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How do the authors of ‘My Polish Teacher’s Tie’ and ‘The Flowers’ develop the protagonists’ identities throughout the story?
Character development is seen in all stories, it’s the main feature of any story.For example, in ‘Chemistry’ by Graham Swift, character development is emphasised through the bonding and relationships between all the characters in the story, the family of a boy (the narrator), his mom and his grandfather and Ralph (an unpleasant figure to the narrator and is presented as being loud and coarse, kept under control by the narrator’s mother).In the beginning of the story we are told that ‘the boat followed an actual existing line between Grandfather, myself and Mother’ as though they are one solitary unit, this also makes the readers presume that they have a healthy relationship. However, as the new character ‘Ralph’ steps in, something already seems eerie about the atmosphere of the story.Suddenly, Ralph starts a heated argument with Grandfather about ‘leaving her alone’ referring to the mother. The dramatic change in the serene nature of the relationships start to transition as grandfather ‘shouts’ at Ralph and Ralph ‘barks’ and ‘clenches his knife’, the main character, the boy, even goes from being an unassuming almost reserved boy in the beginning to someone who ‘takes the glass bottle labelled HNO and pours some of its contents, carefully, into the spice jar.Then picks up Grandfather's tray, places the spice jar beside the plates and carries the tray to the house thinking of throwing the acid in Ralph's face at breakfast.’ towards the end.His character becomes almost unrecognisable from the beginning of the story, and his identity has definitely changed.
Another example of this is in ‘All Summer in a Day’, where the biggest shift or development in character is found in Margot, when she hears or thinks about the Sun. When the story opens, a group of nine-year-old children are gathered excitedly by the window of their underground classroom.After seven long years, the scientists predict the sun will make its brief appearance on Venus; indeed, the rain is also slowing.One child, Margot, stands apart.Unlike most of the children, Margot lived on Earth until five years ago, so while they all speculate about what the sun is like, Margot can actually remember quite well.Margot has not taken well to her new home on Venus: she is frail, quiet, and pale, as if “the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red from her mouth and the yellow from her hair.”She’s also very quiet and isolates herself from other people.However, when she thinks or hears about the Sun, she suddenly starts to express herself.She even wrote a poem about the Sun, and tries to engage in a conversation with another character called ‘William’ who is talking about how the Sun is predicted to come out soon.However, in the short stories ‘My Polish Teacher’s Tie’ by Helen Dunmore and ‘The Flowers’ by Alice Walker, the protagonists’ identities develop throughout the story due to their epiphanies which creates a shift in their identities and creates a clear differentiation between their values and beliefs in the beginning of the story and towards the end.
In ‘My Polish Teacher’s Tie’, the protagonist Carla Carter begins the story by letting the readers know that she considers her job as a part-time catering staff to be what defines her identity.This point is made clear when Carla receives her first letter from Stefan, a Polish pen friend whom Carla has volunteered to write to, she assumes ‘The person he had in his head when he was writing to me was an English teacher, a real professional.This person earned more money than him and had travelled and seen places and done things he’d never been able to do.’ Helen Dunmore hints to the readers that Carla has reached a point here where she herself believes the undeserving image that society has cast upon her and others in her position. The constant repetition of ‘person’ might imply that to Stefan, Carla is only considered an equal or someone worthy because her job as ‘a real professional’ English teacher classifies her as a so-called worthy ‘person’.This may indicate the fear that she carries in her assumption that Stefan’s ‘always very polite’ nature towards her might be derived from his misconceived perception of her job.So it’s clear that Carla is experiencing social divisions that come through differences in employment, and this has created her mixed first impression of Stefan.Her identity and character at this point in the story is very much isolated and insecure.
When Carla writes to Stefan we are also told that she writes about her daughter ‘Jade’ and ‘songs her mother taught her in Polish’, she wants Stefan to focus and see all of the positive, exciting and possibly even unshameful parts of her life.Dunmore even specially emphasises Carla hiding her employment through the quote, ‘I didn’t write anything about my job.Let him think what he wanted to think.
This is an extremely clear use of foreshadowing used by Dunmore to show the readers just how ashamed and perhaps even isolated Carla has become, because she cannot open up her mind to what might be the truth of what actually defines her. Helen Dunmore’s persistent hints of Carla almost unconsciously burying the truth of her life, is already a foreshadowing that the climax might be her learning to accept herself and finding out what truly defines her identity...!
When Carla finally meets Stefan in real life, her first impressions change once again in the realisation that just like her, she has found another person who looks excluded from his surroundings and doesn’t seem to fit in.This creates a sense of unity that Carla feels with Stefan.The first time Carla sees Stefan is when he is sitting in the cafeteria wearing an outfit that looks extremely odd: ‘His tie was wider than normal ties, and it was red with bold green squiggles on it.’ Dunmore’s use of tie has to be noted by the readers because it is symbolic.The ambiguity of the term ‘tie’ might imply that it is the bonding felt between Carla and Stefan. It could also be a reference to the detrimental effects of cultural assimilation on this individual, who struggles to maintain his identity in the midst of a foreign environment.A ‘tie’ is also quite restrictive and perhaps creates difficulty in breathing, this is used to show that both Stefan and Carla struggle to use their mother tongue and bring out their uniqueness when in the midst of such an overwhelming majority of foreigners.This peculiarity in Stefan already brings Carla to feel deep respect and connection with Stefan, and this can be proven through Helen Dunmore’s brilliant use of structure in dialogue between both individuals. ‘Hello,’ I said. He jumped up, held out his hand. ‘How do you do?’he asked.’Usually when a new person speaks, there is a new line for the dialogue, however Dunmore’s deliberate use of the same line may be to show the reader the immediate feeling of oneness that Carla and Stefan feel due to their similar conditions and appearances in society. Carla’s first impressions of Stefan change here, because all her fear and doubt of exclusion from yet another individual has been obliterated by actually meeting a person, an actual person she respects, who is similar to her in numerous ways.
Through Stefan’s acceptance of Carla, their feeling of unity, and Carla’s rekindled ability to get in touch with a language that she once thought she had completely forgotten, she has completely changed.Carla learns to appreciate more than the 1-D perspective she once had, Stefan opened her eyes to appreciate her culture and values.Carla is a much more energetic character towards the end, and much less reserved. She no longer needs validation from others, this is proved when Carla looks at Valerie, a person that she considers authoritarian and detests, she says a blunt ‘No’ when Valerie asks her ‘Is the tea ready yet?’
This is perhaps a direct reflection of how Stefan Jeziorney’s warm and inclusive approach towards her, regardless of her job, has given her confidence and opened her eyes to reveal that there is so much more to a person’s identity than their surface.
Similarly, in the beginning of ‘The Flowers’, Myop can already be seen as someone naive,positive and gullible—she skips ‘lightly’ which is an adverb usually connoting someone who feels free and youthful,which is true in this case. Alice Walker reinforces the idea that Myop has not experienced the unpredictable, darker reality of the outside world, by explaining to the readers that ‘nothing existed for her but her song’.On the whole, Myop is an optimistic and extremely naive child here at the beginning of the story. She’s in her own ‘safe space’ and hasn’t been out and exploring yet.The tone starts to transition when we understand that Myop has ‘turned her back on the rusty boards of her family’s sharecropper cabin’ and has decided to ‘make her own path’.This sudden transition almost alerts the readers because we get the eerie sense that Myop is suddenly moving out of the rejuvenating, comfortable space of her home and into a different world. The sentence ‘today she made her own path’ might be a foreshadowing that she is going to discover new things and suddenly become more independent and experienced in contrast to her originally portrayed, naive and dreamy character.
Another brilliant use of foreshadowing is in the name of the protagonist itself, ‘Myop’ by definition is someone who is short-sighted and this might be a hint that this joyous character we are seeing now is not going to last long.
The atmosphere and tension in the story starts to build up in the next few lines, because as readers we start to speculate if the tone of the story is becoming more sombre.We know that Myop is ‘a mile or more away from home.’ and ‘the strangeness of the land made it not as pleasant as her usual haunts.’ This directly implies that this new found world is much more unsettling and realistic than the dreamy world this journey began in.The peak of tension, meaning the climax, is what comes afterwards because all of a sudden Myop stumbles upon a corpse.‘It was then that she stepped smack into his eyes.’ and ‘her heel became lodged in the broken ridge between brow and nose’ this is where the readers assume Myop is terrified, however she reacts with a strange calmness, ‘she reached down quickly, unafraid’ this might be because she’s so innocent that she doesn’t even realise what she has come across.’It was only when she saw his naked grin that she gave a little yelp of surprise’, at this point we see a reaction in Myop that is unusual in comparison to her usual jolly self.She’s starting to react more humanely and her identity already starts to shift.
Finally, in the last paragraph Myop discovers a lynched man, he was there ‘frayed, rottled, bleached, and frazzled—barely there—but spinning restlessly in the breeze.’ Myop ‘lays down her flowers’ and ‘the summer is over.’
The ending of ‘The Flowers’ establishes that Myop has become more experienced and has attained a more realistic view of the world,through this ghastly experience of coming face to face with a lynched body, she has lost her innocence and naivety in a short space of time. She has matured all of a sudden, her identity and youthfulness of her ‘flowers’ and the ‘summer’, has faded away.The transformation in Myop’s identity from beginning to end can be further solidified when we bring a parallel with the author of ‘The Flowers’, Alice Walker. The author herself, was born to sharecropper parents, in the Jim Crow law era from the mid-1860s to 1960s.She lives a comfortable life, however, just like Myop—something dreadful happened to her that changed her life forever.Walker was shot accidentally in her right eye with a BB gun while playing with her brothers. Scar tissue grew over the blind eye.Before the accident, Alice had been a pretty, lively, talkative child.After the scar tissue appeared, she grew self-conscious about her appearance and withdrew to a solitary world, much like Myop she too was dramatically changed and affected by this one unforgettable experience.The deeper message in this story might be of ending violence, as Alice Walker, being an African American woman herself, and having the first legally married interracial couple in the state in 1967, tries to show the mains of racism through the representation of the lynched character in the story ‘The Flowers’, the main character Myop is completely transformed and grown up in the space of one single day, and she is robbed of her innocence and youth.The violence connoted by the gun that shot Walker in the eye also changed her life.
In conclusion, it is without a doubt that Walker has developed Myop’s identity throughout the story in ‘The Flowers’ from an innocent,playful young girl to someone who has lost her innocence,matured and grown in the space of one day.She has lost her dynamic.This occurred because Myop saw the naked grin of the corpse,this changed her—it was her epiphany. In a similar way,Helen Dunmore cleverly depicts the development of Carla’s identity in ‘My Polish Teacher’s Tie’ when she meets Stefan and realises that what truly defines her is much more than her job,she learns to appreciate her culture and values.This changed her for the better and this was her epiphany.