John Updike

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What is the effect of the fragmented structure of time in Updike's "The Brown Chest"?

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The fragmentation in John Updike's "The Brown Chest" helps us grasp the passage of time as well as both the changes and the continuity of the narrator's life. Let's look at this in more detail.

The story jumps through time, focusing on episodes surrounding the brown chest. We see it first when the narrator is a small boy in a big, old house. His perspective is filled with vague fears, and he does not like the contents of the chest. They are not interesting to him, and in some ways, they are frightening, for they are old, and he does not understand.

The story moves to the narrator's early teen years and a new house. The chest goes with, up into the attic. It is fuller now. The same things are there, but there are additions, too. Pieces of the narrator's life are now in that chest.

The next jump moves the story far into the future. The narrator is older now and has three grown children. His mother has died, and they are cleaning out the house. The chest, too, is older and more fragile. We now learn about some of the specific items in the chest: pictures, a wedding dress, and baby shoes. The memories are painful to the narrator, and he has a hard time looking through the chest, which his son is helping him take to his own barn.

The last scene moves only a little further into the future. The narrator's son now has a girlfriend, and they are looking through the items in the barn. The young woman opens the chest, and the narrator finally realizes that it contains the story of his family, which has not ended and will not end.

This fragmented structure, then, helps us see the progression of the narrator in time as his ideas about his family and his own life reach maturity.

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