What techniques does Baxton use to create humor in "Gryphon" while also conveying ideas implied in the story?

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Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon ” is both humorous and thought-provoking. The narrator is a fourth-grade boy, and much of the action in the story takes place in his classroom during the course of three consecutive days when a substitute teacher, the very eccentric and imaginative Miss Ferenczi,...

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Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” is both humorous and thought-provoking. The narrator is a fourth-grade boy, and much of the action in the story takes place in his classroom during the course of three consecutive days when a substitute teacher, the very eccentric and imaginative Miss Ferenczi, is in charge. A new and surprising addition to the usual four substitutes who work at the rural school, no one quite knows where Miss Ferenczi comes from. One of the narrator’s classmates, Harold Knardahl, suggests “Mars.”

Miss Ferenczi believes that there are far more important things to be accomplished in a classroom than reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and adhering to the textbook version of history—or even math for that matter. Her stories are so far-fetched and inventive that the children listen to her in rapt attention. Some of the accounts prove to be true, such as the existence of plants that eat animals, and others resemble the outrageous claims that, as one child notes on a bus trip home, may be read in The National Enquirer.

Your question about identifying the techniques that the author uses in order to create humor in the story while also conveying implied ideas requires some very worthy detective work, which begins with an acquaintance with certain literary devices (also called literary techniques). The author uses them deftly in order to create a story that is both quite humorous but also thought provoking. I recommend that you especially look for tone, foreshadowing, juxtaposition, paradox, and imagery. Within imagery you will also find metaphors and similes.

Tone is the first and most pervasive literary technique that you will need to look at closely in this story. Tone is the attitude that an author establishes, and this is usually accomplished right from the beginning of a story. In “Gryphon” we get the sense from the very first few sentences that this is going to be a funny story by the children’s whispered reactions to their teacher’s coughing fit. One of the girls, Carol Peterson, whispers to the narrator, “He’s gonna blow up.”

“Gryphon,” however, is not just a comical short story. Like the creature named in the title, which has the head and wings of an eagle and body of a lion, this tale has more than one purpose. As such, the tone makes subtle transitions from the comical to the contemplative and in one particular instance contains the literary device of foreshadowing.

The narrator’s quiet observations of the autumn leaves and the movement of the sun during the day suggest the natural cycles of life and create a contemplative tone that foreshadows Miss Ferenczi’s musings on death later in the story:

There is no death, and you must never be afraid. … That which is, cannot die. It will change into different earthly and unearthly elements, but I know this as sure as I stand here in front of you.

Juxtaposition is a very important literary technique in this story. Note how Miss Ferenczi’s fantastical and humorously absurd stories in the classroom are juxtaposed with ordinary events on the playground and at home. Note also the technique of juxtaposition in the complete lack of interest that Mr. Hibler and the narrator’s busy mother express when offered descriptions of what Miss Ferenczi has taught that day.

Another literary technique that you will discover is paradox. A paradox is a statement that appears to be both true and false at the same time. In this story, paradoxes appear in dialogue—especially in some of the assertions made by Miss Ferenczi. One example, which proves to be a puzzling head-scratcher for the fourth-graders, is Miss Ferenczi’s assertion that a multiplication problem can have more than one correct answer.

When a boy named John Wazny recites that six times eleven is sixty-eight, she does not correct him. When a girl points out the teacher’s oversight, Miss Ferenczi explains that “in higher mathematics, numbers are more fluid.” By treating the error as a paradox, the teacher focuses the children’s attention away from an unnecessary embarrassment (both for little John Wazny and for herself) and, on another level, creates humor for the reader. More importantly, she takes the students’ imaginations away from the mundane and into more abstract and imaginative frameworks of thought.

The literary techniques of imagery, simile, and metaphor are used widely in this story, not only in the author’s descriptions of Miss Ferenczi herself (for example, she has a “marionette’s face,” a metaphor; her varied hairstyles include pig tails, which creates an amusing image) , but also in her vivid descriptions of mythical creatures, legends, and the supernatural. You will additionally find examples of these literary techniques in the narrator’s descriptions of his classmates and his peaceful, rural surroundings.

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