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The Role of Compassion in Four Short Stories

In: English and Literature

Submitted By lisabell
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All good relationships have a measure of compassion between the players. In these stories, the authors depend on compassion, and the lack of it, to enrich the lives of their characters.
Edward P. Jones wrote about a woman in his short story First Day who remembers with great detail her first day of school. The story only covers one day out of her life, but the moments of that day are laced with all the days prior, all the people in her life and all the events, real and imagined, that got her to that first day of school. That morning before school, the mother is doing her daughter’s hair. The simple act of doing her child’s hair is steeped with the anticipation and history they share, the continued hope of the mother for the child’s success, and the child’s new level of maturity. They struggle to get the hair perfect and eventually are satisfied with their efforts. As the mother and daughter walk into school, into the auditorium to register, the girl/narrator notices another young student. “The girl’s hair is arrayed in curls, but some of them are beginning to droop and this makes me happy.” The narrator’s mother is illiterate, hard working, and single for all practical purposes. Their lives are not perfect, and yet her hair is. The tender act of a mother helping her daughter prepare for school is a symbol of the teamwork that will make that child a success in school. It is not the failing curls of the other child that has made her happy, it is knowing that her mother took the time to make her hair perfect and that it has lasted the whole long morning as they prepare for registration. Jones shows his readers how complex spoken, and unspoken, exchanges are between characters.
Family members often need to act as teammates who work together to reach a goal, but in the short story Alibi Ike by¬¬¬¬ Ring Lardner, the teammates act as anything but team players. A new player joins the team and does quite well, bringing the team win after win. Ike is an odd character with some strange need to excuse himself for every thought and act, perhaps a psychological cover-up to diffuse the judgments of others. Ike’s teammates, unfortunately, do not act as team players; rather than support their friend and teammate, they manipulate and make fun of him. When their thoughtlessness has driven Ike’s fiancée out of the picture, Ike falls into a slump, and the team begins losing games. At this point, it might be obvious to thoughtful, compassionate people that Ike is hurting and his batting average is obviously a sign. True friends would want to help their teammate, would want to bolster his confidence to help him out of his slump. But Ike’s teammates are worried more about their share in the salary for winning teams. “It’s goin’ to beat us out o’ the big money.”(100) They immediately set upon a plan to bring the fiancée back so that Ike will get out of his slump and they will all earn more money. Money is a serious motivator; in this case, it motivated the team to support Ike, but real support, the meaningful kind, would have come from their hearts and they would have reached out to Ike and shown compassion for his predicament –especially because they had a hand in putting him in it.
By contrast, Isabel, Julie Orringer’s character, does have compassion. In her story The Isabel Fish, Isabel reaches into her heart to extend an invitation to Maddy. Isabel is dating Sage and they are headed with friends to a hottub. Maddy is Sage’s younger sister and is hence not invited, most definitely not by her brother. However Isabel is eager to right the wrong by overriding Sage. “I turned to go inside, and that was when Isabel said, ‘Hey Maddy, you can come if you want.’”(61) Isabel reaches out to Maddy because she is uncomfortable with how Sage is treating his sister; Isabel is empathetic and understands how Maddy feels to be so unincluded. Throughout the entire story, Sage shows great disdain for Maddy –even before the accident when Isabel drowns and both Sage and Maddy hold Maddy at least partially responsible. It is unclear if this is a case of severe sibling rivalry, but it is clear that Sage is a mean person with little compassion. Orringer shows the reader how Isabel’s compassion and Sage’s lack of it color Maddy’s world, as well as their own. It seems Isabel was a happier person, and got good feelings from doing good whereas Sage is an angry person who seeks subjects on whom he can blame and lodge his uncomfortable feelings. Maddy and Sage share a complex relationship and how they choose to act will determine the outcome of it.
Complexity is one of the characteristics that makes us human, our complex language and social connectivity. Charles Johnson has written a story, China, where one of two main characters seeks change in his life and the reaction to it reveals the true natures of these two complex individuals. Evelyn and Rudolph are a married couple. Their history together has been a quiet one due to Rudolph’s severe health restrictions. Evelyn was aware of the restrictions before they married and accepted a curtailed life with him. In fact, it seems she preferred a curtailed life because when Rudolph is suddenly inspired to get off the sofa, improve his life and risk his health to pursue a new interest in the martial arts, Evelyn shows real disdain for Rudolph. So threatened by Rudolph’s new hobby, she thinks: “He’s doing this to hurt me.”(372) She jabs at Rudolph about his class and reveals how feeling that she can no longer control him leaves her vulnerable. “’If they’re not gay, then maybe I should take lessons. It’s been good for you, right?’ Her voice grew sharp. ‘I mean, isn’t that what you’re saying? That you and your friends are better’n everybody else?’”(373) It would seem that within a married relationship, we would want what was best for our partner. Evelyn clearly does not want to see Rudolph change, grow, and self-improve. She is risking losing control, and uses mean and disdainful comments to try to contain the damage. When Rudolph refuses to engage at this petty level, he is patient with Evelyn. But even that enrages Evelyn: “Oh, he was becoming a real saint. At times it made her want to hit him.” (375) And hit him she does with verbal assaults that illustrate her nasty nature. In the first half of the story, the reader believes Evelyn is the saint for accepting Rudolph and his limitations as she has, but as the story continues with new hope for change and growth, Evelyn cannot risk losing her current stature in their relationship. Johnson shows the reader how Evelyn’s lack of compassion and goodness is limiting her more than Rudolph’s health limited him.
These four short stories have rich and complex characters. The authors reveal to the reader how their characters’ actions reveal their natures, but it is also true that their natures dictate their actions. Why do humans treat humans differently and what motivates us to show compassion, or not? Is our personal nature the driving force behind our actions? When a person is kind, is it because he cannot help himself, just as Evelyn cannot seem to help herself from being unkind? Does Isabel have a choice to invite Maddy or is it simply that she is good and so she invites her? If that were true, then our lives would be a lot less complex. It is our reaction to our natures that makes life interesting. It is our choices despite our natures that make the difference. Choosing to be compassionate, even when we feel disdain, makes us truly good characters. Just as Rudolph has chosen to draw himself onto his feet despite the risks, we must draw ourselves to our good natures and make choices that put us at risk in the name of compassion.

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