Historical Context

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The 1940s Ellison wrote ‘‘Jeffty Is Five’’ in the 1970s. This era is discussed below. But while his story was written in the 1970s and the setting of his story is also around the 1970s, the main thrust of his story is a nostalgia for the years of the narrator’s...

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The 1940s
Ellison wrote ‘‘Jeffty Is Five’’ in the 1970s. This era is discussed below. But while his story was written in the 1970s and the setting of his story is also around the 1970s, the main thrust of his story is a nostalgia for the years of the narrator’s childhood, the 1940s. Ellison paints a dreamlike picture of the 1940s, a focus that is taken from a child’s point of view, which includes all the fun stuff. But other things were happening during this period. For instance, a world war was fought during the first half of the 1940s. The first atomic bomb was dropped, and Hitler led the Holocaust. Food supplies were rationed, and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which caused communist paranoia to sweep across America, had just begun. These were also the years when Japanese Americans were sent, en masse, to internment camps in the United States. Not everything was as dreamlike as Ellison’s narrator remembers.

From the perspective of a child, life in the 1940s might have looked sweet. Radio programming, something that Ellison elaborates on in ‘‘Jeffty Is Five,’’ was at its height. Since television had yet to become available to every household, radio was the lifeline that connected American families as a nation. Besides the mystery shows that so fascinate Jeffty and Donald in Ellison’s story, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to present his ‘‘Fireside Chats,’’ helping to calm the war-ravaged nerves of the American people.

Movies are also mentioned in ‘‘Jeffty Is Five.’’ During the 1940s, cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey were as popular as stars in more dramatic roles. Walt Disney produced three of his classic cartoons during this period: Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo. In general, the movies that were produced during this era portrayed highly romanticized depictions of life, with no sexual content (other then subtle insinuation) and very little graphic display of violence. Hollywood, during this time, was the center of a strong media force and was also used by the U.S. Government to produce war propaganda films that were only slightly disguised as dramatic presentations.

The 1970s
One of the first things that Ellison complains about in regard to the 1970s is the loud music on the radio. This is the decade of acid rock—loud music played by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Led Zeppelin.

Another of Ellison’s pet peeves about the seventies is the choice of movies. Some of the more memorable movies of that decade include some that were still romantic, including Saturday Night Fever and American Graffiti. But the 1970s also included some very realistic cowboy movies starring Clint Eastwood. These movies were nothing like the movies that Donald and Jeffty were seeing from the 1940s. The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Alien displayed more blood and guts than Jeffty could have handled. And Apocalypse Now and the Deer Hunter dealt with war themes, this time the Vietnam War, without any romanticizing filters.

Something interesting to note is that around this same time, in the mid-1970s, Ellison’s own award-winning story A Boy and His Dog was made into a movie. The story takes place in a postapocalyptic wasteland that is ruled by gangs and scavengers. The protagonist has a dog named Blood who seeks out women for his owner, Vic. Vic is eventually lured into an underground world and used, by strapping him into a sexual milking machine, as a stud. This movie stands in contrast to the longing of Ellison’s narrator in ‘‘Jeffty Is Five’’ to return to the wholesome, romantic films of the 1940s.

New Wave
The sexual and violent themes of Ellison’s work began to appear, most notably, with the publication of his anthologized collection of stories in Dangerous Visions (1967). Ellison was seen until then mostly as a science fiction writer, although the science fiction he wrote was seldom typical to the genre. But in 1967, some critics claim that he became a sort of spokesman for what was being called the New Wave in science fiction writing. This new type of science fiction moved away from the formulaic writing of that time to writing that had more of a psychological edge. New Wave writing uses literary experimentation and includes social issues like drug use, natural disasters, violence, and sex. Some critics claim that New Wave writing also engages more political issues than the typical science fiction literature of the 1950s and 1960s.

Literary Style

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Magic Realism
Magic Realism is a type of fantasy writing that comes across as realistic fiction. For example, in ‘‘Jeffty Is Five’’ the story revolves around a small boy who never grows up. The story is presented in a matter-of-fact style, proposing the oddity of this phenomenon but nonetheless telling the story as if it had actually occurred.

The term magic realism was first coined in the 1940s and usually referred to many Latin-American writers who used this dreamlike style in their writing. The most famous of these writers include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luis Borges. Ellison admits his admiration of Borges’ writing, and critics have aligned some of Ellison’s writing style with Borges’. Magic realism differs from science fiction (a genre in which most of Ellison’s writing is placed) in that it is not focused on real or imagined scientific discoveries, futuristic settings, space ships and space travel, or alien invasions. There is usually nothing about science or the future mentioned as an overall theme. ‘‘Jeffty Is Five’’ fits into the genre of magic realism more closely than that of science fiction.

The entire story is narrated through the voice and point of view of Donald Horton, which lean toward a didactic, or a preaching tone. The narrator (or author) has a definite point that he wants to get across.

The message that is dictated through the narrator is that progress is eradicating the past. The past has better qualities than the present. Whether or not any of the other characters believe this to be true is not available to the reader, for the narrator’s thoughts are the only thoughts that the reader has access to. There are slight deviations to this pattern when the narration includes short comments from one of the other characters, but even in the short dialogues, there is a sense that the words are not coming from the mouths of the other characters, but from the memories of the narrator. Everything in this story is tainted by the beliefs and the point of view of the narrator.

Because of this narrow perspective, the overall sense of the story is that the narrator wants to teach his audience a lesson. Through the use of an exaggerated metaphor (that of a child not growing past the age of five) and the long lists of things that were so much better in the 1940s than they are at the present time of the story, the narrator keeps honing in on that lesson. As early as the second paragraph of the story and as late as the last line of the story, the narrator remains true to his objective.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Carney, Sean, ‘‘Harlan Ellison: Overview,’’ in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by David Mote, St. James Press, 1997.

Dillingham, Thomas F., ‘‘Harlan Ellison,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wyner, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 161–169.

Ellison, Harlan, The Essential Ellison, with an Introduction by Terry Dowling, The Kilimanjaro Corporation, 1991, pp. 3–4.

———, Introduction to ‘‘Jeffty Is Five,’’ in Shatterday, by Harlan Ellison, Houghton Mifflin, 1980, pp. 9–11.

———, Shatterday, Houghton Mifflin, 1980, pp. xix, xxi, 1–2.

Foote, Bud, A Connecticut Yankee in the Twentieth Century: Travels to the Past in Science Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 1–55.

Johnston, Laurie, and Robert Thomas Jr., ‘‘Notes on People; A Short Story is Born on Fifth Avenue,’’ in New York Times, April 27, 1981.

Moss, Robert F., ‘‘A Critic at the Top of His Voice,’’ in New York Times, September 17, 1989.

Nash, Eric P., Review, in New York Times, September 21, 1997.

Shindler, Dorman T., Review, in St. Louis Post–Dispatch, January 14, 2001, p. F8.

Sullivan, C. W., ‘‘Ellison, Harlan,’’ in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, St. James Press, 1986, pp. 225–226.

Further Reading

Coontz, Stephanie, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Basic Books, 2000. A realistic look at American life at the end of the 1940s, a time of drastic social change. Coontz puts the myths up to a realistic light and shows the way it really was.

Fictionwise, http://www.fictionwise.com (2001). Read a short biography and an annotated list of some of Ellison’s works here.

García Márquez, Gabriel, Collected Stories, translated by Gregory Rabassa and J. S. Bernstein, Perennial Classics, HarperPerennial, 1999. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the best known writers of magic realism. His Collected Stories offers a good introduction to some of his more famous short stories, including ‘‘Eyes of a Blue Dog,’’ ‘‘Big Mama’s Funeral,’’ and ‘‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother.’’

Glass, Ira, and Jessica Abel, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, This American Life/WBEZ Alliance Inc., 1999. Set in a comic book format, the producers of the popular radio program This American Life, heard on Public Radio International, explain how to make a public radio program. They illustrate how to find and write radio stories, and how radio stories differ from other kinds of stories.

Graebner, William, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s, Waveland Press, 1998. In this retrospective examination of the culture of the 1940s in America, Graebner covers everything from World War II and the subsequent Cold War to art, music, and pop culture in this well documented work.

‘‘Harlan Ellison: Real Biographies,’’ http://harlanellison. com (2001). An interesting, if somewhat biased, biography of Ellison’s professional career, written by his wife, Susan.

‘‘Harlan Ellison: Stalking the Nightmare,’’ http://www.islets. net/islets.html (2001). This site has several essays and articles written about Ellison and his works.

Latimes.com, http://www.latimes.com (February 11, 2001). There is an essay, ‘‘The Dream You Deserve,’’ written by Ellison at this site. It gives the reader a sense of the Ellison voice.

Rainey, Buck, The Reel Cowboy: Essays on the Myth in Movies and Literature, McFarland & Company, 1996. This collection of essays offers a contrast between the stories offered in the make-believe world of Gene Autry, Buck Jones, and other Hollywood cowboys with stories about the real American West. Also included are discussions of Western movies based on the writing of Louis L’Amour, James Oliver Curwood, and Jack London.

Roosevelt, Franklin D., The Essential Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR’s Greatest Speeches, Fireside Chats Messages and Proclamations (Library of Freedom), edited by John Gabriel Hunt and Greg Suriano, Grammercy, 1998. A collection of important writings and speeches, this book includes Roosevelt’s famous ‘‘Fireside Chats,’’ which were broadcast over the radio in the 1940s.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: There is serious debate over the moral influence of comic books, fueled by the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in which he blames the rise of juvenile delinquency on the bad influence of comic books.

1970s: Reports from the Annenberg School of Communications state that violence on television is having a bad influence on children.

1990s: After several shootings at various schools across the nation, Americans question the influence that video games may have on their children.

1940s: Cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry play in romanticized views of cowboy life. They not only act, they sing, and their records are almost as popular as their movies.

1970s: Outlaw Josey Wales is a popular cowboy movie that stars Clint Eastwood as a gunfighter, whose wife and child are brutally killed and whose motive throughout the movie is to seek revenge.

1990s: The movie Toy Story tells the tale of a wooden toy cowboy figure named Woody and a gadget-laden, spaceman action figure named Buzz Lightyear, who must befriend one another to avoid being destroyed by a cruel human named Sid, who does not like toys.

1940s: Ovaltine, a chocolate drink billed by ‘‘Captain Midnight’’ as the ‘‘heart of a hearty breakfast,’’ offers a shake-up-mug and a Secret Squadron Code-O-Graph in exchange for the seal under the lid of its jar.

1970s: Instant Carnation Malted Milk comes with an offer of a special purchase price for a Barbie doll. Just send in $1.75 with the label from the jar.

1990s: One can buy a kid’s Happy Meal at McDonalds and get a special deal on the latest action figures from the Star Wars movies.

1940s: This decade is considered the golden era of Hollywood-produced cartoons, with one of the best creators, Walt Disney, producing full length classics like Bambi and Dumbo, and Warner Brothers creating Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig shorts. Cartoons like these are shown before the main feature at a movie theater.

1970s: Kids get up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons on television like Scooby Doo, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, and the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

1990s: The Simpsons becomes a night-time favorite on television for children and adults. This animated show often features a parody of popular culture, including criticism of violence shown in other cartoons.

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