Point of View
Point of view is the angle from which the action of the story is seen. In this case, the story is told in third-person, limited omniscient point of view. The story is told in the third person, and readers are given the inner thoughts of one character, but not the inner thoughts of others. In “The Canal,” readers are allowed to know Lew Miller’s thoughts. Most of his memory about the night at the canal is not spoken aloud to Tom and Nancy Brace. The story moves from the past to the present and from Brace’s narrated story to the story Miller recalls but chooses not to narrate. As the story progresses, the contrast heightens between the two men: Brace becomes more heroic, more competent, the longer he talks; Miller becomes more focused on his own inadequacy as he reviews his own memory of that night. At one point, the story cuts away from the cocktail party while Miller and Tom Brace are discussing the guns that were aimed at Brace’s squad. The text includes a long vignette of almost three pages, including dialogue, all depicting Miller’s attempts to follow the man marching in front of him and his becoming lost, crossing the canal, and eventually rejoining his squad. These are his thoughts, as Brace speaks. Then Brace asks, “So what happened after you got to the other side?” The readers know what happened, but Brace, who has so far been talking most of the time, is only now ready to hear Miller’s story. Miller and his men drew fire on the road as they approached and that contributed to Miller’s getting separated from his squad. Miller could make a story of that approach and the cries of injured men and how the soldiers helped each other, but that part he neglects in order to focus privately on his own inadequacy. Miller remembers certain parts of the canal crossing and what he focuses on now does not make a story he would want to tell. In these ways, the story is shaped and interpreted via the point of view of the person through whose eyes the action is seen.
Juxtaposed contrasting characters serve to underscore each other’s distinctive traits. In “The Canal,” Tom Brace and Lew Miller are presented as opposites in style and experience: Brace is an extrovert, who enjoys telling complimentary stories about himself; Miller is reserved, perhaps even introverted, and, according to his wife at least, he tends to allow others to eclipse him. Brace is tall, athletic, and talkative, while Miller is less physically capable and tends to be a listener. Miller wants to forget the war, and Brace wants to remember certain details of it. Because they are so different, they draw each other out, making readers more aware of each character’s personality traits by seeing those traits missing in the other. The wives, though, are not so explicitly contrasted. At least at the party, which is the only view the story provides of her, Nancy Brace is a big supporter of her husband’s war stories, hanging on his every word and explaining that he makes her feel as if she were there. At the party, Betty Miller seems both admiring of Tom and quietly supportive of her husband. She acts as though she envies Betty, wishing that her husband would talk more, even though she knows that he saw little action during the war. In Betty’s comment that “Lew never talks about the war,” Miller sees his wife as romanticizing him as “a faintly tragic, sensitive husband, perhaps, or at any rate a charmingly modest one.” Miller sees this as proof of her love, though he resolves to tell her privately that she must “stop making him a hero whenever anybody mentioned the war.” So publicly, both wives appear supportive and loving. Yet the conversation in the cab between the Millers suggests otherwise: Betty attacks Tom Brace and his wife and then she attacks her husband, too. Whether Nancy has this same duplicity is left open to conjecture. It is possible that she also has her private resentment: she listens repeatedly to Tom’s stories, and perhaps repeatedly in public, he dismisses her. If this reading is logical, then the wives serve less as foil characters than the husbands.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Richard Yates, Published by Gale Group, 2006