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For this particular study two works of fiction and one of poetry will be used. In the fiction genre the proponent of this study will examine the work of Sherman Alexie, a short story entitled Indian Education and another short story by Jamaica Kincaid entitled Girl.
In the poetry genre Langston Hughe’s A Dream Deferred will be examined more closely and together these three works will be analyzed using an element of literature. Furthermore, these three will be compared side-by-side to determine any connection, any common denominator. And finally these three works by these three authors will be read for pure enjoyment to appreciate literature and how it can inform, entertain, and move the soul.
The element of literature that will be used to study these three works is plot. In short stories it is how the authors arranged events to provide information needed to understand a story. It can also be understood as the way the author arranges the events, information given in the story to create a particular effect on the reader. This should make the reader want to read more. In a more simplified explanation, a plot is the beginning, middle, and end of a fictionalized short story.
When it comes to poetry it is not easy to determine the plot especially when the poem in question cannot be considered a narrative poem and something that only contains a few lines, such as Hughes’ A Dream Deferred. In this case it is helpful to know that a poem’s plot can also be understood as the way the author tries to argue a point (Drury, year).
In A Dream Deferred the argumentation did not go full circle because it did not contain any information concerning the gathering of evidence and chains of reasoning but at least it began and ended the poem with a prelude to argue about the possible impact of a dream deferred.
Looking first at Sherman Alexie’s work one can automatically see that the author used a clever way of arranging information and events by using the events surrounding his student days as he went through grade school – specifically from First Grade to Twelfth Grade.
In this manner one can see how he has metamorphosed from a small and insecure little boy into someone who tried to rectify his life by taking charge and eventually graduating with honors and recipient to numerous awards and scholarships while his friends, neighbors and classmates back in the reservation continues to struggle even as they graduate from High School because they have little prospects considering who they are and where they are at.
Thus, the story is not just about the triumphs of Alexie, the typical story of a little boy who defied the odds and overcame every obstacle thrown his way. The plot of the story consistently highlighted the discrimination, poverty, hopelessness that many experienced in the Indian reservation. Alexie also constructed the plot in such a way that as the humiliation, frustration, and anger escalated with each grade level, one can also find different villains at each different stage.
For example in First Grade it was the other Indian boys who bullied him no end up until he found a friend. This is very ironic because they are a people oppressed and instead of helping each other they are fighting and hurting one another. In the Second Grade the villain was a mean teacher who made his life miserable and it was his first major taste of what injustice is all about.
In the Third Grade and Fourth Grade he was always in the firing line either as a guilty participant in some prank or an innocent bystander caught in the collateral damage. There was a bright spot in this stage of his development process though because it is during the Fourth Grade that he received an encouragement that he can be a solution rather than a mere spectator to the Indian Reservation problem that was about to go down the dumps.
It was a major turning point in his life because as one will take a step backwards and analyze the story one can see that his life began to change for the better. It was in the Fifth Grade when he discovered the beauty and power of basketball. Nevertheless, the villains are still there ready to pounce on him.
In one occasion the villain was not human, but a temptation in the form of a “rubber cement from a paper bag” and his cousin the victim of the said villain went round and round the merry go round his ears rang, mouth dry and his mind blank (Alexie, 1993). And then he was up again when he was in Sixth Grade because he found a best-friend and ally.
In the Seventh and Eight Grade he discovered that villains are not only found in schools and the school playground but they can also be the unknown force called discrimination and this is a debilitating force powered by the hatred and bigotry of many members of the community, the state, the nation. They spew venom without even verifying the facts and made judgments based on biased information.
In the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Grade he realized that racists will judge him solely based on the color of his skin and nothing more. He also learned one more thing, that for those living in the Indian Reservations and even Indians who are trying to get away from it all, the number one villain that they need to contend with is not the environment and the people who tried to pull them down or those who judge them harshly, their number one enemy is the way they treat themselves.
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He mentioned his father early on in the story who had a bad habit of downing a gallon of vodka a day – though it seems like an exaggeration one can get the picture. It is true that people must not condemn others but based on how the story has unfolded the author also pointed to the necessity of the Indians pulling themselves out of the gutter.
In the last and final stage, in the Twelfth Grade this is the resolution. The author demonstrated that the nation, the state and the community may try to force Indians to do something that the do not like and to make them feel that they are second-class citizens but they can do something to rectify it.
They can be like the author who blazed a trail for others. He defied the odds by becoming educated, by becoming a scholar. But at the end of the story he found it difficult to rejoice because looking back, his people are in a path to self-destruction.
Kincaid the Girl
The challenge of understanding plot in this short story is obvious to the reader. The author tells a story using only one sentence. It is a unique and interesting way of telling a tale but Kincaid had to sacrifice a few elements of plot in order to pull it off. First it is hard to find out the setting and time. No one knew where the story happened and at the same time nothing much is revealed about the character. More importantly there was not even a semblance of a dialogue between two characters.
It is clear though that a mother is speaking to a daughter but it is a one way street. The daughter tried to interact but the mother knew nothing about it because her daughter was only able to reason in her head. This also gave the reader a difficult time trying to adjust every time the girl tried to interject her own thoughts and opinions.
Nevertheless, the causality or the reason for writing the piece and the reason why the reader must continue with the story is clear even from the beginning. It is a mother’s set of instructions given to her daughter on how to become a fine woman acceptable in society and able to make her parents proud.
Langston Hughes began the poem right at the very beginning; he started his argument by asking a question: “What happens to a dream deferred” (Hughes, 1996).
And then he developed the piece using more questions and zero answers. As mentioned earlier the plot of this poem can be seen as the start of an argumentation that has no resolution. The author asked a question but instead of answering it the next lines in the poem were all clarifications in the form of questions. However, one way to interpret this poem is to see the questions as answers.
Thus, when the author asked: “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” he was not merely asking he was also giving suggestions and probably an answer. If one will use this analogy then a dream deferred is a dream that will undergo a slow and agonizing death. First it will dry up, then it will fester like a sore dripping with all the bad odor and decaying fluids. It will stink like a rotten meat while parts of it will shrink and sag and the it is gone.
If one will compare the two short stories and the poem one can argue that there is indeed a common denominator: poverty and despair and in the short stories one can even add the element of anger simmering just beneath the surface. The reason why Indian Education is such a pitiful state is due to poverty.
If all the Indians were as fortunate as the author they could have had the chance and the opportunity to transfer to a much better school were the teachers are kinder and has a better world view as compared to the teachers sent to the reservation. These teachers are understandably rude because they may also resent the fact that they were sent to a far away place far from their homes and forced to co-mingle with people with different traditions and culture.
Poverty is the reason why the Indians were faced to make decisions as the author eloquently puts it. There are two things in the story that reinforces this view and these are illustrated using two words: HUD and reservation. They have no place to live and they have no other place to go. They do not have the means to make money so that they can experience respect and dignity once again. Their land was taken from them and many of them do not have the skills suited to a modern economy. And so they have to live in the reservation.
As a result they do not have the ability to send their children to a good school and at the same time they do not have the capability to build a home that is suited for the family they simply had to rely on the government to build a house for them. All of these things had crippled the Indian man, he can no longer stand proudly just like their ancestors and the warriors of an era long gone.
Poverty breeds despair and the men took solace in alcohol. Alcoholism is a constant feature in the story from the time that the author mentioned the voracious appetite of his father for vodka, a very strong drink, to the time he talked about a young man who died from alcohol abuse – crashing his car into an innocent tree – and finally when the graduates, from the government run school in the Indian reservation deciding to meet frequently in the tavern instead of finding work and changing their destiny.
There is also an anger that tries to break free and yet the author realized that it has to be pushed below the surface. So many times he wanted to explode bewildered and frustrated by the racist comments, by the condemnation, and by the generalization made by others who had not even an iota of information to be able to understand the context of the struggles and various problems faced by those living in the reservations.
Poverty is also very much evident in Kincaid’s piece. Poverty is the reason why the mother was a little bit paranoid in teaching her daughter how to behave because they cannot afford to make mistakes. The strict rules, the forceful discipline that does not even allow her daughter to speak one word is due to extreme poverty.
The things that the mother wanted the girl to perform is a direct result of their poverty – they cannot afford to buy ready-to-wear-clothes, there is no money to buy food already cooked or prepared by someone, there is no way to pay the services of a laundry woman or go to a Laundromat to clean the clothes, there is no money to go to the supermarket to buy okra. It was the duty of the girl to produce and take care of these things.
Despair is seen in the way the girl or the daughter tried to reason out but her thoughts have no room in the house. There is no other source of information considered valid but that of her mother. It must be pointed out though that not everything about the story is a paranoia and child labor. The author also tried to show that she grew up in a particular culture where the mother transmits to the next generation – in this case mother to daughter – the necessary lessons of life that will guide her to womanhood. Thus, in the monologue the mother tried to enforce rules that will hopefully transform her daughter into a fine lady highly respected in society and able to become a productive citizen of the community or at least a dutiful wife like the mother in the story.
Nevertheless, it can also be argued that anger is simmering just beneath the surface considering that every aspect of her life was controlled and also the fact that she was forced to work doing not only household chores but the gathering and cooking of food. This is the work of an adult but the daughter had to endure all of that and more.
Poverty can be the reason for the dream that was deferred. Although the author did not provide enough information to make a solid conclusion one of the major reasons that a person is unable to achieve dreams is due to extreme poverty. Another possible reason for a dream to be deferred is injustice and other social factors that prevent a person from realizing his dream or from competing in a level field. Racism can be also a factor why injustice exists in the dream crushing world of Langston Hughes.
There are at least two memorable lines in Alexie’s story. The first one states: “Sharing dark skin doesn’t necessarily make two men brothers” and the second one states: “That was the year my father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year that my mother started two hundred different quilts but never finished any” (Alexie, 1993). The first statement is like a two-edged sword it cuts through racism as well as a rebuke to the Indians who prefer to live a life of mediocrity.
The author demanded equality and respect for his heritage but at the same time there is something in him that says do not create a link between me and the drunkard who killed himself by ramming his car into a tree – we may have the same features but we are not related – this he desperately wanted the world to understand.
The second statement encapsulates the despair and the frustration that everyone felt while living in the Indian reservation. The alcohol was a way of escape while the quilt was a way to reconnect with the past, a continuous attempt to preserve their heritage even if they feel that it is not really that important and so the mother is not that inspired to go to the next level when it comes to improving her business and in the words of the author does not even finish what was started.
The poem of Hughes and Kincaid’s short story can be linked together by the idea labeled as a dream deferred. The girl in the story have her own idea about how to live life and how to determine his future but it seems that society and her mother had already chosen a path for her. While she is still alive and while the culture and traditions of her land continue to be dominant force then she simply had to accept that her dream has to be deferred.
The works of Alexie, Kincaid, and Hughes talk about poverty and despair, in a way that people will listen. They did not present cold hard facts, statistics and demographics about poverty and the feeling of hopelessness among the people – they illustrated, it they described using vivid terms and analogy that makes their message come alive in the mind.
The reader was moved and vowed never to participate in racist actions and words. The proponent of this study was moved to take a closer look at the lives of marginalized people and the things that they had to go through on a daily basis and why many of them has lost hope and surrendered to the notion that their dreams will forever be deferred.
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DiYanni, R. (2007). Literature, Reading fiction, Poetry, and Drama (Ashford Custom 6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hogue, D. (2010). “Elements of Literature.” Web.
Hughes, L. (1996). “A Dream Deferrred.” Web.
Moore, J. (2008). “Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl: How Structure and Language Convey Tone and Theme” Web.