Thornton Wilder’s sparse and simple play Our Town was first produced during the Great Depression (1938). In a set without any scenery beyond chairs and tables and in three short acts, Thornton Wilder creates an intimacy with the characters. This is probably due to the familiarity of the subject: life, love, and death in a small town. As an audience participant (or, in my case, a reader), I felt I became a part of the small town’s happenings, and the encouragement to enjoy the simplicity of life, the magic of love, and the reality of challenges becomes a poignant emotional journey. Continue Reading
How does a blind person understand the majesty of a cathedral? The narrator in Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” tries to describe it. His underlying epiphany, however, is not about architecture but about his own prejudices and stereotypes. He discovers in the end that he has been the one blind. He has not understood the uniqueness of the various people in the world, particularly the blind or otherwise disabled.
I first read Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” when I was in college, and as I pondered stories about the “little noticed” in life for my wallpaper reading project, I thought of it again. How often do the sighted consider the difficulties of describing a cathedral in words to those unable to see the grandeur? Likewise, how often do the -abled consider the similarities and personalities rather than the stereotypes of the “disabled”?
Having reread the story now, I don’t think it is a “wallpaper” story: it’s full of depth and it focuses on real issues that many might relate to. Carver provides some interesting parallels: the blind man’s lack of sight versus the narrator’s prejudice; the narrator’s ability to see the grandeur of a cathedral versus the wife’s ability to see the grandeur of the blind man. It is ultimately a touching story as well.
For those who may want a content warning, I should note that the friends do smoke dope together. It seems to me, though, that that scene is the beginning of the narrator’s understanding of his mistaken prejudices. As they visit and do “ordinary” (for them) things, the narrator begins to recognize his mistaken prejudice.
“Cathedral” is not in the public domain. I read it an anthology: Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, seventh edition (1999).
How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it.
Virginia Woolf’s short piece “The Mark on the Wall” captures a few moments of thought-wandering. I’ve been impressed in the past with Virginia Woolf’s ability to perfectly capture a wandering mind. This piece is a perfect example of her style, not only because it’s a short and approachable piece but because I believe we can easily relate.
Sitting by a fire one evening, the narrator’s attention is drawn to a previously unnoticed mark on the wall, and the story follows her thought process as she tries to figure out why it is there.
The narrator was familiar to me. Although her thoughts were different than mine are in similar situations, of course, the way her thoughts diverged from the question at hand was excellently captured. At the beginning, for example, she went from questioning the mark on the wall to inventing the reasons why the previous owners moved away from the residence. This immediately resonated with me because I live in the house that used to belong to the parents of Anna and Michael.
I first met Anna and Michael on the day we bought the house, when we found their names and heights marked on my son’s bedroom wall (behind the door), but I’ve found Anna’s beads in the basement, and Michael’s school photo tucked in a back corner of his mother’s bathroom drawer. I found Anna’s ice skates in the attic. They are size 7, with purple laces, and they fit me perfectly. I went ice skating a few times, even though I’m really bad, simply because I have the skates now. Besides, I find myself thinking of Anna disappointment when she can’t find them and realizes they were left behind. She’d be happy to know they are being used. I think of the younger child – Michael – asking to swing just a little longer on the swing set before having to leave it behind (they moved into the city, so I’m sure they no longer had a yard and a swing set of their own). Poor kids!
So, just as the narrator’s thoughts wandered, I found mine did to. This was just the first page of “The Mark on the Wall.” As the story progresses, the narrator doesn’t want to get out of her chair, but she goes through all the possibilities of what that mysterious mark could be. Her thoughts led from one thing to the next. She’s wants to forget the mark on the wall and get back to sitting, thinking, and enjoying the fire.
To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes.
But of course, she can’t stop wondering about that mark. Once I think of something I need or want to do, I too can never regain the sense of peaceful solicitude. Reading “The Mark on the Wall” may drive you crazy because you just want to say, “get up and look at the mark already!” But listening to her thought rambles is the interest of this story. We can all relate because we all think, and Virginia Woolf has wonderfully captured a pattern of thought in this short work.
And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really … what should I gain?— Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge?
That is a question for us each to ponder, sitting in front of a fire on a cold evening, or least wrapped up in a blanket (with a book, too, please?). How do you think when you’re not thinking of anything in particular?
Isn’t this quiet wonderful? The only noise is our thoughts.
This is the first in my new series on reading about the minutia of life. Do you have a short story to suggest? (The project does not have to be short stories, but I’m more likely to have time to read it if it is a short story.)
Thanks to Emily who suggested “The Mark on the Wall” to me.
When I was a little girl, I’d fall asleep staring at the wallpaper. The tiny pink and blue flowers and the dots would blur together and when I crossed my eyes, it would jump out like a Magic Eye page. During the day, I never noticed the wallpaper. But as I lay in bed staring at it, the ordinary became, somehow, extraordinary. It was magic wallpaper to me some nights.
(Maybe I was already turning into a madwoman in the attic?)
I recently received a new comment on one of my old posts about a certain popular modern book. I know I am in the minority for not liking the book, but I still have a right to give my opinion on my blog in contrast to all those praising it. At any rate, this commenter criticized my not liking the violence in it and said,
If you’re not into it, go read a book about wallpaper or something.
My initial reaction was “Huh? Wallpaper?” Then I tweeted it, and Emily said she’d join me for the wallpaper readalong. She mentioned two choice short stories on the subject of wallpaper, including the first that probably comes to mind for all of you “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
That got me thinking about other short stories that are about the minutiae of everyday life, and I decided Emily was right: we need to celebrate the wonderful literature about ridiculous and seemingly insignificant things. Just like my childhood walls became “magical” to me when I gave them attention, stories about the normally unnoticed minutiae of the world reveal complexities that we take for granted the rest of the time.
Therefore, I hereby introduce The Reading About Wallpaper Mini-Challenge.Continue Reading