What is the conflict, moment of crisis, and peripety in Ralph Ellison's "A Party Down at the Square"?

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The conflict in Ralph Ellison 's "A Party Does at the Square" takes the form of the boy character's internal feelings about witnessing the burning of a black man. The narrator (the boy) frames the burning as a "party." This is partially because his uncle Ed has called it a...

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The conflict in Ralph Ellison's "A Party Does at the Square" takes the form of the boy character's internal feelings about witnessing the burning of a black man. The narrator (the boy) frames the burning as a "party." This is partially because his uncle Ed has called it a party, but also probably because he himself is a white boy and wants to see things the way all the other white people in the town seem to see things. He says other things, like, "God, it was a hell of a night!" and "I was right there, see. I was right there watching it all." These parts of the narration give the impression that the boy sees the burning as an "event," a thing to see and witness (rather than a horrifying murder of a man). But there are other clues that indicate that the boy is also disturbed by the event. For example, he seems to be sick to his stomach by the events of the night, though he makes excuses for it. He also "talks tough" throughout the story, describing things like a boy who doesn't want to be seen as "gutless" (like his uncle says). The conflict of the story is therefore the boy's mixed feelings about what he has seen. Was the burning "a party," like his uncle and the townspeople seem to believe? Or was it something sickening and terrible? We get the feeling the boy knows the horror of what he has witnessed but doesn't want to admit it.

The narrative reaches a climax, or "moment of crisis," when the airplane nearly crashes into the square. This moment coincides with the moment the man is about to burn to death (which is the true crisis moment of the story). This moment represents a fever point in the narrative action of the story, but it also represents a point of no turning back: though the man is on a burning platform, there has remained, until this moment, the hope of his rescue. Beyond this moment, we know the man is doomed to die an agonizing death.

The peripeteia of this story is (arguably) the moment when a woman from the town is electrocuted by one of the wires downed by the airplane. As a literary device, a peripeteia describes a narrative event that represents a "reversal" or "turning point." Aristotle defines peripeteia as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite." In this story, the electrocution of the woman is a kind of mirror image of the burning of the man. It is the inverse of our expectations. Instead of the horrific image of the man burning, we get a description of the blackened and stiff body of the woman. It is notable that the woman's execution does nothing to stop the murder of the man, but it represents an unexpected shift in the narrative, which heightens the emotional impact of the story and its conflict.

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The conflict in "A Party Down at the Square" is internal. The protagonist, a white man visiting from Cincinnati, goes along with his Uncle Ed to "a party down at the square." Little does he know that he's about to witness his first (and last, according to him) lynching. Even though he uses the n-word freely enough, burning a man to death is new to him. He watches with fascination but he doesn't seem to understand why it's happening. He doesn't know what the victim has been accused of, even, and he is ultimately unable to handle the horror that unfolds as the man almost burns to ashes. He tries to leave but is hemmed in by the crowd, and when he finally breaks free, he throws up. He observes in the last paragraph that  "Uncle Ed said they always have to kill niggers in pairs to keep the other niggers in place," but the narrator admits he doesn't think it's working, since they all come back and "look mean as hell when you pass them down at the store."

The moment of crisis occurs when a plane, its pilot confused by the brightness of the fire, starts circling overhead. The narrator realizes that the plane is about to crash, causing the assembled lynch mob to scatter. There is a period in which we think the lynch victim may get away while the mob is distracted or the narrator might (?) free him, but the victim is tied securely and beginning to roast over the growing fire. The mob then returns to their victim and throw gasoline on the fire, continuing the torture. 

A peripety is a turning point in which the protagonist--in this case, the narrator--changes in some way we don't expect. In this story, we get a hint of this at the end, after the narrator seems to be having a revelation regarding the horror and unfairness of lynchings. In the same paragraph, as though these details were just as important and thought-provoking as the lynching he witnessed, he relates how a sharecropper spit tobacco on Brinkley's floor because the store keeper wouldn't give him credit. The incident is not as important, but we realize at this point that, despite the narrator's initial horror and revulsion, the lynching he witnessed is just another cool story, and he ultimately doesn't really care.  

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