Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although this story belongs to the tradition of American realism, its technique should be distinguished from the more external, hard-boiled objectivity of realists such as Ernest Hemingway. This story is more concerned with revealing the inward thoughts and feelings of its characters than to present them in a succession of dramatic incidents. Characters’ reactions to events are as important as the events themselves. The story is based on Woody’s memories and mental reflections, but it does not plunge the reader into a stream of consciousness. Thoughts and actions are presented objectively rather than subjectively, through the words of a narrator who refers to Woody in the third person. Such narratorial objectivity may blunt the lyricism of Woody’s plaint, though it absolves him of much of the onus of self-pleading.

Convincing characterizations are achieved through ingenious selection of revelatory detail, such as Morris’s theory of breast cancer, the image of Mrs. Skoglund’s servant wiping the doorknobs with rubbing alcohol after guests had left, or the mention of Woody’s wife still not being able to shop for herself though she had lived alone for fifteen years.

The style is, for the most part, casual and plain. The diction is generally less crude than that of most men such as Morris and Woody, but dialogue is rendered naturally, without obtrusive literary elevation.

The sound of bells is perhaps the most delicately drawn image in the story. Woody believes that their “vibrations and the banging did something for him—cleansed his insides, purified his blood.” Connected as they are with churches, bells recall the religious agony at the center of Woody’s life. They also symbolize the honesty that Woody and his father valued so highly, for, as the narrator says, “A bell was a one-way throat, had only one thing to tell you and simply told it.” Woody’s soul is perhaps best described by the narrator’s epithet, “bell-battered.”