Sena Jeter Naslund
|Sena Jeter Naslund began writing when she was a child. Her impulse to write was a reflection of her love of reading such books as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie series, Louisa May Alcotts Little Women, Lucy Maude Montgomerys Anne of Green Gables, and the poetry of Walt Whitman. She took courses in creative writing at Birmingham-Southern College, before attending graduate school at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Currently, she serves as Writer in Residence and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville. She is Program Director of the Spalding University brief-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing. A founder and editor of The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-Lis Press, she is also the author of seven books of fiction including the critically acclaimed, nationally bestselling Ahabs Wife, or the Star-Gazer; Four Spirits (a novel of the Civil Rights Movement); Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette, and a forthcoming novel titled Adam & Eve. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award, the Southeastern Library Association Fiction Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, among many other honors. Her fiction has been published in the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as translated into German, Polish, Danish, Greek, Spanish, Hebrew, Korean and Japanese. She served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate from 2005 to 2006.
The Perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor
This short story recasts the ordinary fears and
struggles of a daughter caring for an aging mother in the world of magic
realism. Students may have difficulty relating to the theme of aging, but the
fairy tale and mythic qualities offer a strong point of connection. Here again,
however, the story will not fit neatly into student expectations, since it is
NOT myth or fairy tale from the tightly patterned realm of pure fantasy, where
poetic justice and laws of symmetry prevail. To appreciate this story (which
cannot be summed up in a moral or a neat statement of theme), students will
need to appreciate the way it builds a tension between a patently realistic
narrative and the dream world it creates; the way it somehow entices the reader
along on its unrealistic journey; and the way that journey offers something
quite distinct from what a realistic narrative could provide.
previous study of realism could be beneficial to the students
appreciation for the ways that magic realism plays off of it, they will have
the necessary background in the realm of the supernatural and the supernatural
hero predominant in popular culture from books to blockbusters. Getting
students to see how this story works within and against such narratives is the
Words to Consider:
Students without a musical
background may be slightly thrown off by the musical terms in the story but
should be reassured that they can get all the meaning they need from the
context. In fact, attempting to work through all the musical terms would
unnecessarily bog down the reading. You can demonstrate how the meaning is
revealed in the text, for example, with the second paragraph on page one which
includes the phrase double forte. Ask students to listen
while you read the first half of the passage (down to Dripping
wet,) and try to figure out what the phrase means. The same principle
will hold true for the cooking terms and names of dishes later on in the
Arthur Rubenstein: Virtuoso concert
James Beard, Irma Rombauer, and Fanny Farmer: Authors of famous
Joseffy: Rafael Jossefy, pianist famous for work on technique
and associated with the works of Liszt and Chopin
Polish pianist and composer, known for beautiful, difficult
maharini: female counterpart of a maharaja or Indian prince
Jacob Marley: Scrooges dead law partner who appears in order to
warn him to change his ways in Charles Dickins A Christmas Carol
It may be useful to at least review the words below before reading:
Without getting bogged down in excessive
literary theory, students can simply understand that this fictional mode
intertwines the realisms emphasis on detail, on the psychological, and on
ordinary, everyday life with the motifs, symbolism and sense of possibility or
optimism (not to mention pleasure) offered by myth and fairy tale. The mix
creates a dreamlike narrative that offers some liberation from the typical
pessimism of realism.
that they are about to read a story about magic nights in a moonlit garden. Ask
them to brainstorm about whatever this setting brings to mind. What would
happen in this garden? What would be the elements of magic that they might
expect? Who would be the main characters? Ask them to name any stories that
they can think of that involve such a setting. List student associations on the
whiteboard and use their expectations to discuss the features of the fairy tale
and larger genre of fantasy.
Next, explain that the story they will read
is probably contrary to their expectations about a contemporary middle-aged
daughter caring for her aging, declining mothera realistic set of
characters and concerns. Introduce the concept (definition) of magic realism,
with its combination of realism and the supernatural, and tell them to watch
how the story mixes the qualities of both.
GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS
Questions for Understanding:
students preview these questions before reading. After the story has been read,
preferably aloud by the teacher, have students answer the questions below in
pairs. These questions are designed to give a basic comprehension of the events
and plot of the story, necessary before interpretation and thematic analysis.
(Answers are given separately.)
Handout SJN-1 MS Word
Handout SJN-1 PDF
- In the beginning of the story, why does the main character
turn off the shower and go down stairs naked and wet?
- In the first section of the story, before the added space,
what information about the situation can be gathered by the literary detective?
What do we know about the two women? Just the facts!
- What do you think Hydropres is? How is it
significant to our understanding of the characters?
- Why is it so significant to the main character, the daughter,
that the mothers playing of the waltz is improving? The mother herself
comments Im improving. You always do, from time to time. Is
this true? Why is the daughter so sure this must be a
- What does the narrator think when she sees her mother go into
the garden at night to sit on the rock?
- Throughout the story, the daughter is worried about her
mother. List three of her main concerns or worries with a quote that expresses
each. Are these concerns unusual or typical with regard to an aging parent?
- What changes after the mothers first night in the
- What happens at/with the rock on the second night? Why does
this seem unlikely?
- Why doesnt the narrator ask her mother what she is
doing in the garden?
- Give three examples of things that seem impossible or magical
about the party.
- How does the party contrast with the main characters
- Describe the unusual symptoms that the narrator begins to
have during the story.
- What is the crowning moment or climax of the
- What does the narrator discover in the garden in the last
section of the story?
- List central elements of magic or fairy tale that appear in
this story, or any mythical events or characters this story brings to
When pairs have finished answering the questions, review their answers orally.
- She is astonished that her mothers playing of the waltz seems to have improved.
- Some of what we know includes the following:
- The mother is probably at least 60 years old. The daughter
herself is at least 25.
- They lived in Birmingham, Alabama, but now live in
- Both mother and daughter know a great deal about music and
are interested in literature.
- The mother takes medication for some unknown medical
- The mother is losing her hearing.
- The daughter works at a pharmaceutical lab, or a lab that
- Hydropres is probably the name of a medication. The daughter
reminds her mother to take it. She is taking on a care-giving role, as the
mother seems to be forgetful.
- Things do not always get better, without reason. Piano pieces
can improve with practice, but people generally lose their ability to play as
- She thinks her mother has lost her mind.
- The worries, which are very typical with an aging parent,
include those below:
- Her health is failing: She was tired. She was less
ready to smile, and her eyes took on a hurt quality. Each day she seemed to get
- She will or has hurt herself with exertion: She moved
very slowly. . . . Her shoulders stooping, her hands and arms hanging like
weights, she slowly began to walk down the bricks toward the house. . . .
Nevermind. Nevermind. You dont have to do it, Ill hire a crane,
Ill hire the neighborhood boys, Ill hire a doctor day and night,
dont try this, here, here let me help.
- She will fall: At a certain point, she passed beyond my
sight line. There were three small steps there; and my ears strained to tell me
that she had negotiated them all right, that now she was opening the storm
door, now she was coming in from the night, that she had not fallen at the last
moment, that she was not lying hurt right at her own safe door, that she had
not struck her head on the steps.
- She is losing her memory and abilities: Memory was
- She will die: I knew that this improvement was
temporary That August, gesturing toward the garden, a friend who raised berries
told me that death was part of life. . . .
- The mothers health declines and her eating habits
- The mother seems to have been trying to move the rock. She is
too old and weak to do this.
- She experiences a kind of paralysis when she tries to ask
about the strange behaviors.
- Fantastical elements include the mysterious distribution of
the invitations, the grandness of the feast, given that they do not cook, the
fancy dinnerware, the magnificent fireworks, the miraculous proliferation and
blooming of the chrysanthemums, and the appearance of Frederick Chopin, who
died in 1849.
- In ordinary life, they do not cook and eat mostly frozen
dinners, they are shy and do not entertain guests, and they are not wealthy
enough to afford the food or fancy china.
- As mentioned above, she experiences paralysis, not only being
unable to move, but also being unable to speak. She feels completely powerless,
rigid, stiff, and still, like a corpse. She speaks of this
condition as not being able to question and as if her body were
to imagine death.
- The perfect performance of the Valse No. 14 in
- The stone has been moved to its proper location, and a
chipmunk has established itself in the hole where the stone had
- For starters, magical things often occur on moonlit evenings.
The three evenings in the garden also invoke the magic number. The
great feast is characteristic of many fantasy stories, and unusual appetite or
eating is often a symptom of bewitchment. Characters are turned to stone in
many myths and fantasy stories, particularly as punishment for disobedience.
The mothers superhuman qualities may also remind students of fantasy
stories. One famous example of a story with similar elements is
Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream. Students may think of
other examples. Are there echoes of Sisyphus, who in Greek myth tried to evade
death and was condemned by the gods to eternally rolling a boulder up a hill?
Or even of the Gospel story of Jesus and the rolling away of the rock from the
tomb? Possibly, but in the way of magic realism any such resonance is present
vaguely and incoherently, as in a dream.
*Note: The questions above could also be answered in
groups of three to five students (depending on the class size). One possible
configuration would have students in groups answering questions as follows and
then presenting their work to the class via the overhead projector.
||Questions 1, 3, 4, and 5
||Question 10 AND 15
Students written responses to the
questions can be used to assess comprehension. For purposes of testing,
multiple choice questions could be developed from the questions above. For
example: Which of the following best represents the daughters initial
reaction to the improvement in her mothers ability to play the piano?
- She is pleased and proud of this accomplishment.
- She is baffled, since her mothers other abilities are
- She is jealous, since she, too, loves to play the piano.
- She doesnt notice, since she is preoccupied with her
Handout SJN-2 MS Word
Handout SJN-2 PDF
- At the end of this story, the mother is gone, beyond contact,
albeit only to England. Consider how a realist story would present the decline
and loss of an aging parent and how that would contrast with this
story. Explain how this contrast illustrates the joke played on
realism that literary critic David Young describes as the heart of magic
- A garden can be seen as the intersection of humans with the
natural world, and more particularly as a place where humans attempt to
manipulate or control nature, to shape it to produce what they want. This
tension is present in the following quote from the story: That August,
gesturing toward the garden, a friend who raised berries told me that death was
part of life; she pointed at the seasonal changes. We stood on the patio
talking while the Chopin Valse No. 14 rolled out the windows. . . . I
told my friend that the gulf between the seasonal lives of flowers and the
lives of human beings was unbridgeable. Using this quote, explain how
Naslund uses the garden to represent a human conflict with nature and the
resolution of that conflict. Be sure to consider the ending of the
- A garden can also be seen as a work of art, the artful
shaping of the plant world or natural landscape. What does Naslunds story
suggest about the relation and possible tension between nature and art as a
human act or product? Again, be sure to consider the ending of the story!
- Music is central to this story, as indicated by its title.
Explain how Naslund uses music symbolically throughout the story. What does the
perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor represent?
- At the center of this story sits a massive stone, and the
daughter experiences fears that she herself is turning to stone: Even as
I tried mentally to formulate an inquiry, my body stiffened. I resisted that
stillness. I would not be frozen into stone in my own garden in late summer. I
would not take on that terrible rigidity. Explain how the stone functions
symbolically in the story, how Naslund uses it in exploring central themes such
as art/music, human accomplishment, the power of nature, etc.
- Describe the relationship between the mother and the daughter
and how it changes in the course of the story. Explain how the story depicts
this change and why. How is the situation at the end different from that in the
beginning? Consider how the shift in the story may symbolically represent an
ordinary or realistic relationship between aging parent and adult child.
FROM READING TO RESPONSE: YOUR OWN WAY, IN YOUR OWN WORDS!
Literary Analysis for Portfolio Pieces:
If NOT given the discussion questions above, students could be
given the option to write a literary analysis of the story focused on its
emphasis on art or music, its use of symbolism, or of how it manifests and
manipulates the characteristics of magic realism. Such a piece of literary
analysis would require the student to formulate a more specific, individualized
thesis and personalized topic.
Students could use their guided analysis
of this story as a springboard for a portfolio piece about magic realism and
how it operates in another work. Authors often included in high school text
books who work in this area include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri and Isabel
Allende. The works of several American authors such as Toni Morrison, Donald
Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut also show substantial influence from magic realism.
In addition, films such as Pans Labyrinth and Big Fish
could be analyzed as examples of work within this literary type.
To coach students toward the writing of a
piece of magic realism, start with the study of myth and fairy tale. Have
students select one or two myths that particularly appeal to them and identify
a few specific supernatural elements of those myths that they would like to
include in a story (such as turning to stone). Then encourage students to think
of recent incidents or dilemmas in their lives that still trouble them. Have
them write a story centered on this dilemma which is set in a very mundane
setting with which they are very familiar, such as a school restroom or bowling
alley. Their objective will be to address their own dilemma in this setting,
with a tall tale freedom and to incorporate the mythical elements
they have chosen. They should include as few characters as possible and should
make sure to begin the story, as Kentucky writer James Still advises, as near
the end as possible! Their first drafts should be considered experimental. Some
students may decide to rewrite the story in a realistic way, and this could be
allowed as long as they tried the initial assignment.
The publication of Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology is a project of the Kentucky Arts Council (an agency in the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet) and is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.