Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Schwartz establishes a framework of storyteller and listener, with the third-person point of view focused on Belmont Weiss so that the reader, too, increases his understanding of the “meanings” of what Belmont hears. As Belmont increasingly fits himself into the story that his mother tells, Schwartz can insert time clues. The reader sees the span of generations in the account of the two women, Mrs. Baumann and a fellow “shipsister,” who came by boat to the United States in 1888, were separated in 1911, and reunited in 1930. These structural clues are kept within the plausible context of remembrance and event.

Because of Schwartz’s repetition of the word “irony,” the reader notices Belmont’s interaction with his mother’s narrative and her ironic perspective. His mother’s aural memory captures the nuances of the speech of the earlier immigrant generation, their becoming “American,” and Schwartz has Belmont note that the mother imposes “her own variety of irony upon the irony which sang in Belmont’s mind at every phase of her story.” Brief at first, Belmont’s ruminations increase page by page until they consume the final two pages. At first uncertain “whether the cruelty of the story was in his own mind or in his mother’s tongue,” he is finally convinced that the irony and contempt with which he has listened to the story applies to himself and to his own awareness of self-contempt.

The telling concluding analogy has Belmont acquiring the “curious omniscience” gained by looking at an old photograph. Much as Belmont has judged the failure and waste of the Baumanns, so might the viewer of an old photograph look condescendingly on the people pictured there, finding their clothes and their very posture ridiculous—until, moving beyond this superficial vision of past time, he might recognize “that the very act of looking has . . . in its time, the same character.”

The passive viewer of the photograph of past times, as Belmont has been the passive listener to tales of past times, achieves his enlightenment: “And now it seemed to him that all those lives inhabited the air he breathed and would be present wherever he was.” The framework, therefore, embraces both the social and the personal, inviting all readers to reflect and to achieve awareness of the forces that have shaped them.