The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze Analysis

William Saroyan

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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