The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

by William Saroyan
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Last Reviewed on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991

"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" by William Saroyan tells the story of a twenty-two-year-old writer living in San Francisco. It focuses on the struggle of an artist in a world that he feels does not value his art. Saroyan divides the short story into two chapters, aptly...

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"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" by William Saroyan tells the story of a twenty-two-year-old writer living in San Francisco. It focuses on the struggle of an artist in a world that he feels does not value his art. Saroyan divides the short story into two chapters, aptly titled "Sleep" and "Wakefulness."

"Sleep" focuses on the dreams of the young writer as he pictures the myriad places, such as Paris and Rome, that he can only see while dreaming; he also thinks about other artists, like Dostoevsky, who obtained a degree of success with their art. This chapter is largely presented in the form of a "stream of consciousness," a modernist technique in which various ideas and thoughts flow freely. The chapter ends with the sentence,

O swift moment of life: it is ended, again the earth is now.

The line highlights how this tender moment ends for the young writer, as it has many times before, as he once again confronts his earthly toils in returning from sleep to the material world.

"Wakefulness" delves a bit more into who the writer is and the exact struggles of his waking life. Saroyan sets up a dichotomy between the writer as dreamer and the writer as living person through his use of narration. The chapter begins,

He (the living) dressed and shaved....

In this way—by differentiating between the waking and sleeping versions of the writer—Saroyan signifies the differences between the writer's dreams and the cruel realty he faces throughout the rest of the story. The writer understands the differences between the world he physically occupies and the world of his dreams, and he notes, "It is only in sleep that we know we may live." The writer views the world of his dreams as his real life, because he does not view his tortured physical existence as living.

The writer puts on his clothing and sets out into the city; on his journey, he finds a penny dated 1923. He knows that the penny has almost no value, but he allows his mind to drift back into dream, and he pictures all the wonderful things he imagines he could buy, if only the penny had value.

The writer realizes that he is starving, and he laments the fact that he does not have food, but also that there are so many books that he wishes to read if only he had more money and time.

He walks around the city and sees that he is not the only one facing these troubles. Even so, he feels like he does not entirely belong in the city. He runs through possible suggestions in his mind on what to do to escape his current state. He briefly considers going to the Salvation Army to get food—and perhaps have a religious experience and connect with "God and Jesus"—but instead realizes that he was never cut out for the life of a Christian. He fears the relinquishing of his privacy to God and wishes to live his life in a more solitary existence.

He becomes so desperate for the consumption of reading material that he decides he will clean and polish the penny so that he will have something to read. He does this even though he knows that they will not provide the true sustenance he needs in order to survive.

He continues his journey throughout the city, passing several restaurants and priding himself on the fact that he will not even look at them as he walks towards an employment office.

Once he is in the employment office, he encounters a woman who asks him about his skill set in order to better find him a job. The writer explains that he writes, which the woman misunderstands as referring to good penmanship, a skill that she believes is of more importance than the writer's ability to craft prose. After leaving the first employment agency, he goes to another in his further quest to find a job.

After traveling to the two employment agencies, he goes to the YMCA to work on his application but begins to feel faint. The writer blames this feeling on the atmosphere of the building, but in actuality it is because he is starving. He excuses himself to get some water, but much as he states earlier in the story, water fills inorganic space and only temporarily grants him a reprieve from the pain of his hunger. While he is fetching his water, he sees an elderly man throwing breadcrumbs to birds and briefly ponders asking for some for himself, but he decides against it.

Eventually, he decides to return to his apartment to write with some of the paper he borrowed from the YMCA. He decides to make himself some coffee, but he does not have the milk required to make it palatable and simply drinks it black.

The writer laments the fact that he had to sell some of his clothes and books for money. He is especially upset that he sold nine books for only eighty-five cents, while his best suit sold for two dollars. He becomes frustrated by the lack of value that the world at large places on writing and how people prefer luxury goods that improve their appearance over the written word, which can expand their minds.

He begins to feel himself drifting off and dying as he looks at his polished penny. He thinks to himself that he should give the penny to a child, believing that a child could get more value out of the penny than the starving writer.

Then, in the final paragraph, Saroyan returns to the ongoing metaphor of a young man on a flying trapeze and the stream-of-consciousness style of writing that he used in the first chapter. The writer sees himself as the man on the trapeze as he launches himself forward into nothingness; the dreams fade away, and the young writer dies.

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