|Elements of Literature
CONFLICT: The Energy of a Story by John Leggett
"Little Red Riding Hood," Revised
Once upon a time, a girl named Little Red Riding Hood set off into the forest with a basket of goodies for her grandmother. She went merrily on her way and arrived safely at Grandma's house. The wolf who usually prowled the forest pathways was in New York that week, giving a lecture about endangered species.
No Problem, No Story
Imagine that your favorite novel or movie was written, like this revised tale of Little Red Riding Hood, with its main problem or struggle left out. Would you still find it interesting? Most readers would probably say no.
What quality attracts us to certain stories, whether they are true stories or fiction? What keeps us reading these stories, even when we should be attending to other business or turning out the lights and going to sleep?
Conflict: The Energy of a Story
It is conflict, or struggle, that gives any story its energy and makes it interesting.
Here are some common types of conflicts:
I . a conflict between two characters
2. a conflict between a character and a group or a whole society
3. a conflict between two groups or cultures
4. a conflict between a character and a natural force or event, such as a flood or the law of gravity
5. a conflict between a character and something in himself or herself: perhaps fear, shyness, homesickness, or an inability to make a decision
Conflict Inside and Out
The first four items are examples of external conflict. In an external conflict a character struggles with an outside force. A conflict that takes place within a character's mind, on the other hand, is called an internal conflict.
A story may contain several conflicts. For example, in the story "Raymond's Run" (page 3), the main character, Squeaky, has a major external conflict with a rival named Gretchen. Yet Squeaky is also in conflict with others, such as people who "get smart" with her brother Raymond.
Squeaky struggles with herself, too. For example, she experiences an internal conflict when she tries to decide whether to face Gretchen and her friends or to duck into a store until they pass (pages 5-6). In literature, as in life, this kind of conflict, between opposing desires or emotions, can be the most interesting of all.
A Writer on Conflict
"I work to tell the truth about people's lives; I work to celebrate struggle."
Toni Cade Bambara,
author of "Raymond's Run" (page 3)
Before You Read
A TIME TO TALK
Make the Connection
What Makes a Friend?
If you had to choose one word to describe the most important thing a friend is or does, what would it be? (Consider: What makes a friend different from an acquaintance?)
Before discussing it with anyone, write down your word and a brief explanation of why you picked it. Then, share your response with a classmate if you wish.
Elements of Literature
Every line in this poem has a "friend"—another line that rhymes with it. Be sure to read the poem aloud at least once, listening for these end rhymes, or rhymes at the ends of lines. Can you hear the one rhyme that echoes across the space of five lines?
When words rhyme, the accented vowel sounds and all sounds following them are repeated.
For more on Rhyme, see pages 544-545 and the Handbook of Literary Terms.
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, "What is it?"
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
MEET THE WRITER
The New England Poet
Although Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, he lived in New England most of his life and was known as "the New England poet." Frost found his subjects in the landscapes and people of New England. He once wrote that a subject for poetry
“ ... should be common in experience and uncommon in books. . . . It should have happened to everyone but it should have occurred to no one before as material.”
In 1961, Frost read one of his poems at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He was the first poet to be invited to participate in a presidential inauguration ceremony. (Maya Angelou, whose work appears on page 20, has also been honored in this way.)
The Stone Fence (1946) by Andrew Wyeth. Tempera on panel.
I. In your opinion, what is the most important word or phrase in this poem? Why? (If you prefer, state in your own words what the poem says to you.)
2. Frost describes two ways to act toward a friend. What are they? Which one does he seem to think is better?
3. Which rhyme echoes across five lines? How does this rhyme help to emphasize the main idea in the poem?
4. What might the stone wall in line 9 represent? What kinds of "walls" do people build that keep them apart?
Challenging the Text
5. What, if anything, would be a good reason not to take time to talk with someone you care about? Or: Do you feel that you always need to talk when you're with friends? Why or why not?
CHOICES: Building Your Portfolio
1. Collecting Ideas for an Autobiographical Incident
Think of an occasion when you took time or didn't take time to talk with someone or when someone took time or didn't take time to talk with you. Jot down your memories of and feelings about the incident. Why was it important to you?
2. A Time for Poetry
Write a poem about what you think being a friend means. If you like, use the word you chose for your Quickwrite in the title: for example, "A Time to Listen" or "A Time to Be Loyal." You may want to use this format, which is like Frost's poem:
When a friend _____
I don't _____
No, not as there is a time to _____
3. This Is Just to Say
Is there someone you wish would listen to you? Write a letter telling that person what you'd like to say.
4. "Collage" Education
Using words and pictures cut out of magazines and newspapers, make a collage about friendship or about talk. Present your collage to the class, and explain why you chose the images you used.
Before You Read
Make the Connection
A Matter of Opinion
Rate each of the statements that follow with a number from 0 to 4.
disagree 0 I 2 3 4 agree
I. Young people need older role models.
2. Friends should be the same age.
3. Adults can't understand how young people feel.
4. Everyone deserves to feel special.
Record your ratings on a piece of paper. Then, with your class, tally all the responses to each statement on the board. Don't discuss your responses yet; wait until you've done the Quickwrite.
Respond to one of the four statements. You could explain your position or describe a related experience.
Elements of Literature
In "Mrs. Flowers," Angelou describes a summer afternoon as "sweet-milk fresh in my memory" (page 20). She has created an image—a description that appeals to one or more of our senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
As you read, notice how Angelou uses other images to bring an important experience to life.
Imagery is writing that uses descriptive language to appeal to the senses.
For more on Imagery, see the Handbook of Literary Terms.
Reading Skills and Strategies
Determining the Main Idea: What's It All About?
The main idea is the message, opinion, or insight that is the focus or key concept in a piece of writing. It's the most important idea that the writer wants you to remember. This important idea is developed by supporting details.
To find the main idea, you can do the following:
• Look for direct statements made by the writer.
• Look closely at the details that the writer gives. (Who, what, when, where, and why questions will help you identify the important details.)
• Think about what the details add up to.
• Try to put the main idea into your own words.
Literature and Real Life
"Mrs. Flowers" is from Maya Angelou's autobiography. When Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) was a little girl, her parents separated. She and her brother, Bailey, were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother (called Momma), who owned a general store. A year before meeting Mrs. Flowers, Marguerite was the victim of a violent act. She reacted by retreating behind a wall of silence.
from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I was liked, and what a difference it made.
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school, and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to know, the lady who threw me my first lifeline.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile1 dresses and flowered hats were as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer. She was our side's answer to the richest white woman in town.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn't encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
I don't think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her. The action was so graceful and inclusively benign.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
One summer afternoon, sweet-milk fresh in my memory, she stopped at the Store to buy provisions. Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, "Sister Flowers, I'll send Bailey up to your house with these things."
She smiled that slow dragging smile, "Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I'd prefer Marguerite, though." My name was beautiful when she said it. "I've been meaning to talk to her, anyway." They gave each other age-group looks.
There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked in front swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
She said, without turning her head, to me, "I hear you're doing very good schoolwork, Marguerite, but that it's all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class." We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to walk together. I hung back in the separate unasked and unanswerable questions.
"Come and walk along with me, Marguerite." I couldn't have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely. Or more correctly, she spoke each word with such clarity that I was certain a foreigner who didn't understand English could have understood her.
1. voile: thin, sheer fabric.
WORDS TO OWN
taut adj.: tightly stretched.
benign adj.: kind.
Little Girl in Green (1944) by William Johnson. Oil on paperboard (31 7/8" x 22 5/8”)
"Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals." That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
"Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That's good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning."
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
"I'll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled." My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers's. Death would be too kind and brief.
The odors in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of common people. There must have been an outhouse, too, but my mind never recorded it.
The sweet scent of vanilla had met us as she opened the door.
"I made tea cookies this morning. You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox."
It followed that Mrs. Flowers would have ice on an ordinary day, when most families in our town bought ice late on Saturdays only a few times during the summer to be used in the wooden ice cream freezers.
She took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my wildest fantasies imagined I would see. Browned photographs leered or threatened from the walls and the white, freshly done curtains pushed against themselves and against the wind. I wanted to gobble up the room entire and take it to Bailey, who would help me analyze and enjoy it.
"Have a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table." She carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn't tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient
WORDS TO OWN
infuse v.: fill.
for childhood's lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little ladylike bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn't had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.
As I ate she began the first of what we later called "my lessons in living." She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . ." Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn't really heard, heard to understand, a single word.
"How do you like that?"
It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.
I said, "Yes, ma'am!' It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.
"There's one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite."
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura2 remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood3 for a cup of mead with Beowulf4 or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . ."5 tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road (few cars ever came along it) and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson's grandchild or Bailey's sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Childhood's logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn't question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention, nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking-to. All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
2. aura: feeling or mood that seems to surround something like a glow.
3. wormwood: bitter-tasting plant. Angelou is referring to the harshness of life for African Americans in the South at that time.
4. Beowulf: hero of an Old English epic. During the period portrayed in the epic, people drank mead, a drink made with honey.
5. "It is .. . ever done": another quotation from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. One of the characters says these words as he goes to die in place of another man.
WORDS TO OWN
intolerant adj.: unwilling to put up with something.
illiteracy n.: inability to read or write.
MEET THE WRITER
"When You Get, Give"
On January 20, 1993, Maya Angelou (1928– ) stood at a podium on Capitol Hill and recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" in honor of Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration. She may have thought at that moment that she had come a long way from her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou has been an actor, a teacher, a speaker, a civil rights worker, and, above all, a writer—of poems, plays, songs, screenplays, and newspaper and magazine articles, as well as four autobiographies.
Angelou says that the two writers who have had the greatest influence on her work are William Shakespeare and the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. (The title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is taken from a poem by Dunbar called "Sympathy.")
Angelou has in turn influenced the lives of many young people, both in person and through her writing. Six feet tall, gracious and commanding, Angelou is as much a gentlewoman as her childhood friend Mrs. Flowers. In an interview with Essence magazine, Angelou tells about a time when she was able to "throw a lifeline" to a young man she found cursing and fighting on a movie set in California:
“I went over and I said, 'Baby, may I speak to you for a minute?' He dropped his head, and I said, 'Come on, let's walk'
And I started talking to him and started crying. I said, 'Do you know how much at risk you are? Do you know how valuable you are to us? You're all we've got, baby.'
He started crying and said to me, 'Don't cry.' I don't know who has cried for him. And let him see how much he means . . .
Black people say, when you get, give; when you learn, teach. As soon as that healing takes place, then we have to go out and heal somebody, and pass on the idea of a healing day—so that somebody else gets it and passes it on.”
More by Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first sixteen years of Angelou's life. Her autobiography continues in Gather Together in My Name (Bantam) and Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (Bantam). You may also enjoy her Poems (Bantam).
Maya Angelou reads her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's inauguration.