Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 84: Stephen Crane, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (#127)

Stephen Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Writerly types today have a general consensus on POV shifts in short stories: don't do it. Sure, Hemingway gets away with it in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," popping into the heads of several characters, including the lion. But that sort of omniscient head-hopping isn't done much these days, when POV tends towards first or limited third positions. I was just thinking about this the other day when I was wondering how to capture the multi-POV structure of Game of Thrones and Reservoir Dogs in a short story. And lo! There was Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" to show me one way.

If you haven't read the story (and I never did till this morning), it goes like this:

  1. pp. 1-5: Sheriff Potter brings his new bride back to the town of Yellow Sky; they are on a fancy Pullman train, coming back from San Antonio, and everyone on the train is judging them for their naiveté, from the other travelers all the way to the black porters and waiters. So it's no wonder that, as they approach Yellow Sky, Potter begins to worry that his town will judge him negatively. To contrast that worry, we also see that they are happy together.
  2. pp. 5-8: We rewind a few minutes (21 minutes from the arrival of the train, which ended the first part) to find a bunch of fellows in the bar; when suddenly, a gunslinger comes into town, looking for a fight. The drummer (traveling salesman) is new, so he gets to be told all about this Scratchy Wilson, the last of an old gang, who is only ornery when drunk, and who usually gets handled by Sheriff Potter, who is in San Antonio. (Only, we know he's on his way back.)
  3. pp. 8-10: Nobody will fight Scratchy, so he goes to shoot up and yell at Sheriff Potter's house.
  4. pp. 10-12: Potter confronts Scratchy and defuses the situation by noting that he just got married and so is unarmed.
As the LoA page notes, there's a lot here to write papers about, if you're so inclined: the aging legend of the wild frontier vs. the nation-wide trade that makes that legend possible (the gunslinger wearing New York clothes--but we could expand that out to all the Eastern media empires building up the legend of the West); the strange collision of the two plots--new bride and dangerous gunslinger--where the tension of both dissolves the other (all that long first part, Sheriff Potter worries about what the town will think of his bride, when--irony alert--it's the fact that he comes with a new bride that defuses an even bigger problem). Not only do I support the writing of papers, but aspiring authors would do well to consider how these themes help move the reader through the story.

And on the POV issue, we can see how and why Crane moves from POV to POV: each POV gives us some information and tension--what will the town think of the sheriff's marriage?; will the drunk gunslinger kill anyone?; is anyone at home when the gunslinger attacks the sheriff's house?--until the final POV brings it all together by answering all the tensions. That's the why. The how is by marking the POV as wandering from the very beginning: in that first section, we see and hear things from the POV of everyone on the train; so when the second section jumps to the saloon, we aren't so surprised. (We're also less surprised because we get a transition sentence, the equivalent of the comic book's common "Meanwhile, elsewhere in Metropolis...".)

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