Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Lionel Trilling’s narrative method is realistic and conventional. He divides his story into four sections told from a third-person omniscient point of view that always looks over Howe’s shoulder and maintains Howe’s perspective on events. The story is framed skillfully by two scenes in which Howe’s landlord’s young daughter, Hilda, is taking pictures of Howe. She is a pleasant and attractive girl of whom Howe is obviously fond, and her congenial presence at the story’s beginning and at its end, fussing with her camera to get things right, helps to ground the story in the everyday world and to keep Tertan’s grand delusions in perspective.

Trilling uses weather and season for conventional mood effects and to help establish a chronology. The story opens on a “fine September day” in “true autumn with a touch of chill in the air.” A peach tree “still in fruit” contributes to the setting. The final scene, on commencement day, is “wonderfully bright, the air so transparent, the wind so brisk that no one could resist talking about it.” At the end of registration day, Howe notices “a bright chill in the September twilight”; section 2 opens with the sentence “All night the snow had fallen heavily and only now was abating in sparse little flurries.” Later in section 2, after Howe makes his important decision to report Tertan’s state of mental confusion to the dean, the sun comes out. The symbolic function of the sunlight is evident in Howe’s realization that “it made all the commonplace objects of efficiency shine with a sudden sad and noble significance. And the light, now that he noticed it, made the utterance of his perverse and unwanted request even more momentous.” These meteorological grace notes help advance the narrative smoothly and contribute to the overall realism of the story.

Finally, “Of This Time, of That Place” is a story about academics, with much talk of literature and ideas. The hapless Blackburn calls William Wordsworth “Wadsworth” and Prometheus “Prothemeus.” Tertan alludes to Saint Augustine, Empedocles, Rene Descartes, and many others. At one point, Howe is reminded of Plato’s allegory of the cave. This allusiveness gives the story a rich texture and builds up a suitable backdrop for a drama of a youth going mad in a tangle of ideas that he cannot control.