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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

The short, recognizably autobiographical sketch appears merely to describe a Sunday walk in the country taken by a nine-year-old boy and his father and to be without complication in plot or narrative. This appearance is qualified, however, by complex perspective and a complexity of reactions detailed by the narrator as he recalls his first awareness of the life that he was to live.

The walk begins in bright afternoon sunshine, as the father takes his son by the hand. They wave good-bye to the mother, who returns to preparing the evening meal, and move off to the woods. There they listen to the singing of the birds and the sounds of nature, to which they are accustomed but for which they have never lost appreciation.

As they make their way along a railway line, they share a sensation of freedom and privilege. The father is free because it is Sunday and he does not have to work; and both are privileged to walk along the railway line, a route forbidden to others, because the father works for the railroad. This privilege is further established as a train passes by and the father signals a familiar greeting to its engineer. The narrator then notes an odd but pleasant combination of scents, those of field flowers and the tar on railroad ties. To this mixture of nature and technology the reader is offered the opportunity to add another: The narrator notes that the telegraph poles “sang”; this picks up the narrator’s note of the birdsong and combines the two types of song, one technological and one natural. Up to this point everything is harmonious under a clear sky on a beautiful day.

Mention of the clear sky and the beautiful day is then followed by intimations of discord. Scanning a field of oats, the father understands the perfection of the crop, but the son, whose orientation is town life, does not. As they cross a bridge over a stream pleasantly swollen by the springtime flood, they hold hands to lessen the danger of falling through the railroad ties. Each delight now includes its check of inharmony. A visit to the cottage of a railroad lineman, who provides them with a snack, and the father’s subsequent ascertainment of a semaphore’s position make it clear that the Sunday afternoon is not entirely free of chores. As they walk along a river, enjoying its beauty, the father is reminded of his own boyhood delight in perch-fishing there, an idyllic pleasure for which he now has no time. After a cheerful contest of throwing pebbles into the water, they grow tired and turn homeward.

Twilight comes on, and the woods become unpleasantly strange. The boy catches sight of a glowworm under the darkening trees, but the father does not respond to his son’s reaction. The telegraph poles, which sang in the daylight, now rumble hollowly with a menacing, subterranean voice. Crossing the bridge again, the boy is terrified by the roaring of the stream in the dark abyss below.

In full darkness the discord becomes complete, and the father’s calm is in strong contrast with his son’s fear and trembling. The boy’s complaint about horror in the darkness is brushed off by his father, who is sustained by his unquestioning belief in God. The boy feels lonely and forsaken and considers the invisible God to be part of the horror. This moment of alienation of son from father is dramatically punctuated by the mighty roar of a black train speeding past. The entire train is unlit save for the coal fire of the engine, in the glow of which a strange engineer, unknown to the father, stands immobile and stonelike, intent solely on plunging into the darkness. Choking with dread, the boy realizes the anguish that will be his in his movement out of the secure and real world of his father, who will not always be able to protect him, and into a life that hurtles “blazingly into complete and endless darkness.”

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