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Annotations of "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried"

A close reading of the text with analyses of the tangental and parallel text details.
by

Nicholas Cato

on 27 March 2015

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Transcript of Annotations of "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried"

What is the story about?
Grief
The seriousness of the friend's condition is avoided by the narrator. She uses humor to neutralize the issue.
"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried"
by Amy Hempel

From the first line, the narrator establishes the upcoming death of the friend.
Reminder of the guilt, but now the line between good and bad is blurred.
We learn that the friend has been sick for a long time and the narrator selfishly focuses on her own life.
Pause and Summarize
We now know:
the friend has been in the hospital for months (at least two).
the friend likely has leukemia (clean room, terminal)
the two woman are extremely close: the narrator feels great love for the friend
the narrator also feels great fear; she is terrified of death.
because she is split between love and fear, the narrator creates distance through humor and avoidance.
the narrator feels guilty
Why does the narrator compare them or herself to criminals? What is the source of her guilt?
In the above tangents, the narrator reinforces the bond that the two women share.
Man: What is the point?
Love makes us lie? How is the narrator's guilt attached to love and/or deception?
---ONLY---
How long would you wait to visit a friend in the hospital?

The narrator waits 2 months? Why would she wait so long?
To the narrator, her dying friend is the equivalent to looking at the "wet bone" (death). In this experience, she is trying to face her fear of death.
Death
Fear
Guilt
Friendship
Directions for Close reading:
Line-by-line, (1)
connect the text to the subjects listed above
, (2)
ask questions about the text
, (3)
look for answers to questions previously asked
.
Even though the friend is close to death, the narrator finds her beautiful.
The friend is referencing assisted suicide. She knows her health will decline and the end of her life will be pain.
Reference to the Grief Cycle: Denial--Anger--Bargaining--Depression--Acceptance.

Our narrator leaves out acceptance, probably because she can't accept.
What stage is the narrator in?
What stage is the friend in?
Both women seem to question the afterlife. In the absence of religious afterlife, death is logically scarier.
This simile sets a gravity to the situation. The death of this friend would kill the narrator.
Parallel?
The narrator is like the mother; she has a duty to "be there," but is not. Reinforces guilt.
Spins the idiom to add humor and avoid the seriousness of death.
Call to action? What does the friend what the narrator to do? Connect it back to Kevorkian and Kubler-Ross.
Hospital Escape: Leave the clean-room (which would be suicide) for one last outing/adventure/experience.
The "good doctor" is a the less serious one. Like the narrator, he tells jokes instead of dealing with the seriousness of death.
Realistically, much less...
The "good doctor" is protecting the narrator from her fear of "seeing death" by letting her leave during examination.
More avoidance of the seriousness of death
Friendship seems distant: the action is given to "mouth" instead of directly to the friend.

Barrier: The narrator is likely outside of the room at this point and is seeing her friend through a window. This symbolic barrier may signal a change in the story.
Why is the beach dangerous?
The narrator reveals another great fear: the fear of earthquakes.
The narrator feels powerless about her fears. She cannot control earthquakes any more than she can control death.

Think back: "What seems dangerous often is not." What we have to fear are the "silent killers."
A third fear is introduced: Fear of Flying
Friendship: the narrator has always been able to rely on her friend to support her through fear of earthquakes.
Admit the inevitable. Death is a guarantee. This heightens the narrator's fear.
Dreams are very important. They reveal subconscious feelings and knowledge.
In this dream, the friend's fearlessness helps the narrator with her own fear.
The narrator's fear is stronger than logic. This is the definition of Phobia.
The friend cannot be fearless now, this close to death. This is the narrator's opportunity to become fearless for her friend, to support her the way she has been supported.
Pause and Summarize
We now know:
There are three fears working through this text.
Death
Earthquakes
Flying
The narrator relies on her friend for strength.
The friend is beginning to accept her coming death, but may need the narrator for support.
reinforces powerlessness
Who can the narrator be angry at?
The beach has been established as a symbol of health/life/youth.
This is in contrast to the hospital and the condition of the friend.
Even here, the narrator is reminded of death.
And fear...
Ominous foreshadowing?
So the narrator can stay longer.
The narrator equates staying with her friend and death, as if watching her friend die will kill her.
Friendship: Ok. The maid visits, but where is the family? the other friends?
Reinforcement: death without the comfort of religion.
What solution is there for death? Not to live?
The end is soon.
The moon is a feminine symbol. Howling is often connected to mourning. The narrator is grieving already.
There is no wisdom applicable to this situation. Reinforces helplessness.
Return to avoidance.
Reinforces deaths of both women at the same time.
This dream reinforces friendship. Without the friend, the narrator is an empty house. She lacks color and joy.
The narrator failed to stay strong for her friend.
The narrator chooses her own life.
How can she abandon her friend at this moment?
Symbols of life
The Plot
Remember minimalism:
Everything is paired down to its smallest essential part. The plot of this story really exists in half a page.
All other material reinforces theme by tangentially relating to this little plot.
Notice the euphemism in this line: avoids acknowledging the death of the friend?
Like the friend was to the narrator, Al Jolson was an old song and dance man (he entertained and made people happy).
The narrator tried to confront her fear of death and failed. She is afraid that she will always be afraid, especially now that she is alone.
This reinforces the prolonged fear and shows that the narrator is traumatized by the events of the story.
Word choice indicates a comfort and protection. She uses humor to avoid pain and trauma.
Gestures of love and seriousness. These are images that were not given in the body of the story, but are alluded to now.
In minimalism, is it important to tell the facts without getting caught up in emotional narrative. The narrator has not given us the details that would show her pain most clearly. She has tried to reveal this pain through tangents.
Think back to the chimp. The narrator wants to lie to protect herself from pain.
Avoidance/Denial of death
Grief and Acceptance are not the same. The narrator cannot find a way to accept the death of her friend, nor can she accept her own actions at the end. But her actions should not be read to show apathy.
Mirror Theory:
Mirrors allow us to create an identity for ourselves.
We look in the mirror to see ourselves as others see us.
We analyze the ways others react to us to create our identity.
If our environments tells us we are ___________, then we feel like we are ___________.
What does this mean for our narrator?
Her identity is largely based in the friendship she has with the dying woman.
Without the dying woman, our narrator will lose part of her established identity.
Theme:
It isn't death that is dangerous; it is the failure to accept death that we should fear. By failing to accept the inevitable/natural, we experience real fear, grief, guilt and trauma.
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