Saturday, March 13, 2010

Final Reflection

This ended up being a fascinating project. It was interesting to see how my understanding of "The Man in the Well" manifested throughout the quarter and throughout the several readings of the story I did.

I began with a rather mundane response to the story that touched briefly on things I thought were symbols or things I had questions about. As I did the various experiments my understanding of the story grew. Through the Lohafer experiment I realized that there were many places I felt like the story could end. One of the sentences I chose occured at the very beginning. It would have been a very short story, but would have left us asking the same questions of why the children did not help the man. It was most interesting though that I chose a sentence right before the actual ending because it felt like the part that gave me most closure. This was the same way I felt about the "Aunt Lympy" preclosure experiment. It is interesting to see that my result was not swayed by having done the experiment before.

Before I did the section on May I thought it was going to be really difficult because Sher was not featured in May's book, which did not give me an easy answer to what his story would be classified as. As I reread the definitions May gives to describe Realism and Romanticism I found that it was actually quite easy and interesting to place the story in relation to May's theories. The Morano experiment was by far the hardest part of the project because I felt like I did not have much to say on the subject, but in short Sher could have been writing a "creative nonfiction essay", but we know he was not because he has said as much.

My favorite part of the project was the discussion I had via the blog with my husband James. He too is a student at UC and has taken literature classes before, but none this year. I enjoyed reading his very colorful reaction to this story. It was probably one of the most real and in your face reactions I think I have ever encountered a student giving. That was the benefit of having used my husband in this project. Knowing that we have different tastes is literature and different ways of responding ensured me that using him as my guinea pig for this project would give me some very good material to work with.

On the whole the process of rereading a short story throughout the quarter and analyzing it in different ways was really beneficial to me as a reader. Being a history major I am used to having to analyze writing, but works of fiction are way different from historical text. This project and this class in general helped awaken my ability to analyze the fictional part of writing and broadened my abilities as a reader. Again, it was extremely beneficial.

Morano and the "creative nonfiction essay"

Michele Morano, an English professor, wrote an essay titled Facts and Fancy: The "Nonfiction Short Story" in which she discusses the possiblity of a new genre of writing called the "creative nonfiction essay" (Morano35). Morano states, "the short story is characterized by fancy. It is brief and complete, luring us temporarily into an alternate reality that displaces the world in which we live. In contrast, an essay does not so much warp the reality of the reader's world as ponder it (Morano36)."

While reading Sher's "The Man in the Well" I read it as a fictional short story, but then I thought back on Morano's essay and her descriptions of the short story versus the essay. I then reread "The Man in the Well" as if it were an essay. At first, I believed that this story could absolutely be true (hence its inclusion in the realm of realism), but then I came to the conclusion that I would not have wanted it to be an essay because of the unfortunate ending. I do not believe that Sher would write such a tragic tale if it were out of his real life childhood because it would obviously be too painful and terrible to write.

"The Man in the Well" certainly could have been an essay written about Sher's life as a child or it could have been something completely fabricated, but based in reality. This is where Morano's notion of the "creative nonfiction essay" comes into play. Sher could have taken a realistic idea or something similar from his life and written it as if it were an essay, but by inserting fabricated or exaggerated details he has made it fiction. If I did not already know the answer I would have believed that Sher meant this story to be "creative nonfiction" since it is so realistic. It is, however, completely fabricated and totally fiction. It is not based in reality at all. My source for that knowledge came from the Public Radio International broadcast This American Life, which featured Ira Sher reading his short story. The broadcaster made mention that it was entirely fictional.

The Morano theory of "creative nonfiction" would fit this story, but thankfully it did not happen to Sher.

Discussion with James

To do this section of the project I gave my husband, James, a copy of "The Man in the Well" and simply asked him to read it and record any thoughts, impressions or questions he had regarding it. Then I responded to him and then again he back to me. This was how we maintained our discussion because I did not want to interject my thoughts into his initial response...

The following is his response to the short story:

The image of children playing outside on a hot sunny day is something that I can picture clearly in my head. This is due to the fact that at one point in time, even I was a playful kid. The way we're introduced to the children, and the man in the well, seems so feasible, because I think most people can look back and remember a point in time when we were having fun as children and then something happened that changed the mood or altered the day's events. Whether it be a car wreck on a nearby street, a friend falling off the swing set, or someone finding a dead bird or something. In any of these situations, curiosity usually takes over. Or at least in my case, it did.

And that is the thing that is hard to swallow when thinking about this story. From the very beginning, I was furious that the little bastards didn't just go and get help. During my first reading, I actually said out load "What the hell are you doing!?", because I know that the younger version of myself wouldn't just leave some stranger abandoned in a well! That would be insane! Granted, I'd question how the hell he or she got there in the first place, but I'd like to think that myself or my friends wouldn't turn it into some two day long Q & A session. Its like playful curiosity was replaced by a severe case of Lord of the Flies syndrome.

With that said, while most children may have a whacked sense of morbid curiosity, these kids clearly took it to a whole new level. And since they were "still full of games and laughter" when they called down to him, why not mess with him a bit, right? All kids possess the ability to be shitheads, that's what kids do. The nicest kid, when put in the right situation with the wrong peers, will be a shithead too. But why did the children in this story do what they did??? This is the question I've asked myself repeatedly since reading this crazy thing. After the initial introduction of the man in the well, the rest of the story was just kind of uncomfortable. It wasn't quite unbearable, but it would make me cringe. It was as if the man in the well became a giant lightning bug for the children to play with. He was already in a jar, just sadly and anxiously waiting and moving back and forth, and much like one would do for a firefly... all they had to do was throw a few necessities in the jar in order for him to be happy. Only in this case it wasn't a twig or two and some grass, but some water and some fruit. The whole thing is just creepy...

Why didn't the children want to get too close to the lip of the well? I suppose it was because they were afraid, but of what? What could a guy trapped in the ground do? They asked him questions, but they didn't want him to know anything about them... because I suppose at that point it would be too personal for them to continue with their little game. And how is it that they could go from being innocent children, "... I think little Jason, called down, 'Hello. Is it dark?'" to inconsiderate jerks in a split second? The prime example of this being when some of them left to go cool down in the movie theatre. WHAT THE HELL!?

Like I said before, the whole story was just uncomfortable to read. And while I wish it would have turned out in a better light, it is interesting for something to shed light on the possibility of children not being the perfect little angels everyone expects them to be.

Oh yeah, one last thing... what was the deal with the kid's mother crying and being upset? Was this to set the tone for the kid's thought process? If he's having a crappy time at home, then he's allowed to leave some guy to die in a well?? Weird... and sad. I just wish they would have gotten him a damn ladder.

Karen's Response:

As I read James' response it brought to light several things that I did not capture in my initial response. The first thing was that he pointed out how real the story world was painted. This was the least of my thoughts in my first reading. While it is true that the descriptions of the children playing on the hot day were very realistic and easy to picture I was not captured by that as James was. In hindsight it seems like an important thing to notice because the type of short story Sher is writing is that of Realism. The description of the story world backs up that notion.

James' second point of him definitely going to get help as a child made me think a lot. My first reaction would be the same. I would think that for sure there would be no way that I or any of my friends would let a man die in the bottom of a well. That notion is heartwarming and everything, but to disagree with James, I actually would have no idea what my child self would do if placed in that situation. It would be nice to think that I would automatically get help, but I have never had to make that decision so in reality who knows what I would do?

Thirdly, James' linking of the children in "The Man in the Well" to the Lord of The Flies is an excellent reference. While it did not occur to me upon my first reading, I can see how the children in both stories have similar traits. There is definitely a hiararchy in The Lord of the Flies which is emmanated in "The Man in the Well". Aaron is the oldest therefore is the one everyone listens to. It appears that at a few parts the narrator and Wendy seem to get cold feet about leaving the man down in the well, but in the end go along with what the older kids do. Classic Lord of the Flies.

I agree with James' use of the phrase "full of games and laughter". I used this in my response too in order to note that they did not believe what they did was wrong. It would also have been important for James to note though that this feeling of happiness would eventually disappear as the man learned all of the children's names. It was at that point that I believe they realized they were doing something bad, but because he had their names they did not want to help him for fear of getting in trouble.

The link James makes to the firefly in the jar makes sense in the fact that they are toying with the man as one would toy with the firefly. Yes you do put things in the jar in hopes of keeping the firefly happy and the children did give the man food and water so that he would be happy, but we can see from his constant yelling and eventual taunting of the children that he was not happy and nothing other than them getting help would make him happy.

In answer to the question about why the children avoided going near the lip...I believe there was a psychological explanation at work there. The children felt if the man could see them then he could potentially identify them (which makes him learning their names all the more terrible), but it also goes back to those electric shock studies where people would have no hesitation in applying an electric shock to someone they could not see, but as soon as that person was infront of them they could not do it. Sher is telling us that if the children cannot see the man then they have less of a problem leaving him to die.

The main issue that James brought up that I still have a problem figuring out was that of the sobbing mother. At first I had no clue why Sher would mention her especially at the end of the story where you think her importance would be clarified but it is not. A few of the explanations of have since come up with are...Sher wanted to point out the turbulence of the boy's homelife to explain maybe why he would act out in the way he was, or maybe there is a more farfetched reason to mention the mother sobbing. Sher also mentions an angry murmur from the father so maybe the mother was having an affair with a man who was then found out by the father and could potentially be the man who is now trapped in the well and who is thusly not receiving help from the son. That explanation would be way too crazy though.

Finally, I find it interesting that James did not bring up the struggle for power. I believed this to be the ultimate motivation for the children leaving the man trapped. They have finally found a being who is literally and figuritively below them. Now that they finally have an unfortunate soul in that position they intend to take full advantage and assert the newfound power they have gained. Overall as James felt, I too wish they would have just got the ladder, but the story would have been boring.

James' Counter:

As far as the sobbing mom thing goes, a similar plot twist manifested itself in my head. Initially I thought that maybe the man in the well was someone whom the mother cared for, hence the sobbing, but obviuosly we'll never know... so yeah, I don't know. But I must admit that I didn't really think about the whole power struggle aspect too much, due to the fact I was busy being angry with the kids for not doing the right thing. Your whole psychological approach makes sense, and again is something I hadn't thought of. Why not torture a dude in a hole in the ground? If he can't see you and no one else knows he's there, what's the harm in a little sadistic fun? Weirdos.


I'm sure the young version of yourself would've done the right thing, :)

Final Reflection on discussion:

It appears that both James and myself learned a lot from each other's responses. He brought the significance of the story life to my attention whereas I brought up the notion of a power struggle. While there were a few things we agreed upon there were also several things that we did not. We both thought the kids were sadistic weirdos, but our thoughts on what we would do in the situation definitely did not line up. I would like to think that everyone would be angels and do the right thing, but it is impossible for anyone to know for sure so I leave the possibility of someone truly not doing the right thing out there.

All in all, I think Sher did a phenomenal job writing a story that makes us beleive it could take place, but leaves us horrified at the possibilities. It all ties back to the age old notion of the cruelty of children.

May's Realism vs. Romanticism

In his book, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, Charles May follows and outlines the progression and evolution of the short story. He begins with the birth of the short story as an allegory and ends with its progression to the more contemporary Postmodernist short story. As he outlines each step in the evoloution of the short story, May gives examples of the authors and their works that would fit into each step. Hawthorne and Poe wrote allegory, Chekhov and Joyce were linked in realism and Hemingway was a formalist writer.

In doing this part of the project I had some difficulty. Many students chose works by authors who were featured in May's book and thusly could flip to that section, read exactly what and why May would have classified them as and proceed with their project. I chose and author who May never makes mention of. This was not on purpose (I actually would have preferred an easier route to the solution to this part of the project), but nevertheless it made it difficult. In order to link "The Man in the Well" to May's theories regarding the evolution of the short story I read the descriptions of the various stages to see where I thought my story would fit in.

Upon finishing that task I believe May would have considered Sher's piece in the realism category, but more accurately in with postmodernism. To categorize a story as realistic it must contain "as-if-real" characters. It is my belief that Sher has created characters in his story that could be real. Although the story is fiction the characters could have very well been people Sher knew or even he himself. There is not one character in his story, from the children playing in the field to the man trapped in the well to the sobbing mother, that I belive is too far-fetched to exist.

As May points out in his book, "there is a clear relationship between Chekhov's sense that "in short stories it is better to say not enough that to say too much" and Hemingway's conviction that a writer "may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them (May63)." This notion of leaving things unsaid hold true for Sher's story as well. It might have been nice if he would have just told the readers what the children's motivations for not saving the man were, but it makes a more interesting story if the reader undertakes the mission of figuring that out for themselves.

In postmodernism, "contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes (May83)." Sher's story pushes into that category because it follows that ideal that the situation could be realistic, but at the same time not too realistic that is impedes the creative flow of the story. It is true that we can picture the characters as real people, the situation with the man in the well could certainly happen, but if the children followed the most realistic path of getting help immediately or at all then the story would be creatively less entertaining. While it is staged in realism it also undetakes postmodernism.

The beginning stage of the short story was Romanticism, which was made up mostly of allegorical short stories. In allegory the plot is based mainly on fanciful things that might never happen, but are used to convey some sort of message or moral. As was discussed in class, the allegory uses psychic projections of basic human fears/desires such as those used in "Little Red Riding Hood". While we could say that being tapped in a well could be the manifestation of the human fear of dark, cold, wet and clostrophobic scenarios thus making it an allegory, I believe it was Sher's intention to showcase the more realistic issue of what horrible things a human being will do to another if they ever get the chance.

The final point May uses to establish realism over romanticism is aesthetic patterning. This consists of patterns that appear within a story that we might not know why they are repeating. This occurs as we move from allegory to realism and can be seen in many places throughout "The Man in the Well". Some of the patterns we can figure out while others we cannot. A few that I particularly noticed were that of the sobbing mother (one that I could admittedly not figure out fully), the importance of the question about name, and finally that of the question regardng the rain. All three will be discussed in depth later in the project.

In conclusion, it is my belief that May would have lumped Ira Sher's story "The Man in the Well" into the category of realism and more specifically postmodernism as opposed to romanticism. "Postmodernist short fiction often makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme (May84)" and "the human meaning is communicated by the simplest of gestures and the most seemingly trivial of objects (May106)." "The Man in the Well" encompasses both of those statements.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lohafer Experiment

The preclosure experiement was interesting to do with this short story. There were many places that I felt the story could end, but I tried to limit my choices to five sentences as was done with "Aunt Lympy's Interference". The first list is of the sentences I chose to end the story at listed from latest in the story to earliest. The second list is of the sentences I chose, but are in the order I would prefer it to end.

  1. S/164
  2. S/90
  3. S/50
  4. S/13
  5. S/5

  1. S/164
  2. S/50
  3. S/90
  4. S/13
  5. S/5

There were four clusters that Lohafer used to classify the choices made in determining preclosure points. Clusters A, B, and C occur in the body of the story whereas Cluster D occurs at the end of the story right before the actual ending. Four of the five sentences I chose were located in the body of the story and one was located near the end. Lohafer describes two types of signals that a reader uses to determine a preclosure point and each of those signals can be broken down into two further sub-signals.

The following descriptions were taken from Lohafer's essay "Reading for Storyness: Preclosure Basics":

A. Retroactive signals, recognized only after one reads past them (27)

  1. sentence preceding paragraph breaks (next paragraph moves on to another place, time or topic)
  2. changes of space/time/condition (the end of action at a particular time and place which must be read past to realize that change took place)

B. Signals that "register within the preclosure sentence itself" (27-28)

  1. natural-event terminals (conventional ending, such as arrival following a journey, or departure following a visit)
  2. image recursions (the reappearence of an image, usually with some variation)

After I chose the sentences that I liked for preclosure points I then tried to lump them in one of the above categories. The results are as follows:

S/164 would have belonged under category A number 2. The sentence was, "That night it rained, and I listened to the rain on the roof and my mother sobbing, downstairs, until I fell asleep (Sher26)" I believe this would have been considered a change of space/time/condition because the boy fell asleep thus his condition changed from that of wakefullness to sleep. The finality of falling asleep signaled an end to me.

S/50 would have belonged under category A number 1 as well as category B number 1. "Only Wendy stayed by the well for a while, watching us run as his calling grew louder and wilder, until finally she ran, too, and then we were all far away," was the sentence (Sher22). It was at the end of the paragraph, which landed it in category A number 1, but it also consisted of Wendy's departure from the well landing it in category B number 1.

S/90 I believe would only fit into category A number 1. This is because it comes at the end of a paragraph, but does not have a change in the space/time/condition, nor does it have a natural-event terminal or image recursion. "She said, "they're going to come" to cover up the mistake, but there it was, and there was nothing to do about it (Sher24)."

S/13 "But along the way we slowed down, and then we stopped, and after waiting what seemed like a good while, we quietly came back to the well (Sher21)." This sentence seemed like it would fit in category A number 1 because it is at the end of a paragraph, category B number 1 because it had a natural-event terminal in the fact that they returned to the well as if they were journeying to it and finally it could have been category B number 2 because the image of the well recurs. The kids start at the well then come full circle back to it.

S/5 was harder for me to place. The sentence was as follows: "I don't remember if we told ourselves a reason why we couldn't help him, but we had decided then (Sher21)." I believe it could be placed in either category A number 2 or category B number 1 because the final decision signified a change in condition as well as a natural-event terminal.

Sentence 164 was a natural choice for the ending because it occured just before actual ending. By mentioning the rain and the fact that the boy layed awake thinking about it gave me the sense of closure to all plot points. One can naturally infer if we stopped the story there that the man was left in the well to drown. Sentence 5 was a farther fectched choice because it would have made it an extremely short story leaving much to be desired, but it could logically have come to an end with their decision not to help the man. End of story. No need to add filler. This was my least favorite choice because I wanted to figure out why the children did not help the man. Even with the natural ending I did not come to a complete conclusion on that front, but it did help me to understand a little better.

Initial Response

The first reaction I had to reading the entire piece was one of disgust on the part of the children. How could a human being leave another human being to die in a well? Yes, they were just children, but they should have known right from wrong. As I read the story again I tried to answer why the children would abandon the man to his death. In answering this question my initial feeling of disgust turned to that of pity for both the kids and for the man.

The narrator is the one who initially discovered the man stranded in the well. "I found the well, and then I heard the voice of the man in the well calling out for help (Sher21)." Because he was first on the scene I ultimately blamed the outcome on him. I believe it was his responsibility to immediately get help. Instead of getting help, however, the kids decide against it for some reason. At first, this reason was not clear to me. I kept asking myself why they would not just get a parent? I believe the answer to this question lies in what I gather to be the story's theme.

I feel the ultimate theme in this piece is power and power struggle. When the children stumble across this man stranded at the bottom of a well with no way out except through them I believe they got a taste of what having power is like. As it is for most kids, I'm sure these particular ones were often overlooked by busy parents and did not get the attention they believed they deserved. Because of this lack of attention they figured playing with the man in the well might give them power over a being weaker than they were.

"I don't think anyone smiled at how easy it was to deceive him - - this was too important (Sher22)." Why else would the children be boasting of the ease of deception unless they meant it as a sign of the power they had over the helpless man. They assert this newfound power by ignoring the man's pleas for help and by continuously asking him questions about what his name is and what he looks like as well as by bringing him food and water so that he may not starve. They start the encounter with the man in the well out with "full of games and laughter" as Sher points out on page 21. The time of having fun ends eventually though when one of the children lets one of their names slip out to the man.

Once the man has the name you would think that he ultimately gains the power over the children. It turns out that this is not so because now the children will definitely not help him out of the well for fear of getting in trouble since the man could now identify each child by name. The man in the well paid the ultimate price in the struggle for power because the children were so frightened of the fact that the man had their names that they all ranaway never to come back again. "That night it rained...After that we didn't play by the well anymore (Sher26)." We can infer from the fact that it rained and that most likely no one else stumbled across the man in the well that the children gained the ultimate amount of power by letting the man die at the bottom of that well.

At the start of this response I stated that I was disgusted with the outcome, but ultimately I came to pity it. I still am disgusted at what one human can do to another, but I also pity the lives of the children because it appeared to me that they were so power hungry from being ignored by their parents that they would let a man die just to feel important. As I said before this story showcased the ultimate power struggle.


The follwing is my final project blog on the process and experience of reading and analyzing the short story, "The Man in the Well" by Ira Sher.

A short summary of the story:

The basic plot of the story is that a group of kids are playing in a field near their homes and the narrator comes across a well with a man in it who is shouting for help. The children begin to run for help, but somewhere along the way decide against getting anyone. The rest of the story consists of the children dodging the man's questions about when help will arrive and it ultimately ends with the children saying nothing to anyone and thusly they end up leaving the man in the well.

**Note added 3/13/10**

I stumbled across this reading of "The Man in the Well" done by Ira Sher on This American Life. It was interesting to hear Sher reading his story outloud and made me think of other questions and answers than when I read it off the page originally. The story was grouped into a series called "The Cruelty of Children". That title alone assisted me in the subsequent readings of the piece that I write about later. The whole broadcast is about 60 minutes long and all the pieces are worth listening to, but Sher's piece starts at around the 30 minute mark. The link to the broadcast follows: