Prior to reading the following, you should have read The Great Depression posted under Short Stories.
The narrative and the explanation found below was written to support instructor delivered training for law enforcement and intelligence investigators and analysts; however, it is equally applicable to writers who desire a better understanding of how their writing is interpreted by their readers. Understandably, these notes presented in a written format are more difficult to understand. Nevertheless, Federal, State, and municipal offices, may use them free of charge with the following provisions: The work should not be altered; the author is appropriately identified and the copyright notification is included on all printed materials; and the author is notified, by a comment to this blog (which will not be published) of the organization, purpose, date, and location of usage.
Dissecting The Great Depression
Steven S. Walsky
The Great Depression is a work of flash fiction exploring the psychological concept of personal interactions and perceptions of one’s environment. Think about newspaper articles concerning missing persons or victims of a homicide. The more positive things said about the subject – “she was a gifted student,” “he worked with disadvantaged children,” or “he was a father of three small children” -the greater the human interest, which can equate to greater reader attention to the situation; but more importantly, the greater the association and empathy the reader has with the subject. Increased or decreased association and empathy can influence the investigator’s and analyst’s objectivity. As one assesses an event, they will subconsciously attach negative or positive values to the subjects; this is also referred to as acceptance/non-acceptance.
One’s perception of an observed event, or an event described in a report, is a compilation of the four levels of message comprehension: observable (obvious), implicit (implied, an allegory), linier relationship (linking the observable and implicit to other possible events), and egocentric (prejudices the reader brings to the table). The witness, investigator, and analyst will make couscous and subconscious decisions as to what took place. Obviously, the greater the physical and/or time distance the person is from the event itself, objectivity becomes more complicated. The analyst has the most difficult time because they are relying on reports and sanitized evidence.
For example, take a group of office workers assembled in a conference room for an office social gathering. The workers range from the first day on the job – to – years with the group. All eyes turn to the door as two individuals enter the room. The female has her arm around the male and is leaning into him. One individual in the room, a brand new employee, may read the implicit message as “They are a couple.” Another coworker, who does not know the two very well may think, “They are both married to someone else, terrible!” Yet a third coworker, who is familiar with the two may say, “I told her not to wear those shoes and she must had fallen.”
Consider the statement: Joan walked to the store to buy herself some candy. One observable message is, ‘Joan went to a store to buy candy.’ Two implicit messages are, ‘Joan did not intend to give the candy to someone else,’ and ‘Joan intended to buy, not steal the candy.’ A linier relationship could be, ‘The store was within walking distance for Joan.’ While the egocentric message may be, ‘Joan is going to waste money on candy.’
Both examples also illustrate the extent of acceptance/non-acceptance.
As the observation continues, the observer will, in a broad sense, try to ‘read into’ the event to move closer to an acceptable underlining message; a compellation of the four levels of perception. The harsher — the ‘hard to admit that things like this happen in our society’ — events are less recognizable in their true meaning because individuals, to varying degrees, chide acceptance (self-association) with negative human interaction and thus, in a protective move, only touch the surface, the ‘overlay,’ story (similar to a parable).
Using the analogy of Henri Matisse and Quentin Taratino, one can accept the pleasantness of a Matisse garden and may use visual association to enter a pleasing ‘daydreaming’ state. The movie Pulp Fiction is, on the other hand, a good example of non-acceptance, where the viewer’s mind may read distastefulness and in response shuts him/herself off from the message; even to the point of not watching the movie.
What does this all mean?
The psychological concept of personal interactions and perceptions of one’s environment plays a significant role in how one computes an observed event or interprets the event from oral, written, and visual media. As mentioned, the harsher the circumstances one has to deal with, the greater non-acceptance will cloud the issue; resulting in flawed perception. The witness, investigator, and analyst each have trouble accepting some degree of self-association with negative human interaction and thus, in a protective move, may only touch the surface of the story. A good example is the effect of emotional influences on a homicide detective dealing with a particularly gruesome murder, or one involving a small child. The closer the detective or analyst associates with the victim or the suspect, the harder it is to maintain objectiveness in one’s perception of the incident.
The Great Depression illustrates prejudicial acceptance/non-acceptance by manipulating the reader’s perception of events by choice of words and flow of action.
(The students should have read The Great Depression prior to the following discussion)
The Great Depression
(The title is a both a play on words and foreshadowing)
Martha had moved across the city; took the bus to work wearing a blouse ‘so’ pretty.
(The use of prose that rhyme sets a mood; the word “moved” denotes progression in Martha’s life, as well as in the story; while the “blouse ‘so’ pretty” is edgy.
Martha rode the number 27 bus every day; worked in an office. Sat at a desk, old wooden thing; been there since the Great Depression. Martha always wondered why they referred to it as the ‘Great’ Depression. What was so great about it? Her mom was born during it; maybe that qualified as ‘great.’ Saw a movie once about some family that left their farm in “Hok-la-ho-ma,” or some ‘ho.’ Martha always laughed at her ‘ho’ puns. She secretly liked to call the woman who sat across from her on the number 27 bus a ‘ho from Idaho.’ Martha wondered if ho’s did come from Ida, “where ever the ho, that is.” She laughed as she rode the number 27 bus this first Tuesday in November. She never made it to work.
(Everything about the above paragraph makes Martha a human being the reader can relate to. She goes to work every day; works at a place that’s established (the desks having been there a long time); she has a mother; she makes puns; she laughs; and she has opinions. All positive perceptions. But, she “never made it to work” needs to be answered; an unknown in the situation.)
At two minutes before seven, just as the number 27 bus pulled away from the stop at Bramberg and Clark, just as Martha laughed at her ho joke, a man with sad eyes stood up and shot her. Point blank. He was from Texas, just south of ‘nowhere’ West Texas. Used an old 45 cal. auto once owned by his father. Martha had never seen the man before. He had seen Martha, or, at least, a woman that looked like her. Saw her in a newspaper ad for something; the something was not important. The face in the ad was.
(The reader has empathy, sympathy for Martha: The first sentence reinforces Martha’s humanness, but it ends with a senseless act. The reader has signified with Martha the human being and, thus, the senseless act is distasteful. The distastefulness of the act increases because the reader subconsciously distances him-/herself from the perpetrator. The man ‘with sad eyes’ starts the negative perception. He is unsettled; from “just south of ‘nowhere’ West Texas.” Not a small town, not from the expanse of scrubland of West Texas, but “south of ‘nowhere’;” not even from nowhere. The fact he used a gun that belonged to his father under other circumstances could be acceptable; he has a father, he has a piece of family history; but not here. The reader can not signify with the man, because he shot Martha. Even more influential is: “He had seen Martha, or, at least, a woman that looked like her. Saw her in a newspaper ad for something; the something was not important. The face in the ad was.” The story does not establish a logical or rational explanation; regardless of whether or not the explanation is justifiable.)
He had been living in a one room walk-up on West 41st; rented it from a retired house painter. On the first Monday in November, the man, sitting in his single chair, opened his newspaper and saw the advertisement. After remaining motionless, staring at the face for three hours, his trance was broken by the retired house painter’s fist banging on the front door. The man looked at the door…banging…looked at the picture…banging…back at the door. He made his decision. Pulling the gun out from under the chair cushion, he walked to the door, opened it, and shot the retired house painter.Point blank. The blood splattered on the walls of the hallway.
(The descriptives used to establish the existence of the man and his behavior serve to further distance the reader from the man. The words “one room walk-up,” “rented,” and “his single chair” denote non-permanency. But, what about the owner of the apartment? The words used, imply he is a member of society. While not enough to bond with the reader, they are enough to give him substance; not just an object in the shooter’s way. He owns property, is retired (worked for a living), and we know what he did, a house painter. However, the reader should not have the same feelings as for Martha, because the words rush through the incident – “Pulling the gun out from under the chair cushion, he walked to the door, opened it, and shot the retired house painter” – and, unlike the build-up to Martha, the words, to include ‘point blank,’ denote closure to the landlord’s role in the story. The reader’s subconscious readily accepts this closure, with the final act of, albeit protective, closure being accentuated by “The blood splattered on the walls of the hallway.” Not just a messy act that is distasteful, but he was a retired house painter; we make unconscious associations.)
Not stopping to grab a coat, the man stepped over the dead retired house painter and walked down the hall, descended the steps, and out the entrance door to the street. He walked until boarding the number 27 bus the next morning; the first Tuesday in November.
(The unacceptable visualization of the man is now reinforced by his callous actions in the first sentence, while the second sentence brings new acceptance for Martha, as this unacceptable shooter (note, not man, or person) enters Martha’s world.)
Martha was late as usual and never noticed the man as she hurried to sit down. He noticed her. He saw the way she wore her hair, her choice of blouse, jacket, her eyes. Martha never noticed him; never looked his way.
(Again we are given words that make Martha in the reader’s mind a ‘circumstantial victim.’)
She just looked like the woman in the ad. The man was beyond depression, bordering on suicidal. And when the depression became too great to fight, he stood up and shot Martha.
With the great depression over, the man sat back down and looked out the window.
(The man is pushed further from acceptance by the words ‘depression’ and ‘suicidal.’ Finally, unlike the shooting of the landlord, the story gives pause – “the man sat back down and looked out the window” – allowing the reader time to contemplate Martha’s life and death.)
As the notes indicate, in The Great Depression attempts to manipulate the reader’s perception of events by choice of words and flow of action.
The first question for the reader is: At the moment Martha was shot, did you feel compassion for Martha? Did your compassion level, on a 1 – 10 scale, with ten being complete compassion, change as the story progressed?
Did you feel the same way at the moment the landlord was shot?
Did you have to re-read any section of the story? Was it an afterthought due to something that happened later on?
Do you have any sympathy for the shooter?
Did you wonder about the woman in the ad? Did your interest in the woman in the ad change on the 1 – 10 scale after Martha was shot? After the being asked the preceding questions?
Without looking back at the story answer:
How is the bus described?
On what day of the week was the landlord was shot?
What piece of Martha’s clothing did the man notice?
Could Martha have brought about her death by some action prior to moving to the place she now lives in?
What size is the community in the story? This question illustrates our perception of a small town. Some readers may equate the size of a town by descriptives such a ‘bus service,’ ‘avenues,’ the word ‘city,’ etc.
“The Great Depression” Copyright 2007 by Steven S. Walsky, all rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (to include electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without written permission of the author.