Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Plante’s work in this short story and in some of his novels comes close to what critics have called minimalism. What he does not say is often as important as what he does say. He resists explanations and commentary and makes the story move forward from specific detail to detail. The action is low-key, and the reader must observe how Plante’s selection of details and actions build toward a statement.

The specific details of the story, provided through the subdued voice of a third-person narrator, announce Plante’s intentions, and the repetition of some of those details confirms those intentions. Early in the story, Robert is cutting the grass and notices the swifts flying about him: “He thought that there were layers below him of sand and water and rock, and layers above of air and thin cloud, and, above, the layers of the sky, and all the layers rose and fell.” Later, the narrator says that “the different levels of earth and air appeared to separate as the daylight lengthened, and the dim upper and lower levels began to disappear.” The narrator (thus, possibly Robert) identifies the fine line between the upper and lower levels as the space where “the swifts flew out and back, out and back.” The metaphorical import of this central image becomes clear with the accumulation of detail as the story progresses: What fills the gap between the upper and lower levels of day-to-day existence, constituting life, is work.

Plante augments his meaning through repetition. He repeats not only the metaphysical images of the layering of space but also actions (Beppo is always dashing around on his horse; twice the reader sees the boy lead the horse to a large stone so that he can mount it), images of work, attitudes toward work—indeed, the very word “work.”

Plante’s story is a tone poem and does not depend on resolution of conflict or plot. It plays on repetition of a word and concept central to human experience, but perhaps requiring redefinition or at least reexamination. Robert’s brushing away of the spiderwebs in his and his lover’s vacation house and the two of them helping the widow in the fields is work of a different sort from that necessary to sustain life. The levels and layers differ, Plante tells his readers, but work has its own dignity.