Firstborn Analysis
by Larry Woiwode

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Given its dramatic occasion, it might be expected that “Firstborn” would positively teem with metaphors concerned with birth, breeding, newness, and succession. In particular, events seem primed for meditations on the miracle of paternity, the joy of motherhood, and the like. The events of the story, however, preclude such obviousness.

The style of “Firstborn” is essentially plain and direct. Occasionally, however, sentences become flamboyant and plethoric, infused, so it seems, with a surge of energy greater than that required to complete the fundamental task of narrative. The unpredictable occurrence of the latter type of sentence is an effective enactment of a central feature of the story, its “moral stamp” (Larry Woiwode applies the phrase to Tolstoy). This feature is the capacity for erratic change exemplified both by Charles and by Katherine, their ability to grow and, ultimately, to outgrow.

In a sense, because of the random interplay of differing syntactical tensions (from directly informative simple sentences to more complex units conveying difficult emotional conditions), it might be said that the author does not possess a particularly distinctive style. Although obviously a lover of language, Woiwode does not treat language with very much indulgence. He is ready to use a colloquialism as a verbal gem. One reason for this apparent casualness is that it effectively communicates the sense of improvisation and inconclusiveness that suffuses the central characters. Another reason for the style’s comparative lack of polish is that its plainness provides access to the minutiae of daily life, communicating thereby the inescapability of the common lot in its mundane context. The stylistic fluctuations of “Firstborn” accurately dramatize the tissue of conflicting experiences on which the story is premised.

By concentrating on the immediate drama of the birth and the circumstances directly leading up to it, the author imparts a basic momentum to the material. The story’s strong sense of pace befits the subject matter. The natural-seeming, though deftly orchestrated, pattern of lurch, stall, rush, and ebb closely engages the reader in the vivid moment at the center of the work. This pattern also reproduces the story’s psychology of uncertainty and articulates its problematical idea of consummation.

Complementing the story’s variety of styles are its structural features. Through concentrating on a basically simple chronological development, a nominal stability is provided. The taut chronological core, dealing with events directly pertaining to labor and delivery, however, has its narrative integrity offset by the story’s larger temporal framework. Nathaniel’s case provides “Firstborn” with its dramatic pretext. However, the case is also used to illuminate the quality and trajectory of the energies that went into making it, as well as the burdensome but survivable aftermath. As is true of other aspects of the story, a structural view reveals a mutuality between the intense moment and the accumulation of the years. The long view is latent within the ostensibly discrete episode. Thus, while the conclusion of “Firstborn” may seem somewhat sketchy or condensed, on...

(The entire section is 721 words.)