Loneliness and Neglect
The mentally retarded boy, who is unable to speak and communicate his needs in a normal way, has to endure the loneliness of someone who does not fit into the expectations and norms of society.
He is at the mercy of others who order his world for him in a way that suits them, and in a way that leaves him powerless. The people who are in charge of him hold keys that he does not possess— the use of language, for example—and, as he knows, they want things from him. They want him to behave in a certain way, to respond to them in a certain way, but he never does understand what that way might be. Since humans normally organize and make sense of their world through language, he is at an enormous disadvantage, because words are a mystery to him. For this boy, language seems like an arbitrary thing, something invented by the strong, and he knows very well that he is not one of the strong.
As a child, the unnamed boy seems to be a stranger or an outsider even in his own family. His brother and sister fool him into going to look for objects that do not exist and laugh heartily as his expense when he cannot find them. He feels cut off from his siblings because they are allowed to use the tools in the woodshed and he is not. When he first attends school, he is similarly isolated. He does not mix with the other children and does not enjoy the noise they make as they play. He cuts a solitary figure. Things do not change much when he is sent to an institution for the mentally retarded. He is not allowed in the wood shop because he cannot be trusted with the tools, and the other boys sometimes laugh at him. Few people show him any understanding. The exception is the kind teacher who treats him as a human being and looks directly into his eyes as he speaks to him. During this period, when the boy is thirteen, and continuing until he is about eighteen, there seems to be a genuine possibility of what the narrator calls “an awakening.” But when the teacher leaves and the wood shop closes, the opportunity for development is lost, and the pattern of the boy’s life for the next quarter of a century is set. There is no longer anything in his environment to stimulate his interest. He is fed and clothed at the Home, but no other attempt is made to give him meaningful activity: “His senses were asleep: there was nothing that made enough of a claim on them.” Although sometimes he is treated with kindness, as when the aides try to comfort him when he is frightened by birds, he also has to endure humiliation and lack of respect, as when the foreman, who probably means no harm, laughs at his efforts to rake leaves in the apple orchard. Progressively becoming more and more isolated, the boy, who has now grown into a man, is left to while his life away getting fat and sitting around the Home in a chair, gazing out at the yard.
From Disharmony to Harmony
For most of his life, and in most ways, the boy lacks meaningful connection to his environment. He lives in a world that does not make any sense to him. This is partly because he cannot learn to read or write or communicate verbally, which means that he cannot comprehend why things happen as they do. He is especially uncomfortable with machines, the objects that the human world has manufactured, which operate in unfamiliar ways and have power to injure him. To this boy, the world behaves in unpredictable ways. When a bird flies up suddenly from a bush and terrifies him, it is only “one of the thousand ways in which the world would turn unreliable However, he is able to enjoy his senses. As a child, he savors the smell and the feel of mushrooms and other plants that grow wild. He feels a kinship with them, even though he has no names for them. This experience of being connected to the world stays with him as the years go by. He frequently reverts to it or tries to recreate it, as a way of imposing order, familiarity, and meaning on an otherwise strange and incomprehensible world. During the only week he ever spends at a normal school, when he tries copying letters, they turn out looking like mushrooms.
Later, when he is sent to the institution, he gazes at the patterns on the wallpaper until the patterns resemble trees. Like mushrooms, trees were things he could respond to even when he was very young. When the wind blew through the big ash trees outside the schoolhouse, he thought to himself, “ The trees are so happy . . . when the wind comes. That gives them something to do When he reaches manhood, he appears to others to be a fat, mentally retarded man with a vacant mind who lounges for hours in a chair by the window doing nothing. But the reality is somewhat different. As he gazes at the shadows cast on the wall by the leaves in the yard, he is once more able to revert to his love of mushrooms and the feeling of friendship that he felt in their presence. Over the years, in his imagination, he creates an almost infinite number of different mushroom shapes from the shadows, each one of which is unique. In his own way he understands the greatness and the mystery of life as it unfolds over long stretches of time. And as he moves his chair every hour to stay in the sun, he unconsciously aligns his own life with the life of the entire cosmos. Out of harmony with the human world, he silently places himself in harmony with something so much greater and more permanent.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Lars Gustafsson, Published by Gale Group, 2010