My chief complaint about the original story is that the author seems to be attempting to isolate us from the actual act of beating the wife by two layers of separation. First by writing in third-person; and second by claiming the man had no control over his hands. By doing this she has given us no way to challenge the man to accept responsibility for his actions.
My goal is to claim he did have control over his hands and to force him to listen to my argument. To do this I have created an old man for him to meet. This old man, by the nature of his age and the fact that he was friends with the young mans father in WWI, is deserving of the young mans respect and has the right to call him on his denial and rationalization.
The story starts out some time after the original ends. (I calculated based on about two years.) This puts it about 1948, three years after the end of WWII. The young man, who I have named James Washington is just moving into his old neighborhood. Hoping to find something familiar all he finds is some old man. The old man doesn’t interact with the world much any more but the fact that the young man looks familiar prompts him to action. I intentionally use this familiarity to draw the two, otherwise isolationist, men together.
The clean space on the stoop is symbolism for the old man’s good heart and how he silently leaves his mark on the world just by being a good person. Over time a bit of the old mans goodness rubs off on the young man as is symbolized by the clean spot James starts to create on the stoop. I call these clean spots shadows in reference to the opening scene in Like a Winding sheet.
One of the themes of the story is hands. The old man has thought a lot about hands since he lost the use of one of his in WWI. Rather than say this outright, I simply have the old man be incredibly observant about them. I have not revealed his injury early on either. Instead, I intentionally hint at it by the way he picks up the bags and reaches for his cigarettes. My point is that even without physical control of his hand he has maintained psychological control. The fact that he builds ship models further illustrates how, even without full control of ones hands, one can still achieve many good things.
There is even more symbolism hidden in the way I refer to the characters. At first, before they get to know each other, I refer to them as “the old man” and “ the young man” (even though James is about 35). Only after they become friends do I refer to them by name.
The paragraph about James walking to his execution refers to a good many things. It refers to the way he runs away from his problems and his responsibility for his own actions. It also refers to how James knows deep down how he deserves to be punished. Even though he denies it in words, the way he walks reveals how he really feels.
Even the elevator is a symbol for James state of mind. Something that is so tired and worn out that it could go out of control and hurt someone at any moment. By doing so it would condemn itself to hell, represented by the cellar.
I have intentionally avoided strong use of dialect to avoid insulting anyone. The way I see it, I’m not shooting for the Pulitzer here, and the chance of insulting anyone is just not worth it.
Right from the beginning of the story there is a little bit of tension in that James really has no interest in meeting people. But then the two men bond which gives Franklin the leverage he will need later to challenge James and pry him away from his denial. The tension builds when Franklin does challenge James to examine himself then comes to a head after James comes home from the fight. I had wanted to build the tension over more time but the story was getting too long as it was and I couldn’t think of how to fill in the intervening time in a meaningful way.
The story is written in third-person limited, however I chose to switch perspective back and forth between the two characters rather than follow only one. I wanted to avoid saying “…he thought.” all the time so I chose to just simply state their respective thoughts outside of quotes. I don’t feel that I was able to successfully create a situation which would really cause a person like James to change his ways. It feels a little forced and anticlimactic, even to me. But, again, I am not shooting for the Pulitzer here and I had to bring the story to a close. I do feel, though, that I have succeeded in building tension to a point where a change has occurred within the protagonist. At the very least, James will stop and think about things a little more and Franklin will now be able to help James reclaim the control over himself that he thought was taken away by others.
Petry, Ann. “Like a Winding Sheet.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Eds. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. pgs 1603-1610, 85 paragraphs.
This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.