Reflections on Teaching Style in Short Stories

PALS Note: We are kicking off the new year with a guest post from Larry S. Su, who is a professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago. Su shares his approach to bringing students’ attention to style in fiction with William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” as an example.

When discussing a short story, students usually understand the literary elements such as conflicts, characters, setting, point of view, theme, and style. Often style comes last on the list, and when it finally gets its turn for discussion, the class is almost approaching its end, leaving little or almost no time to analyze the author’s use of language, thus leading to students’ neglect or ignorance in this very important aspect of the story. However, style is an integral part of the story. Without a good understanding of it, students’ understanding of the story’s other elements is hampered. In this short essay, I’d like to share some of my experiences in teaching style in short stories.

Style is often described as the author’s characteristic way of using language to create literature. It is the writer’s habitual use of certain rhetorical patterns, including sentence length and complexity, word choice and placement, and punctuation. The definition does not sound complex; however, it is not easy to do an analysis of style in a story. Other than the lack of time as mentioned above, there are three other reasons why style is often under-discussed. The first is students’ lack of interest. To discuss style is not as interesting as discussing the story’s conflicts, characters or themes. It seems that students are always invested more in discovering and debating what happens in the story, how the characters engage in conflicts, and what the story tells them, than in discussing how the author puts words and sentences into best use for thematic and stylistic effects. Second, as native speakers, students often take language for granted. They often do not pay much attention to how literary language is different from the colloquial language. Even if they notice some differences, they often gloss them over. Third and the most important, students do not have the terms or vocabulary to discuss style. The limited knowledge they have about grammar and punctuation is not enough to help them appreciate the author’s literary language and be able to discuss its effectiveness and creativity.

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Look at an episode from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning”:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, a rail lifted from a nearly fence and cut into lengths—a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of the nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue and gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (239)

Here is how I draw students’ attention to the passage’s stylistic features: This passage has both the boy’s observations and reflections. While the observations are from the boy’s perspective, the reflections are from the point of view of a much older Sartoris who is sophisticated enough years later to interpret his father’s proclivity for fire. The majority of the passage is on the older Sartoris’s meditation on his father’s addiction to burning other people’s properties. To accommodate such a perception, the words are formal and in places abstract and philosophical. For example, the fire is described as “neat,” “niggard,” and “shrewd”; the fires are his father’s “habit and custom always”; in his father’s blood there is an “inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own”; the fire is the “living fruit of nights” to help his father to pass the four years of the Civil War; the fire speaks to “some deep mainspring of his father’s being…the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such words, chosen with precision, aim to explain why fire is important to his father’s being and how he develops that character in his life. In other words, the fire is in his genes. He lives by it and will perish by it. Notice the elevated status of words like “inherent voracious prodigality,” “divined,” “being,” and “integrity” and how they help to capture his philosophy of life and his practice of it.

Syntactically, the sentences are long and complex with many clauses and phrases as modifiers, showing again Faulkner’s effort to use as accurate words and appropriate syntax as possible to reveal the father to readers. The passage uses three subjunctive clauses in a row: “The boy might have remarked,” “he might have gone a step farther,” and “he might have divined the real reason” to show discrepancy between Sartoris’s current status of mind and his future mental capability. Namely, as it stands now, Sartoris, young as he is, is not able to understand his father’s behavior, but when he is an adult, he will be able to make the connections and understand his father’s real motive for burning barns. This cluster of subjunctives shows in gradation Sartoris’s growth of intelligence and his final understanding of his father. Through his older and mature eyes, the readers can also gain understanding of his father’s complexity. This is Faulkner’s masterful use of style in action. Commenting on the mixed consciousness of the two narrators, James Ferguson writes, “The tensions between the awareness of the boy and the information supplied by the authorial voice undergird and emphasize the conflicts between youth and age, innocence and sophistication, intuition and abstraction, decency and corruption, all of which lie at the core of the work” (96). Thus the two perceptions and styles complement and enrich each other, helping readers to gain a deep insight into his father’s psyche.

Faulkner also uses several figures of speech in the passage. For example, he personifies the fire as “neat, niggard, and shrewd,” a characteristic similar to that of his father who, before he commits his last burning, is “still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence” (249). Faulkner also uses several similes and metaphors to compare Abner’s desire for burning as “the living fruit of nights…the deep mainspring of his father’s being…as the element of steel and powder…as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such similes and metaphors make specific and understandable the abstract qualities of Abner. The images of living fruit, mainspring, steel, powder and weapon get deep into his father’s psyche: His strength, pride, resilience, and power. The passage as a whole stands out as a testimony of not only Abner’s multidimensional and complex personality but also Faulkner’s masterful command of style to bring Abner vividly to readers.

The detailed analyses I outlined above should be practiced in the beginning weeks of the semester so that students know how to conduct a stylistic analysis. Here I offer five suggestions:

First, read it aloud: Short stories are written not just to be read silently; they should also be read aloud so that readers can better appreciate the author’s use of syntax, rhythm, rhyme, tone, and irony.

Second, instructor-led discussion is very important: As has been mentioned before, students often lack experience and practice in discussing style of a particular story; therefore, it is important for the instructor to demonstrate by many examples how to conduct a stylistic analysis of a short story, how to select certain sections of the story for a close analysis of its diction, syntax, and use of the figures of speech. Such discussion and practice should be conducted daily in the discussion of the story. Or at least the instructor should lead students 3-4 times so that they eventually know the steps and can do the analysis themselves.

Third, analyze the style of a particular work: Choose a story that you particularly like and analyze its choice of words, its use of sentences—length, variety, complexity, simple, compound, complex — and the creative use of language such as simile, metaphor, personification, symbol, etc. Discuss how style is an integral part of the story and helps readers understand the story as a whole. Such exercises seem to take students away from the heated discussions on the conflicts, characters, and themes; students might show lack of interest in the beginning, but they really call students’ attention to the author’s style, and once they understand its importance and master the skills to do stylistic analysis, they actually enjoy it.

Fourth, assign compare and contrast exercises on style. Choose two writers that are similar or different in style. Stand them side by side and make a chart of their similarities and/or differences in word choice, syntax, and creative use of language. Suggested writers of similar writing styles can include Anton Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, or Carver; writers who focus on the exploration of characters’ inner worlds can include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Faulkner. Writers who push language to its limits and exploit its liberty and creativity can include Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Writers with contrasting styles can include Faulkner and Hemingway.

Fifth, use creative writing exercises to practice style: Either imitate the style of a particular writer or design assignments that give students opportunities to practice style. For instance, “Barn Burning” is mostly told from Sartoris’s point of view. How about narrating it from the father’s point of view? What kind of sensibility, diction, syntax, or tone should be used? The same can be done with “A Small, Good Thing.” What if it is told from a third person omniscient point of view when the narrator is given the privilege to get into the emotions of the couple and is able to describe in explicit details their devastation and loss? Or design a creative writing assignment to ask students to describe a college campus as seen through the eyes of three new campus community members from different groups. Use words and sentences that are appropriate to their educational levels and range of life experiences.

Contributor Bio:
photo-4Larry S. Su, PhD, is professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago teaching American literature and composition. The literature courses he has taught include Survey of American Literature, Appreciation of Novels in English, Early 20th Century American Literature, Contemporary American Literature, and Introduction to Literature. He has published seven academic articles, two book reviews, and over a dozen essays.

Teaching Junot Diaz’s Drown through the Lens of Critical Patriotism

PALS Note: This post is part two of a post on teaching Junot Diaz. Part one is here. This post gets into more specifics on how to use the critical patriotism framework offered by Ben Railton’s book. Also, please check out the post that started this all: Shelli Homer’s look at Railton’s ideas about Charles Chestnutt. 

In the previous post, I outlined how I was disappointed in some of the materials I found about Junot Diaz. I used that disappointment as a teaching tool to help my students think about the frameworks for exploring contemporary authors. Neither of the examples I was disappointed in, however, were scholarly in nature. In this post, I will turn to the scholarly to explore teaching Diaz through the framework proposed by  Ben Railton in his book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism.

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Matthew Colvin de Valle

In the introduction to Railton’s book, he asks us to not turn away from the darkest parts of American history but to face that darkness squarely in order to find hope for a better future where we have learned from our history. Things can only change if we can look soberly at history. Too often we have been taught that what it means to be patriotic in or country is to be uncritically positive about it’s state. Railton, instead, proposes a critical patriotism that has hope not because it looks away from the darkness but because it looks at the darkness head-on and learns from it. He states, “Critical patriotism and hard-won hope might seem, like a fearful bravery or a shadowy light, contradictory, but they instead represent crucial contingencies, ones through which our national community can be genuinely and meaningfully strengthened.”

The fourth chapter in Railton’s book discusses Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker. Railton makes the specific point in the beginning of this chapter that Americans do not know a lot about the Caribbean and, therefore, are missing out on not only larger hemispheric history but also are obscuring stories about huge swaths of Americans from the Caribbean or of Caribbean descent.

I have taught The Dew Breaker, and I will write a future post about teaching that book. But in this space, I want to outline a few of the ways that Railton discusses The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and explore the connections between his points about this novel and my own experience teaching Diaz’s Drown.

One of the aspects of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that Railton investigates is the way that the footnotes, which draw connections between the text and real life historical events, explain and implicate the U.S. in Dominican history. He writes that the “footnotes…extend that sense of cross-cultural connection and complicity.” For example, one footnote is about the murder of Jesus de Galindez, who was a graduate student writing his dissertation on the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. While the murder was carried out by Trujillo’s agents, U.S. officials may have been aware of the role that a U.S. citizen played in the event and even facilitated contact between the U.S. citizen, who was the pilot, and Trujillo’s forces. The footnotes, which point out these bits of history, ask the reader to consider the connections between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic they had not paused to note before. Railton argues that the footnotes are addressed to a largely American audience who “might not have this historical knowledge” and that the text asks its readers to think about history in this complicated way, which reveals the “shared sense of these histories and their cross-cultural meanings and impacts.”

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There are no footnotes in Drown, but just as the footnotes present a way of reading the text, Drown also teaches us how to read it. The main character of Drown, Yunior (who reoccurs in Diaz’s books) is not a particularly forthcoming narrator. You cannot necessarily rely on him to explain how he feels or to analyze his own involvement in a situation. Yunior resists analysis, but Diaz gives us spaces and gaps in the text to pause and assess Yunior. In the very first story in Drown, “Ysrael,” Yunior and his brother, Rafa, go on a trip to find Ysrael, who wears a mask to cover his deformed face. Rafa has the idea to go and find Ysrael; he says, “We should pay that kid a visit.” This is in the very first section of the story which is demarcated with a “1.” After Rafa’s comment comes the next section, “2.,”  which starts with “Mami shipped me and Rafa out to the campo every summer.” We learn basic ideas about the family’s relationships here. We learn that Yunior follows Rafa around and that he doesn’t always think critically about the missions that Rafa comes up with. We learn why Rafa and Yunior are on their own and what their mother is doing to support them. We also don’t get a mention of Yunior’s father. We might not know to ask where he is this early in the text, but we will learn more later about how his absence shapes Yunior’s life.

Like much of Drown, “Ysrael,” is about movement. “Visit” and “shipped” are very important words on this first page. A lot of Drown revolves around where people are in relation to each other spatially. Yunior’s father goes to New York, and then he comes back (and doesn’t visit them). And then they are all in New York. Yunior is often walking around the neighborhood. Or he is taking trips to deliver pool tables. Or he is listening to the woman downstairs walk around her apartment. The beginning of the book is firmly rooted in Yunior’s childhood in the Dominican Republic while the rest of the book goes back and forth between the Dominican Republic and the United States.

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Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

To be a reader of this book is then to be in movement. It is to read in this spatial continuum. We are very rarely here or there. Rather the reader moves back and forth in time and space with Yunior and his family. The text is asking us to be a reader who can hold more than one place or idea in our mind. It is asking us to avoid simplicity, and as Railton says, it is asking us to embrace this complexity through movement between and knowledge of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.

While Railton’s project is designed to express hope, he does acknowledge that it is difficult to find hope at the end of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Railton locates the hope in this novel in the zafa, which is the counterspell to the fuku. The fuku is, as Railton quotes from Diaz, “generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The fuku follows Oscar and his family throughout the novel. Railton argues that the zafa and the “symbolic representation” of the zafa, which is “the mysterious golden mongoose that appears at some of the family’s darkest moments” are the counterpoints it the fuku. Railton locates the hope in several points throughout the book, including in the closing sections where Yunior is affected by Oscar’s memory. One of the ways that Yunior enacts the zafa is by writing and specifically writing the book the reader is consuming. He also plans to teach Oscar’s niece, Isis, about her uncle by introducing her to all of his writing and his books. Railton writes that “Isis’s triumph” would not “be an end,” but it “would simply and crucially be hope.”

To note that there is hope in not ending is directly tied to Drown, which has no real conclusion. In fact, Drown ends with Yunior’s father about to make the trip to the Dominican Republic to retrieve Yunior and the rest of his family to move back to the United States. In terms of the timeline, the book, therefore, ends just about where it starts.

The entire last story is not about Yunior but about his father, Ramon. The very last paragraph is about Ramon’s trip to the airport to go back to the Dominican Republic. Diaz writes, “The first subway station on Bond would have taken him to the airport and I like to think that he grabbed that first train, instead of what was more likely true, that he had gone out to Chuito’s first, before flying south to get us.”

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via Jose Carlos Machado

Yunior’s sadness and hope is present here. He imagines what his father might have done. Even if he doesn’t think it is true in this moment of retelling he can insert a tiny bit of hope—hope that his father came straight to them. That isn’t much hope, but as Railton says, Diaz is not necessarily counting on a lot of promise.

What Diaz is giving us though is narratives that bear witness to these lives and ask us to bear witness too. At the end of the interview I discussed in the first post, Diaz says that when he thinks of himself as a writer he thinks, “I am bringing news of the world.” The circular nature of Drown—ending at the start—asks us to trace the path of the book over and over again. Diaz is showing that is his world is our world, and he wants us to linger there. Don’t read Drown once. Read it over and over. Start at the beginning. And then start again. This is Yunior’s life, and it is our life. It is not often pretty. It is stark and bleak and sometimes brutal. But there are moments of pleasure and connection. And all we have are our stories. All we have are our voices, and this is us.