Short Story Analysis Sample
Nonfiction short stories and essays are ways for authors to give the readers a peek into an incident or event or some emotion. For this paper, “On Going Home,” by Joan Didion and “Who Will Light the Incense When Mother’s Gone” by Andrew Lam will be studied. A summary of the writer’s strategies used to convey their ideas will be provided, along with the theme, purpose, and how I personally relate to each story. Finally, there will be a discussion on nonfiction stories and imagination.
“On Going Home” is a short story by Joan Didion about her trips home to her family home, and the changes and emotions she goes through during this experience. Didion talks about the person she becomes when she is in her family home, and uses imagery and metaphors to describe the dynamic she experiences in her family home, and especially when her husband is involved. Her family always discusses the same things; “we appear to talk exclusively about people we know who have been committed to mental hospitals…” and her husband cannot understand “why so many people he hears about in my father’s house have recently been committed to mental hospitals…” (p. 620).
“Who Will Light the Incense When Mother’s Gone” is a short story by Andrew Lam about an immigrant family and the struggle to both become American and keep up with old traditions. Lam’s mother is afraid that he has become too American, a “cowboy.” Lam tells us that “a cowboy in Vietnamese estimation is a rebel who…leaves town…to ride alone in the sunset.” (p. 1078). Lam also uses metaphors to describe how his mother views him. Lam expresses his fear to be left alone in the world when his mother leaves, but his hesitation to take up her conventions.
Both writers talk about ‘home’ as something the last generation kept alive, and no matter how stale, it can be comforting. Didion even uses the imagery about the dust in her family’s home to show the reader how nothing changes at her family home. Lam uses imagery about the incense slowly burning and his mother mumbling indecipherably to dead people to show how this tradition is old and nonsensical to him.
I can personally relate to the themes of both stories. Like Didion, my family home is a central place we all convene and fall into our typical roles. My parents have kept the same home for over 35 years. There are still works of my “art” on the walls from when I was a young child. That house is pretty much frozen in time. My mom told my sister and me that she was running out of room for photos, and we suggested to her that she replace some of our old photos with new ones that are a little more modern and reflective of where we are today. She was at first appalled by the idea, but is becoming more and more open to it. My mother’s home does not have the same actual dust as Didion’s family home, because her home is very clean, but she has a lot of literal ‘dust’ in that there is so much she has not gotten rid of. My daughter has a bunch of toys to play with when she goes over there, and they are mostly my old toys – and I am thirty years old! It is very hard for my mom and dad to let go of things, and I can see that convention in Didion’s story as well.
The theme of this story is the convention of ‘home,’ and the purpose is to show the author is at a crossroads. She is not fulfilled any longer by her old family home, but she has yet to be able to fully let go of it and embrace the fast-paced life her husband is a fan of in Los Angeles. She wants to be able to create a semblance of home for her daughter. She knows there are many positives to growing up the way she did, she just cannot seem to express those to her husband, but she knows she wants them for her daughter. I can relate to this a great deal. I had a very stable, “normal” life. I lived in the same house my entire life and my family did not get out a lot, but we had a lot of family time reading or doing puzzles or watching television. My husband cannot stand it. He moved around quite a bit and to him that was normal. He wants more of a nomadic life for our family. In order to get what we both want, I have to agree to move around but also create the same sense of “home” wherever we go. Like Didion says, “marriage is the classic betrayal” (p. 620). My mother would be completely happy if I lived down the street from her my whole life, but because I am married to someone who cannot do that, I am growing into a different person.
Like Lam’s mother, my mother also practices many old traditions. Her mother and father were first-generation Americans, and spoke Romanian, Yiddish and English. They really wanted their children to be Americans, and finish high school and college and get good jobs. They also wanted them to keep up with some of the traditions. My mother has tried very hard to keep some of the rituals and traditions, lighting a Yartzeit candle on the anniversary of someone’s death, and speaking some words in Yiddish on occasion. My uncle, her brother, is very much like Lam. He participated in many of the rituals and traditions when his mother was alive, but as soon as she passed, he forgot about all of them. It is important to me to carry on some things for my mother, but I know some will be lost with each generation. It seems the culture gets more and more watered down the longer we are in America.
The theme of this story is keeping up traditions. Lam’s mother keeps up the traditions of her homeland because she does not want to forget. For Lam, he has already forgotten most of his past in his homeland of Vietnam and cannot see the point of keeping up the old traditions. At the same time, those traditions and that holding onto of the past is what makes his mother herself, and that is something he will miss. I can relate to this as well. Often when I ask my mother why she keeps up with a certain tradition, she will simply answer, “because that is what you do.” Well, that is not a good enough answer for me to keep up something like that, but I will certainly miss the traditions she performs, much like Lam says, “I do not feel as if I am participating in a living tradition so much as pleasing a traditional mother” (p. 1078). I can relate to his feelings as he says, “I feel strangely comforted when watching my mother…” (p. 1078). This story really speaks to me because I watch my own mother trying to keep up the traditions of her immigrant family and feeling like she has no one to pass them on to.
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