Thursday, March 29, 2018

Tobias Wolff - Powder (Overview)

"Powder" is a short story intended to quickly state the obvious - a father's bond to his son is always a difficult thing to forge when parents aren't on good terms with each other.

The level of difficulty in achieving this increases as fathers aren't used to explicitly explaining to their sons that they are trying to forge a stronger bond at a particular moment in time to begin with.

Accordingly, the complications the father in this particular story is required to overcome are not only the time constraints the mother has placed on the trip as a whole or the mistrust towards her husband she has allowed her son to bear witness to which the father feels he must compensate for, but also the disparity in character traits that father and son exhibit.

Having read the story for the first time, students predominantly respond to the query "What was the story about?" either with "I didn't get it. Some father and son skiing" or "Something about there being lots of snow in the end and the roads are blocked." 

The fact of the matter is that "Powder" is something hazy because the focus in the second half of the story is the powdery snow, its whiteness covering and wiping out as it were the raw features of our world as they are meant to be perceived by us mere mortals. 

By extension, when all engrained perceptions of life are dimmed -- or in this case whitened by the snow -- our experiences take on a different path, leading to better knowledge of self and others. This is what the narrator in the story realizes as he remembers that night he spent on a road with no delineations or boundaries.

 Read the story here.

The following is a quick outline in note form teachers can hand out or students can lean on as a starting point for further research.

Tobias Wolff – Powder

  • life
    • born 1945, American
    • parents separated – he lived with his mother in Washington (West Coast); father and brother lived on the East Coast
    • forged recommendation letters and transcripts to get into a preparatory school 
    • served in US army during Vietnam War 
    • known for memoir + short story genre
    • characters usually face a dilemma; theme of duplicity is common

  • plot
    • father takes son on skiing trip 
    • promised wife he’d have him back on Christmas Eve
    • they ski longer than they should have
    • snow storm worsens
    • state trooper says road is closed 
    • father + son go to eat at a diner; see state trooper leaving; pass through barricade
    • drive through thick snow (father had to get him home to keep himself + wife from splitting up; had already sneaked son to a night club to hear jazz player Thelonious Monk)
    • boy enjoys drive in the snow

  • setting 
    • 1950’s-1960’s (Thelonious Monk) (Austin Healey:1952 -1972) 
    •  Christmas Eve 
    • Mount Baker, Washington (close to border with Canada): is a volcanic mountain

  • characters 
    • father: 
      • 48 yrs old
      • not financially well (has kept sports car even though he can’t afford to) 
      • “kind”
      • certain 
      •  risk-taker 
      • persuasive but not coercive
      • loves family (“I want us all to be together again.”) 
      • loves living life ⇒ seems fearless (they ski even though they can’t see track; violates barricade; drives though can’t see road; drives a British sports car) 
      •   encourages son (“You have your strong points.”) 
      • father-figure though acts like a boy (tells son never to try this when he gets driver’s license, but sets bad example) 
      • rebellious, independent thinker: sneaks son into a bar without wife’s permission 
      • pleader: with wife, with troopers at the end of the road 
    • son
      • conservative, responsible, cautious (keeps clothes numbered on hangers in his closet; asks teachers for deadlines ahead of time to prepare a schedule)
      • fears but follows father (skiing, removing road blocks) 
      • changes by end of story becomes like his father (enjoys life, sees value of memories/experiences)

  • point of view 
    • 1st person: through boy’s eyes but in hindsight (comments show it’s an older person talking; knew his parents wouldn’t get together)

  •  conflicts
    • person vs nature 
    • person vs person (wife vs husband; son vs father) 
    • person vs self (boy changes by the end)

  • complications 
    • weather + time limitation 
    • dad’s previous misconduct
    • road closed

  • suspense 
    • created by time + weather, violation of barricade 
    • questions of whether parents will reconcile, will boy get back in time, will car crash?

  • turning point
    • father + son break through barricade (son becomes accomplice)

  •  resolution 
    • boy home in time 
    •  parents split
    • boy has an epiphany (“This was one for the books.”) 
    • bond created with father

  •  mood/atmosphere 
    • tension created by conflicts + complications 
    • created by snow + road: calm, pure setting = breaking new ground

  •  title 
    • what is powder? 
      •  light: like father’s approach to life 
      • pulverized form of sth: destruction
        • disintegration of marriage
        • disintegration of boy’s fixed ideas 
        • disintegration of boy’s caution
      •  preserved form like memory
      • specific uses ⇒ 
        • gun powder = volatile
        • talcum powder = cleanliness
        • symbol of freedom = covers road so no boundaries, no rules

  • themes 
    • parent-child relationship
    • husband-wife relationship
    • meaning of living = enjoy it
    • differing personalities = respect / understand others 
    • maturing



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Hot Off The Press

B2 Sample Writing 16 (Transactional Letter / Email - Summer Language School)

  The following sample letter has been written so that exam candidates for a B2 level English examination (FCE now called First for School...

And Now For Something Completely Different ...