Punning and the Power of Stories in The Zebra Storyteller. The plot of Spencer Holst s The Zebra Storyteller turns upon a play on words.

Smith 1 Ishmael Smith 1 Professor Chapman Practical Criticism 1 April 2007 Punning and the Power of Stories in The Zebra Storyteller The plot of Spencer Holst s The Zebra Storyteller turns upon a play
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Smith 1 Ishmael Smith 1 Professor Chapman Practical Criticism 1 April 2007 Punning and the Power of Stories in The Zebra Storyteller The plot of Spencer Holst s The Zebra Storyteller turns upon a play on words. When a Siamese cat learns to speak Zebraic, the language of the Zebras, the zebra to whom he speaks is fit to be tied, so the cat quickly ties him up and kills him (460). By thus 2 3, making literal a conventional figure of speech, the story implies that language has tremendous power: in the fictional universe of this story, it appears, what people say becomes true. As the 7 story progresses, however, the power of language, or more specifically of stories, is shown to be much more partial than this pun would suggest. Stories can make things happen, but some stories are more powerful than others, and some might even give those who believe them a 8 false and dangerous sense of control. The conclusion of the story suggests that the power of stories is commonly preventive: 9 stories do not make things happen so much as they keep things from happening to you. Having thought up a story of a Siamese cat speaking Zebraic, the storyteller wasn t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he d been thinking about that very thing 10 (461). The function of the storyteller is thus as a kind of rehearsal for life, preventing the paralysis which overtakes people when they confront the unexpected (461). This preventive function does not depend upon the storyteller explicitly trying to fulfill this function, as the zebra storyteller appears only to be writing to make em laugh (460). By implication, then, even the kinds of stories which we consider pure entertainment have a deeper purpose, or at Smith 2 least a greater potential. Stories do not all have the same degree of preventive power. The zebra storyteller s story is not the first or only story the zebras tell about the cat: The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion. (460) A superstition is a form of narrative, one which has no known author and to which people give credence. This particular ghost story, like the zebra storyteller s tale, has preventive 13 power, in that it causes the zebras to avoid the neighborhood where the cat has preyed upon them. But this story is not as effective as the storyteller s, because it only allows the zebras to avoid the problem rather than solving it. The difference between the two seems to be the degree of accuracy of the respective stories; the ghost of a lion story is presumably too inaccurate to prevent the zebras from being fit to be tied, whereas the storyteller s tale is close enough to the actual events to allow the zebra to recognize the danger and eliminate it. An inaccurate story may even prove to be a form of self-deception. The cat is a storyteller too, boasting to his friends that he was a lion, and [giving] as proof the fact that he hunted zebras (460). The story never says directly whether or not the Siamese cat believes 14 his own story. But he certainly acts as if he thinks very highly of himself, treating himself with filet mignon of zebra every night and bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court (460). A decadent ruler is one who has fallen from a former state of excellence, usually through self-indulgence. In this case, there has been no former state of excellence-- the cat was never a lion--suggesting that the cat s self- Smith 3 deception is especially grave. At the very least, the cat s boast fails to take into account the real danger of his own situation, as the zebra storyteller kills him easily with a single kick. Although the truthfulness of stories is important, a story does not have to offer a full understanding of a situation to fulfill a preventive function. The zebra storyteller doesn t know what the cat will do or why he is a threat, there is just something about his looks he didn t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him (461). Storytelling has immense survival value, but it operates only semi-consciously, acting more as a prompt for intuition than as an instruction manual or an agenda. Some stories are better than others, and so are some storytellers, but not even the zebra storyteller, the best storyteller in the tale, is fully in control either of stories or of the reality they represent (or fail to represent). The meaning of the central pun of The Zebra Storyteller, then, may ultimately reside less in the fact that a figure of speech comes to life than in the fact that it is a pun. By definition, a pun confuses two meanings of a word or a phrase that have no inherent 15 connection; a pun, that is to say, is arbitrary, accidental. The cat s power (while he has it) comes from his use of language, but he is even less in control of the power of language than the zebra storyteller. The arbitrary nature of puns suggests that the cat s power is partly a matter of simple chance. The Zebra Storyteller, then, for all that it praises the power of storytelling, also offers a cautionary tale about mistakenly thinking that that power can be controlled. The powerful narrative of today may prove to be tomorrow s self-delusion. Works Cited Holst, Spencer. The Zebra Storyteller. Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales and Stories. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin. Oxford: Oxford UP, Print. 16 1-1 margins all around, not counting the page number, which is 1/2 from the top. See the MLA Handbook, The title is specific and informative enough to give the reader a sense of what the paper is about. As per MLA format, it is centered on the page. There is no separate title page. 3 - The paper starts with a specific, relevant observation that leads to the thesis, not a generalization. 4 - Because the work discussed is a short story, a work published within a larger work, it is enclosed with quotation marks. The title of a work published alone, such as a novel or a play, would be underlined or italicized. See MLA The reader is assumed to have read the story, but not to remember or know it as well as the author of the paper. 6 - Since the author of the source is made clear in the context, the parenthetic citation consists only of the page number. If the author were not identified, his or her name would be included as well, e.g. (Holst 460). See MLA 5.2 and 6.3. For a quotation that is not indented, the citation follows the closing quotation mark and precedes the period or other punctuation (see 10 below for the punctuation of a citation after an indented quote). 7 - The present tense is used to discuss or recount events in literary narratives. 8 - The thesis is a specific, argumentative claim about the meaning of the story. As such, it gives the reader direction, and even more importantly keeps the writer on track. Note that although the thesis has more than one part, it is nevertheless unified, with all the parts coming together into a coherent argument. In this case, the thesis is pretty close to a statement of the paper s argument as a whole, but this is not always necessary or possible: a clear statement of the first step in the argument is sometimes all that is needed. 9 - Topic sentences of paragraphs guide the reader with specific claims Quotes are integrated with and fit grammatically into the paper s sentences. Note that quotes are used liberally throughout the paper (much more than is customary in other disciplines); this allows the reader to see the evidence for the writer s claims. However, only as much of the text is quoted as is needed to support the claim at hand Note the use of the colon in this sentence. Before the colon is the critic s claim; after it is the evidence for the claim. This is not the only way to work evidence into a sentence, but it is a useful one, whether the evidence takes the form of an indented quote or is quoted within the text of the paragraph. Note that the claim precedes the evidence, usually the clearest way to structure an interpretive argument (but see 11 below). Note also that the evidence isn t simply repeating what the claim has already said. If you find that the claim and its evidence are too similar, you are probably better off combining the claim and the evidence into a single sentence in which quotes from the text are integrated into a statement of the claim in your own language When a quote is more than 4 lines long, it is indented 1 on the left side rather than being contained in quotation marks. (This quote isn t actually long enough to warrant being indented; I indented this one to show what an indented quote looks like). Note that the indentation replaces the quotation marks, that doublespacing is maintained before, during, and after the quote, and that the parenthetic reference comes after the period (unlike the punctuation for quotes in the body of the text--see 5 above) Although as noted in 11 above the claim precedes the evidence for the claim, the evidence isn t just left there for the reader to interpret as he or she sees fit. Rather, the implications of the claim are spelled out in further discussion. This claim followed by evidence, explanation, or implications structure is common in writing about literature. (See, for example, sentences 1, 2 and 3 in the previous paragraph.) In some cases, the quote and its evidence are self-evident enough not to require an explanation or implications section; if what follows the quote is merely a paraphrase of the quote, it probably isn t necessary Since a quote must fit grammatically with the sentence to which it belongs, the original quote has been altered, and the altered section is indicated with brackets (see MLA 3.7.6). An omission from a quoted would be indicated with an ellipsis (see MLA 3.7.5). Needless to say, an altered quote has to be true to the original; the alterations should be minimal and the rewritten language should stay as close to the original as possible The conclusion gives a sense of closure, but it doesn t merely summarize or repeat. Often, for example, a good conclusion will discuss the implications of the argument that has just concluded. If you can t think of a way to provide that sense of closure without repetition, just stop with the last step of the argument, ending if possible with a strong closing sentence The Works Cited list is in proper MLA format. See Chapter 5 of the MLA Handbook for specific forms for individual citations (in this case, a work in an anthology, 5.5.6). Note that the press title is abbreviated (see MLA 7.5). University press titles are shortened to U and P where appropriate; commercial presses are shortened even further. The MLA Handbook stipulates that the Works Cited begins on a new page. In this sample, it is included on the last page to save paper.
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