“A Great Day,” a short story by New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson, was first published in Sargeson’s collection of stories A Man and His Wife (Christchurch, New Zealand, 1940). It was reprinted in Sargeson’s Collected Stories in 1964 (reprinted, 1965).
Sargeson is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers. Beginning in the 1930s, he was instrumental in creating a genuine New Zealand literature that was not derived from British or American models. He deliberately avoided using literary English, and most of his stories, which are often told in the first person, sound like an ordinary person speaking naturally.
“A Great Day” is one of Sargeson’s most admired stories. This short tale of an early morning fishing trip undertaken by two friends culminates in a shocking, and surprising, act of violence and betrayal. The story illustrates the spare, compressed nature of Sargeson’s art (almost all his stories are very short), as well as his use of informal, colloquial language and working-class characters. In “A Great Day,” Sargeson avoids any overt moralizing and leaves the story to speak for itself, inserting many subtle clues within the text to enable the reader to make sense of the final incident.
“A Great Day” begins with two friends, Ken and Fred, getting up just before dawn and preparing for a fishing trip. Ken leaves his “bach” (a small, cabinstyle house) and carries their dinghy down to the beach. Fred follows with the rest of the gear. The tide is halfway out and the beach is deserted. As they get in the dinghy and begin rowing, the sun comes up, and it looks as if it is going to be a great day. There is not a cloud in the sky.
They head for an island where they have been before. Ken finds the rowing easy, since he is the bigger and stronger of the two men. During the trip, Fred discusses the hardships of being out of work. Ken is also out of work, but life is easier for him because he has some savings and lives rent-free with his aunt. He also has an education, which makes it easier for him to find work. Fred, on the other hand, is a member of the working class. It is he who does most of the talking, and some of his remarks sound strange. He talks, for example, about how men grow old and die and a man might as well die now as at any other time.
About halfway to the island, less than two miles from the shore, Fred says they have gone far enough. They drop anchor and begin to fish. Fred remarks on the fact that Ken has never learned to swim. But Ken replies that this does not bother him, especially on such a calm, still day. They both get bites on their fishing lines, which are crossed. Ken’s catch is a very small fish, and Fred throws it back. They put fresh bait on their hooks and try again, but with no success. Fred persuades Ken that they should head for a submerged reef...
(The entire section is 806 words.)