Sargeson’s Use of Violence
“A Great Day” is an unusual story. Even its appearance on the page is unusual. Although it has plenty of dialogue, it has no quotation marks. This is a feature of all Sargeson’s stories, one that started a trend that many serious writers in New Zealand followed in the 1940s. Perhaps the reason Sargeson adopted this technique was to give his stories a nonliterary, artless quality, a feeling of greater naturalness. He wanted to give the reader the feeling that he or she is eavesdropping on a real conversation, not one filtered through the work of an intermediary, the writer. (This is, of course, an illusion, since the means by which this feeling of naturalness is being attempted is also a literary technique.)
“A Great Day” is also unusual and distinctive for the flatness and evenness of the narrator’s tone throughout. This unemotional, detached tone continues even as the story builds to its climax. Fred’s actions of leaving Ken behind on the reef, capsizing the dinghy, and swimming to shore—leaving his friend to certain death—are conveyed without any heightening of language or change of pace. Sargeson uses this method of narration to ensure that the violent ending comes across, paradoxically, with shocking, unexpected force. The detached method also well conveys the exceptionally cold, calculating nature of Fred’s actions.
It is this violent end that sticks in the mind, just as Sargeson wanted it to. Violent climaxes occur frequently in Sargeson’s early stories, and each time, told in that flat, detached manner of his, the climax comes with surprising suddenness and force.
In “Sale Day,” for example, a young man, irritated by the presence of a tom cat in the kitchen, seizes the cat and dumps it into the fire that is burning under the frying pan, incinerating it. In “How I Lost My Pal,” Tom and the narcissistic, sharp-tempered George, both of whom are employed as sheep shearers, fall out with each other. A little while later, Tom is nowhere to be seen. At the end of the story, Tom’s friend, the narrator, watches as George strangles a dog that has irritated him with its barking, and in that instant he knows what has happened to Tom. In “A Good Boy,” a young man reveals that he has murdered his girlfriend and has no remorse about it; and “Old Man’s Story” ends with a suicide. This is what critic C. K. Stead has described as the “dark side” to Sargeson’s writing. And Kai Jensen, in Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, has noted that death and violence were a preoccupation of many male writers in New Zealand in the 1930s. It was part of the “masculine emphasis” taken by the literature of the period, which was strongly associated with Sargeson.
In this emerging male literature, there was an emphasis on the working-class man as the ideal embodiment of masculinity. There was also an emphasis on male community and male friendship, what Jensen calls “mateship.” This theme can be found in many of Sargeson’s stories. “A Pair of Socks,” for example, is about the narrator and Fred, his “cobber” (New Zealand slang for close friend). They have been friends since childhood, but they fall out because the narrator chooses to buy his employer a gift of a pair of socks. This alienates his friend, presumably because he was not consulted or included in the gift. (“Presumably” is the correct term, because Sargeson is rarely explicit about motivation or causation. He likes to encourage the reader to use his imagination and work some things out for himself.)
“Mateship” appears in Sargeson’s stories to be the ideal relationship, superior to that between a man and a woman. In “A Man and His Wife,” the narrator is cobbers with Ted, who has had difficulties with his wife and spends more time with his male friend, who lives in an old shed. (The story is set in the depression.) Often in these stories, mateship does not last. As in “How I Lost My Pal,” something happens to destroy it. Similarly, in...
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