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.
Though a 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 key.
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 story.
Arthur Rubenstein: Virtuoso concert pianist
James Beard, Irma Rombauer, and Fanny Farmer: Authors of famous cookbooks
Joseffy: Rafael Jossefy, pianist famous for work on technique and associated with the works of Liszt and Chopin
Frederick Chopin: Polish pianist and composer, known for beautiful, difficult music
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.
Tell students 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:
Have the 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.)
- 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 mind.
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 makes medications.
- 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.
|Group A:||Questions 1, 3, 4, and 5|
|Group B:||Question 2|
|Group C:||Question 6|
|Group D:||Question 7-9|
|Group E:||Question 10 AND 15|
|Group F:||Question 14|
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 declining.
- She is jealous, since she, too, loves to play the piano.
- She doesnt notice, since she is preoccupied with her own life.
- 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.