Friday, October 5, 2018

Ray Bradbury - The Utterly Perfect Murder (Overview)



Murder will out. It always will. 

Well, not quite in the way we anticipate it will in this story by Ray Bradbury. 

Taught in schools at a somewhat earlier age than expected, it is a tale of revenge, self-loathing and reconciliation you'd bank on adults to fathom to its fullest extent. However, it's never to early to make young adults aware that their actions tempt fate, and fate is never kind to those who snub it.

When a 48-year-old man comes up with the insane idea on his birthday to return to his hometown and kill his so-called friend of 36 years ago, you expect the short narrative that ensues to be insanely interesting. 


Bradbury doesn't disappoint, as his fans will tell you. 

The messages readers extrapolate from this short story are as many as the themes very few imagine are discussed after a brief first reading. I, myself, sat amazed when I put pen down to paper and started decoding it. Even though I had read the story several times, I'd never imagined the number of different angles Bradbury chose to attack his topic would be that great. It was only made obvious after more careful scrutiny.

Which is why this story is ideal for class discussion. As with all the other overviews of stories posted on this blog, teachers can offer the notes that follow in a briefer format of their liking, thus allowing students to fill in the gaps with their own personal notes, or as such which would cover students' understanding and present them with a nice summary of key points to be aware of for assignments or exams. 

For you short story buffs, the notes might be of use at your book clubs! Feel free to agree or disagree with my interpretation.

 
If you don't already have a copy, you can find and read the story here under its title (Word document).





Ray Bradbury – The Utterly Perfect Murder



Life

  • 1920 – 2012, American, author, screenwriter
  • wrote science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery short stories and novels
  • best known for Fahrenheit 451
  • son of Swedish immigrant mother, Esther, and Leonard Spaulding Bradbury
  • his middle name is Douglas [Note the main character's name is Doug Spaulding!]
  • his hometown Waukegan (Illinois) was used in his stories but renamed Green Town





Setting

  • story starts in the 1960’s, Midwestern US (reaches Kansas the 2nd night of travel), October
  • flashback takes us back to the Great Depression (therefore, circa 1930’s)
  • train ride over several days to get to Green Town in the afternoon
  • Park Street at 8 pm, outside Ralph Underhill’s house





Plot

  • 48-year-old Doug Spaulding decides to return to his hometown, Green Town, to kill Ralph Underhill who, 36 years earlier had been mean to him
  • he rides the train across states to get to Ralph’s house
  • during the ride he lists all the reasons he wants to kill him (see ‘Reasons for Killing Ralph’ further down)
  • he arrives in Green Town and sits in the courthouse square until dark, walks to Ralph’s house, places a pistol in his coat pocket, rings doorbell
  • Ralph appears at the door, aged, balding, haggard
  • he asks Doug if he is in fact Doug
  • Doug doesn’t reply, but whispers “Bang” six times and leaves as Ralph shouts after him, demanding he tell him whether he’s Doug



Reasons for wanting to kill Ralph

  • all mentioned as flashbacks / memories
  • 1st reason:
    • being hit by Ralph: “My scars were the emblem and symbol of our love.”
  • 2nd reason:
    • spring, Ralph knocked Doug down in the snow + mud at school; Doug was wearing a new tweed knicker suit
    • Doug was afraid he would get a beating as soon as he arrived home
  • 3rd reason:
    • Doug wanted toy clay Tarzan statues (from his favorite radio show) which cost 25 cents
    • Ralph asks Doug to trade a statue for Doug’s 2-dollar catcher’s mitt his older brother had given him
    • when Doug’s brother finds out Doug gave his mitt, he calls Doug a sap and ditches him during a hike out in farm country, vows to never give Doug anything ever again
    • Doug is lost, lies down in the middle of the road, cries, wanting to die
    • “… I just lay down and wept and wanted to die but didn’t know how to give up the final vomit that was my miserable ghost.”
  • 4th reason:
    • (this memory is described as if Doug is talking to himself as an outsider à uses “you” when talking about himself)
    • Doug would always run to throw gravel up at Ralph’s window to call him out on special days (Fourth of July, when circuses arrived)
    • Ralph never came once to look for him at his house
    • Doug tested friendship by not going to Ralph’s house for a week à no one came looking for him or asked at school why he hadn’t come over
    • Doug felt dead to the world: “It was as if you had died and no one came to your funeral.”



Turning point

  • “I saw Ralph Underhill. I saw him clearly.”
  • Doug’s epiphany: (reasons why Doug doesn’t shoot Ralph)
    • “[Ralph] had traveled in some sunless land.”
    • he too had lived with his demons for years, and in the end they too had ravaged his soul like Doug’s pain had gnawed away at his
    • the truth = “To see Ralph Underhill as he is in this hour.”
    • realized that half of Ralph’s life had collapsed after Doug had left ( a bully needs somebody to beat up)
    • realized that Ralph had already been visited by Time, age and small deaths that had done Doug’s work for him
    • Ralph’s ‘murder’ is even more painful because Ralph is left to wonder for the rest of his life whether it was Doug at the door
      • Doug understood that bullies thrive on attention & presence of others to serve their needs
      • by walking away and ignoring Ralph’s questions, Doug is ‘killing’ Ralph’s need for attention
  • Note: Doug’s epiphany is made possible by the train that brought him like “a mechanical Greek Fate” to realize the truth





“The Murder”

  • threefold murder
    • says “Bang” six times, as if he’s unloading a six-shot revolver
    • worse killing is that he tells Ralph he’s dead: “You’re dead. Oh, God, Ralph, you’re dead.”
      • this is another phrase that shows Doug’s realization of the truth = his shock at seeing Ralph dead in this way,  puts him off actually shooting Ralph
    • final act is that he refuses to respond to Ralph’s questions: Doug does what Ralph had done to him 36 years ago à he vanishes from Ralph’s life just like Ralph was never there for him (never appeared at his doorstep, never called him out to play)



  • Note: death in the story is also Doug’s death
    • death of Doug senior = bitter Doug, angry, self-loathing, self-pitying Doug
    • symbolic act of going to his old house at the end of the story: tosses gravel + calls his name
    • “I called me down in friendship to play in some long summer that no longer was.”
    • Doug realizes that he only needed to befriend himself more: all these years, he hadn’t been at ease with himself, but had been looking for external causes for his misery/self-loathing
    • reasons for Doug’s acceptance of Ralph’s horrid behavior towards him was Doug’s lack of self-confidence: people need to feel good about themselves so as to not need to be in the company of others who don’t appreciate them
      • Doug’s mistake was that he accepted a situation because of his need for companionship/friendship
      • instead of walking away from Ralph’s mistreatment and waiting until someone more worthy would come along to be his friend, he stuck it out with Ralph, feeling miserable about himself for being such a “sap”, as his brother had pointed out to him





Characters

  • Doug Spaulding
    • 48 years old, married, has children
    • full of “hideous self-contempt”, “an old and tired self-devouring spirit”
    • unsure of himself until his old self catches up with his new self (the self from the past with the self from his present)
    • traumatized: memories haven’t left him after all these years
      • his experiences as a boy (which he lists as the reasons for wanting to kill Ralph) increase in severity: he is left
        • afraid: personal sentiment which can be hidden from the world
        • weeping: public show of sentiment (embarrassing for a boy)
        • dead to the world: devoid of existence
    • did have some good moments with Ralph
      • firecracker burn marks on the sidewalk outside Ralph’s house when he and Doug “had just blown up the whole damned world, shrieking celebrations”
    • is a normal boy:
      • wants attention, friendship, reciprocation of feelings
      • naïve / prone to act on impulse not logic (gets up one day and decides to go kill Ralph; Tarzan statue incident)
    • analytical: thoughts during the train journey
    • human: vengeful, bitter, merciful, hateful + loving at the same time



  • Ralph Underhill
    • same age as Doug but looks 60-65 years old
    • 5 ft 2
    • has lost most of his hair (the remainder of which is grey, black, white)
    • pale
    • his breath smells like funeral flowers
    • frail voice
    • was sly, self-centered
    • his haggard looks are possibly the result of his not having forgotten Doug all these years either
    • all the bad things he had done may have weighed on his conscience



  • NOTE: Doug and Ralph are not that different from one another
    • both remember each other (even though Ralph isn’t 100% certain it’s Doug, his mind immediately thought of him when he saw him)
    • each is left with a bitter aftertaste these past 36 years: Doug feels anger + self-loathing; Ralph feels bad about himself (his appearance is testimony to this fact)



  • stock characters
    • Doug’s older brother
    • Doug’s wife





Point of View

  • first person narrator
  • this helps the reader identify with Doug and forces them to look back at their own childhood experiences
  • suspense is heightened
    • a “murder” is witnessed by readers first-hand (from the “murderer’s” point of view)
    • readers have time to digest motives behind this “murder”
    • readers justify Doug’s need to murder Ralph
    • readers are forced to think about why Doug is magnanimous in the end and doesn’t kill Ralph
    • readers who are attracted to the idea that Doug will get justice once he kills his old friend, realize they are mistaken in thinking this when they like Doug realize they should never take someone else’s life/fate into their own hands





Symbols

  • pistol / “Bang”
    • the pistol is metaphorically speaking a “loaded gun” (like in the sense of a “loaded question”)
    • words speak louder than actions (in this case, a teasing “Bang” is just as deadly for Ralph as a bullet)
    • Doug has killed Ralph by the end of the story but not in the way he imagines
      • Ralph was slowly dying all these years through the memories he’s had / remorse he must have felt à as seen through his appearance
      • other factors affecting this slow death = relationships Ralph must have had as an adult (his mean personality may have cost him dearly in later life; who would want to be friends with Ralph?)



  • Green Town
    • typically acknowledged as Bradbury’s hometown, Waukegan, in his early stories
    • green
      • youth, unripeness
      • place of innocence, lack of worldly knowledge (Doug was too young to understand conniving behavior and strike back at all those who harmed him; this might explain why he sought Ralph’s company even though Ralph hit and ridiculed him)
      • linked to Tarzan statues
        • “ … the sound of the Ape man swinging through green jungles far away, ululating!”
        • Doug’s love of the Tarzan radio show and the figurines is connected to his longing for escape
        • green jungles = primitive, pristine environment; man living simply, without complications
        • instincts + primitive nature of man aren’t based on cruelty, but self-preservation: Doug innately longs for a world where people act according to simple instincts (friendship, playfulness)



  • courthouse
    • symbol of justice
    • Doug sits outside it with “dogs and old men” waiting for it to get dark to walk to Ralph’s house
    • he lets time pass in order to savor Ralph’s imminent death
    • what Doug doesn’t know, however, is that justice has already been served
    • irony: sitting in front of the courthouse and pondering murder





Themes

  • “wounds of the past come to haunt us” / the power of memories
    • it is how we deal with our wounds that determines us and our future
    • we must detach ourselves from our past and move forward, otherwise we don’t live a life in the here and now, but a ghost of a life



  • friendship / bullying:
    • is there always a relationship of power at the heart of every friendship?
    • story shows that the basis of friendship is a dependence on one person confirming / substantiating another person’s existence: “We dear fine friends needed each other. I to be hit. He to strike.”
    • message Bradbury might want to express: become friends with yourself, stop bullying yourself / putting yourself down all the time in order to start living



  • murder
    • reasons one might consider killing another human being are examined
    • question asked = is murder ever justifiable?
    • other factors bring about justice, not violence



  • self-acceptance
    • Doug’s final moments in Green Town = symbiosis of young and older Doug
    • “I called my own name. I called me down in friendship to play in some long summer that no longer was.”
    • symbiosis is complete: “… we ran out of Green Town …”
    • old Doug + present-day Doug can live harmoniously in the here + now rather than in the past
    • this great change is brought about by time:
      • new, whole Doug  leaves Green Town, fleeing “ahead of the dawn”
      • he leaves time behind to chase after him rather than he chasing after it (which is what he did all these years)



  • fate
    • train is referred to as “a mechanical Greek Fate” that sent Doug to mete out justice
    • fate is what makes Ralph what he has become (old, balding) and what makes Doug walk away without actually shooting Ralph
    • fate is what brings justice to the world



  • justice
    • story shows that people cannot always make things right the way they think they can
    • courthouses are built, but ultimately it is not always up to us to decide what is right and wrong about other people
    • life has a way of bringing things round full circle; our actions would botch everything



  • childhood
    • Bradbury examines the needs of children at that age (friendship, escape, fun, adventure)
    • readers are made to apply Doug’s experience to their own lives and be more sensitive towards others (peers, their own children, etc.)





Allusions

  • Fates (Greek Moirai)
    • 3 women responsible for the thread of life of every living being
    • Clotho: spun the thread of life
    • Lachesis: measured how long each person’s thread of life would be
    • Atropos: cutter of the thread of life



  • Furies (Greek Erynies)
    • goddesses of vengeance
    • typically described as three sisters who hounded wrongdoers
      • Alecto punished moral crimes
      • Megaera punished infidelity, oath breakers, and theft
      • Tisiphone punished murderers

  • Ahab:
    • captain from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
    • obsessed with getting revenge (killing a white whale that had bitten his leg off)





Title

  • title makes readers want to read on
  • during the train ride, Doug explains why this murder is so perfect
    • no one will suspect a 12-year-old boy would come back after 36 years to kill someone
  • “How would anyone dare to say, finding Ralph Underhill’s body on his doorstep, that a boy aged twelve, arriving on a kind of Time Machine train, traveled out of hideous self-contempt, had gunned down the Past? It was beyond all reason. I was safe in my pure insanity.”
  • at the start of the story, we might think we are faced with an unreliable narrator who is not only a potential murderer, but also insane (cf. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell –Tale Heart”): this too heightens readers’ curiosity





Style

  • short sentences (especially after Doug arrives in Green Town) and paragraphs:
    • creates greater suspense
    • quickens pace of the story

  • intermittent questions Doug asks himself
    • description of scenes intermingled with dialogue (Doug with himself): leaves out long descriptive narration and gets to the point


FOR MORE LITERARY ANALYSES, CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW.
https://argutelegacy.blogspot.com/search/label/Literature
 

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