Last Updated on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
There is only one main character in this short story, and it is the speaker, who is an impoverished, dying man. The story describes this man’s final day before death. He is first introduced as “He (the living),” with the parenthesis implying that the fact that he is still alive is something worthy of comment or something which might otherwise have been missed.
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Early in the story, we learn that our narrator is a philosophical man. He speculates, for example, that
It is only in sleep that we may know we live. There only, in that living death, do we meet ourselves and the far earth, God and the saints, the names of our fathers, the substance of remote moments.
We also learn that the narrator is barely living at all. He survives on a diet of “bread and coffee and cigarettes,” except now, he has “no more bread.” He is indeed “half-starved,” and as a result, he is physically thin and frail. When he looks at himself in the mirror, he sees that he is “infirm in every part of his body, in his neck, his shoulders, arms, trunk, and knees.” He also feels “a ghastly illness coming over his blood, a feeling of nausea and disintegration.”
The narrator is not, however, entirely miserable. He finds comfort in books and also has a rather positive attitude toward the death he feels approaching. He thinks of himself as “a daring young man on the flying trapeze,” and he seems to look forward to the freedom he will get once he lets go of the trapeze, which he understands as a metaphor for his life. He hopes that he will have enough strength “to make the flight with grace,” whether that flight be “to God, or to nothing.” It is perhaps not surprising that he seems to look forward to the freedom of death when we remember how miserable his life appears to be. At the end of the story, the narrator dies. His death is as he wished it would be. He flies from the metaphorical trapeze of life, and, for “an eternal moment,” he is “all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man.”
Mollica is the “young Italian... small sick clerk” whom the narrator meets in a Brooklyn hospital. Mollica is significant inasmuch as she causes the narrator to become “thoroughly awake” when she tells him that she is afraid of dying. It seems that after Mollica awakens the narrator to the prospect of death, he lives thereafter in a permanent “state...[of] sustained shock.”
The Employment Office Agents
The agents at the employment office include “a thin, scatter-brained miss of fifty,” and “a conceited young man who closely resembled a pig.” These agents dismiss the narrator when he asks for employment. They are among the last people he speaks to, and they remind us of how hopeless and futile the narrator’s final hours were.
Throughout the story, the narrator mentions many authors and literary characters, including Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Proust, Hamlet, and Huckleberry Finn. These qualify as minor characters in a sense, and they are important in two ways. First, they help readers to understand that the narrator is a very well-read, thoughtful character. Secondly, they remind readers of how lonely the narrator is. He can only seek comfort and company in his books, and these authors are the closest he seems to have to friends.