“Reading Lessons,” by Edwidge Danticat

It seems contrary to our generally chronological logic to begin a discussion of this month’s short story, Edwidge Danticat’s “Reading Lessons”, by talking about its ending, but I’d like to try anyway. Much (but not all) of the narrative tension comes to a head in the final scene, in which Danielle is called to a meeting with “Principal Boyfriend”, Chantal Cazeau, Paul, and his mother, Lorvane. This confrontational environment in which Danielle is to be held accountable for her actions is a perfectly constructed – if not predictable – narrative climax, but the second slap of the story, the one Lorvane plants on Danielle’s cheek, only provides closure or release for the most superficial tensions in the narrative. The final sentence does not appear to generate any sense of resolution: “A droning sound, like a telephone dial tone, was ringing in Danielle’s ear, but she thought she heard Principal Boyfriend ask once more, ‘Are you O.K.?’” The confrontation between Danielle, the pupil she slapped, and his mother has been resolved, for better or for worse, but the other tensions we notice in “Reading Lessons” remain. This final sentence could very well be the first sentence of a new story. At this point we need to ask ourselves what exactly are those other tensions are, and if we think they are – or ever were – on their way to being resolved.

Now I think we can revisit the beginning of the story, where one of these fundamental pressures is most evident: Danielle’s femininity, embodied in her relationship with her breasts. “The first time Danielle remembers ever being aware of her breasts…” provides a point of entry into the first two paragraphs, which describe how adolescent Danielle related to her mother’s advice that rubbing a certain type of crushed butterfly on her breasts would make them grow. In contrast with these dream-like childhood recollections, which I imagine for most readers of The New Yorker evoke a pre-modern and exotic space of innocence, the third paragraph provides an end to this idyll. The reader then also receives almost all the relevant information about the present-day Danielle, the main character of the story:

“[…] her mother was shot by a young man no older than Danielle […] And, because she’d taken her mother’s advice, her breasts did grow, so much that, years after she had left adolescence and left Haiti with her father and was working as a first-grade teacher at a small experimental school in Miami’s Little Haiti, she discovered in the shower one morning a chestnut-sized lump in one of them, the right one, which seemed to have bloomed overnight, as if her mammary glands had been soaked in a butterfly bath while she slept.”

I know this is a long passage (and my profound apologies go to our Passage Collector for this month’s meeting, hopefully I haven’t taken one of yours); I highlight it because it illustrates brilliantly how the Danielle-mother-breast-lump connection is constructed and from then on represents the deeper conflict(s) I mention above. Danielle’s unstable sense of identity always comes back to some problem or contradiction in this interrelation, brought forward in the narrative by the lump and brought to the reader’s attention via the (much juicier) story of the slap.

The lump. “Reading Lessons” is, to my mind, the story of Danielle and the Lump. She describes it at one point as “a strange presence in a familiar place,” one which disrupts the order of things, first on her body and then on her mood. She checks and registers it regularly. At the end of the day she finds it, the narrator tells us, “She was beginning to think of it, this thing inside her, as a fragile egg that might crack. It was essential that he [Principal Boyfriend] not touch it, especially with amorous intent, as loving touches might nourish it or release it from its shell to roam freely to other parts of her body.” At this moment she shuts herself off from her partner and from the world, as she assumes the lump into her subjectivity, making it a part of herself that she must care for, precisely by way of shutting others out. The next morning, Danielle decides not to go to work. She makes the resolution that “On this day, this new day, she would neglect the lump, not check for it at all. She would pretend that in her sleep some magic clock has been turned back to the days when her body was her own” (emphasis mine). Although her aversion to going to work this day is clearly framed by her fear of being discovered as a slapper of students, her fear of being confronted about it seems a much greater motivation for seeking solace in her father. I highlight the last phrase of the previous quote because essentially, due to the appearance of the lump, Danielle is alienated from her body (her physical self) and by extension, from her own emotions. This is the primary reason she loses control of her reactions. When she becomes frustrated in class and strikes an unruly pupil, without being fully aware of what she’s doing, the repressed energy of being almost completely alienated from herself a few hours earlier “boils over”, or erupts, and manifests it ugly head at Paul’s expense. The Lump is not mentioned again, but this alienating bodily experience provides Danielle with a disposition that creates the conflict in the narrative (i.e. the reason we have a story in front of us) and forces her to (begin to) confront her interconnected Danielle-mother-breast-lump problematic, the only possible way to recover an integral sense of self.

But what are these returns of the repressed? Apparently, Danielle has forced the memory of her mother being killed by one of her young classmates out of her consciousness, and this anger erupts forth when her sense of being is disrupted, a fact not unknown to her father: “She had become a teacher, her father knew, in order to find these types of boys early, to detect and save them. But the moment she slapped Paul she’d felt neither guilt nor remorse but retribution, justice.” In this return of the repressed, her unconscious identification of what she sees as a type of boy (the violent type that took her mother away from her and truncated the development of a uniquely feminine subjectivity) with one in particular (Paul) surfaces in the form of a slap.

Similarly, it is a slap that brings Danielle out of the lethargy of her alienated state, returning her to the present, to the immediacy of the here and now. When she is called to the meeting that provides the final scene of the story, she is able to identify the elements of her classroom, but it is impossible for her to identify with them, including the presence of her partner, “Principal Boyfriend”. Lorvane’s slap gives her feeling, a bodily pain that immediately calls her attention to her physical self, and therefore to her person. This does not come without a sense of redemption, in a Biblical sense of the word: “Now she understood the concept of turning the other cheek. It wasn’t so much directed at your neighbor, it was allowing yourself to experience further pain. Acted out, it would indeed be an extraordinary sacrifice.” The physical pain of the slap activates in Danielle both a feeling of remorse and a more intimate contact with herself, feelings or desires which hitherto have been hidden from (her) view. Now perhaps she is now more receptive and open to active reflection and consolation. In a phrase: she returns to reality.

In this introduction, I have tried to identify some of the main tensions that drive the plot of “Reading Lessons”, and it seems as though they are on the road toward resolution. To finally return to our beginning, the end of the story, the “Are you O.K.?” that Danielle hears through a fog evidences a partial recovery of her physical and emotional senses, which in turn signals the probability of an immanent act of openness and honesty, with herself and with others. A good idea to consider in preparation for our meeting this week could be to ask yourself how you think Danielle’s story would continue.

I’m sorry to have left out of this post any prolonged considerations regarding Principal Boyfriend, a genuinely good and sympathetic character, despite the unenthusiastic treatment accorded him by the narrator, so I hope to be able to continue the discussion of him and his relationship to Danielle at our meeting. The Culture Collector, as always with this year’s round of stories, will have plenty to inform us of this month. Both writer and characters of the story are immigrants to the United States from Haiti, and this experience is richly and extensively reflected in this month’s text. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the story at our meeting on Wednesday, and of course, reading some of them here on the blog beforehand. I hope you have enjoyed Edwidge Danticat’s “Reading Lessons”.

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3 Responses to “Reading Lessons,” by Edwidge Danticat

  1. petersavaiano says:

    If you liked Danticat’s unique style and storytelling technique, then I also recommend another short story of hers, also published in the New Yorker: “Ghosts.” The content is a bit different – it is completely set in Haiti – but I think that if you liked this month’s story, you will probably appreciate this one as well. Happy reading!

    The following is a link to “Ghosts”: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2008/11/24/081124fi_fiction_danticat

  2. iñaki says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Peter. I had finished reading the story last weekend with a strange feeling that I was missing something, that the end did focus more on what was to come than on what had happened to Danielle. Many images came to me but I had some difficulties in finding one that would lead me through the text, if this is the issue at all. I had noticed some of the paragraphs you point out but the “lump” issue and its connection with Danielle’s feminity and how you develope it on your fifth paragraph is not so clear to me.
    Nevertheless a further reading has allow me to go in greater detail about the relation with his “Principal Boyfriend”, the character of Chantal Cazeau or the overwhelming shadow of Danielle’s mother over her father. I see the main character as bearing many contradictions which in the end makes her a good fictional character and gives a lot of play for metaphors and room for interpretation.

    • petersavaiano says:

      Thank you, Iñaki, for posting on the blog. I agree with you: Danielle’s personality exhibits many contradictions, and a contradictory main character usually makes for a more stimulating read. I found these characteristics to come together, at least in the so-called conflict of the story, in the shadow-like presence of the lump. There are no doubt many ways to approach the story; the lump seems to me a good starting point. At tomorrow’s meeting I’ll be quite interested to hear about the other aspects of Danielle’s relationship with herself and others that you have observed and wish to share with the group. Or, for that matter, any other interesting perspectives. Till then!

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