- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Posted June 17, 2012
The Structure of Tobias Wolff’s In the Garden of the North
The Structure of Tobias Wolff’s In the Garden of the North American MartyrsWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Tobias Wolff’s In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is an excellent example of formal literary structure. The story unfolds in chronological order and has a relatively simple plot development. The main character is Mary, a single white female history professor, who has repressed her true opinions and personality for years. Mary’s life is thrown into disarray when the college she teaches at suddenly closes and she is forced to find a new path in life. The story’s plot is structured using location to set the mood and add to the suspense of the plot.
Brandon College is the first location in the story. It is a location familiar to Mary who has worked there for fifteen years. Mary uses the familiarity of Brandon to learn how to safely navigate its politics and cliques. Brandon College is where Mary learned to repress her originality and opinions because she had once seen a “brilliant and original man lose his job” (Wolff, 1981, p.1594). Mary feels safe at Brandon and happily concedes her opinions for the stability. The first complication arrives in the story when Brandon College is suddenly closed and Mary is forced to take a job in Oregon.
The next location is set at an experimental university in Oregon. Wolff uses the rainy weather and sub-par campus setting to set a depressing and uneasy mood. Mary is miserable in Oregon and wants to find work elsewhere. While in Oregon, Mary’s former colleague from Brandon writes to her, informing her of a job opportunity at a prestigious university in upstate New York. Mary is suddenly full of hope at the prospects of working somewhere else. Mary agrees to travel to New York to interview for the position.
When Mary arrives in New York her colleague, Louise, picks her up and drives her to a solitary cabin near the campus. They traveled to the cabin during the hours of darkness, all the while Louise is jabbering about her problems. The darkness and seclusion of the cabin create a feeling of mystery and suspense. What will occur at the job interview? Louise introduces the story’s crisis in the form of a class Mary is suppose to teach as part of the interview process. Any chance of Mary resting and preparing for her class is ruined when Louise invites herself to stay the night attempting to burden Mary with her problems. Louise proposes Mary plagiarize a class from Louise which presents an additional complication for Mary.
The campus of the prestigious university is the setting for the climax and resolution of the story. Mary is impressed with the campus and the feeling of hope and prosperity is abundant in Mary. While on a tour of the campus power plant Mary discovers there is a new statute requiring a female to be interviewed for every job opening. During her interview Mary realizes she was never going to selected for the position. During her class, Mary begins to lecture about Iroquois and their lack of mercy and brutality. At this point in the story Mary finally realizes she wasted her life being safe and conservative. Despite the protests of the hiring committee, Mary continues to lecture, finding her own voice.
Location was key to the structure of Wolff’s story. He used location to frame every scene in our imagination and set undertones of the main characters psyche. The use of formal structure was brilliant in developing characters and building suspense. Wolff’s story may have a simple structure but his brilliant use of the structure and themes made the story a classic example of writing.
Wolff, T. (1981). In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in R. Bausch & R. Cassill, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 1594 -1602. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.