A Silver Dish Analysis
by Saul Bellow

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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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.”

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Depression

At the center of this story is Bellow’s description of the night when Woody and his father, who are both poor, travel from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston to the north. The contrast between the two worlds is made clear to readers, as the contrast between the rich and the poor was very clear during the Great Depression.

Like most large social phenomena, the Depression was the result of many events occurring simultaneously, such as the destruction of Europe during World War I finally taking effect and poor financial planning by the United States, which, after the war ended in 1918, failed to anticipate its rise to global financial dominance. America was a rich country throughout the 1920s, but some of that wealth was only on paper: the wealth that showed in bankbooks and stock transactions was not backed up by enough production of tangible goods. An important event that heralded the Depression was the New York Stock Market crash on October 29, 1929. Stock prices tumbled, causing other stockholders to sell their holdings at discount prices to cover their losses. People lost their savings when banks were forced out of business by large depositors pulling out. From 1929 to 1933, the U.S. gross national product fell by nearly half, from $103 billion to $55 billion. Unemployment, which usually stays under 5 percent, reached 30 percent at the height of the Depression in 1933, which is when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and initiated new economic policies. Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of a variety of plans that gave work to many people.

Globalization in the 1980s

In this story, Bellow describes his protagonist, Woody Selbst, as a world traveler, experiencing exotic lands such as Kampala, the White Nile, and Japan, and important cities such as Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Delphi. While such international travel was of course possible then, it was by no means as common as it is in the early 2000s.

Several factors made world travel more...

(The entire section is 2,076 words.)