Friday, August 11, 2017

Homework Assignment: Flash Fiction - A New Trend in Literature

Okay, I have to admit, that my teacher and I had a disagreement over this paper. My assignment was to write an argumentative essay. I used descriptions as arguments, which he said made the essay descriptive instead of argumentative. I have written hundreds of argumentative essays by now and my arguments have never been brought into question by any of the teachers. I do not understand why we had this disagreement and it genuinely bothers me. There was more to be written on this topic, however, I am happy with what I wrote and thus I want to share it here. Let me clear up something: I can take criticism. I understand if my paper is bad and if the teacher disagrees with some of my points, but (look at the irony) his arguments as in why it wasn't what he wanted weren't very clear. At two points he argued that there was more that I could have said, and I agree. Still, he made me feel pretty bad about what I wrote and instead of telling me how to improve it he just handed it back. It wasn't a good teaching moment, is all I'm saying, because I do want to improve my essay! Criticism would have helped me in this crusade. This is another reason why I decided to post it: if any of you readers out there can help me make it better, please do!
This is a short story by Stephen King entitled "Night Surf", which was published in the collection of stories Night Shift. In it I argue that the beach was a metaphor for death... to this the teacher said, that yeah, of course, as water can be both death and life, to which I answered yes, it can. However, this IS my argument: that in this story it stands for death. See... I still don't get what the problem was as I included a counterargument as well, pointing out I understand the ambiguity of this figure of speech. But, enough about that, read on if you want to know what I wrote:
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The Beach in King’s “Night Surf
            Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic tale was published in the Night Shift collection of stories in 1978. The short story in question is about a group of friends who spend their days at the beach as the rest of the world was wiped out by a flu epidemic caused by the virus A6. The story is presented to the readers through the eyes of the main character, Bernie, a bittersweet man who recalls his memories of the world before the epidemic hit. He is unhappy and uneasy about their situation and keeps comparing the past to the present. The following essay will argue that the setting of the beach in the novella is an allegory for death and that it can be interpreted as a “terminal beach”. For this purpose, the two versions of the beach within the story will be compared to each other. The essay will also highlight how the text plays with the idea of life and death throughout the story by using the metaphor of the ocean.
            Stephen King has utilized the beach’s landscape in some of his stories, such as the world of Dark Tower, The Talisman (1984) set in Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire; Duma Key (2008), which is set in Florida; and another short story, The Dune (2015). Most of King’s books are set in the small towns of Maine, his home state, and because of that, the stories that deal with or are situated at the beach are limited. Water is still an important element in his books, but in many cases, beaches are substituted by lakes, an example would be Dark Score Lake featured in the Bag Of Bones (1998) collection of short stories. Because the stories set near the sea are limited, it is easy to draw comparison between them. However, the above mentioned stories required the setting to be near water, and the beach itself somehow remained in the background. That was not the case with the “Night Surf, where the beach, the water and the surf are active components of the story.
It is extremely hard to argue on the definition of allegories and metaphors, as their purpose is to signify something that the authors deliberately decide to keep hidden. In order to argue for the bleak setting of this short story there is a need to draw comparison between different authors (Boys-Stones 153). In Victorian stories, the beaches were simply patches of sand next to the sea. With time, however, they became synonymous with holidays and leisure (Kluwick and Richter 21). The beach as an encounter of men and women from different classes gave rise to both embarrassment and “sexual excitement” (23), which provided material for satires of the age. Just this small description entails that the connotations of the beach were positive for a long time. Nonetheless, there are beaches that are not meant for bathing and those shores where the waves beat the rocks remorselessly were metaphors for danger (31). The beach was a recurring background in literature, many 20th century crime novels used the slippery rocks of the sea-side for the intentional or accidental death of characters. The idea of the beach being a dangerous setting instead of a joyful place was not uncommon, examples of it include The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978), Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (2001), or another apocalyptic tale “When We Went To See The End Of The World” by Robert Silverberg (1972).
            The beach is also an interesting setting, as there is nothing to hide there. King is known for choosing landscapes that entail a form of mystery; places like woods engulfed in mists and dark towns where characters can hide. By setting the story at the beach everything is seen in plain sight. For the apocalyptic setting of the story it was vital to have an open space that enhances the idea that the protagonists are alone in the world.
The setting of the story is a landscape that is not unknown for the main characters. “I used to come to Anson Beach a lot when I was still in high school” (King 65), Bernie the main characters says about the place where the story takes place. They arrived to the beach only recently, as there is no mention of the group of friends having stayed here longer than the extent of the tale. The short story presents us with two beaches, one is the present state of the beach and the second is the one in the main character’s memories. It is important to draw a comparison among the two as they are very different. The first describes an inhabited place where nature has taken over and which was left by mankind. Bernie describes how the place was always filled with trash as men came and always left something that reminded them of life: “But now all the dirt and all the crap was gone. The ocean had eaten it, all of it, as casually as you might eat a handful of Cracker Jacks” (60) and “the deserted lifeguard tower stood white and skeletal” (61). This image immediately makes the reader uneasy, as it describes something both peaceful and horrifying. Nature went on living without mankind, without the “[t]ourists, picnickers, runny-nosed kids and fat baggy grandmothers with sunburned elbows” (60). In the beginning of the story the friends burn a man who had contracted the virus. One of them jokes around saying that maybe this sacrifice will bring them good luck. Although the rest of the friends do not think much of it, it is interesting to see that the nature that surrounds them was given God-like qualities, by this it becomes an active participant in the story. King himself said once: “I've written a lot of books about teenagers who are pushed to violent acts” (Spignesi 119), and this is an example of it. The death of that man remains with Bernie all throughout the story, and his death establishes the mood of the story from the beginning to the end.
The beach, shore or bay is most commonly used in romantic context. One example would be The Great Gatsby, where the romantic setting of the bay is made more attractive by highlighting the harshness of the city; this is also true for Farewell My Love where it isn’t New York City but Los Angeles that duels with the calmness of the beach opposed to the chaotic city (“Symbolism”). However, in King’s short story it is the same beach at two different moments in time that are dueling. Not to mention that here, in the apocalyptic setting of the story, it is the calmness that makes the beach or shore unattractive, and it is the memories of a chaotic beach life that cause comfort: “Candy wrappers and popsicle sticks in the sand, all the beautiful people necking on their beach blankets, intermingled stench of exhaust from the parking lot, seaweed, and Coppertone oil” (King 60).
The symbolic the idea that the ocean is a barrier or a border can be observed. One interpretation of the story could be the main characters wondering the world and have arrived to a point where there is no more. They have arrived at the end of their journey, “There was nothing to see but the restless, moving humps of the waves, topped by delicate curls of foam” (King 64). The beach is terminal not only because one of them having contracted the virus will probably infect them, but because there is no place to go from there. The foam, however, might have a reference to Aristotle, who says of Aphrodite that “You were born of the foam of the sea” (Brittan 23). The story keeps playing with both positive and negative connotations of the sea; in one moment it can bring about life and the next it can bring about death. But the sea is most commonly referred to as the place that generates life (“Symbolism”); it is interesting to observe how this was inverted in the short story. The argument for the inversion comes from the fact that nothing new is born from them staying on the beach. Alfred Tennyson described the sea as a representation of “the eternal life from which the human soul came, and to which it would return” (Kluwick and Richter 22), and it can be said that this return has occurred. The ocean itself is usually used as a metaphor for a journey that is about to begin, something that has to be conquered, a place that has to be crossed rather than a place that can be inhabited (“Symbolism”). However, in the story this never occurs.
The beach is more commonly referred to as a peaceful place, even in the narrative. Bernie says “Kelly and Joan had wandered off. I could see them down by the edge of the water, walking with their arms around each other's waist. They looked like an ad in a travel agent's window” (King 63); this image is very positive in comparison to that of an ocean slowly eating away at everything that is human. Bernie says: “And if we were the last people on earth, so what? This would go on as long as there was a moon to pull the water” (64), establishing again that nature will keep on living without men.
It is interesting to compare the warmth of the memory of the place – “We had walked along the boardwalk in front of this place, barefoot, the boards hot and sandy beneath our heels” (65), to that of the present where Bernie describes standing in the sand as “damp and packed” (64). All throughout the story, Bernie is mean to his girlfriend, Susie, while he recalls dating someone else when the beach was still a warm welcoming place.
In the background, the surf is always active, the main character often finds himself staring at it, saying that “[t]he surf pounded and smashed. High tide,” (65) and that it was “coming in, coming in, coming in. Limitless. Clean and deep” (67). It could very well signify the passing of time as well as showcase that it is always in motion, as opposed to the main characters who are now stuck in this reality. Bernie says that despite everything, he doesn’t want to die. Before the end of the story he stands in the door of a balcony, feeling the cold breeze of the sea against his body (64), but again, it is cold. Whilst the last sentence recalls that summer with his former girlfriend, which he describes saying that “the air had been hot, the sand bright, the sun like a burning glass” (67). The description of the beach as cold or hot is another allegory for life vs. death. The main characters are alive, but they might as well be dead. Bernie even notes that they are already thinking of shelter and that “[n]obody should think about winter in August. It's like a goose walking over your grave” (King 64). Their priorities have shifted as the world has changed. Again, winter suggests cold, and in the short story, cold was a repetitive connotation to an unwelcome present. It is unclear if it is the different girlfriend or simply the bustle in the background that makes the memories much more pleasant.
In conclusion, King places the main characters at an inhabited beach that is the source of many good memories of the protagonist. The story keeps drawing comparison between how the beach was before the outbreak of the virus compared to how it is now. The memories are warm whilst the present is cold in the interpretation of Bernie. The story plays with comparing a bright summer afternoon to the never ending motion of the ocean that was not influenced in anyway by the apocalypse surrounding it. While everything in Bernie’s memory faded away, and even the trash on the beach was devoured by the ocean, the surf still comes tirelessly.

Works cited:
Boys-Stones, George R.. Metaphor, allegory, and the classical tradition. Ancient thought and modern revisions. Oxford, 2005. PDF.
Brittan, Simon. Poetry, Symbol, and Allegory: Interpreting metaphorical language from Plato to the present. University of Virginia Press, 2003. PDF.
King, Stephen. Night shift. Anchor, 2008. Ebook.
Kluwick, Ursula, and Virginia Richter. The Beach in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures: Reading Littoral Space. Routledge, 2016. PDF.
“Symbolism of Place: 2. Natural Places.” Symbolism.Org. N.p., n.d. <> Accessed 19 March 2017.
Spignesi, Stephen J. The essential Stephen King: a ranking of the greatest novels, short stories, movies, and other creations of the world's most popular writer. Career Press, 2003. PDF.

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