Penman for Monday, Sept. 16, 2013
AS MY literature students know, there’s only one kind of exam they can expect me to give them—a 90-minute, essay-type, open-book exam. This means that, over a class period, they’ll be answering two or three questions with short essays that they can compose with the help of their notes, their readings, and their brains.
The first time they hear this, some students will cheer, thinking that an open-book exam will be a walk in the park, and that they can catch up on two month’s worth of reading and comprehension with 15 minutes of furtive cramming. (As they like to say on Pawn Stars, “That’s not going to happen.”) The smarter ones know that the best way to get my attention from this point on will be to say something fresh, beyond spitting back what we’d already said in class or quoting some ponderous French critic.
Just like answering them, writing exam questions is something of an art. Ideally, you want to frame questions that are hard to answer but easy to check—in other words, you should be able to sense, within a couple of paragraphs, if the student has a handle on the material or not. You also want questions for which there are no set or obvious answers. In this way, literature and the humanities are different from math and the sciences, in that there is no one correct answer that, with diligence and practice, everyone can theoretically arrive at. I grade responses based on the student’s appreciation of the problem and his or her reasoning; sometimes I might even give a high mark to an answer that doesn’t directly answer the question, but which sets up and pursues such an interesting tangent or dissent that I find myself provoked and educated by it.
Over the years, I’ve built up a battery of questions that I periodically revisit, tweak, and let loose on a new batch of students. Today, I’m taking one of those questions out of commission by putting it out here in the open, and answering it myself. It’s a question I used a few weeks ago for my midterm exam in my course on The Short Story, and while I may change the phrasing from time to time, it basically runs this way: “The Irish writer Frank O’Connor once described the short story as ‘the story of the outsider.’ Using at least three of the stories that we’ve taken up in our reader, discuss how and why O’Connor could have made this statement about the short story.”
What am I looking for when I ask that question? The bottom line, of course, is evidence that the student has read and understood the stories in the syllabus—this is where my passing grade begins—but beyond that, going from competence to brilliance, I look for insight and (this being, after all, a course in literature) articulation. In the case of the O’Connor statement about the short story and the outsider, two immediate possibilities present themselves: one, the outsider as the typical or ideal protagonist in the short story; and two, the short story as the ideal form for the depiction and development of the outsider-character. So we’re looking both at substance or subject and form, both of which the Lit major and budding creative writer should have a keen feel for. (And before anyone lectures me about ending my sentences with prepositions, that’s one of those mythical no-no’s, like the split infinitive, that have been elevated by sheer repetition into dictum.)
Taking the outsider as subject, it’s not too difficult to find and cite instances where the protagonist in the short story is an outsider in society—a nonconformist, a rebel, an outcast. Perhaps the best known example of such a character I can cite is that of Sammy in John Updike’s 1962 story “A&P,” a 19-year-old clerk in a convenience store who quits his job when the conservative store manager admonishes three girls who come into the store in bathing suits, the beach being not too far away. Sammy seems to come to the girls’ defense—ironically, the girls don’t even notice his chivalry—but the girls are really just an excuse, a catalyst for an explosion that had been long brewing within Sammy, who sees most of his customers as “sheep” and who feels oppressed by his environment. So he dramatically, heroically, quits his job, but realizes almost immediately that a nonconformist’s life is not going to be an easy one, as the story’s ending unequivocally states: “… my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” (Having taught it for nearly 30 years now, I’ve been using “A&P” as a kind of litmus test to sense the drift of the current generation. My own First Quarter Storm cohort would have roundly applauded Sammy’s idealism; not surprisingly, most of my present students thought he was irresponsible if not stupid to have quit his job to make a point.)
Another example of such a character is Paul from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” Although published in 1905, the story could easily be transported to the “selfie” present, given 16-year-old Paul’s egotism and high ambition; he thinks himself well above his peers in intelligence and taste, and imbibes the world of the theater, even if his only role in it is that of an usher. When Paul suddenly finds himself with several thousand dollars entrusted to him by his father for depositing in the bank, Paul runs away with the money to New York, lives the life of a prince for a week, then—with the long arm of the law just about to reach him—he hurls himself in front of an oncoming train. Here, the outsider willfully chooses to be one, the exclusion achieved by arrogance and self-delusion (or, to be more generous, by indulging the high-romantic impulse that most of us will suppress).
The outsider might also become one not by choice but by social fiat; Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is one such outcast, one who feels herself to be in the very center of things, observing people in a park with directorial authority, only to be spurned by that society. Society can also exert its pressures subtly but no less firmly, as in the case of Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin,” where a thirtyish spinster’s longing for a man’s touch overrides her primly preserved composure.
The more difficult part of the answer involves form and technique: what in the short story qualifies it as ideal for the exploration of the outsider-character?
The short story’s relative brevity, for one, compels the action to be focused on a crucial moment, often a decision to be made by the protagonist, that will reveal the truth of his or her character. In this sense, short story characters live in a pressure cooker; at some point, we expect them to crack and break, and it’s these moments of rupture that yield the most valuable insights into the human condition, whether it’s the extent of human greed or of our capability for love and self-sacrifice. Arguably, these moments create departures from the norm and transform the protagonist into something other than he or she was, rendering the protagonist an outsider unto himself or herself.
But the best answer I got in the midterm exam was something I hadn’t even thought of: the short story brings out the outsider in us, the readers, by creating sympathy for characters in situations that our ordinary, rational selves would probably avoid. And that’s the magic and the power of literature—its ability to transform and transport us into other realms and possibilities, so that, for one brief moment, we stand on the outside looking in, and see things about ourselves that we never saw before.