Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

Writers are often concerned with the problem of hope in their stories, for although they are aware of the inevitability of plot, they also want to convey a sense of freedom in their characters. In one of her best-known stories, “Conversation with My Father” (1971), for example, Grace Paley rebels against the inevitability of plot because it vanquishes hope. A basic difference between real life and fiction, Paley suggests, is that real life is open and full of possibility, but a story must move relentlessly toward a predetermined end. Consequently, as much as writers might want their fiction to be “like life,” it can never quite be a similitude of life. The closest that a writer can approach to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on lives of their own and somehow “get away” from their author. “On Hope” is a self-reflexive fable that, like many of the stories of John Barth and Robert Coover, uses the traditional fable form to explore and lay bare the fictional conventions and techniques that writers always use and readers often take for granted. Holst makes no attempt to interest the reader in the character of the gypsy. The gypsy’s motivation is determined by the stereotyped conventions of “gypsyness,” not by any values particular to himself. The gypsy’s belief in the curse, as well as his conclusion that the monkey’s theft of the diamond three times is determined by fate, reflects the traditional fabulous nature of the story, as well as its self-reflexive character. For, even as the gypsy believes in cosmic fate, the reader is aware that all fictional characters are fated because their actions are determined by the story’s generic conventions.

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Given the convention of the curse, the narrator admits that it seems inevitable that the shark will devour the man. However, he also notes that there are three reasons—all of which are in themselves fictional conventions—that may cause the story to end in another way. The first depends on the marvelous/uncanny ambiguity; for if the gypsy is not sure whether the shark is a miraculous manifestation or his own hallucination, then he is in a sort of limbo state in which time stands still and the story is unresolvable at that point. The second depends on the irony of this gypsy’s being an animal trainer, and thus possibly capable of diverting the shark. Because irony is a frequently used convention of short fiction, Holst emphasizes it here to suggest that such a reversal of what seems inevitable is a possible appropriate ending. The third reason suggests the ultimate irony: Given the existence of the curse—which determines everything in this story (as in all such stories because curses establish the certainty of a future event)—the shark will die instead of the man. The “hope” that gives both the story and the diamond their names thus refers to the only hope possible in a story: Which fictional convention will dominate its closure? The gypsy’s best hope is that the convention of the curse compels the story’s closure.

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