Emperor of the Air Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The unnamed narrator announces that he is sixty-nine years old, a high school biology and astronomy teacher, married with no children, and a recent heart attack victim. Vera, his energetic wife, is off on one of her frequent walking trips. Although the narrator and Vera have traveled widely throughout their lives, his failing health has prevented him from any serious strenuous activity. He must keep with him at all times a small vial of nitroglycerine pills in case his chest begins to tighten.

The narrator’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Pike, comes to his house to inform him that the giant, 250-year-old elm tree on the narrator’s land is infested with insects, a fact that the narrator already knows. Pike insists that the tree must be cut down to protect the three young elm trees that grow in his front yard. A week later, Pike reappears, this time with a chainsaw in hand, arguing that his elms are young and he cannot let them become infested. The narrator replies that his tree is more than two hundred years old.

The narrator calls a man at a tree nursery who tells him that the insects do not necessarily mean that the ancient tree will die or that it is dying, although it could die if it is not strong. There is hope. After several confrontations with Pike, who suggests that they plant another tree in its place, the narrator reminds him that he had lived in this house all of his life, and the tree was ancient when he climbed it as a boy. Later, the narrator meditates on certain experiences in his life that had always deeply moved him: crossing the Mississippi River as a child, listening to Ludwig van Beethoven quartets at a concert and, most of all, looking up at the stars at night.

After a successful attempt to stop the relentless line of insects, the narrator finds himself descending into his youthful memories and the key role that this magnificent elm tree played in his life. He recalls the time when his neighborhood had been threatened by a fire that raged through the town. His father took charge of their neighborhood and helped everyone move out. The...

(The entire section is 854 words.)