The Storytellers

by Fred Chappell

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“The Storytellers” is one of Fred Chappell’s ten short stories about Jess’s childhood in North Carolina that make up the novel I Am One of You Forever (1985). Throughout the novel, the adult Jess tries to come to terms with his past, to deal with the question that even the dead come back to ask him: “Are you one of us?” The volume ends with Jess’s affirmation, which is the title of the book.

This affirmation is much more than just an assurance that Jess will always remember the place and the people who made him what he is. One could do that while still maintaining a comfortable emotional distance. What Jess means is that he has become incorporated into the life of his people, so that there is now no distinction between the subject and the object: They are one. In “The Storytellers,” Chappell suggests that such a mystical surrender of the self is essential if one is to deal effectively with personal memories or, through the creative imagination, to produce a work of art.

Thus the two storytellers of Chappell’s own story can be seen as symbols of the right way and the wrong way to approach both art and life. Jess’s father is not a bad man; he has a good heart and an abundance of charm. Nevertheless, the same lack of self-discipline that sends him off to fish when he needs to work the farm, and impels him to play practical jokes without contemplating the consequences, also makes it impossible for him to become an artist. He cannot give himself to his story. When he recounts Homer’s Iliad, Joe Robert adds props, such as the photograph of the film actress Betty Grable, whom he casts as the legendary beauty Helen of Troy; he interpolates his own comments on the action; and he concludes with a wild chase, with a sofa pillow used as the body of Hector. None of this is in the spirit of the original; all of it seems to be just an opportunity for Joe Robert to show off, like a schoolboy.

In contrast, Uncle Zeno acts as a medium through which his stories tell themselves. The fact that his art controls him, instead of the reverse, is evident in the way he starts and stops talking, without regard to the needs of his listeners, and even, as Jess discovers, without any listeners at all. The secret of Uncle Zeno’s power, as well as of his serenity, is his capacity for surrender to a higher power. At the end of the story, the young Jess sees that his father will never understand the lesson to be learned from Uncle Zeno; however, in the way he stands aside to let “The Storytellers” be told by his narrators, the adult Jess shows that he is living by Uncle Zeno’s rules.

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