From the first sentence of ”Resurrection of a Life” to the last, William Saroyan incorporates numerous contrasting images, ideas, and feelings. The story opens with the narrator stating:
“Everything begins with inhale and exhale, and never ends, moment after moment, yourself inhaling, and exhaling, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, moving, sleeping, waking, day after day and year after year, until it is now, this moment, the moment of your being, the last moment, which is saddest and most glorious”.
Saroyan’s setting provides the perfect complement to his presentation of contrasts. The content of the story carries the message that as difficult as times are, they will pass, and America will survive. Its setting in time offers proof of this.” This opening tells the reader that the story will be dynamic in its presentation of opposites, and that this presentation will serve a purpose beyond merely pointing out that everything has an opposite. In 1935, when ”Resurrection of a Life” first appeared in Story magazine, these contrasting elements served as a reminder that although the country was in the depths of the Great Depression and suffering was abundant, every experience and event has a balancing force. In this way, Saroyan encouraged readers both in the short term, by showing that even in bleakness there are small joys, and, in the long term, by reminding them that the Depression would eventually pass and a new era would come.
It is difficult to ignore the constant presentation of contrasts in “Resurrection of a Life.” In various parts of the story, Saroyan writes of sleeping and waking, the falseness and the truth of the cinema, rich and poor, living and dying, the beastliness and the godliness of humankind, belief and disbelief, night and day, pleasure and pain, sanity and madness, war and peace, and ugliness and loveliness. Each of these words represents an essential part of the human experience, and, by pairing each with its opposite, Saroyan makes a strong statement about balance and impermanence. While this means that pleasurable experiences are fleeting, it was more important for Saroyan’s readers in 1934 to understand that suffering is also fleeting. At the onset of the Great Depression, there was no precedent for such economic and social catastrophe. Saroyan, therefore, sought to encourage his readers and calm their uncertainty and their fear about the future. By saturating the story in contrasts, Saroyan evokes a mood of benign instability, saying in effect that hard times will not endure. He depicts this concept at every level, from the surface (as in night and day) to the deeply personal (as when the boy is in the basement of the church, “deep in the shadow of faith, and of no faith”).
The one image that recurs throughout the story is that of inhaling and exhaling, a reference that appears ten times during the course of the narrative. This image of breathing is significant because it is something in which everyone participates, a commonality among readers of all kinds and at all times. The image conveys the sense that just as people, nations, and the world take in experiences and events, they also release them at some point. Early in the story, Saroyan writes, “inhale and newness, exhale and new death,” which adds another dimension to the contrast. With this comment, he presents death (everyone’s fear in hard times) in a new, less threatening light. By comparing death to the simple act of exhaling, Saroyan expresses the idea that death is natural and cyclical and does not have be seen as traumatic. At the end of the story, the narrator builds on this metaphor with the claim that there is no true death.
Saroyan’s setting provides the perfect complement to his presentation of contrasts. The content of the story carries the message that as difficult as times are, they will pass, and America will survive. Its setting in time offers proof of this. The narrator’s memories are of 1917, the year America entered World War I. Many of Saroyan’s readers had personal recollections of life during the war. By setting his story in this difficult, but now receding, period in America’s history, Saroyan shows readers that America and its people are able to withstand hardship and overcome incredible adversity. He demonstrates that Americans are tough, adaptable, and able to draw on a strong sense of camaraderie. Although America’s participation in World War I was relatively short-lived, Saroyan seems to assure his readers that they can endure the Great Depression just as they endured the Great War. In “Resurrection of a Life,” he presents the ugliness of life in America but concludes that he is glad to be part of it because the ugliness is balanced by joy. The story ends with the narrator’s comments:
“[A]ll that I know is that I am alive and glad to be, glad to be of this ugliness and this glory, somehow glad that I can remember, somehow remember the boy climbing the fig tree, unpraying but religious with joy, somehow of the earth, of the time of earth, somehow everlastingly of life, nothingness, blessed or unblessed, somehow deathless like myself, timeless, glad, insanely glad to be here, and so it is true, there is no death, somehow there is no death, and can never be.”
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, William Saroyan, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “Resurrection of a Life,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.