Reading as Writer Response

January 11, 2008

Nature’s See-Saw by Edward Hoagland

Narrative distance plays a vital role in Edward Hoagland’s Nature’s See-Saw. The first sentence is a glimpse into his personal life. “I love at the top of Vermont, next to Canada”. This is essentially the only detail about the narrator that the reader gets in the first paragraph. Throughout the entire piece, the audience is only given snippets of the surface of the narrator’s personality. Hoagland allows the narrator to come close to the reader under very specific conditions, and very rarely. The narrator brings himself into the story only when it concerns his the animals. Interestingly, though, never is there a visible emotional attachment or hatred in his feeling or action toward the animals he describes. Even when his house is infested with mice, he calmly describes his response. “What I’ll do is catch a 3-foot garter snake and insert him through a hole in the ceiling to eat the babies. During the summer, this stratagem works. In winter an ermine moves in and does the trick.” His lack of emotion in killing the mice in his house creates the feeling that he himself is part of this see-saw of nature in the role of another animal, not a human. The lack of description about the emotional investment of the narrator in rare personal anecdotes establishes tremendous narrative distance in the first four-and-three-quarters pages of the piece.

On the contrary, the last two paragraphs greatly shorten the narrative distance between the narrator and his audience. The narrator lets us into a glimpse of his life. “ I could see all these things because I had just paid $15,000 to have my vision restored- a cheap price for new eyes that, with plastic implants, saw as I did 50 years ago.” Hoagland skillfully makes this the only meaningful revelation by the narrator about his life. Also the story has many blank spaces, which leaves the reader to wonder exactly what must have happened. Such an effect fills the reader with sympathy and awe. To have one’s sight debilitated for fifty years is to lose the sense of vision, but improve the four others. The return of his vision demands that the reader sees his as an authority figure in evaluating nature’s see-saw in the last fifty years in Northern Vermont. But this flux of nature is only the apparent theme. In the final two lines, Hoagland presents the deeper meaning of the story.

For almost the entire piece, we are led to believe that Hoagland, in his text-book and documentary style of writing, is evaluating the complexity of the change in nature in the last fifty years. But the deeper meaning is presented in the last sentence, “Nature is complicated.” The juxtaposition of technological advances in reconstructive medicine (plastic eyes) and the increase in wildlife in Northern New England suggests that the see-saw that Hoagland is talking about is not necessarily between animals, but rather the advancement of man and the increasingly wild lands of New England. When will these two seemingly paradoxical developments collide? What will come of it?

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3 Responses to “Reading as Writer Response”

  1. acfowler said

    Abishek, I wrote a response on the same narrative as you did, and it is pretty much the opposite of your entry.

    I agree on the fact that narrative distance is key, but I think we are talking about different types of narrative distance here (yours is to the narrator, mine is to the setting). I also agree that it is documentary-style.

    An interesting thing we both mentioned is the snake-eating-mice part, which is a peephole to the narrator’s personality. Although I did mention seemingly insignificant cruelty, I saw it as more of a confession, which would make the narrator more reliable. Funny thing is that I do see where you are coming from with the ’emotionless’ bit, and how humans may just be another one of these animals. Nice!

    It’s crazy to read such a different response to the same piece. Although I disagree with some of the things you say (I’m probably wrong.. ) I’m like ‘Waaaaaah! Why didn’t I see some of those things myself?!’

  2. Jessica said

    I think you a great job of making the point (in the first paragraph) about Hoagland inserting himself into the natural order…an idea I hadn’t considered, and one that sheds new light on the piece…

  3. abshek said

    As I read the story, the narrator’s apathy toward all the trends in changes in animal population made it seem like he was just another member of the animal community. Annabel, great point about the narrative distance with the setting, I never really thought about that.

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