Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

Spencer Holst’s impish little story about the nature of hope, probability, and fiction has the classically clean plot line of a fable. Its characters are two-dimensional, existing only for the sake of furthering the suggestive and symbolic plot, and the plot itself is mathematically precise and formal. The story exploits...

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Spencer Holst’s impish little story about the nature of hope, probability, and fiction has the classically clean plot line of a fable. Its characters are two-dimensional, existing only for the sake of furthering the suggestive and symbolic plot, and the plot itself is mathematically precise and formal. The story exploits several fictional conventions and puts them in the foreground. The first is the intentional, and therefore meaningful, nature of events in fictions. The gypsy believes that although the first two times that the monkey brings him the necklace may be weird accidents, the third time plunges the whole thing “into meaning.” His belief that fate is at work is equivalent to a fictional character realizing that he is a character in a fiction rather than a real person in a real world. Nothing happens by accident in fiction; everything is fated because fictions are closed forms in which all events have already occurred.

This concept of closure is the second convention that Holst exploits, for, like Frank Stockton’s famous 1882 story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” Holst leaves the ending open, violating the reader’s expectation that there will be a meaningful closure, thus creating the illusion that an appropriate final event has not yet occurred. The curse enforces this idea thematically in the story, for a curse is a guarantee that, given certain prerequisites, certain subsequent events will inevitably occur. This sense of inevitability is further emphasized by the geometric equidistance of the shark and the gypsy, who drops the necklace one mile out and one mile down.

The third fictional convention that Holst uses is the ambiguity that the gypsy faces as he sees what seems to be the necklace floating through the air past him. He thinks that one of two things must be true: Either he is witnessing a miracle, or he is having a hallucination. This ambiguity is a familiar fictional device, which structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov has cogently described. A story in which a miracle takes place is in the generic category of the “marvelous,” whereas a story in which one is having a hallucination is in the category of the “uncanny.” Although the reader knows that neither is the case here (for there is a realistic explanation for the floating necklace), the gypsy is not sure in what kind of story he is. Edgar Allan Poe was the first short-story writer to make this ambiguity the center of his art; in many of his stories, the reader is never sure whether something supernatural is occurring or the main character is hallucinating. The most famous story in American literature to exploit this ambiguity is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which it is impossible to determine whether the ghosts are real or the governess is mad.

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