David Foster Wallace

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Compare and contrast Lydia Davis's "The Caterpillar" and David Foster Wallace's "Incarnations of Burned Children." Support your answer by quoting from the texts.

Both “The Caterpillar” and “Incarnations of Burned Children” tug at readers' emotions as they relate the sufferings of small, helpless creatures. In the former, however, the creature is merely a caterpillar, and the narrator feels mildly guilty at losing it and even searches for it several times before giving up. The latter story is much more intense, for it deals with the sufferings of a child, and its tone is frantic and agitated.

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Both Lydia Davis's “The Caterpillar” and David Foster Wallace's “Incarnations of Burned Children” move readers' emotions through accounts of the trials and sufferings of small, helpless creatures. In Davis's story, the creature is a caterpillar accidentally dropped in the stairway as the narrator is trying to carry it outside. She cannot get the caterpillar out of her mind and goes back to look for it several times during the day, feeling rather guilty that she somehow dropped it and wanting to save its life. She fails, of course, and never really knows what has happened to the little creature.

Wallace's story is much more intense, for it is about a helpless toddler horribly burned by the liquid contents of on overturned pot. The child's parents do everything they can to help the little one. His father tries to remain calm, tries to tune out his son's screaming so that he doesn't freeze in terror as he administers first aid. The child's mother panics and then prays, unable to do much to help. Since the child is too young to talk, it takes his parents some time before they realize that his diaper is still filled with scalding water. They do the best they can for their baby, but by the time they get him to the emergency room, it is too late. The parents have to deal with the extreme guilt they are left to face.

The tones of these two stories are decidedly different as befitting their subject matter. The narrator in “The Caterpillar” is regretful but calm. She feels a tinge of sorrow and guilt at the loss of the caterpillar, but she goes on living. The story is written in relatively short, simple sentences, perhaps somewhat reflecting the simplicity of the lost caterpillar. The tone of “Incarnations of Burned Children,” on the other hand, is frantic, matching the parents' emotions as they try to help their son. The sentences are overly long, and the words tumble over one another in long strings, again reflecting the parents' agitation.

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