Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No Rain, No Pain

No Rain, No Pain

by Grant S. Robertson

Written November, 2005

In almost every romantic story water is used to symbolize the state of the relationship. When the water is peaceful then the relationship is peaceful or blooming. However, when the water is tumultuous, so goes the relationship. Rain or storms are so often used to symbolize impending disaster in relationships that it has become almost automatic for writers and trite for readers. It would be difficult to believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have been unaware of these standardized symbols. So why is it, in “Winter Dreams”, a story absolutely dripping with disaster and impending doom, is precipitation of any form so conspicuously absent? To discover this we can examine other stories to see how water – calm or precipitous – is used within them. Two good examples are “The Love of My Life” by T. Coraghessan Boyle (the story of two teenagers who threw their baby in a dumpster) and “Yellow Woman” (a story of a woman caught up in an old Native American myth) written by Leslie Marmon Silko.

In each of these three stories calm bodies of water in the form of lakes, rivers, or even snow covering the landscape are used to represent peacefulness and calm within the characters or relationships depicted. Ms. Boyle practically overuses the symbols of rain and ice storms to symbolize impending disaster in “The Love of My Life”. In contrast, the river in “Yellow Woman” is used even more often throughout the story as a symbol of the dream-like calm of the protagonist; with no mention of rain or storms whatsoever. While similar in its lack of precipitation, “Winter Dreams” is also entirely different. In this story the protagonist, Dexter, does not enjoy many calm or peaceful moments the way others would. Instead, he finds them “dull” (1001) or “dismal” (986). Even though Dexter knew from the start that any relationship with his love interest, Judy Jones, would be nothing but trouble he felt peaceful when he was with her. Therefore, one may deduce that F. Scott Fitzgerald intentionally avoided the use of rain as a symbol of impending disaster because he wanted to emphasize the notion that disaster was the normal, enjoyable, and even desired state of affairs when it came to Dexter’s relationship with Judy.

Let us begin by examining the peaceful times within each story, how water is used to symbolize that mood, and how the protagonists react in each situation. “The Love of My Life” is a story of two teenagers in love, perhaps too in love for their own good, who plan a five day backpacking trip near a lake as their own special getaway (615). The author makes sure to note that they do not expect it to rain, “not a drop (615).” as an indication that the couple expects this to be a perfect time for their relationship. Unfortunately, due to inexplicably poor planning, neither of them brings enough birth control. The girl, China , gets pregnant and subsequently decides to have the baby but discard it in a trash dumpster. After this fateful decision the only references to calm or peaceful times are within dreams or fantasies. After the crime is discovered, Jeremy, the father of the child, lays dreaming of fishing in a river just before he is arrested (620). It is a peaceful moment for him; the last he is ever to enjoy. After her arrest but before her incarceration China fantasizes about looking out over that same river because it eases her mind to do so (624). In all three of these cases the lake or the river are used as standard symbols of peacefulness or calm and the protagonists enjoy them or wish to enjoy them in the standard way.

In “Yellow Woman” a river is also used but in a slightly different manner. When the story opens the protagonist is already almost a day into an affair she is having with a stranger she met on a river bank. Her cohort claims to be a figure from an old Native American myth about a girl, whom everyone calls Yellow Woman, who has an affair with a coyote. He further claims that the woman has now become the girl from the myth. The woman even starts to believe it herself and must reassure herself by thinking,

“I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I've been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw (822).”

Only within the context of this surreal dreamscape can we understand why the river is mentioned 28 times in the span of seven pages; 15 times in the first three.

The river in this story seems to serve two symbolic purposes. The first is to lead the woman into and finally back out of her dream world as she follows the river to get back home in the end (827). The second is to emphasize the overpowering feeling of peace the woman felt throughout her experience. Even as she was essentially being kidnapped she explains, “I had stopped trying to pull away from him, because his hand felt cool and the sun was high… (822)” These continuous references to the river both provide a link back to reality and assure us that everything is fine. So fine, in fact, that it is almost like a dream.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “Winter Dreams”, by contrast, is about a young man who does not seem to find peacefulness very enjoyable at all. In the very second paragraph we learn that the snow in winter does not make Dexter feel peaceful the way it does for most people. Instead it “gave him a feeling of profound melancholy (986).” He can’t abide the type of calm that others enjoy. He even considered the springtime to be “dismal (986).” There is, however, one scene in the story where Dexter does appear to enjoy the peace and quiet. He has swum out to a raft in the middle of a lake and can hear a piano being played in the distance. He lays there listening quietly until he is interrupted by Judy Jones recklessly driving a motor-boat (991). Interestingly, rather than perceive Judy’s noisy interruption negatively, he associates that interruption with the peace he has been enjoying. To further emphasize this point, Fitzgerald repeats the sentence “There was a fish jumping and a star shining and the lights around the lake were gleaming.” word for word; once before Judy showed up (991) and again after she had conned Dexter into driving her boat (992). One must keep in mind that by this time Dexter had witnessed two different incidents of extreme self-centeredness on Judy’s part: Once when she was a little girl and tried to whack her nurse with a golf club (987) and again when she hit a man in the stomach with a golf ball and considered him merely an obstacle (990). After that Dexter had gotten an earful of Judy’s attitude problems from the older men at the club (990-991). In addition, she has just admitted to Dexter that she is ducking out on some other man simply because he says she is ideal for him (991). Regardless of Judy’s unattainablity, her meanness, and her selfishness – or perhaps because of them – Dexter felt peaceful when he was near her.

By the end of the summer Dexter has Judy completely figured out. Judy is a beautiful young woman who uses that beauty to keep over a dozen men hanging on varying lengths of string all at the same time (994). It is then that Fitzgerald tells us that, “The helpless ecstasy of losing himself in her was opiate rather than tonic.” Perhaps what Dexter is feeling when he is with Judy is more akin to a drug induced haze than true inner-peace. This is very similar to the dream-like state depicted in “Yellow Woman”.

Finally, at the end of the story, Dexter’s dream comes to an end. After a man named Devlin (who’s name sounds remarkably like “Devil”) has told him of Judy’s decent into normality, Dexter shifts back to the same mood he had at the very beginning. “He lay down on his lounge and looked out the window at the New York sky-line into which the sun was sinking in dull lovely shades of pink and gold (1001).” Yet another scene that most others would find peaceful… Through Dexter’s eyes it is now merely dull.

But down with peace. Dexter doesn’t like it so why should we? Besides, it is when we go looking for trouble in these three stories that things really get interesting. Starting again with “The Love of My Life”: precipitation in the form of rain or ice is mentioned a total of 14 times within this story. Each and every time it is mentioned trouble is definitely afoot. The pattern is repeated so consistently that it almost becomes tiresome. The first instance is the most subtle. China and Jeremy are “trapped” by an ice storm alone in his parents house. China ’s mother calls with grave concerns for her daughter’s safety. China , on the other hand, sees this as the perfect opportunity to have lots of sex with Jeremy in his mother’s bed (613). While China ’s perception of the situation is loaded down with movie style romance we have to remember that these are still just high-school kids. Kids who, we shall soon see, are not ready to handle the responsibility.

They thought they were being responsible as they went though the long and detailed process of planning for their backpacking trip (615). They weighed and listed everything, down to the last detail. Everything, apparently, except birth control. So when the predicted perfect weather turns into a rain storm exactly half way through their 5 day trip they have not much else to do besides have sex (616). Lots of unprotected sex, that is, thanks to the aforementioned lack of birth control. For this couple, lots of sex definitely spells lots of trouble. The author symbolizes this with a rain storm so ferocious that it even hammers the entire lake “to iron” (616).

Naturally, after all this sex, China gets pregnant. In an odd example of authorial indecision Boyle feels compelled to tell us that it is again raining as Jeremy tries to convince China to get an abortion, but then Boyle remembers/decides that it was clear and cold instead (617). But no matter, it will rain soon enough. In fact, like clockwork, on the night when China ’s water breaks we are told that, “it was raining. Raining hard (618).” How’s that for a double dose of symbolism? Later that evening the rain even turns to ice (618). After hours of pain and hours of rain the baby is finally born in an isolated hotel room and then quickly discarded in a trash dumpster. The very next day they get caught. The police come to pick up Jeremy while China lays in the hospital and we are told twice that it is raining yet again (620 & 621).

In contrast, rain is never mentioned in “Yellow Woman”. There are no storms or precipitation of any kind. Even at the darkest point of the story, when Silva, the man who claims to be the coyote from the myth, is presumably murdering a rancher, there are only thin clouds and vapor trails in the pale blue sky (826). This one and only mention of clouds exactly one sentence before the fatal shots are fired is clearly meant to reflect the “something ancient and dark (826)” which dominated that scene. So why would it be that only thin clouds were used to represent such a dark moment? We can understand by remembering the powerful dream-like state which pervades this entire story. In a dream everything seems perfect. Even some of the worst things that happen in such a dream can be glossed over because “it is just a dream.” So the lack of any rain-type symbolism in this story is in direct relation to the protagonist’s sense of removal from reality.

Rain was also conspicuously absent in “Winter Dreams”. (The word is only used once in the entire story and that is as a simile to describe darkness (996).) In a way, the avoidance of this symbolism can be taken to represent the dreaminess Dexter felt when he was with Judy. But, more than that, Dexter actually seemed to crave the turmoil that Judy Jones brought into his life. After all, he knew she was trouble before he even had dinner with her, but he went anyway (992). Her first kiss ”aroused in him not hunger demanding renewal but surfeit that would demand more surfeit . . . kisses that were like charity, creating want by holding back noth­ing at all (994).” He was completely addicted right from the start. Though being with her was bound to be traumatic, Dexter did so because his previous life had been so boring to him. Even after he destroyed his engagement to a woman named Irene by having an affair with Judy he felt no pain. Fitzgerald tells us, “There was nothing sufficiently pictorial about Irene's grief, to stamp itself on his mind (999).” There was no rain because Dexter didn’t perceive it as a disaster. Just something to be expected whenever Judy Jones was around.

Symbols can be powerful tools for authors to use in a story to set a mood or to help readers understand the characters. The standard technique is for an author to insert these symbols as needed. When they want to set a particular mood they simply insert the appropriate symbol. When they want to indicate a certain thing about a character’s personality, again, they just insert the appropriate symbol. However, a skilled author, like a skilled craftsman, knows when to hold back. Sometimes the lack of certain symbolism within a story can make a much more powerful statement than repetitive use of that same symbol. By scaling back on the standard rain/storm metaphor in “Yellow Woman” to the point where only thin wisps of clouds are used to set the mood for a murder scene, Leslie Marmon Silko reinforced the surreal nature of her protagonist’s point of view. By making every one of Dexter’s many disastrous days with Judy Jones bright and sunny while contrasting that with Dexter’s melancholy, dismal, or dull feelings in scenes that others would find peaceful, F. Scott Fitzgerald has made it clear that Dexter thrives on this disaster.

Works Cited

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “The Love of My Life.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Eds. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. pgs 612-624.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Eds. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. pgs 986-1002.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Yellow Woman.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Eds. John Schilb, John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. pgs 1603-1610.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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