The Beginnings of “The Hitch-Hikers” and “The Farmer’s Children”: An Examination of How Authors Introduce Important Elements and Shape Readers’ Reactions
In a short story, the author is confined by spatial limitations. In order to provide depth and cohesion to the story, the author can tie descriptions of setting to the development of the characters and plot. The setting can be symbolic of the characters’ values and beliefs and can allow the reader to gain understanding of these characters’ motivations, actions, and reactions. Similarly, changes in setting can mirror plot developments and allow the reader to react emotionally to events in the story. An examination of the openings of Eudora Welty’s “The Hitch-Hikers” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children” reveals how the authors used description of place, time, and characters to introduce important symbols of the stories and to shape the reader’s reactions to the principal events.
The second paragraph of “The Hitch-Hikers” provides the reader with a concise description of time, place, and weather conditions: “Toward evening, on a long straight stretch of road, he slowed down for some hitch-hikers. One of them stood still by the side of the pavement, with his foot stuck out like an old root, but the other was playing a yellow guitar which caught the late sun” (Welty 211). From this description of the important moment when Harris picks up the hitch-hikers, the reader learns not only that it is a sunny evening on an isolated stretch of road but also gains information about important differences between the two hitch-hikers. The foot of one is likened to an old root, a comparison that can be read as Welty’s drawing attention to non-human characteristics of the man who will turn to be a murderer. The other hitch-hiker is in possession of a yellow guitar. Yellow, being a color typically associated with happiness, is combined with a reference to a musical instrument (music being a human activity) and immediately makes the man with the guitar a sympathetic character. In this paragraph, the reader senses that long, detailed descriptions of setting and time have no place in this story. They are there to draw attention to plot events (here, the picking up of the hitch-hikers) and character development (here, the contrast between the two hitch-hikers).
While the opening of the story takes place on a sunny late-afternoon, the passage of time and weather changes mirror developments in the plot. Their function goes much deeper than to provide decorative detail. The passage of time is introduced early-on in the story: “They rode without talking, while the sun went down in red clouds and the radio program changed a few times” (211). The significant rain of the final portion of the story is foreshadowed while the men stop to eat hamburgers, when the car-hop notes that it “looks like rain” (213). The beginning of the rain storm is not highlighted in any way in Welty’s story. The next mention of it occurs as Harris is taking Sanford to the hospital in his “slowed-down car with its rain-speckled windshield” (216). In fact, the reader later learns that it has been raining since dark, and Harris has been completely unaware of it. The description of Harris’ walk to the party highlights the effect of the rain on the setting: “Walking over to the party, so as not to use his car, making the only sounds in the dark wet street, and only partly aware of the indeterminate shape of houses set back with a light or two showing inside and the rain falling mist-like through the trees” (217). At this point in the story, Harris is still only partly aware of the rain and its effects. When he arrives at the party, he enters the room without any concern that he is soaked. It is only after he has time alone in his hotel room to reflect on the events of the day that he begins to acknowledge the rain. After accompanying Carol to the All-Nite, he thanks her for her generosity and for coming out “like this – in the rain – to be here” (222). In this respect, the rain is not so much a symbol of the disastrous events of the story. Rather, Harris’ awareness of the rain mirrors his own growing awareness of and sympathy for the plight of Sanford.
In his discussion of Welty’s short stories, Robert Penn Warren notes that virtually all of the stories feature characters that are isolated from society in some way. Furthermore, the characters’ isolation can be woven into the narrative in one of two ways: either the isolated person can attempt “to escape into the world,” or the fact of being isolated can be discovered by the isolated person (Warren 250). It is the second of these two options that appears in “The Hitch-Hikers” (Warren 251). While Warren does not discuss how Harris comes to his realization that he is living an isolated existence, this discussion of the story has revealed that Harris’s growing awareness of the rain mirrors his growing awareness of his predicament. For the reader, this adds a level of depth to the story that goes far beyond a simple correlation of rain with danger.
Of the elements presented in the second paragraph, it is the guitar that turns out to be an important symbol in the story. For the first half of the story, Sanford is always described as “the man with the guitar.” However, after his assault, he is always referred to as “the guitar player.” These descriptive phrases are not there for decorative purposes; rather, they are tied to important events in the plot and to traits of the characters themselves. The constant repetition of these phrases causes the reader to associate Sanford with his guitar. It is part of his identity. The guitar was also the primary reason that Harris stopped to pick up the hitch-hikers: “it was the yellow guitar, that bold and gay burden in the tramp’s arms, that had caused him to stop the car and pick them up” (Welty 213). Furthermore, it was the guitar that prompted Sobby’s actions. In his confession to the murder, Sobby declared, “He was uppity though. He bragged. He carried around a guitar” (223). The guitar is symbolic of the important differences between the murderer and his victim.
In his article on “The Hitch-Hikers,” James Walter notes that “in the main current of the story’s action a dialectic is gradually developed between noise and silence” (57). Walters sees Sobby’s relative silence and Sanford’s association with the guitar as representing noise and silence respectively, and furthermore representing the two sides of Harris’s soul (58). When Harris fails to take possession of Sanford’s guitar, Walter sees this rejection as indicating Harris’s “failure to keep alive within himself a healthy tension between noise and silence, and thus makes dramatic and complete a fate that had been prefigured in Sobby’s assault upon Sanford” (58). While Walter’s reading of the story is incredibly detailed and astute, there are other elements of the silence-noise dialectic that can add further nuance to his claim.
In “The Hitch-Hikers,” Welty refers to two different musical instruments: the guitar and the piano. The guitar, as noted, is primarily associated with Sanford. The piano appears at the party Ruth’s house where it is noted that people were “playing a skating song on the piano” (Welty 218). Another reference to a piano appears when Carol reminds Harris of how she knows him: “You used to play the piano” (Welty 222). These two instruments seem to highlight class differences between the characters. The guitar, as is it quite portable, is a suitable instrument for the lifestyle of Sanford. As Harris is a traveling sales-man, the guitar could easily accompany his travels, if he wanted to have access to a musical instrument. The piano, however, is not portable and seems to be associated with more wealthy individuals. In his refusal to acknowledge to Carol that he had played the piano, Harris symbolically turns his back on his entire past, including the people most like him in upbringing. The importance of class in Welty’s stories has been acknowledged, albeit in reference to Losing Battles and Delta Wedding, by Bessie Chronaki. Chronaki emphasizes that “economic factors – poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other – tend to promote the sense of group identity” (38). And when he refuses to accept Sanford’s guitar, the reader senses that Harris does not want to reconcile his past and his present. Thus, by the end of the story, Harris has turned his back not only on one aspect of his individual identity, but has also turned his back on the group to which he belongs.
The opening of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children” is structurally quite different from Welty’s story. Whereas Welty immerses her readers in the story of Harris and the hitch-hikers from the opening paragraph, Bishop precedes the narrative part of the story with an introductory section that describes the family, the house, and the layout of the land.
The wording of the opening sentence shares similarities with the traditional opening of fairy-tales (“once upon a time”): “Once, on a large farm ten miles from the nearest town, lived a hard-working farmer with his wife, their three children, and his children by a former marriage, two boys aged eleven and twelve” (Bishop 286). The fairytale-like atmosphere is reinforced throughout the story with allusions to “Hansel and Gretel.” The initial reference to this particular fairy-tale occurs during a description of a family dinner. The description of the atmosphere of this dinner highlights the peacefulness of the home: “The kitchen was hot, and the smell of fried potatoes and the warm yellow light of the oil lamp on the table gave the illusion of peacefulness” (288).
In a discussion of Bishop’s poetry, Mary J. Elkins remarks that domestic scenes are generally associated with safety (48) and that domestic scenes are frequently contrasted with a world that is “strange” (44). This is exactly the kind of contrast that the reader finds in this short story. After firmly setting the scene with descriptions that play on the readers’ associations of heat, warmth, and home-cooked meals with peacefulness, Bishop foreshadows the later events of the story by remarking that this association is nothing but an illusion. In particular, the heat and the light will contrast with the dark and the cold in the barn later in the story, and this contrast is foreshadowed by Bishop’s use of the word “illusion.” Shortly after this descriptive passage appears Cato’s remark, “Tonight’s the night for crumbs” (Bishop 288). The reader does not immediately understand the purpose of these crumbs, and because they do not seem to make sense, the reader is prompted to remember them when they re-appear later in the story when Cato scatters them along the path to the barn.
While it could be argued that these references to “Hansel and Gretel” and to fairy-tales in general cause the reader to wonder whether the events actually happened, Bishop’s references to newspapers give the story a sense of reality: “Most of these facts later appeared in the newspapers” (287). This contrast between a story that is filled with references to fairy tales but whose facts are reportedly verifiable in the (fictional) newspapers provides an interesting dimension to the story. Walter Benjamin’s assessment of the effect of (real) newspapers on the storytelling genre is particularly striking. Indeed, Benjamin asserts that the rise of newspapers, as the most direct purveyors of facts, is the final symptom of the decline of storytelling in a culture (cited in Walter 67). It is noteworthy, then, that Bishop includes references to newspapers in a fairy-tale like story in order to impart a false sense of reality to a fictional story.
While the opening section serves to introduce the general setting and the fairytale-like atmosphere, Bishop begins to describe the actual atmosphere surrounding the events with the fifth paragraph: “It was December and frightfully cold. The full moon was just coming up and the tin roof of the farmhouse and patches of the macadam road caught her light, while the farmyard was still almost in darkness” (Bishop 287). From this description, the reader learns that it is a cold winter’s night, a foreboding setting. The sensation of impending danger is highlighted by the contrast of light and dark. The moon has risen over the farmhouse and parts of the road, but the farmyard remains dark. Bishop does not in this description mention the barn, however, from the introductory section, the reader knows that the barn is located far from the farmhouse and is thus probably still cloaked in darkness.
This description also brings up an important symbol of the story: the moon. In this story, the moon is not only used to mark time but also to highlight the coldness of the December night when the two children would freeze to death. In numerous passages in the story, references to the moon are couple with references to the cold. For example, as the boys begin their walk to the barn, Bishop describes the atmosphere as follows: “the freezing moisture felt even worse, and they gave it up and merely pointed out their breath to each other as it whitened and then vanished. The moon was behind them” (287). Later on, as Emerson remarks that it is too cold to snow and that there are no snow clouds in the sky, Bishop writes, “They looked. Yes, except for the large white moon, the sky was as empty as could be” (291). When the boys finally settle in to the barn, as they try to fall asleep, they are distracted by the moonlight coming through the cracks of the barn’s roof: “every crack and hole in the old roof showed, and little flecks, like icy chips of moon, fell on them” (292). Because of the frequent association of the moon with the cold, the last of Cato’s thoughts before he finally falls asleep strikes the reader as being particularly meaningful: “But, how could it be going to the moon when the moon was coming right down on the hill? No, moons; there was whole row of them” (293). Here, Cato is clearly hallucinating, and the reader senses, because Bishop has set up a clear association of the moon with the cold, that Cato will die of cold that night. This ending is quite unsettling for the reader, as all the descriptive details relayed by the omniscient narrator are filtered through the experiences of the boys, who did not survive the night to tell what they saw.
This analysis of “The Hitch-Hikers” and “The Farmer’s Children” has revealed how the authors used their opening description of place, time, and characters to introduce important symbols of the stories and to shape the reader’s reactions to the principal events. In the case of Welty’s “The Hitch-Hikers,” the reader is introduced to elements of time and weather as well as the important symbol of the guitar. Bishop, like Welty, uses the introduction to introduce time and weather as well as the symbol of the moon. The question of the readers’ reactions to the events is shaped by the authors’ construction of reality. In Welty’s story, the reader never questions whether the events actually took place, as the tone of the story is rather matter-of-fact. Bishop’s introduction of elements of the fairy-tale calls into question the truthfulness of the story, but ultimately, the reader believes them.
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