Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In “The Stone Boy,” Berriault creates symbols within the context of the story to direct readers toward a meaning that is not apparent on the surface. For example, nowhere in the story does the author say that the roles assumed by members of the family are stereotypically patriarchal, resulting in the reenactment of old patterns of behavior, in which sons and fathers sometimes engage in violent actions to keep each other and “their” women in their “rightful” places, as the places are defined by the dominant culture. By creating patterns made up of various telling details in the story, however, the author points readers toward this kind of reading, which gives surface action a meaning far beyond itself and invests characters with motivations deeply embedded in their subconscious.
It is possible for the reader to ignore the elements of symbolic structure and to accept surface content as all there is. Such reading of a symbolic story will cause the reader to miss important, complex, and universal relationships. More depth of interpretation ensures understanding of concepts continually present, linking the past and possibly the future.
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The Decline of the American Farm Family
In the early years of the United States, farming was the main economic activity of Americans. Most farms were self-sufficient and owned by single families who lived on and ran the farm. In 1900 the average family farm was located half a mile away from its nearest neighbor, which served to isolate farm families. However, farm families formed communities by exchanging labor, attending church, and sending their children to schools.
Beginning in the 1920s, however, the number of farms in the United States began to dwindle. In 1930 a little over 30 million Americans lived on farms. In 1950 the farm population had shrunk to around 23 million, and by 1960, only a few years after Berriault wrote ‘‘The Stone Boy,’’ only about 15.6 million Americans still lived on farms. The decade also brought many changes to the way farms were run. In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower cut government subsidies to farms. As well, throughout the decade, automation began to be introduced on farms. While the use of new machinery boosted production, it effectively reduced the labor force, which partially accounts for the drop in farm population. Overall, the number of farm jobs decreased.
The farm population also decreased throughout the 1950s and 1960s as increasing numbers of Americans around the country decided to move to suburbs and planned communities. By 1960, 100 million Americans—one third of the total...
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Point of View
‘‘The Stone Boy’’ is told from a third-person, limited point of view; everything is filtered through Arnold’s eyes and senses, and only his thoughts are shared. Readers can understand other characters’ feelings only through their words and actions, but are privy to Arnold’s innermost feelings. Early in the story, such use of point of view makes clear Arnold’s love/hate relationship with his brother. Although Arnold is in awe of his brother, the author uses such terms as stupidly and mocking to describe Eugie, all of which explain Arnold’s complex feelings toward Eugie. After Eugie’s death, however, Arnold is so distant from his own emotions that in actuality, the reader learns very little about what Arnold thinks about Eugie’s death and his role in it. Arnold does reveal, toward the end of the story, that he felt terror as he knelt beside his brother and that his newly self-imposed separation from his parents scares him deeply.
Although Berriault’s never designates the exact location of ‘‘The Stone Boy,’’ the farm setting has a strong bearing on the drama that unfolds. Arnold’s family functions within an agricultural community, one that is both isolated and dependent on the other members. Arnold’s isolation from his family is reinforced through the farm’s physical isolation from neighboring farms. The distance that Arnold and Eugie travel to the lake—down...
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Compare and Contrast
1960: The United States had close to 4 million farms, which totaled around 990 million acres. The average farm had assets worth almost $53,000 and earned just under $10,000 per year. Around 15.5 million Americans lived on farms.
1990: There were only a little over 2 million farms in operation in the United States, also totaling around 990 million acres. The average farm had assets worth around $460,000 and earned a little over $91,000 per year. Just under 5 million Americans lived on farms.
1960: 1,200 accidental shooting deaths occurred in American homes. Just over 51 percent of polled Americans said they had a gun in the house.
1990s: 800 accidental shooting deaths occurred in American homes in 1995. In 1991, 46 percent of polled Americans had a gun in the house. Of the American households with guns, 40 percent also had children in the house.
1950: There are an estimated 54 million rifles, shotguns, and handguns in the United States.
Around 2,399,000 firearms are available for sale. 1990: There are an estimated 201 million firearms in the United States. Around 5,122,000 are available for sale.
1965: Less than five 15 year olds per 100,000 commit murder.
1992: Ten 15 year olds per 100,000 commit murder. Studies show that most high school students either carry or have carried illegal guns or can get them easily. As many as 1 in...
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Topics for Further Study
The sheriff suggested only two possible explanations for Arnold’s behavior following the death of his brother. Do you think there are other possible explanations? What are they? Do you think Arnold’s actions demonstrate a psychological disability on Arnold’s part?
In the 1990s, the rise of teen violence has alarmed many Americans. Investigate how teen violence has affected American society over the decades since the 1950s. Do you think teen violence has worsened? If so, what factors have attributed to this rise?
The sheriff’s description of Arnold, as a person who ‘‘don’t feel nothing,’’ describes sociopaths. Investigate sociopathic behavior and then determine whether or not you believe Arnold to be a sociopath.
The 1950s, when this story was written, is generally regarded as a period epitomized by happy families, economic prosperity, and strong moral values. How do you think typical readers of the 1950s and 1960s might have reacted to the story?
Family farms in the United States have been on a decline for most of the 20th century. Conduct research on reasons for this decline and the effect it has had on farming families.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Butcher Boy (1992) by Irish writer Patrick McCabe chronicles the descent of a neglected boy as he plunges deeper into madness and violence.
The short story ‘‘Walking Out’’ (1980) by David Quammen tells the gripping story of a father-son hunting trip that goes awry.
Gina Berriault’s second novel, Conference of Victims (1962, 1985), describes the effects a man’s suicide has on his closest family members.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment (1911) explores the psychological effects of murder.
Andre Dubus’ short story ‘‘The Fat Girl’’ (1988) tells of a girl who withdraws from the world through food.
Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault (1996) includes some of the author’s finest works from her 40-year career as well as new short stories.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘‘Good Country People’’ (1955) tells about how the actions of a merciless man affects a farm family.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Amdahl, Gary. A review of Women in Their Beds, in The Nation, June 24, 1996, pp. 31-32.
Berriault, Gina. Preface to The Mistress and Other Stories, by Gina Berriault, New York: Dutton, 1965.
Berriault, Gina. with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver. An interview with Berriault, in The Literary Review, Summer, 1994, pp. 714-723.
Boken, Julia B. A discussion of Berriault’s career, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130, Gale Research, Detroit, MI, 1993.
Dubus, Andre. A discussion of Berriault’s work, in America, September 8, 1984.
Kostelanetz, Richard. A review of The Mistress, and OtherStories, in the New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1965, pp. 104-105.
Leach, Penelope. Your Growing Child: From Babyhood through Adolescence, New York: Knopf, 1986, p. 182.
Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver. ‘‘ Don’t I Know You? : An Interview with Gina Berriault,’’ in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer 1994, pp. 714-22.
McQuade, Molly. A discussion of Berriault’s work, in Chicago Tribune Book World, February 6, 1983.
Milton, Edith. Review of Infinite Passions of Expectation, by Gina Berriault, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 88, January 9, 1983, p. 8.
Pagones, Dorrie. A review of The Mistress, and Other Stories, in...
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