Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Aiken’s “Impulse” relies heavily on psychological terms and concepts, and his language is a blend of literary symbolism and the psychological case study. To understand Michael, the reader must know what Michael thinks, but there must concurrently be some distance between Michael and the reader. Aiken’s choice of point of view is particularly fitting, because it creates distance—as a first-person account would not—while it allows the reader to see events as they are screened through Michael’s distorted perspective. At times, the third-person limited point of view becomes so intimate that it approaches the stream-of-consciousness technique, with its series of impressions that only seem to be unrelated.

As he sits on the bed in his cell, Michael thinks of the past, and Aiken offers a series of memories that account for the “impulsive” decision to steal. Michael’s Chicago memories involve his mother (the missing father is important psychologically), who nags him, as Dora does, about being responsible; Michael’s theft is perhaps a rebellious act against domineering women. (He is both attracted to Smith’s “Squiggles,” whose name suggests irresponsibility, and disgusted with her, for he blames her for the police’s failure to contact Smith.) The other memories suggest, without being explicit (Michael cannot bring himself to admit weakness), failures and past crimes: The “crowded examination room at college” may well involve an “impulsive” decision to cheat; the lost stamp collection seems innocuous, but the reader knows that Michael had been tempted to steal Parker’s stamp collection; and the broken conch shell refers to a stolen conch shell.

The references to the boat ride and the dead boy next door are enigmatic, but given the context of failure and guilt, they doubtless are allusions to other “impulsive” acts that Michael subconsciously remembers but cannot consciously admit as failures. In fact, the reminiscences constitute, for Michael, only a series of “trivial and infinitely charming little episodes.” When he again assures himself that “he had really been a good man,” Michael indicates that he cannot admit past errors and learn from them; instead, he deludes himself again and remains in a state of arrested emotional development. Michael’s “end” does not come, as he believes, “foolishly,” but logically, as the inevitable outcome of the rest of his life.