patriotism put the narrator in a subservient and obedient position.
In Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” the protagonist proceeds on a dangerous mission, one that endangers her both physically and mentally. The story is told through her mission log which we can presume to be sort of like her thoughts. However, her mission log is told entirely in the second person and features a didactic tone, even as the protagonist undergoes extremely traumatic events. For example, as the protagonist is raped, she educates readers on “The Dissociation Technique”: “The Dissociation Technique is like a parachute– you must pull the cord at the correct time” (Section 7). And again, as she lays at the bottom of a boat approaching death, she holds her didactic tone, “The fact that you feel like you’re dying doesn’t mean that you will die” (Section 43). These quotations show the sheer disconnect between the protagonist’s mind and her mission. She is not allowed to feel the pain she is enduring because she operates merely as a device for knowledge. As she lays dying, she comforts herself in her knowledge that even if she dies, her survival is not necessary to complete her mission. The only thing that is necessary is her delivery of the information she has collected or her “output.” (Section 43).
A black box, the title of Egan’s story, can be defined as “a device, system, or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings” (Wikipedia). Thus, the protagonist of Egan’s story operates only a black box. Despite all that she endures in her mission, she is viewed only in terms of inputs and outputs, as her mission log and her collected information are portrayed as more valuable than her life, health, and safety. No one, not even herself, seems to care about her thoughts, feelings, and desires (internal workings). She even states that she is not being paid to go on this mission and is doing it because it is the right, patriotic thing to do. She offers no insight as to why she believes that. It can even be inferred that she doesn’t know why she believes that, only that she does. Exemplifying that even she views herself only in terms of inputs and outputs.
This way of operating, with inputs and outputs, can be expanded to show how women are viewed in society. Women are viewed primarily in terms of what they can do. For instance, the housekeeper trope. Women are valued based off of what they can provide to men in society: a home, a wife, children, etc. They are not valued off of what they desire (or their “inner workings”). Thus, Egan uses the second-person point of view and the title of “Black Box” to convey her notion that women are viewed as black boxes in society.
Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” reflects a certain creativity that any media could benefit from when trying to get a moral across to the viewer. Unlike the conventional approach, Egan’s story is a series of tweets that appear like a command log, or likely purposefully, the information of a black box. The fact that the story is told in second person helps bolster the narrative as a self-sacrifice, patriotically removing the emphasis on the individual for the good of the country. It’s a very well done detail that the main character is able to remove personal thoughts from the log, but likely doesn’t due to the circumstances of the delivery of herself, which further immerses us into her story. It is these yet remaining personal thoughts that help bring out the depth of the humanity of our protagonist. furthermore, it is exactly this depth that the wealthy male characters fail to recognize, which is their great weakness. In this way, it is a feminist story, but also one that puts forth a time-tested lesson that underestimating your opponent will bring about your downfall. You cannot miss the irony that those that view others as simple so often are themselves. In the context of this story, it is women who are underestimated, as they so often are, and it is here that these men pay the price for it. As for the illustrations, to me, they are the most puzzling part. While the actions and morals (or lack of) of the characters generally make sense, and the story is not difficult to follow, the illustrations serve no obvious purpose. They do not appear to mark a lapse of time or follow any particular pattern. Unless I am greatly mistaken though, they don’t seem to serve a large purpose in the story, so they ought not to be too large of a focus.
This story has a lot of interesting parts, but the one I want to focus on in this comment is the form. It is my view that fact that the story is published in a series of tweets, while notable, is somewhat misleading. It is tempting to draw parallels to modern technology (the story is, after all, about technology) and the personal/impersonal paradox of social media, but I ultimately think this is a red herring. Specifically, the fact that the story makes little commentary to the modes and goals of modern communication in a generalized sense means that any message is detached from the central questions of social media.
Instead, I think Egan is using the second person to tap into the “stream of consciousness” storytelling technique. Egan sets the tone for this by, from the very beginning, using the second person — as in “if you’re having trouble …,” “If your designated mate is widely feared…,” “When you know that a person is violent…” etc. — a technique that’s exceedingly difficult to employ if you are writing anything more complex If You Give a Mouse A Cookie (181). In a sort of post-hoc irony I googled “books in the second person” as I was writing this (https://www.google.com/search?q=books+in+the+second+person&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS714US714&oq=books+in+the+second+person&aqs=chrome..69i57j69i64.3071j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8) and Black Box was actually one of the only non children/young adult books that showed up.
So, understanding that Egan is using the second person to make the reader feel a specific depth to the character that a short story rarely has time to develop, Egan now has the hurdle of developing second person narration in a way that isn’t awkward. Egan does this masterly by joining the stream of consciousness notion of second person narration with the similar stream of consciousness format behind tweets. Though the reader might be caught off guard at first, the short and “top of the mind” sets of information provide a format that is so universal that it overcomes any discomfort the reader might have with the second person. Therefore, Egan is able to effectively blend the two storytelling techniques to put the reader into the “stream of consciousness” of the narrator and achieve greater empathic depth.
Through the use of technology, Egan is able to produce a unique commentary on the objectification of women. Specifically, Egan demonstrates the paradoxical nature of modern American culture.
Throughout the story, the narrator emphasizes their sense of nationalism. Specifically, on page 191, the narrator appeals to a notion of “American human rights” being worth even the worst atrocities. Presumably, this means the gender equality in a way that gives women rights and independence. This is further supported by the stark way the narrator describes the society of the criminal organization the narrator is infuriating; female “beauties” live in a rigid patriarchal hierarchy with male counterparts and are constantly treated as object. The instructive nature of the passage makes it seem like the narrator is warning the reader (presumably a future recruit) about this — and therefore contrasting it with an implied lack of such objectivization in American society
However, Egan expertly contrasts this with the way that American society is forcing the narrator to objectify herself. Aide from the narrator literally turning into an object (implanted with a litany of technology that literally makes the body of the narrator equivalent to a recording device or a camera) the narrator also clearly has an internalized mindset of objectification. On the verge of death, the narrator tells the future recruit to “Remember that, should you die, your body will yield a crucial trove of information. Remember that, should you die, your Field Instructions will provide a record of your mission and lessons for those who follow. Remember that, should you die, you will have triumphed merely by delivering your physical person into our hands” (193). The narrator finds comfort in valuing herself only for her body, a constraint forced by the nature of a dangerous mission and a set of technology that makes the actual person irrelevant and requires only the recovery of the body. While I could spend hours and hours discussing parallels to how, for instance, we value individual freedom but then train those in the military, tasked with defending that freedom, to fit into mechanistic molds of a soldier, Egan does a much better and more direct job then I could ever do of pointing out the direct contradiction between the values American society claims to uphold and the way it contorts itself to achieve those values.