Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is written in the recognizable style of its period, rather than in a style that communicates a strong sense of the author’s personality. (Perhaps one reason for O’Brien’s comparative neglect by critics is that his work lacks a sense of a strong authorial presence, in contrast to that of his powerful contemporaries Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.) The conversational first-person narrative opening is used as a conventional means of access to the plot, and when access has been gained, the narrator no longer functions as an integral presence. The text is perhaps too cautiously anchored in allusions to classical mythology and legend, as well as to works of literature, notably Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Such references sometimes have the effect of cluttering the pace of the narrative. On the other hand, they also are an economical means of suggesting the archetypal nature of the story’s struggle, and they lend weight to that struggle.

Perhaps the most impressive of the story’s purely technical achievements is its communication of atmosphere. Beginning with the description of the neighborhood in which the story’s dire deeds are planned, there is a consistent air of tension and menace. Even the ostensibly lyrical interlude in which Solon visits Zonela’s room has a claustrophobic sense to it, because of the discovery that the girl is Hippe’s prisoner and slave. The visit’s claustrophobic air is confirmed and intensified when, in turn, the Wondersmith makes the poet his captive. Moreover, O’Brien, as a general strategy, uses deliberately small-scale settings for the action. The use of night also contributes effectively to the prevailing mood of oppression and threat. In addition, once the introductory material has been presented, the story concentrates with impressive consistency on the characters’ immediate circumstances, thereby gripping the reader’s attention and ensuring that even if the reader is familiar with the general presuppositions of the plot, he or she will be entertained by this reworking of them.