The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

by William Saroyan
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Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Saroyan published "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. The plight of the protagonist, an unnamed man, symbolizes the despair that many people felt at that time. The man's daily routine—going to find work, staving off hunger by drinking water,...

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Saroyan published "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. The plight of the protagonist, an unnamed man, symbolizes the despair that many people felt at that time. The man's daily routine—going to find work, staving off hunger by drinking water, and feeling ashamed of his appearance—would have been realities that many people experienced during the Depression.

Though the story is a reflection of the time it was written, it also deals with more universal themes. Saroyan uses the image of the man on the flying trapeze to stand for the promise of life that is not fulfilled. As the protagonist in the story is going about on a gray San Francisco day in a fruitless pursuit of food and work, he is far from being a daring young man experiencing the delights of life. He does not have any energy left. When he dies, however, he is finally able to achieve the grace of the flying young man. The symbol of the daring young man is ironic, as it is only in death that the man can fly and achieve grace and ease.

Another symbol in the story is the penny the man finds. It is shiny and full of promise, and it makes him think of the dreams he has. However, the penny can purchase nothing, so it is a symbol of the way in which the American dream of a wealthy, easy life is bankrupt.

The story is divided into two parts stylistically. The first part, called "Sleep," is short. In this section, the protagonist's wondrous dreams are told in a stream-of-consciousness style that replicates the way in which the sleeping mind brings together images, thoughts, and memories in an unpredictable mosaic. The second part of the story, which is much longer, is told in a more conventional manner. It is interesting that the man is never named, nor is he really described (he only mentions that he finds himself ugly). He is also not given a backstory. The reader knows little about him, except that he is without work or money. He is in many ways the everyman. Saroyan intended this man to stand for any person who is starving and despairing.

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

The plot is traditional enough--a young writer, poor and starving, wanders the city streets in an attempt to stave off his hunger. He cannot find meaningful work and must sell his book to survive. In his vagaries, he dreams of food and of climbing out of his body. He finds a penny and brings it to his rented flat where he polishes it and dreams over it. Hallucinating because of his hunger, he dies alone, his imagination active to the end.

As in many of Saroyan’s stories, the plot is loosely episodic, but there is a distinctly Russian flavor to this piece. The young writer’s despondent wanderings about the heartless city are suggestive of Gogol’s or Dostoyevski’s starkly realistic portrayals of sensitive souls in conflict with an unheeding, indifferent society.

Such traditional material, however, is presented in the stream-of-consciousness technique. In the brief first part of the story entitled “Sleep,” a series of dream images and associations flow through the sleeping writer’s mind. This jangle of cultural, political, literary, and comic allusions all thematically suggest a cosmic imbalance, a world out of joint. Yet all is somehow unified or reconciled by the free-flight of the man on the trapeze, the writer and his imagination.

In the second part, “Wakefulness,” the writer makes his rounds of the city looking for bread and work, his physical action alternating with his bitter attitude toward a society that offers him humiliation rather than life. In his room at the end, the writer withdraws into his mind, flying out of his body as easily and as gracefully as the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” brought instant fame to Saroyan, establishing him as an important talent, not only because of its timely subject and timeless conclusions about the life of an artist but also because of its arresting style and view of the subject. The story combines a stream-of-consciousness account of the interior monologue of the artist with a detailed, realistic view of the outside world he inhabits, thus uniting two of the major technical approaches of modern literature. The bizarre images that tumble through the writer’s mind as he sleeps both accurately reflect the strange world of the dream and alert the reader that this story is something different, something that will demand full attention. The enigmatic dream images also involve the reader in the story by giving him a glimpse of what the writer’s life is like: The writer’s dream is as bewildering to the reader as are the details that the writer encounters as he walks through the streets of the city, and as the writer must take up the hard work of organizing the details of everyday existence, so must the reader work to piece together the elements of the story. Little by little, the reader must infer that the writer is dying in part from integrity, because he refuses to be anything less than an artist, a role with dignity, in a society that does not respect that dignity. Because this bitter truth is inferred by the reader, its impact is more stunning than if it had been directly stated by the author.

Ironically, the psychological style and bleak viewpoint of this story, which made Saroyan a celebrity, are not at all typical of his work. Saroyan preferred direct, open, declarative statements and affirmed the positive value of human experience in spite of tragedy, qualities that are seen in such stories as “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Balakian, Nona. The World of William Saroyan. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Calonne, David Stephen. William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. New York: Twayne, 1966.

Foard, Elisabeth C. William Saroyan: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Foster, Edward Halsey. William Saroyan. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1984.

Foster, Edward Halsey. William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Hamalian, Leo, ed. William Saroyan: The Man and Writer Remembered. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.

Haslam, Gerald W. “William Saroyan.” In A Literary History of the American West, edited by Thomas J. Lyon et al. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

Keyishian, Harry, ed. Critical Essays on William Saroyan. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. 1984. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Saroyan, Aram. William Saroyan. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Whitmore, Jon. William Saroyan: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

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