Character in Poetry and Contemporary Stories
ENG 125: Introduction to Literature
November 29, 2010
Character in Poetry and Contemporary Stories
Introduction & Overview
Characters can make or break a story. We find it easy to relate to a story when we can personally relate to the character; also it is a way to engage readers as they become more interested in the actual story when they are concerned about the characters.
Characters are subdivided into a few categories, major characters, secondary or minor of characters, and dynamic characters (p. 60). Major characters are the protagonists and antagonists of the story. They help the plot evolve and are the ones the readers most closely relate to. Secondary characters play more of a supporting role in the story and dynamic characters are the ones to exhibit dramatic changes, whether in attitude, purpose or behavior (p. 60).
The way an author reveals a character has much to do with the way the reader perceives said character. From the way he chooses to reveal the character to the specific facts chosen to be reported about the character -attire, attitude, skills, behavior- a reader has much to judge and eventually decide whether or not to support the character.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the universal meanings and separate renditions of character created by writers in their stories. The paper will investigate readings from two genres, poetry and story. I will look at a poem written by Robert Hayden, ???Those Winter Days,??? a poem by Langston Hughes, ???Ballad of the Landlord??? , and a contemporary story written by Sherman Alexi, ???Indian Education???.
Robert Hayden (1913 ??“ 1980), ???Those Winter Days??? .
In Robert Hayden??™s ???Those Winter Sundays,??? he delves deeply into his father??™s character with a very short poem (p. 764). The poem begins with the author??™s father??™s routine, who would wake up very early during cold winter Sundays, and ends with a bit of regret and much appreciation from the author. As a reader, there are many thoughts running through my head as I read the poem. The specific details the author picks to share about his father affects the readers??™ perception of both the author and his father.
The poem begins by depicting Hayden??™s father??™s daily routing on cold winter Sundays. Within the first few lines, one would already begin to understand that Hayden??™s father was a hard worker who is all-giving. His description of the winter Sundays; the cold temperature described as ???the blueblack cold??? (p. 764, line 2) and his father??™s hands described as ???cracked hands that ached??? (p. 764, line 3) reveal a lot about the type of man his father was. Also, these specific details reveal a lot about the type of man Hayden is, as he acknowledges the hardships his father went through to ensure his children did not suffer.
However, as you continue the poem, you learn that possibly his father may have had suppressed anger as Hayden recalls waking up and ???fearing the chronic angers of that house (p. 764, line 10).??? As I think about why Hayden would choose to share this fact with his readers and why it is directed towards the house, I conclude that possibly his father did have anger and sorrow, however not towards his children. But as a child, one would remember such anger and it is a big enough deal to be engrained in one??™s memory as a defining factor of that said person. Therefore, though Hayden remembers and is grateful for all the hardships his father has been through for his family, there is still an ounce of fear and respect derived from those incidences.
I chose Robert Hayden??™s poem, ???Those Winter Days??? for a few reasons. As a reader, it struck me deeply as I can understand Hayden??™s appreciation for his father. His father sacrificed a lot, and though I can sense a bit of regret from Hayden towards the end of his poem, as he says ???What did I know, what did I know,??? (p. 764, line 14) he is very appreciative of his father??™s efforts and is undoubtedly feels forever indebted.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), ???Ballad of the Landlord??? .
Langston Hughes was a very influential and prolific writer of the ???Harlem Renaissance??? (p. 989). I appreciate Hughes??™ poetry on a different level not only because he is a tremendous writer but because he educated himself on each topic before writing about it. He is known for his heavily African-American themed poetry which really touches all readers.
???Ballad of the Landlord??? (p. 1005) written in 1949 is about an African-American man??™s conflict with his White landlord. There are two characters in the poem, the landlord, undoubtedly the antagonist and the writer, the protagonist, vividly supported by the readers. The landlord is depicted as an unconcerned, ???high and mighty??? (p. 1005, line 17) person, who has a mind that is purely business driven. With select descriptions as such, how can a reader support him He is described as the ???typical??? landlord, though some would agree that he should be paid his ???ten bucks??? (p. 1005, line 9) to fix the ???leaky roof??? (p. 1005, line 2) and ???broken down steps??? (p. 1005, line 6).
The writer, Hughes, seems to be a very well thought out man. At the beginning of the poem, one would assume he could be foolish to threaten a landlord for things that need to be fixed, when he, himself owes the landlord money. However, throughout the poem, he is revealed to be a cautious and thoughtful man, wary of the consequences of his actions.
My favorite part of the poem begins at line 20, when Hughes threatens the landlord with his fists, and continues by depicting the consequences of his actions. And in turn the sequence of events would be that the police would be called, ???Police! Police! Come and get this man!??? (p. 1005, line 21-22). Then Hughes would be arrested and the headlines on the press would read:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD TO NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL (p. 1005, lines 31-33).
Though the poem is very much about the landlord, it say a lot more about the writer, his character and gives the reader a snippet of the time . Hughes??™ character is revealed as a thoughtful man, who is aware of his actions and the consequences at that specific time. It brings attention to the hardships, specifically racism and financial fights, African Americans had to face.
In addition to that, though the reader may have experienced similar situations, he can visualize and identify with the intense anger and frustration that tenants experienced trying to get landlords to make basic repairs. Also, one can only imagine how they would react, and Hughes depicts very well the repercussions of his actions if he were to act in such a manner.
Sherman Alexie (b. 1966), ???Indian Education??? .
???Indian Education??? is a contemporary story written with an emphasis on each grade of Alexie??™s education. He describes each event that occurs in each respective grade briefly but concisely. As a reader, I like this type of organization in writing as it makes it very easy to follow and analyze. As I read the story, I realize that the difficult moments faced by Alexie has defined his character in the story, and in turn as a person. Native Americans have a culture that revolves around alcohol, and many times leading persons to depression. As a youngster, Alexie sees the influence of alcohol on his family, his peers, as well as how it affects the community??™s views of Indians. He makes it a point not to let it define him.
He begins the story with an event that occurred in the first grade, which sets the tone of the story. As a child, he is beaten up by the bullies and eventually stands up for himself, as the warrior he is (p. 320, First Grade). In the second grade, he defines himself as Indian. This shows strength in his character, to go against the grain. In the third grade, he is punished by a teacher for an inappropriate drawing, he is still awaiting the end of his punishment (p. 321, Third Grade). This reflects Alexie??™s somber view on life. He feels as if he is still being punished years later.
In the eighth grade, he witnesses girls puking the bathroom while his family fights to feed their children??™s appetite (p. 323, Eighth Grade). He observed people being wasteful while other had nothing to eat. By the ninth grade, teachers are falsely accusing him of drinking because he passes out from complications of diabetes (p. 323, Ninth Grade). In the tenth grade, Alexie gets his driver??™s license the same day a fellow Indian kills himself driving (p. 323, Tenth Grade). In the twelfth grade, his farm town school graduation, he is named Valedictorian as his peers at the reservation high school get a diploma of attendance (p. 324, Twelfth Grade). When mention of high school reunion for the Indian reservation high school comes up, his alter ego, Victor, poses the question ???Why should we organize a reservation high school reunion My graduating class has a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern??? (p. 324, Postscript: Class Reunion).
Alexie was born on an Indian reservation (p. 320). Many of the people he met along the way, attempted to make that, being an Indian, along with all negative connotation, his defining factor. However, the protagonist of his story removes himself from all bad influences and creates his own niche. He comes off as a very strong character and defines his own role in society.
Conclusion and Comparison of Genres
The purpose of this paper is to explore how characters are created by the writers and how they relay the universal meanings of the plot. The paper investigated readings from poetry and contemporary stories. Comparing the two genres, one could see that poetry is written very subtlety but with much meaning behind the words. Words are chosen very wisely and concisely to reflect the accurate meaning of the author. With certain lack of detail, much is left to be assumed and imagined by the reader. ???Those Winter Days??? written by Robert Hayden reveals a character who is affected by memories, and today he may be a bit regretful for being so unappreciative. Langston Hughes??™ ???Ballad of the Landlord??? depicts an angry character who lives an unjust life. Though with few subtle words, a man story is conveyed.
Stories on the other hand are written to be as descriptive as possible. Readers are usually not allowed to make their own assumptions of characters as they are explicitly described, respective of their role. However, as a reader you usually have more information and time to define your judgment of said character. For example, in Sherman Alexie??™s ???Indian Education,??? he gives the reader thirteen events to form their opinion of the protagonist. As a reader, I could easily visualize each of the thirteen events. Admittedly, I did not come to my best conclusion of the character nor story till I read the last event. So arguably, a reader may not need all the events in between if the last event is what I based my opinion on. However, the point being that a reader does have much more information to form his opinion of a character in a story.
DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007.