The Soul Is Not a Smithy

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Back to David Foster Wallace or Oblivion: Stories.


Summary

Structure

The story's plot exists in three basic planes: a day in the narrator's childhood, the story of a complex daydream that the narrator has that day, and the narrator's thoughts and reflections as an adult. The information given to the reader comes from varied sources as the narrator attempts to piece together what happened that day in his childhood. He describes his own memories, the accounts he has heard from others present that day, and the articles in ‘’The Columbus Dispatch’’ about the events of the day.

The related event occurred on March 14, 1960, in a 4th grade civics class at R.B. Hayes Private School in Columbus, OH. The narrator explains that the class had a substitute teacher, Mr. Johnson, and that the class was studying the Constitution unit. Sections of a news article about the incident, presumably written by the adult narrator for The Dispatch, are scattered throughout the story and written in all-caps. They give succinct explanations about the incident and the issues surrounding it. They also detail the future lives and careers of a few of the children in the classroom.

In the beginning, the narrator spends a great deal of time describing the set up of classroom and arrangement of desks. The narrator tends to give excessive details that often don't directly relate to the actual incident, and goes off onto tangents that most likely consumed his mind as a child. The accounts of the narrator relate the difficulty he has experienced in remembering the events of that day in 1960 because of the trauma he experienced. As the story goes on, the reader anticipates the explanation of the real event, but the narration becomes increasingly distracted and convoluted by tangents.

Daydream

While sitting in class, the narrator, a nine year-old boy, has complex daydreams looking out the window. His story is imagined like a comic strip in the panels of the window. His imagination is triggered by the stray dogs he observes out the window. The story, which weaves in and out with what is actually going on in the classroom, is about a young deaf girl named Ruth Simmons. Her dog, Cuffie, goes missing when he chases two stray dogs. From then on the daydream follows four separate, alternating lines:

  • Ruth sits in the classroom at the school for the blind and molds a playdough dog as she hopes her parents find Cuffie. Then, the other students in her class hoot and tease her for her poor attempt at a dog sculpture and one student attempts to hit the sculpture with his cane.
  • Ruth's dog, Cuffie, is harried by the feral dogs he follows and is forced into a pipe. He is attacked and killed by swarms of rats or cockroaches, and then the boy narrator ends the storyline abruptly.
  • Marjorie, Ruth's depressed mother, drives around the streets of the town searching for unsuccessfully for Cuffie. She eventually dies by carbon monoxide poison in the car.
  • Ruth's father works at the estate of a rich businessman. He works with a Snow Boy power lawnmower and gets his arm dismembered in the intake chute of the mower.

The daydream also includes many offshoots of the story, including stories about the mother's life and Ruth as a younger child.

Classroom

The beginning of the incident in the classroom occurs while the boy narrator is daydreaming about Ruth Simmons and her dog. What is going on in the classroom is only later described to narrator by Blemm and Caldwell who arere aware enough to see what is going on. Mr. Johnson, the substitute for the narrator's 4th grade class, is at the chalkboard teaching the students about the Constitution. He writes "due process KILL of law" on the board, and steps back and seems puzzled by it. He then proceeds to insert the words KILL THEM amongst other constitutional amendments. Johnson acts like some evil force is willing him to make a one note high-pitched noise and to write "KILL KILL KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM DO IT NOW KILL THEM" on the board. The students, except the narrator and a few others who cannot read, react with confusion and fear. The atmosphere in the room subconsciously affects the daydream, causing it to go out of the boy narrator's control and leading to the sad demise of all the characters. He becomes aware of what is going on in the classroom when a classmate vomits.

The adult narrator reflects upon the flash-like frames that remain in his mind and relates them to the nightmarish quality of the film The Exorcism. difference between conciousness then and present, adult awareness of what went on.

The narrator tells how he and three others became “4 Unwitting Hostages” because they are not paying attention and do not leave the classroom when everyone else flees. Johnson continues to write KILL on the board after the armed officers come forcibly into the room, and does not resist the officers. Increasing intensity and physical position give officers “perceived threat to hostage safety” which is very questionable,but used by the officers to shoot Johnson.

The narrator relates nightmares he has had since a young age about the monotony of his father’s life: going to a boring office job, coming home, going through the routine. His nightmares paint images of the routine office job in the 50’s.

The article written later when the narrator is an adult questions the intended meaning of the “them” on the board. Then narrator proceeds to give many quantitative, specific details about the classroom, and a detailed explanation of the class’s Presidents’ Day pageant.

What is most noteworthy about the story is the way it is narrated, that is, the jumping back and forth in both time and between fantasy and reality. The shifts between flash-forwards (to the legal proceedings later, he future lives and careers of the four "hostages"), the events in the classroom, and the world inside of the boy narrator's mind weave together a story from many sources. Important to consider are the way the memory works, the use of imagination as an escape from trauma, and the idea of nightmare.

Characters

  • narrator (name not mentioned)
  • narrator's father, mother, and older brother (names not mentioned)
  • Mr. Johnson, substitute civics teacher
  • within the narrator's fantasy: Ruth Simmons (blind girl), Cuffie the dog, father, 2 older sisters, mother (Marjorie)
  • Dr. Biron-Maint, police psychologist
  • Miranda, the narrator’s now-wife
  • characters in ‘’The Exorcist’’
  • narrator’s older brother (name not mentioned)

Students

  • Frank “Frankie” Caldwell
  • Chris DeMatteis
  • Mandy Blemm (“strange and disturbed”(69))
  • Terence Velan (German, later transferred out of school)
  • Rosemary Ahearn, Emily-Ann Barr, Sanjay Rabindranath, Ellen Morrison, Swearingen twins, Gregory Oehmke, Llewellyn, Mary Unterbrunner (“Big Bertha”) and other students


Themes/Motifs

Perception

The way the narrator sees as a child is often contrasted with the way he saw things as a boy on the day of the incident. As an adult, his perception of the incident is now informed by outside accounts, not just his own view. It is the “good peripheral vision”(71) he had as a boy that allowed him to see the window panels as “comprising cartoon strips, filmic storyboards, comics, the like"(71).

Imagination

As a boy, the narrator used imagination as an escape from reality. His imagination helped him to ignore the trauma that was inflicted by Mr. Johnson's shooting. The story demonstrates the powerful hold of imagination on a child's mind, so strong that he can sit through the chaos of the classroom and be consumed by the story he has created.

Fantasy vs. reality

The line between fantasy and reality becomes very blurry as the narrator jumps between his daydream and what is going on in the classroom. As the story goes on, the separation becomes even more unclear as the shift back to reality is often right after a sentence about the daydream. This blurred line has made it very difficult for the adult narrator to remember or understand the trauma he experienced.

Memory

The narrator discusses the contrast between a child's memory and an adult's memory:“As we age, many people notice a shift in the objects of their memories”(97). The memory is selective and often does not recall trauma such as the incident in the story. The narrator's memory only reflects the moments in which he was aware of the reality of his situation. “For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness"(97).

Nightmares

The narrator describes his flashbacks, like those from the film The Exorcist, as having unsettling, nightmarish qualities. He also gives great insight into his childhood upbringing and his relationship with his father by describing the nightmares he had about having his father's job (103).

Corporate tedium

The narrator's childhood nightmares about his father's job reflect his fear of the tedious routine that his father was forced to live. The imagery of the nightmare demonstrates the typical 1950's conformity and office life, reminiscent of the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. In many book reviews, the most mentioned part of this story is the daydream about the father's workplace. This fear of ordinariness haunts the narrator and is especially memorable.

This theme of corporate monotony is echoed throughout Oblivion: Stories in different ways. This story investigates how a youngster is psychologically impacted by his father's work and how the fear of the ordinary life manifests itself.

Faces

As is true with many of Wallace's stories and novels, the face is a common motif. Specifically, the "tilted up" face is repeated. The narrator observes Mr. Johnson's face to try to understand what the substitute is thinking. *Mr. Johnson: "Johnson’s face tilted upward"(76). "Something was wrong with Johnson's face"(89). “Mr. Johnson’s face’s character and expression were indescribable. I will never forget it”(100).

  • Ruth: Ruth’s face tilted upward to offer prayers for Cuffie’s safe return (82).
  • Father Karras from The Exorcist: Father Karras’ transfigured face, “the face of evil”(97).
  • The men in the office nightmare: "Men’s faces puffy and seamed with adult tension and wear and appearing to hang slightly loose...”(108)

Windows and frames

The boy narrator uses the segments in the window as the panels in his storyline. The window also provides the view of outside that triggers his daydreams. Later, the small windows in the office nightmare symbolize the stifling, cage-like environment that invokes fear in the boy's stomach (105).

Claws

The claw motif oddly appears twice in the story, and is possibly influenced by the dogs that the boy narrator daydreams about. Much of the daydream revolves around the dogs, and the boy narrator remembers three images of hands in the shape of a claw: Mr. Johnson's hand looks like a claw as his arm goes straight out to the side and he uses his other hand to write the words KILL THEM on the board with growing intensity (92). The students claw at the doorknob when they flee the classroom (102).

Artistic Impotency

It is interesting to note, given the story's title, that so many of the russian doll inner narratives of the Soul Is Not A Smithy ultimately don't do what their creators want them to. The theme of narrative or artistic impotency is closely related to the theme of incommunicability that's pervaded Wallace's work since Broom of The System, but artistic impotency is specific species of solipsism. Art is about more than pure expression. It's generally got a fairly specific purpose: to entertain, to "get inside your head", to say "what it is to be a fucking human," these goals are dependent on effective communication but they're also dependent on effective pre-communicative conception on the part of the artist, on vision and creativity. While the characters in "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" suffer from the inability to communicate to be sure, they also, perhaps more importantly, suffer from the inability to conceive of things to communicate that might achieve their artistic intentions, the inability to forge something even personally worthwhile in the smithies of their souls.

Title

The title of "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is a reference to James Joyce's novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the end of the novel, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, leaves Ireland with plans "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." A smithy is the workshop of a blacksmith. The title makes the statement that the soul is not something in which an "uncreative conscience" should or can be created.

Voice

The narrator of this story is a mature adult reflecting back on past events, struggling to remember portions of what occured. He often explains that he now understands many things that he did not before about the traumatic events. This method of reflection puts a spin on the story, because we are forced to wonder what really occurred that day. The only sources we have are now removed from the event, and the information we receive as readers is a patchwork of memories, inferences, and other sources.

Context

On daydreaming: An article in The San Diego Union-Tribune theorizes that the boy in the story "may well have Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning cousin of autism sometimes associated with idiots savant. His "deficient" attention is really just redirected into elaborate, storyboarded fancies." The article also mentions the possibility that ""Smithy" is a portrait of the autist as a young man." This idea is well-supported by the boy's intense attention to arbitrary details but seeming obliviousness to the human interactions around him.

On the basis of the story: From our research, there is no online record of a similar case occurring.

Criticism

In reviews of Oblivion: Stories, "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" has generally received either very positive reviews ("a stand-out") or been pushed to the end as one of the less well-done pieces in the book.

The story received very favorable reviews from an L.A. Times article by Scott M. Morris titled "Beyond the boundaries":

"Finally, "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" may well be a masterpiece. In it, the narrator reflects on a traumatic event that occurred in his fourth-grade classroom. The window through which he views this past event in his imagination happens to be the window he looked out of in the fourth grade, which was divided into rectangular vistas by protective wire mesh. As a boy, he would play certain scenes out in these rectangles, keeping tabs on happenings in his neighborhood, much as a movie director cutting and pasting clips.


The implication is that the world is limited by the ways in which we frame it, a take that is solidly within the postmodern paradigm Wallace works over so well. But as these scenes of terror and longing are replayed, an outer reality of flesh and blood seeps through the mesh configurations, and that reality makes powerful claims on us.


With "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," Wallace has shattered the myopia of theory and planted a flag on the surface of human terrain. The high stakes of life have supplanted postmodern playfulness, and in "Oblivion," Wallace has laid down a marker that will be coveted by readers."

Although very wordy, the reviewer praises the story's take on the limits of perspective. Wallace moves on from pure theory to a human look at why we see and remember things the ways we do.

In an article for culturevulture.com, Bob Wake observes an unspoken parallel in the portrayals of Mr. Johnson, the substitute teacher, and the narrator's father:

"As he reflects on the monotonous insurance company job his father dutifully held for years, an unspoken parallel emerges between the school teacher and the father, as well as the narrator himself."