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“An Encounter” by James Joyce deals with the theme of a persons yearn for escapism from the monotonous routine of day-to-day life through the tale of a day in which two young boys are “miching” from school – a feeling which most, if not all, people will experience at some point in their lives. In this story, Joyce suggests to the reader that although people yearn for escape and adventure, routine is inevitable, and new experiences, when they do come, can be profoundly disturbing. The author achieves this through his incorporation of ambiguity, epiphany and writing through first person narrative, with inner monologue to highlight the consciousness of the protagonist and also to subtly divulge the feelings of others.
The theme of paralysis is key to Joyce’s work; the notion is inherent throughout Dubliners as a whole. With this idea comes its antithesis – escape – or, in the case of “An Encounter”, thwarted escape. It is because of the character’s desire to achieve this freedom, that when the day fails to reach its high expectations, the stagnation and restrictiveness of the surroundings are powerfully reinforced. From the outset of the tale, Joyce ponders the notion of escape. Characters searching for such an escape often describe how they would wish to travel afar to achieve it. This feeling is openly exhibited in “An Encounter”, as Joyce’s first person narrator states;
“Real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”
In the story, Joyce develops the theme in the form of an inner monologue – the thoughts of the protagonist dictating how his “Wild West’” adventures “opened doors of escape”. The thought processes of the boy (relating to escape) are ultimately what drive the tale, quietly conveyed by Joyce through subtle details.
“An Encounter” deals with methods of escape other than exotic foreign adventure found elsewhere in Dubliners, focusing on the attempt of two boys to “break out of the weariness” of their everyday environment. At first the prospect of adventure excites the young boys, although there is a constant undertone of anti-climax carefully intertwined into the story. Joyce writes from the first person point view, often through the use of analepses, leading to a frequent air of restriction and frustration surrounding the boys. Quite often, Joyce does not commit any impassioned emotion to events, preferring to use lacklustre qualifying adverbs or adjectives: “â€¦We were all vaguely excitedâ€¦ it was a mild sunny morning”. Joyce chooses to focus in on the most insipid details such as “the docile horses…the groaning carts” which works to suppress the carefree, exciting experience which the boys see as an escapism from their jaded routine. The negativity which is now apparent in almost everything encountered appears to be an entrapping agent over the boys, who sulk into a resigned and somewhat resentful state, a state which is furthermore reiterated by the repetition of the adverb “too”:
“It was too late and we were too tired to carry out our project of visiting the Pigeon House.”
Joyce presents Dublin as a city of incapacitation to the young characters. He begins to erase the protagonist’s claim; “I was very happy”, from the reader’s memory, introducing words such as “solemn”, “sedulous” and eventually even denotes the character’s thoughts as “jaded”. There is constant repetition of the adjective “tired”; the day has become tedious, adventure and escape have proved elusive, and the encounter of a sinister old man has confirmed that the protagonist will not find merriment in Dublin, but is instead doomed to live in the fantasies of comic book and literature.
However, despite its lack of event, the day does provide the boys with one notable incident through the scene encapsulating the encounter with the old man. Aspirations of escape having been superseded, Joyce begins a new paragraph focusing primarily on the silence and “stillness” of the situation: “There was nobody but ourselves in the field…we had lain on the bank for some time without speaking”.
Through creating such an ominous atmosphere; sentences slowly becoming shorter and more concise with a less picturesque use of vocabulary, signalling new themes to be introduced through the introduction of the curious antagonist.
The old man introduces the possibility of in-depth monologue and direct speech. In the conversation with the boys, he seemingly manages to entrap the young protagonist with his reference to literature – a topic of known interest to the boy. The “monotonous” voice of the antagonist and the way his voice “slowly circles round and round in the same orbit” help to achieve the spellbinding quality of the man. This technique paralyses the narrator, who seemingly allows the man to give a discourse in the form of a monologue – mainly due to his apparent inability to interrupt. The politeness evident in the boy’s character is in hindsight, far from being useful, instead placing the boy in a situation of danger.
The worrying feature of the man’s discourse is the implicitly perverse way in which he speaks. He frequently refers to the “whipping’”of young boys with an over-excitable zeal. Joyce’s primary use of such adjectives as “magnetised” and “circle” in reference to his thought process establishes the man’s odd approach. This creates the impression that he is intent on the subject. Secondly, a section of reported speech is introduced:
“When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whippingâ€¦ what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping.”
Joyce emphasises the man’s positive outlook on the subject through the use of positive repetition; of the word “good”, firstly as a noun, secondly as an adjective, and also use of the adjective “nice”, which appears somewhat misplaced when used in conjunction with the concept of whipping.
The protagonist’s isolation from intellectuals due to young age and low social class means he is quick to warm to the old man when he talks of literature. In the epiphany, he even appears isolated from his closest friend, Mahoney, and it appears to that the epiphany of the piece (from the young boy’s perspective) confirms that the older man has had a profound influence on his views. It appears that the isolation of the naÃ¯ve child has left him susceptible to corruption and the “encounter” has left the boy and the reader with the realisation that the world is not an innocent place.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe, like “The Encounter”, is concerned with entrapment, but unlike Joyce’s tale, is centred on one individual and the terror he experiences when in isolation. The protagonist, a prisoner subject to the tortures of the Spanish inquisition, is often left thinking of what “may be” – the surrounding atmosphere offering no apparent subjects for the character to focus on. Poe incorporates a feeling of perpetual unease and fear into the thought processes of his first person narrator, leaving the reader in a parallel state of mind as they experience the horror of the protagonist’s situation. The perspective that the reader is allowed on Poe choosing a first person narrator gives the reader a stronger feeling of isolation due to our constant awareness of the innermost feelings of the protagonist. The narrative does not, unlike a third person perspective, allow the audience to transcend the situation, providing direct access to the horror which is occurring on the page. There is also no direct speech in the story. This fact reinforces the idea of isolation in the way that the protagonist has no need to speak due to absolute solitude. Poe’s use of highly descriptive language, incorporating frequent use of alliteration and anaphora, escalates the terror and entrapment suffered by the protagonist, focusing heavily on the senses even before the “ghastly” prospects of the character are realised, resulting in a heightened state of suspense.
“The odour of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed – I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering deathâ€¦”
To accomplish the desired atmosphere for such the tortured fate of the narrator, Poe describes the physical surroundings of the protagonist in some detail. The “subterranean world of darkness” becomes a perfect agent to carry an unnerving, mystifying atmosphere. Further concern for the protagonist is drawn from the constant reference to his “fatigued’” state and also the dangerously “moist and slippery” characteristics of the chamber – his elusive surroundings becoming the antagonist of the story in the absence of any other companion. The tension generated relies heavily on Poe’s use of a sequence of brief sentences as the protagonist encounters “The Pit”, representing his calm and clear thought even in the throes of fear:
“‘I proceeded for many paces; but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely.”
However, as the narrator becomes evermore aware of the horrific situation, Poe mirrors his mounting terror through increasingly complex syntax, resulting in a faster movement of thought and a growing sensation of confusion:
“The difficulty, nevertheless, was but trivial; although, in the disorder of my fancy, it seemed at first insuperable.”
Eventually, as the narrator gradually uncovers the secrets of his confinement, a greater sense of danger inside him is realised. Poe displays this through an ever quickening pace and complex sentences. giving the effect of total bemusement and terror. Quite suddenly, with a simple sentence, out of step with the ever-increasing complexity of the syntax – the climax of the character’s investigation is revealed: “I stepped on it, and fell violently on my face.” With this inclusion, Poe signals to the reader that the tension has peaked.
The fact that the piece is written in the form of a first person narrative suggests that the protagonist is reminiscing about his ordeal, and that ultimately the piece will not end in his death. The narrator’s salvation is assured when General Lasalle of the French army comes to the rescue. Poe chooses at the end of his tale, unlike the other events of the story, to dramatically reduce proceedings; deciding to summarise the rescue in a short paragraph, in an anti-climatic fashion:
“The fiery walls rushed back!.. The French army had entered Toledo.”
Throughout the tale, the narrator maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil. Terrified and alone as the narrator may be, with “the pendulum” symbolising death’s literal unstoppable sway, he does not lose hope of salvation, instead recruiting his rational senses and using the starved rats for his own benefit. Along with being a tale of horror, it also shows the nature of human resolve in a seemingly impossible situation; faced with horrific trials and the realisation of death’s inevitability, the human being’s instinct for self-preservation remains, in itself, an unstoppable force.
Alice Munro’s short story “Floating Bridge” is a story of domestic realism about learning to accept the tentative nature of human life and an exploration of the many challenges posed by cancer and it’s arduous, disfiguring treatments. Like Joyce’s “The Encounter”, the protagonist has a chance meeting with a stranger with leads them to re-evaluate their outlook on life. Also, like Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, the protagonist is, too, faced with the prospects of both death and salvation.
“Floating Bridge” is written in the first person narrative, the protagonist is a cancer sufferer named Jinny, whose life is divided into the time before the diagnosis and the time after. The understated and restrained language and rhythm of the prose, suggesting Jinny’s resigned acceptance of her illness and her impending death, is sustained throughout, even though at the very beginning of the story, Jinny has learned that her cancer has entered a stage of remission. Because she has already accepted the relative freedom from responsibility that knowledge of her incurable disease gave her, she shows no exuberance at this new knowledge that she has more time than she thought she did.
On the day in which the story is set, the doctor has told her that there is reason for cautious optimism, but this does not make Jinny feel better. Before, she was relatively sure of her future, knowing that she had little time left in her life. This new information forces her to go back and start the year all over again, removing a certain “low-grade freedom” from her life. The new knowledge has removed a “dull, protecting membrane” she did not even know was there and leaves her feeling raw and vulnerable. Since learning of her illness, she has felt a kind of “unspeakable excitement” that results when a disaster releases one from responsibility for her life. Now that is gone and a feeling of apathy remains. She reflects on a time she left her husband, Neal, briefly to sit in a bus shelter near her home, reading graffiti on the wall and identifying with people who have left messages there. When she returns home, she asks Neal if he would ever have come after her, and he says: “Of course. Given time.” Neal’s detached attitude toward Jinny and his cavalier treatment of her despite her life-threatening illness is an undercurrent that runs throughout the story.
Part of Jinny’s emotional turmoil at the time of the story stems from Neal’s excited reaction to Helen. He becomes more animated, enthusiastic, and ingratiating around her, as he often does around other people. Helen has a “fresh out-of-the-egg” look, and Jinny thinks that everything about her is right on the surface, which gives her an innocent and disagreeable power. Neal teases Helen, his whole being “invaded” with silly bliss. It is not that Neal desires Helen; rather, it is that her innocence and simplicity seem a welcome relief from the complexity of Jinny’s situation.
When they arrive at the trailer park where Helen’s foster parents live, they are invited in, but Jinny wants to stay outside. There is a strong feeling of isolation or the time that Jinny is waiting for Neal to return; he has accepted the invitation while Jinny, his sick wife, is left alone, tired and overly hot from the daytime temperature.
The meeting of seventeen-year-old Ricky creates a similar reaction in Jinny as to her husband’s feelings towards Helen. There appears to be an instant chemistry between the pair. A sense of connection is established when they discover that they both choose not to wear a watch. It seems in Jinny’s sense of isolation, something as mundane as this is enough to cling to. In contrast to her husband, Ricky shows simple consideration to her by offering her a ride home. It is then that Munro takes the reader away from realism and introduces an almost magical element with Ricky’s innocent simplicity in his desire to show her the floating bridge where he takes his girlfriends, allowing the reader and Jinny herself to forget momentarily about her illness and the self-consciousness she feels over her baldness; his kiss providing an innocent acceptance of her, regardless of these things. When Jinny is on the floating bridge, she imagines that the road is a floating ribbon of earth, underneath which is all water. After the kiss, Jinny thinks of Neal getting his fortune told, “rocking on the edge of his future,” and accepts the tentative nature of her own future, feeling a lighthearted compassion for Neal. Ricky’s interest serves to remind her that she is still alive and capable of adventure and secrets.
The most problematic subject of the story is Neal’s treatment of Jinny, which seems, if not cruel, at least unfeeling. The reader may feel he is much too excited by the presence of the young girl Helen and much too indifferent to Jinny’s plight. However, there is nothing to suggest that he does not love Jinny. . He, too, is on a shifting floating bridge, trying to find something to cling to, even if it is of such little substance as an innocent young girl who is healthy and sound. Similarly, there is nothing to suggest that the young man, Ricky, at the end of the story has any desire for Jinny. In contrast to the messy complexity of her life, his kiss is the epitome of innocent acceptance, instilling in her a tender-hearted sort of compassion. The story’s structure plays a balancing act similar to that required of walking on a floating bridge. The firmness of solid ground is only an illusion; all around lies the danger of loss of self. However, even though the bridge seems to be shifting and tentative, it is sufficient if one is content to live in the realm of the unsure. Munro’s story effectively reflects this tentative and delicate balancing.
In all three stories which I have detailed, it is the writer’s subject matter and careful narrative technique which enrich our reading of them, allowing the reader not only pleasure and entertainment, but to view their lives more clearly. To enable the reader to truly engross themselves in a work of fiction, the story must be intellectually challenging and appeal to our senses and our own life experience. Joyce, Poe and Munro propitiously accomplish this, proving themselves as true masters of their art.
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