Thursday, December 27, 2018

Monica Wood - Disappearing (Overview - Part 1)
People's cries for help often go unnoticed because as a society we have either become immune to other people's plight or we have become too self-centered to notice others at all.

Monica Wood captures this feeling of insignificance, a kind of nullity of human existence imposed by others by dint of their disregard for their fellow man (and woman, naturally), in her short story "Disappearing". 

The title says it all. The passage from one existence to a non-existence is depicted in a matter of pages. Twenty-eight paragraphs is all it takes to erase one's physical identity. Yet how much longer it takes to erase an individual's entire existence -- both body and mind -- is what lies at the heart of this story. The answer to this question is a terrifying "few people, a few comments, several reactions" rather than a specific time period. In fact, I would contend that this is not a story just about anorexia --  anorexia is simply a by-product of a greater disorder plaguing society. What "Disappearing" truly achieves in doing is highlighting the encounters rather than the time span or symptoms of a medical condition that afflicts over 2.9 million people (see the study here). Through these encounters, readers understand what someone has to put up with, why they obsess with body image and especially body weight, and how the desire to erase yourself from the face of the earth starts well before the idea itself consciously materializes.

If I could phrase the gist of the story in a sentence, it would be the following: When we efface others regularly, we enhance their longing to reduce themselves to nothingness.

The following is the first part of the overview which covers some biographical information about the author, the setting and most importantly the characters. Part 2 dealing with the plot and the narrator's "growth process" can be found here. Part 3 on the point of view and symbolism is here.

First, read the story here.
For more literary overviews, click the image below.

Monica Wood - Disappearing


  • US writer, Irish parents, 4 siblings
  • her works aren’t autobiographical
  • theme of family is strong in her works
    • older brother + sister are a generation older than herself and 2 other sisters
    • her older sister was her high school English teacher
    • one sister = mentally disabled
    • her parents died young
    • strong influence = her uncle (Catholic priest)
  • her husband attempted suicide in April 2016; survived


  • vague, undetermined: we don’t know the precise place and time but can imagine it to be the U.S., contemporary time period (after the mid 1960’s: Doritos are mentioned – they were first produced in 1964)
  • modern-day: swimming pool at the junior high, swim caps, goggles, Doritos, supermarket, eye shadow, TV, deep-frozen low-cal dinners


  • narrator
    • overweight woman (“Three hundred pounds … but I never check.”)
    • has skin like “tapioca pudding”
    • is put down by everyone for her appearance: either directly or based on what she believes
    • wants to disappear
    • has lost the desire to live or be interested in anything
    • when she looks at others, she focuses on their appearance alone: shows her obsession with appearance / complete inattention to personality
    • with swimming:
      • her interest in men re-emerges
      • she has the strength to say ‘no’ to her husband when he wants to have sex with her
      • she starts to pay attention to her appearance, tries to enhance it, believes she could look attractive: puts eye shadow
      • she feels “thin … transparent, invisible…” when she is in the pool
      • gets her own back when she tells her daughter-in-law “ … it might help your ugly disposition.”
      • she enjoys the quiet underwater
    • becomes obsessed with going to the pool
      • when it closed down, she drank only water
      • when it reopened she went every day, didn’t wear a cap, goggles or earplugs because it would keep the water out
    • her goal:
      • become water: “I’m almost there. Almost water.”
      • disappear, have no one look at her: “I’m disappearing … and what can you do about it not a blessed thing.” “For a long time in the middle of it people looked at me … now they don’t look at me again. And it’s better.”
    • her real aim was to matter, be noticed:
      • no one paid attention to her (except to make fun of her or remind her of her weight) when she was obese
      • after she loses weight, people again pay no notice of her, don’t remember her, don’t care how dangerously thin she has become
      • her need for attention is seen when she’s at the supermarket: she purposely lets something fall out of her cart to see who will notice and pick it up for her
    • her narrative style says much about her
      • flowing sentences with little use of connectors or punctuation; disjointed narrative jumping from one point to the next manages to show anorexia in 1400-1500 words
      • sentences also show her affinity to water: last paragraph of story is one long sentence combining 6 different statements with commas and the word “and” twice
  • narrator’s husband
    • appearance = “tobacco on his teeth”
    • callous towards his wife (“No wonder you look like that…”)
    • laughs at her
    • love-making with his wife is just a routine/basic need: “ … when he’s done he’s as far from me as he gets. He could be dead he’s so far away.”
    • doesn’t care when his wife tells him there are other men at the pool: “Fish he says. Fish in the sea. Good luck.”
    • when he sees the situation has got out of hand he says he’s going to put her in a hospital, but does nothing
    • he doesn’t touch her at all towards the end of the story
  • Lettie
    • narrator’s friend
    • also overweight
    • start swimming lessons together
    • she stops lessons
    • doesn’t take notice of her friend’s real problem: narrator says she’s not swimming to lose weight, but Lettie doesn’t believe her
    • stops visiting narrator
    • accuses narrator that she’s “uppity” and always talking about water
    • is shocked when she sees her after a long time
  • redhead instructor (at the pool)
    • narrator focuses on her appearance + sound of her voice:
      • wears an “emerald suit”
      • “The whistle around her neck blinded my eyes.”
      • “no stomach, a depression almost”
      • “white wet skin”
      • “skinny voice”
      • “ … thin calves hard as granite”
    • encourages narrator to swim:
      • “Good she said you float just great. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
      • “… but I heard Good that’s the crawl that’s it in fragments”
      • “She says I can swim."
    • seems honestly interested in helping narrator
      • “She was happy that I was floating and moving too”
    • when redhead leaves the pool, narrator “misses the glare of her whistle”
    • when she comes back, she doesn’t recognize narrator
      • this either shows how different narrator looks, how little importance redhead places on her students, or how invisible you are to others whether you’re thin or obese
  • blond girls at the pool
    • “There are girls there, what bodies.”
    • they look at narrator and Lettie “out the side of their eyes”
    • “Gold hair, skin like milk, chlorine or no.”
    • narrator imagines what they are thinking about as she lowers herself into the pool: “… that fat one parting the Red Sea.”
    • make fun of her: “… the groan of the water made the tight blondes smirk…”
    • after she is certified: blondes ignore her because she doesn’t splash the water as she swims or lowers herself into the pool
    • just like the redhead, Lettie or her husband who doesn’t care, blondes make narrator feel invisible once she starts losing weight
  • daughter-in-law
    • says nice things to the narrator once she’s lost weight
    • didn’t want her in her wedding photos (she couldn’t help the one taken with the whole family)
  • men (real men)
    • variety of men mentioned in passing: are juxtaposed to those on TV
    • narrator has lived watching others for too long without being looked at by others
    • all men are described according to external appearance (not once does narrator describe their attitude or behavior with words like “polite”, “amiable”, “cheerful”, “serious”, etc)
      • mailman: “The one with the milkweed hair …”
      • meter man: “… heavy thick feet in boots. A smile. Teeth.”
      • man at the supermarket: “… yellow short hair and called me ma’am. Young. Thin legs and an accent.”
      • other supermarket man: “One was older. Looked me in the eyes. Heavy, but not like me.”
All characters show signs of prejudice and neglect towards others. The narrator sees others only in terms of their looks (especially their skin, hair and build). Her husband, Lettie and the blondes pay no heed except to say something mean. The instructor doesn't recognize her in the end. Her daughter-in-law erased her from one of the most important days in her life. 

Last but not least, think about this: the narrator has had at least one child. This child is not mentioned anywhere in the story. This could only mean that the narrator has completely erased her identity as a mother, or that her child has treated her so abominably that he does not deserve a place in her narrative. 

Looking for a list of literary terms? Click the image.

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