Several images recur throughout “Redemption.” Skulls, for example, appear three times to remind Jack of David’s death. At one point, Jack is alone, driving the tractor in the fields, thinking about the accident and his own guilt, his “sore hands clamped tight to the steering wheel, his shoes unsteady on the bucking axle-beam—for stones lay everywhere, yellowed in the sunlight, a field of misshapen skulls.” Jack’s identification of the stones with skulls is connected to his memory of his brother’s crushed skull in the field. He then recalls his father’s story of Lord Byron and Shelley’s skulls, another indirect reference to what he saw happen to his brother’s head.
A few pages later, he has a flashback of his brother’s death, and this time, he does not see stones that look like skulls, nor Shelley’s skull, but rather the cultipacker “flattening the skull of his brother.” Moreover, the adjective “yellowed” suggests the aging of the skulls, and the time passing since his brother’s death. Ironically, when Jack climbs down from the tractor because his memories overwhelm him, he fixes his eyes on “some comforting object, for instance a dark, smooth stone.” The stone becomes a comforting image that brings him momentary peace.
Images of birds also figure prominently in the story. Each time, they seem linked to Jack’s feelings. When he is alone on the tractor, his emotions threaten to overwhelm to such an extent that he must get off the tractor and calm down. The “birds crazily wheeling” overhead suggest the painful emotions inside. Later, in a peaceful moment, he hears birdcalls, and a “cloud of sparrows … explode[s] into flight.” These birds are in search of safety. Likewise, Jack is looking for a safe place to work through his emotions.
A final bird image occurs in the closing pages. When Yegudkin begins to play the French horn,”it was if, suddenly, a creature from some other universe had appeared, some realm where feelings become birds and dark sky and spirit is more solid than stone.” The sound grows until Jack likens it to ”an enormous trapped hawk hunting frantically for escape.” The repressed feelings threaten to tear him up. Suddenly, it seems as if Jack understands that through his music, his feelings can take wing like birds.
Anther important narrative device used by Gardner in this story is antithesis, a word that means oppositions or contrasts. The story opens with the most striking antithesis of all. It is a beautiful spring day, a time of year associated with birth. On this lovely day, David dies. Thus, birth and death are juxtaposed in a paragraph that begins, “One day in April….” In so doing, Gardner associates the time of planting with death.
Midway through the story, Gardner opens another paragraph with the line, “One day in August, a year and a half after the accident, they were combining oats….” The similarity between the two lines is striking and provides yet another antithesis. August is the time for harvesting. Harvest time is a time of death for crops, yet Jack begins to move away from his thoughts of death and toward his obligation to the living.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, John Gardner, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.