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Samuel by grace paley character analysis

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2.

The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

A true work of fiction is a wonderfully simple thing-so simple that most so-called serious writers avoid trying it, feeling they ought to do something more important and ingenious, never guessing how incred­ ibly difficult it is. A true work of fiction does all of the following things, and does them elegantly, efficiently: it creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind; it is implicitly philosophical; it fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us, in the end, not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance.

-JoHN GARDNER, "What Writers Do"

Most readers are able to identify short fictional prose narratives as short stories, whether written by authors in the United States or in countries throughout the world, because authors in every country employ the same ele­ ments of fiction. In the imaginations of gifted storytellers, these basic compo­ nents are transformed into the texts of short stories as the writers explore the potentiality of fiction. Literary critics generally agree that these basic elements comprise six different categories: plot, characterization, setting, point of view, style, and theme.

PLOT

Since the short story is defined as a prose narrative usually involving one unified episode or a sequence of related events, plot is basic to this literary form. Plot is the sequence of events in a story and their relation to one another. Writers usually present the events of the plot in a coherent time frame that the reader can follow easily. As we read, we sense that the events are related by cau­ sation, and their meaning lies in this relation. To the casual reader, causation (or why something in the plot happened next) seems to result only from the writer's organization of the events into a chronological sequence. A more thoughtful reader understands that causation in the plot of a memorable short story reveals a good deal about the author's use of the other elements of fiction as well, especially characterization.

As E. M. Forster realized, plot not only answers what happened next, but it also suggests why. The psychologist James Hillman has explained in Healing Fiction that plot reveals "human intentions. Plot shows how it all hangs together and makes sense. Only when a narrative receives inner coherence in terms of the depths of human nature do we have fiction, and for this fiction we

8

Plot 9

have to have plot . . . . To plot is to move from asking the question and then what happened? to the question why did it happen?"

A short story can dramatize the events of a brief episode or compress a longer period of time. Analyzing why a short story is short, the critic Norman Friedman suggests that it "may be short not because its action is inherently small, but rather because the author has chosen-in working with an episode or plot-to omit certain of its parts. In other words, an action may be large in size and still be short in the telling because not all of it is there." A short story can describe something that happens in a few minutes or encompass action that takes years to conclude. The narrative possibilities are endless, as the writer may omit or condense complex episodes to intensify their dramatic effect or expand a single incident to make a relatively long story.

Regardless of length, the plot of a short story usually has what critics term an end orientation- the outcome of the action or the conclusion of the plot-inherent in its opening paragraphs. As Mark Twain humorously observed, "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't." The novelist may conclude a single episode long before the end of a novel and then pick up the thread of another narrative, or interpret an event from another angle in a different character's point of view, linking episode to episode and character to character so that each illuminates the others. But a story stops earlier. As Edgar Allan Poe recognized in 1842, its narrative dramatizes a single effect complete unto itself.

The events in the plot of a short story usually involve a conflict or struggle between opposing forces. When you analyze a plot, you can often (but not always) see it develop in a pattern during the course of the narration. Typi­ cally you find that the first paragraphs of the story or exposition give the back­ ground or setting of the conflict. The rising action dramatizes the specific events that set the conflict in motion. Often there is a turning point in the story midway before further complications prolong the suspense of the conflict's res­ olution. The climax is the emotional high point of the narration. In the falling action, the events begin to wind down and point the reader toward the conclu­ sion or denouement at the end of the story, which resolves the conflict to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes the conclusion introduces an unexpected tum of events or a surprise ending. In successful stories the writer shapes these stages into a complex structure that may impress you with its balance and pro­ portion.

The plot of Grace Paley's short story "Samuel" (p. 3) is very simple, dramatizing a brief episode on a Manhattan subway train. It relates a sequence of events about four young boys who are fooling around on the platform between two cars of a moving train. A woman watching them tells them they'll get hurt, but the boys only laugh at her. Witnessing their response, a man gets angry and pulls the emergency cord. The train lurches to a stop, causing one of the boys to fall and be crushed to death. The mother of the dead boy grieves, then becomes hopeful after she becomes pregnant again. But after the birth of her baby she realizes that the new child can never replace the son she has lost.

In most stories the beginning sets up the problem or conflict; the middle is where the author introduces various complications that prolong suspense

10 The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

and make the struggle more meaningful; and the end resolves the conflict to a greater or lesser degree. In successful stories the writer shapes these stages into a complex structure that impresses the reader with its balance and proportion, often suggesting an insight into the human condition.

The first part of the plot, or exposition, of "Samuel" is the opening para­ graph. It introduces the idea that motivates the main characters of Paley's little drama, the idea that boys like to show off for each other. The rising action dramatizes the conflict of interest between the young boys and the adults watching them in the subway car. Some of the men in the car sympathize with the kids, remembering the dangerous stunts they pulled when they were young. Most of the women in the car are angry at the boys and want them to behave more responsibly, to take seats and calm down. The turning point is when one of the women, with a son at home, summons her courage and admonishes the boys. They make fun of her, and this raises the tension of the story by adding a complicating factor of defiance to their behavior. The climax of "Samuel" is when the self-righteous male passenger pulls the emergency cord and Samuel is killed. In the falling action, Paley describes the result of the accident. Traffic on the subway is stopped, the passengers who saw the acci­ dent are in shock, the others riding the train are curious, and a policeman noti­ fies Samuel's mother of his death. The conclusion is the final paragraph of the story, more than a year later, when Samuel's parents understand the full dimensions of their loss.

Paley's story is very short, more of a sketch than a fully developed nar­ rative. The only dialogue is between the lady who warns the boys that they might get hurt and the boys themselves, who find her warning hilarious. Samuel pounds his buddy Alfred's back until the tears come, saying "You a baby, huh?" Paley gives a hint of foreshadowing in the opening paragraphs of her story, suggesting the action to come, when some of the men watching the boys think, "These kids do seem to be acting sort of stupid. They are little." These words anticipate a turn of events that may or may not go along with our expectations, but when we reread the story, we see that Paley's plot runs along as solidly as a subway train. Not for her are the tricky surprise endings favored in short stories by earlier writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. We sense Paley's emotional involvement inlier char­ acters as she chronicles the tragedy of a small boy's senseless death.

Along with her choice of a title, Paley sets up an expectation in the reader early on with her hint of foreshadowing-the story will be about Samuel, and its "single effect" will be the shock of his accidental, senseless death and how it affects the people around him. Paley doesn't go on to tell us about the lives of the three boys who survive the accident, or about the guilty feelings (and subsequent nervous breakdown?) of the man who pulls the emergency cord. That would be another story.

Regardless of the author's method of developing the plot, the goal is the same: The writer of short stories must show the reader something about human nature through the dramatic action of the plot and the other elements of the story, and not just tell the reader what to think. A good plot arouses our curios-

Character 11

ity, engages our emotions, and keeps us in suspense. As the contemporary American writer Eudora Welty understood, "A narrative line is in its deeper sense, of course, the tracing out of a meaning, and the real continuity of a story lies in this probing forward." A storyteller must sustain the illusion of reality until the end of the story, unfolding events with the continuing revelation of an apparently endless silk handkerchief drawn from a skillful magician's coat sleeve.

CHARACTER

If you are like most people, plot is what keeps you going when you first read a story, and character is what stays with you after you have finished read­ ing it. The title of Paley's short narrative is "Samuel," the name of its pro­ tagonist or central character, the unlucky and foolish young boy (he lacked prudence) whose actions may have prompted her to write the story.

Characters are usually the people who are involved in what happens in a story. Writers can use animals as characters, or giant insects such as Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (p. 241), or even such inanimate objects as trees, chairs, and shoes. But by the term charac­ ter we usually mean a human being with emotions whose mind works some­ thing like our own.

When we ask why did it happen? about the plot of a story, we usually find the answer in the characters, who are convincing if we can understand their actions. Paley chooses to keep her story so short that she doesn't give her char­ acters any time to develop. They are static, not dynamic. We are told their names, but we don't see them change during the narrative or after Samuel's death. They are flat, not round characters. For characters to emerge as round, the reader must feel the play and pull of their actions and responses to situa­ tions. Yet Paley's character types are familiar to all of us. Samuel is a schoolboy clowning for his buddies, and we understand why he acts as he does. Tb.e man who pulls the emergency cord in the subway car is a little more complex. We aren't told much about him, except that his "boyhood had been more watchful than brave." Unlike some of the other male spectators, he has no sense of empathy with the boys who are fooling around on the moving platform.

Perhaps part of the anger the man feels toward the boys is prompted by their mockery of the lady who issues the reprimand. Paley tells us only that "he walked in a citizenly way" when he went to pull the emergency cord. Consider­ ing the dire results of the man's action, Paley is using verbal irony here, mean­ ing the opposite of the literal meaning of the words good citizen. No one acting like a good citizen wants to cause a small boy's death. As readers, we instinc­ tively strive to connect the events of a story by more than their simple chrono­ logical sequence, because assuming connections between the events and the inner life of the characters makes the story seem coherent.

How are the characters in a short story to be understood? Any discussion of character tends to drift into a value judgment, as our principles of definition and evaluation for fictional characters are based on the ones we use for real

12 The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

people, tentative and unfocused as they may be. We must remember that we are reading about fictional characters in a short story, not real ones. The only evidence we have about characters is what the author puts into the story.

We are on firmer ground in literary discussions when we analyze the writer's method of characterization as well as the character's personality. Paley's method is one of economy; the extremely short length of her story mir­ rors Samuel's brief lifetime. Writing a realistic story, she might be suggesting that characters from modest economic backgrounds have little control over their fates in the big city, underscoring the tragedy of the loss of a young boy who never had the chance to grow up.

Other authors, such as Poe, create a fantasy world in their stories, imag­ ining situations in which their characters have total control like Poe's protago­ nist Montresor in "The Cask of Amontillado" (p. 490). Pigeonholing his character does not bring us close to understanding the sense of horror that Poe evokes in the story. We can appreciate it more readily by relishing the language Poe uses in dialogue and description to show us Montresor's thoughts and responses as he acts out his obsessive plan to avenge his honor. As the literary critic David Reynolds has realized, the two characters in this classic short story, although limited, are not flat.

They come swiftly alive before our eyes because Poe describes them with acute psychological realism. Montresor is a complex Machiavellian criminal, exhibiting a full range of traits from clever ingratiation to stark sadism. Fortunato, the dupe whose pride leads to his own downfall, nevertheless exhibits . . . admirable qualities . . . . The drama of the story lies in the carefully orchestrated interaction between the two. Poe directs our attention away from the merely sensational and toward the psychological. . . .

Different fictional worlds make different demands on the reader's imagi­ nation. What is most important to the reader's enjoyment of the tale is the emo­ tional truth conveyed by the characters, whether they are flat or round, dynamic or static. To avoid sentimentality (emotional overindulgence) and stereotyping (oversimplified judgment) in creating characters, the writer must be able to suggest enough complexity to engage the reader's emotions, or the story will not succeed.

SETTING

Setting is the place and time of the story. To set the scene and suggest a mood or atmosphere for the events to follow, the writer attempts to create in the reader's visual imagination the illusion of a solid world in which the story takes place. Paley uses only a few words to describe the subway setting of her story, but they create an image of power and danger. The doors are "locked." The platform is "swaying." The cars on either side are full of people, who are watching the boys uneasily.

' when the cars unexpectedly slow down suddenly

for the first time, the boys "grab the swinging guard chains," nearly falling

Point of View 13

down. Paley's description of the second slowdown, after the man pulls the emergency cord, is more shocking, relying on strong active verbs such as aban­ doned, caught, held, fell, whipped, pitched, crushed, and killed:

Almost at once, with a terrible hiss, the pressure of air abandoned the brakes and the wheels were caught and held.

People standing in the most secure places fell forward, then back­ ward. Samuel had let go of his hold on the chain so he could pound Tom as well as Alfred. All the passengers in the cars whipped back and forth, but he pitched only forward and fell head first to be crushed and killed between the cars.

When the writer locates the narrative in a physical setting, the reader is moved step by step toward acceptance of the fiction. The external reality of the setting is always an illusion, our mental images stimulated by the words that the writer has put on paper. Yet this invented setting is essential if we are to share the internal emotional life of the characters involved in the plot. A sense of place engages us in the fictional characters' situations.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown" (p. 198), for example, when the protagonist Goodman Brown enters the dark, tangled world of the forest surrounding the colonial village of Salem to keep his appointment with the devil, the attentive reader may perceive that Brown really enters the troubled world of his own mind. Exercising his own free will, he voluntarily exchanges the companionship of his pretty young wife and her pink ribbons for the attractions of Satan.

The setting of a story furnishes the location for its world of feeling, the dif­ ferent emotional associations awakened in the reader's mind by a gloomy New England forest in a Hawthorne story, a dank burial crypt in a Poe story, or a crowded Manhattan subway train in a Paley story. A sense of place is essential for us to imagine the fictional characters' situations as the author creates the story.

Place helps the characters seem real, but, to be most effective, the setting must also have a dramatic use. It must be shown, or at least felt, to affect char­ acter or plot. The emergency brake in the subway car precipitates the disaster of Samuel's death. Exchanging the windy street in Salem village for the dreary, solitary path through the tangled forest leads Young Goodman Brown straight to the devil. Imagining the details of setting in the creation of stories, writers must exert their talents to make the reader see only the fictional world that emerges on the printed page, under the illusion that while the story unfolds, it is the real world itself.

POINT OF VIEW

Point of view refers to the author's choice of a narrator for the story. At the start, the writer must decide whether to employ first-person narration, using the pronoun I, or third-person narration, using the pronouns he, she, and they. (Second-person narration, you, is less common, although the dramatic intimacy of second-person narrative address is often used in poetry and song

14 The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

lyrics.) The writer's choice of a point of view to narrate stories usually falls into two major categories:

FIRST-PERSON NARRATION (NARRATOR APPARENTLY A PARTICIPANT IN THE STORY)

1. A major character 2. A minor character

THIRD-PERSON NARRATION (NARRATOR A NONPARTICIPANT IN THE STORY)

1. Omniscient-seeing into the minds of all characters 2. Limited omniscient-seeing into one or, sometimes, two characters'

minds 3. Objective-seeing into none of the characters' minds

First-Person Narration

Samuel is the protagonist, but telling his side of the story in a first-person narration by a major character isn't Paley's objective as a writer in "Samuel." The young boy -dies before the conclusion of events, before she reaches the point she wants to make as the storyteller. Perhaps we can imagine Samuel telling his story in the first person from his vantage point in heaven, but then Paley is a realistic writer.

Paley might have considered presenting the narrative through the voice of a minor character as a first-person speaker. For example, Samuel's mother, who understands that there will never be another boy like Samuel, could have told the tale, but she wasn't present when the accident on the subway occurred, so she couldn't have described it in close detail. All the women and men in the subway car who witnessed Samuel's death were minor characters in the drama. They could have gone home to their families or friends that evening and told the story of the accident as eye witnesses, using first-person narration. No doubt their stories would have been highly emotional-"I can't believe what happened on the Lexington Avenue express today. I've been riding the subway all my life, and I've never seen anything like it" -but their personal accounts, while dramatic, would lack Paley's compassionate insight into what the loss of the young boy's life really means.

The first-person narrator, whether a major or a minor character, can be reliable or unreliable, making us aware as we read his or her story that the account is skewed and that we can't quite trust the point of view. In a story such as Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (p. 320), the garrulous lawyer telling us about his difficult relationship with his eccentric scrivener is actually a minor character in Bartleby's life. Despite his obvious concern for Bartleby and attempts to help him , the lawyer inadvertently serves as a screen between the reader and the protagonist of the story, making it impossible for us to understand Bartleby's point of view. At the beginning of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (p. 157), the first-person narrator, who is the major character in the story, says that she is trying to regain her health after

Voice and Style 15

a mental breakdown. While she tells her story, an attentive reader notices that her disorientation from the so-called real world becomes much more acute. Both Melville and Gilman choose first-person narrators to heighten the emo­ tional effect of their stories.

Third-Person Narration

Third-person narration means that the author tells the story using the pronouns he or she instead of the presumably more subjective I. Paley uses third-person narration in "Samuel." The narrator isn't a person who partici­ pates in the story, but she knows everything about it. She is an omniscient narrator, aware that the boys' mothers gave them permission to take the sub­ way downtown and see the missile exhibit on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. Despite the short length of her tale, Paley communicates her authority as the storyteller because she is so knowledgeable about the incident. We trust her to get the story right and to help us understand what happened. Most people enjoy reading stories told by omniscient narrators, anticipating that they will usually find meaning in the events that they describe.

There can be significant differences in the way authors handle third­ person narration. Chinua Achebe uses limited-omniscient narration in "Civil Peace" (p. 27), confining himself to revealing the thoughts of only one charac­ ter, his protagonist Jonathan lwegbu. Achebe is making an effort to engage our sympathies for this character. Ernest Hemingway uses objective third­ person narration in "Hills Like White Elephants" (p. 209), relying almost entirely on the dialogue between the two characters to tell the reader about the crisis in their relationship. The author doesn't take sides in the battle between the two lovers over the important decision they face. Hemingway attempts to create a totally detached point of view. Setting and action appear on the page without the narrator's comments or the characters' reflections, heightening the emotion of the desperate struggle going on between the lines of the story.

Narration can be classified further into subcategories (for example, first­ and third-person stream-of-consciousness narration), but a writer's handling of different points of view, if successful, always appears to be more flexible than the rigid categories imply. For example, Kafka begins "The Metamorphosis" (p. 241) with a septence of third-person omniscient narration, but in the sec­ ond sentence he changes his focus to present his protagonist Gregor Samsa's point of view. Kafka maintains this limited-omniscient narration until Gre­ gor's death. Then, to heighten our sense of Gregor's alienation, Kafka reverts back to his more distant, objective omniscient voice to finish the story.

VOICE AND STYLE

Style is the characteristic way an author uses language to create litera­ ture. Style is the result of the writer's habitual use of certain rhetorical patterns, including sentence length and complexity, word choice and placement, and punctuation. Paley's style in "Samuel" is informal, even colloquial in her choice of language. In her story she uses mostly one-syllable words, even slang

16 The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

occasionally ("super" in the first paragraph refers to the superintendent or caretaker of an apartment building).

You might think of the author's prose style as a projection of her or his voice as a writer, as if you were hearing the story instead of reading it. Voice, as the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood described it, is "a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across a space, across the page, but through time. Surely every written story is, in the final analysis, a score for voice. These little black marks on the page mean nothing without their retrans­ lation into sound."

Tone is the way the author conveys his or her unstated attitudes toward the story. Paley's tone is serious in "Samuel," despite her use of colloquial lan­ guage. Irony is another means by which writers tell stories. Irony makes the reader aware of a reality that differs from the reality the characters perceive (dramatic irony) or from the literal meaning of the author's words (verbal irony). Paley uses verbal irony when she says that the man who pulls the emergency cord "walked in a citizenly way." Earlier in the story, Samuel pounds his buddy Alfred's back until the tears come, saying "You a baby, huh?" This is an example of dramatic irony. In only a few minutes Samuel will be crushed between the wheels of the subway car and his life will end while he is still, com­ paratively, a baby.

The use of symbolism can also be an aspect of a writer's style. A literary symbol can be anything in a story's setting, plot, or characterization that sug­ gests an abstract meaning to the reader in addition to its literal significance. Symbols are more eloquent as specific images-visual ideas-than any para­ phrase, suggesting infinitely more than they state. They are not always inter­ preted the same way by all readers. Paley avoids any suggestion of an abstract meaning to her story until its concluding sentence. Then Samuel, for all his foolish high spirits, becomes a symbol for the value of every individual life in its precious uniqueness.

THEME

Theme is a generalization about the meaning of a story. It is more than the subject of the story, which is what the narrative is generally about. While the subject can be expressed in a word or two ("Young Goodman Brown" is about religious fanaticism), the theme requires a phrase or a sentence. The theme of a story is also different from the plot. Whereas the plot of Hawthorne's story can be summarized by stating what happened in the action (a young Puritan hus­ band loses his faith in God and humankind after attending a witches' coven), the theme is an abstract statement of the meaning of the story (losing faith can destroy a person's life).

The theme of a story abstracts its meaning from the concrete details of its plot, characterization, setting, point of view, and style. Theme is the implied moral significance of all the details of a story. It need not always be stated as a moral judgment. The story's meaning can and often does suggest principles of right and wrong behavior, but the impulse to tell a story can arise from several universal urges of the human spirit-to communicate, to create, to raise ulti-

Theme 17

mate questions, not just pragmatic ones; in short, to provide a personal expres­ sion in narrative form of our sense of what life is like. As the writer Steven Mill­ hauser remarked, "When I write I have the sense that what compels me isn't the promotion of certain values, but something else-the working out of a har­ mony, the completion of a necessary design. This may be just another way of insisting that the values that belong to art are aesthetic. Exactly how moral val­ ues fit in is for a trained philosopher to say."

To paraphrase the writer Milan Kundera, great storytellers refuse to give explicit moral judgment a place in their fiction. Their stories aren't simple moral parables in which good triumphs over evil. To create a complex fictional world reflecting actual human experience, writers try to suspend their moral judgment. Often they provide multiple moral viewpoints within the story through their dramatization of the conflicting points of view of the various characters. They leave it to the reader to come up with his or her own moral judgment in the statement of the story's theme.

A gifted storyteller says, "Let me tell you how it is," and our interest as readers is always in what the whole story can show us about human experience. Your statement of the theme suggests your understanding of the author's vision of the meaning of life. For example, if you realize that Anton Chekhov deliber­ ately created sympathetic characterizations of Gurov and Anna in "The Lady with the Pet Dog" (p. 102), you will probably decide that the author's theme is better rendered as a statement of a deep truth (love is a serious business) than as a moral injunction (do not commit adultery).

Theme comes last in a discussion of the elements of fiction because it is a consequence of all the other elements in a story. The structure and theme of a story are fused like the body and soul of a reader; their interaction creates a liv­ ing pattern. Authors work hard to breathe life into their fiction. Most do not like to abstract the meaning of their stories to explain what they are "about." Even when they do, as the southern writer Flannery O'Connor did in her ex­ planation of a theme of"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (p. 672) or as William Faulkner did in discussing "A Rose for Emily" (p. 598), some readers agree intellectually but not emotionally with the writer's interpretation. O'Connor said she understood that her story might be read in different ways by different people, but she could have written it only with the one meaning she had in mind.

To say that a story can have more than a single meaning doesn't imply that it can mean anything at all. You have to be able to find sufficient important details that can support your interpretation. Often readers find it difficult to formulate a single sentence that captures their impression of what a story means. After many futile minutes of trying to "boil it down" to a one-sentence essence, they may find words coming irresistibly to mind from another con­ text, written by the American poet Archibald MacLeish: "A poem should not mean I But be. "

The way the author creates the narrative by using all the elements of fic­ tion to embody the theme is, of course, the most important achievement of the story. To appreciate the fact that the story itself is always more complex than its bare-bones meaning, try this experiment: Write a sentence summarizing what

18 The Elements of Fiction: A Storyteller's Means

you believe to be the theme of "Samuel" and then close your anthology and try to re-create Paley's story.

Though the summary of a writer's theme is no substitute for the story in its entirety, your attempt to state it can help you to understand the story better. Flannery O'Connor insisted that a story is not its abstract meaning but rather what she called its "experienced" meaning: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is . . . . When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story."

COMMENTARIES Anton Chekhov, "Technique in Writing the Short Story," page 594; William Faulkner, "The Meaning of� Rose for Emily, '" page 598; Flan­ nery O'Connor, "The Element of Suspense in � Good Man Is Hard to Find, ' " page 672; David S. Reynolds, "Poe's Art of Transformation in 'The Cask of Amontillado, '" page 694.

WEI Learn more about the elements of fiction with VirtuaLit Fiction at bedfordstmartins. com/ charters/ litwriters.

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