Study Guide

The Cliff

by Charles Baxter

The Cliff Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A young boy is being driven to a cliff at an unspecified location on the California coastline. The driver, a cantankerous old man, interrogates the boy en route, suspicious of his experience with women, how well he has memorized the old man’s instructions, his moral, spiritual, and emotional purity, and his impatience to get started with the initiation into what the old man calls “the spells.” Noting the old man’s incessant coughing and smoking, his occasional hits from the wine bottle stashed under his seat, and his irritability in general, the boy wonders aloud about the old man’s purity, whether or not he still believes in the spells. Outraged by the boy’s temerity, the old man reminds him that his body has been pure. More important, he tells the boy that he, the old man, is the spells. Besides, he adds, “nobody is ever pure twice.”

When they arrive at the cliff, the old man orders the boy to remove his shoes and sweatshirt, and to make a circle in the dirt with his feet. The boy reminds the old man that there is no dirt, but the old man insists he follow his orders. So the boy traces an invisible circle around his body and then speaks to the horizon, using the words the old man has given him. The old man hands him one end of a rope, takes another swig of wine, and then lets out the slack as the boy jumps down the slope of the cliff.

At this point the boy takes it into his mind to “swoop toward the cliffs.” The ambiguity of the phrase—is he imagining flight while rapelling down a cliff or he is actually flying?—is maintained as he soars and dips above the old man. Even as he does so, he begins to realize that this kind of flying is not for him. He wants to “fly low, near the ground, in the cities, speeding in smooth arcs between the buildings, late at night.” The boy grins down at the old man, who has “forgotten the dirty purposes of flight.”