What is most striking about “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” widely considered one of Amy Hempel’s finest and most moving stories, is its compression and its pain. The writing here is terse; much is left out. The parts left out are what give the story its emotional power. This same minimalist style is apparent in the other stories in Hempel’s first collection, Reasons to Live, and in her second, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, as well. “In the Cemetery” weighs in as one of the longest stories in either book, some of which are only a page or two in length. The other stories, too, focus predominantly on characters struggling with loss and grief.
Minimalism in American literature can be traced back to the early works of Ernest Hemingway, who believed that what is stated overtly in a story should be just the “tip of the iceberg.” In his 1964 book, A Moveable Feast, he proposed a “new theory that you could . . . Read More
California in the 1980s
Hempel’s writing, particularly her stories in Reasons to Live, evoke a lifestyle that is Californian in nature. Despite the fact that they were written in New York, most of her stories take place on the West coast, including “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” Hempel frequently uses cultural references as touchstones for her readers, knowing they will understand what a “Marcus Welby” hospital looks like, or that country singer Tammy Wynette recorded a song called “Stand by Your Man.” In doing so, she places her writing firmly in a modern, American context. Marcus Welby, MD, a television show starring Robert Young, aired from 1969 to 1976, would be remembered by almost anyone who had been in college during the early 1970s, as the narrator and her friend were. This American setting is further reinforced by her references to California beaches, the narrator’s . . . Read More
Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is told in the first-person point of view by an unidentified female narrator. At times the voice telling this story seems to move into a narrative technique known as stream-of consciousness—the literary attempt to reproduce the pattern of a mind in unchecked thought, simultaneously moving in multiple levels of awareness, issuing an uninterrupted flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections. This is shown in part by her questions to herself, like “Two months, and how long is the drive.”
Symbolic in the story’s Southern California setting is the idea that the narrator’s situation is merely a play or a television show in which she is acting. The hospital, which is near Hollywood, is likened to the one on the television series “Marcus Welby, . . . Read More
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” begins with the narrator’s reluctant visit to a dying friend but evolves into an elegy for the terminally ill woman and a confession of the narrator’s own fear of dying.
Fear of Death
Readers never know exactly what illness the sick friend dies of or precisely what her symptoms are; therefore, the major focus of the story is on the women’s verbal, behavioral, and psychological responses in confronting their own mortality. The one is dying, the other (the narrator) is observing both her friend’s behavior and her own reactions to the phenomenon of death.
The dying woman engages in trivial conversation and ghoulish jokes in dealing with her situation. For example, she loops a phone cord around her neck and exclaims “end o’ the line.” She also wants something specific from the visiting friend when she has a second bed placed in . . . Read More
This unnamed woman is the friend whom the narrator visits in the hospital. Her request to the narrator to “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” sets the story in motion. The woman was the narrator’s best friend, but her feeling of betrayal is revealed when she introduces the narrator to her nurse as “the Best Friend.” The woman is making a concerted effort to deal with her mortality, illustrated by her attempt to engage her friend in a conversation about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory of the psychology of death. Like the narrator, she also uses ironic humor to help defuse the tension of their meeting, like when she wraps a telephone cord around her neck and proclaims it “the end o’ the line.” However, when her wish that her friend spend the night is rebuffed, the woman is so overwhelmed by the act of abandonment that she tears off her protective face mask and stumbles . . . Read More
The story opens with the unnamed narrator visiting her friend, who is also unnamed, in a hospital near Hollywood, California, where the friend is dying, presumably of cancer. The friend asks the narrator to “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” The things the narrator tells her friend are funny and light, items of trivia about the first tape recorder in America and the flying patterns of insects, things which may or may not be true. The friend is interested in hearing about the first chimp that was trained to talk until the narrator warns her that the outcome is sad, at which point the friend commands her to stop the story.
When the friend introduces the narrator to her nurse as “the Best Friend,” the narrator is sufficiently attuned to language to note that her use of “the” here rather than “my” implies that in some way the friend views her connection with the nurse as actually being the closer bond now. Feeling . . . Read More
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is one of the most widely discussed of all Flannery O’Connor’s stories. It also provides an excellent introduction to her work because it contains all the major ingredients characteristic of the remarkable literary legacy left by a woman who only lived to be thirty-nine years old and who was too ill to write in her last years. Readers who encounter O’Connor for the first time should be aware that she always identified herself as a Southern writer and as a Catholic writer and that her stories are always informed by these identities and beliefs.
As a Southerner, O’Connor draws on a rich tradition of humor and regional specific detail in her fiction. Beyond the comedic characters and precise rendering of their dialects, however, O’Connor’s South is a place rich with myth and history. In two influential essays, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” and “The Regional Writer,” now . . . Read More
The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O’Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother’s attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do,” she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in . . . Read More
Symbols, elements in a work of fiction that stand for something more profound or meaningful, allow writers to communicate complicated ideas to readers in a work that appears to be simple. Flannery O’Connor includes several symbols in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” For example, skies and weather are always symbolic to O’Connor, and she often uses such descriptions to reveal a character’s state of mind. In another story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor ends the story with a man being “chased” by an ominous thundercloud, because the man is feeling guilty for abandoning his mentally and physically challenged wife at a roadside diner. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the sky at the end of the story is cloudless and clear, indicating that the Grandmother has died with a clear vision of her place in the world. Another symbol in the story is the old house that . . . Read More
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” an escaped convict and his companions murder a family because of a series of mishaps on the part of the Grandmother. Thinking that an old house is in Georgia rather than Tennessee, she insists that her son Bailey take a detour that leads them to their deaths. Because she has secretly brought her cat along, her son Bailey drives the car off the road when the cat leaps to his shoulders. Finally, she blurts out the identity of the murderer so that he has no choice but to murder them all. Readers are introduced to a quirky family and what appears to be a typical family car trip, but the story ends on a more philosophical note when the Grandmother attains a state of grace at the moment she realizes that the murderer is “one of her children.”
Prejudice vs. Tolerance
The Grandmother demonstrates racial and class prejudice through her words and actions. She is vain and selfish, and she . . . Read More