The Roles Of Character, Setting And Conflict In The Novels The Bluest Eye And Train Dreams

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As Flannery O’Connor says in her essay on The Nature and Aim of Fiction, “the novelist makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason , every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time- sequence for a reason.” By this definition, Morrison and Johnson establish themselves as good writers from the very beginning. In both The Bluest Eye and Trian Dreams, authors, Toni Morrison and Denis Johnson establish not only setting and character, which a good beginning should do, but also a sense of conflict that is carried throughout the narrative. Both authors establish their stories in correlation to historical placement, through which, readers are then able to better understand the stories meaning.

In The Bluest Eye, the author doesn’t start with Pecola, who is arguably the main character of the story, rather, she opens by showing the conflict of race, especially around 1939. Claudia and Frieda, both main characters in their own right, are denied access based on the color of their skin. Claudia’s expresses a violent desire to “make red marks on her (Rosemary’s) white skin” which establishes race and violence in the conflict. Claudia imagines Rosemary will cry while offering to pull her pants down, this introduces the oppression of women through their sexuality, foreshadowing the connection between sexuality and violence. Thus, establishing the through line.

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In Train Dreams, Johnson establishes the texts historical setting, starting with “In the Summer of 1917…” Readers are meant to understand this as a period marked by immense change throughout the West. Johnson places Robert Grainier right in the midst of the great Western industrialization, as a worker for the “Spokane International Railway”. Beyond the significance of this time period, the beginning also establishes the text as a tall-tale narrative. He opens with three lines of a matter of fact account of the attempt on a man’s life, which are then interrupted by “a rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously.” This interruption takes us into the narrative and establishes both a factual and fantastical voice that carries throughout the text.

Both authors do a brilliant job of establishing character, setting and conflict within the first passage of the text. Their choice opening incidents set in motion the through line that unifies the texts. Morrison goes beyond and establishes a conflict that encompasses a larger message than that perceived by following a single character. A whole mood is established within the first paragraph of her text. It is dark and violent in response to issues of race and sex. In contrast, Johnson’s opening establishes his main character in correlation to the old virtues of the pre-industrialized American West. He uses a tall- tale narrative to associate his character to the everyday hardship of a changing American frontier.

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