Oppositions in E.L. Doctorow's "The Hunter"
This paper was written as an assignment for ENGL571: Workshop: Writing, Jane Bradley, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Spring 1989.
In "The Hunter", E.L. Doctorow weaves setting, style, and characterization together to create a tension of oppositions: setting and character, cold and warmth, death and life.
The story is told in present tense frequently employing linking verbs. The narrator shows us action and the teacher's thoughts without interpreting them (For instance, when the teacher and the bus driver leave the Rapids, we are given the action, "He has trouble starting the engine" (261) rather than the interpretation--he is drunk.). The reader is forced to see the world through the teacher's eyes, to interpret the world with her.
Doctorow sets us up for this opposition by beginning with the setting rather than the teacher. We are shown this small, shabby factory town. Several of the porched homes have been converted into taverns lit by neon Bud and Miller signs hanging in the front windows. The old brassworks that once gave the town what life it had now sits "behind locked fences and many of its windows are broken" (256). The river is frozen. The town is buried in snow and even the smoke drifting from the chimneys "is quickly sucked into the sky" (256). Only the school bus is moving. Fathers gather firewood struggling, like the sparrow and finch in the woods above town, to keep warm (256).
Counterposed to the town is the teacher. "She is cheery and kind." She begins the day with exercise, tring to show the children "what the world looks like upside down" (256), but they are not animated, the exercise can't bring them life. The imaginative adventure she leads them on, the lost patrol looking for signs of life is emblematic of her role as teacher trying to bring warmth and imagination into their world. The heat from the furnace is life: they throw coals in like "a sacrament" (257).
This idea of the opposition of warmth and cold is further developed through an opposition of colors. White(snow and ice, the mansion with its fractured columns and ceiling hung with ice "like the bottom of the moon" (258-259), the blank screen at the theater (259), the pickup's glare on the white curtain of her back door (261)) becomes an image of death while yellow (the yellow bus--"the only moving thing in the town" (256), the furnace--"the source of heat" (257), her urinating in her bath water (257), the new yellow leather boots of the bus driver (261)) of life.
Playing on these elements, Doctorow begins to reveal the teacher's inability to see any hope for her struggle. In the amber light of the street lamps the yellow bus appears as the dark yolk of an egg, rotten and lifeless (257). The inmates of the old people's home are still children, with children's faces, children's manners (258). Running away, she struggles through snowdrifts to reach the mansion at the top of the highest hill in the town. But beneath the plaster pillars she sees the exposed chicken wire (258). The mansion, above the tree line, open to the sky and full of light is a frozen waste "like the bottom of the moon" (259). Like the world around it, it gives an illusion of warmth--"the sun shines," but "it is very cold" (258). The realization of her failure culminates in the image of the hunter firing into the dilapidated mansion evoking the factory owner who shotgunned his bride (259).
She nearly gives in. Sitting in the theatre she "sits in the dark and swallows a handful of" Valiums while on the blank white screen she imagines her life (259). Later crossing the bridge "the wind is a force and she feels it wants to press her through the railing into the river" and though she resists it "it is only giving way to her by tearing" (259).
The bus driver seems to be a way of escape. His "clean good boots" of "new yellow leather" suggest an affinity to earlier images of warmth and life (261). He remembers his third grade teacher, proud like her and beautiful. He has sisters, perhaps he can understand her. But he's drunk, an ordinary mill hand out for a good time, a boy with a crush on the teacher. He lacks his own strength, the warmth he posseses is illusory, a product of the alcohol (260-1).
On Monday morning she waits for the children. This is a special day, she tells them, sings to them. "Look, she says to each one, you are making music" (261). But she has lost the grace, the dance-like motion. She frightens them. One girl cries (262).
Maybe the wind will have its way with this town, maybe they will all be caught in the river, frozen and lost. As the photographer says "Used to be classes of kids...Now look at what's left of you. Heat this whole building up for one room" (262)
But she will not give in. Like a bird protecting her young she gathers them to her "with an urgent opening and closing of her hands" and feeling their fraility, "the thin bones of their arms, their shoulders their legs, their behinds," she faces the white flash of the camera, faces death, and defies it: "Take it. Take it as we are. We are looking at you. Take it" (262)
Doctorow, E. L. "The Hunter." The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985. Ed. Daniel Halpern. New York: Viking, 1986. 256-262.