English – Canadian Short Stories

This passage from the book, Canadian Short Stories in English by Isabella Valancy Crawford, is a short, fast-paced scene where a young fugitive is tracked down and arrested by three detectives, but then dies heroically whilst saving a drowning baby after his arrest.

Using varying diction and detail, the writer portrays the characters in this passage in a clear manner which gives the readers a better understanding of the personality of the characters. Joe (the young fugitive) is portrayed as a “gentleman” (16) who seems to have conscience in him, for his face reflected with “deathly shame” when he was arrested. Contradicting with his character as a young fugitive, he speaks “quietly” (23) and cooperates peacefully with law enforcers, like when he “stood motionless while the detective snapped one manacle of the handcuffs on his wrist” (24).

The writer first encourages the readers to question Joe’s actual guiltiness by referring him as “the wretched quarry” (19) during his arrest. Not only does this stir the detective to feel “compassion” (19) and sympathy for Joe in the story – a similar effect may be experienced by the readers, too. The writer then uses her first animal reference on the detective, describing his hands as “talons” as he laid it on Joe’s wrist (19). Given this feature, the detective is portrayed as a predator (e.g. an eagle), so Joe would be a prey underneath his “talons”, being hunted on. The constant suggestion of him as a vulnerable character suggests innocence in that character, as though he is merely being accused, or ‘victimized’ by the detectives. Hence, attributing the term “criminal” on this victim would seem unjustifiable.

The writer then takes a turn in the middle of the passage and portrays Joe as a brave, selfless hero. Previously being portrayed as a weak ‘prey’, Joe shocks the readers as he dashes aside the detectives effortlessly “like straws” (31), which is triggered by the baby falling in the river. This sudden show of strength suggests determination in this now-heroic character, whom also proves to be physically capable as he was said to be “beating the hostile current with fine, steady strokes”, triumphing over the “terrible fight between the man and the river”, as he “subdued it unto him”, showing his strength. The writer then uses another animal reference in the passage – with the “child in his teeth”, Joe resembles a father canine protecting his cub from harm, which again, contradicts to his character of a criminal. Other than “heroic” and “strong”, the writer also portrays Joe as a brave character, like when he “smiled” whilst a detective “covered him with a revolver” and threatened to shoot (36 – 38).

After his heroic rescue, the writer then attempts to minimize Joe, right until the death of that character – despite him “beating the hostile current” after the “fight between the man (Joe) and the river”, the river claims victory in the end, with that paragraph (46 – 49) describing the scene with utmost detail, consisting of strong terms like “crashed upon him”. With synonyms like “it reared against him like a living thing instinct with rage” and metaphors like “wallowing monster-like”, Joe is reduced from a strong triumphing hero to the final metaphor – “a bruised and shattered pigmy of creation”, in the mere three sentences.

On the other hand, the three detectives contrasted with Joe’s character – initially introduced as the “strangers” (2), at the beginning, this term is continuously used throughout the passage, and by omitting their names (as opposed to the other characters), they bring about a sense of mystery as they arrive in the scene.

As mentioned above, the writer relates one of the detective’s hands with “talons”, which gives the impression that they are victimizing Joe, the supposed criminal. Their actions also makes readers dislike the characters of the detectives, being blunt like when they “snapped one manacle of the handcuffs” on Joe’s wrist (24).

Apart from sculpting characters, the writer also uses diction to foreshadow events in this short story – Joe’s red flannel shirt, for instance, hinted that a blood-shedding tragedy would happen soon, as red is a colour symbolizing blood, danger and disorder. This applies to the other references to the colour red as well, like the “flash of red” (30) when the baby fell in the river, and the “little red bundle” whirling in the river (35). The last two were references to the baby, so this character may represent an omen, symbolizing tragedy, as the baby finds Joe’s red flannel shirt (a symbol for danger) attractive (13). Other than the red flannel shirt, the baby is also said to be “crowing with delight” when he catches sight of the handcuffs (26). Finding these symbols of danger attractive was a hint that the tragedy may be related to the baby.

The writer controls the pace well throughout the passage. Short sentences, given as a list of three, speeded up the pace when the baby fell in the river – “…a shriek, a flash of red, a soft plunge in the water” (30), increasing tension for the readers. The climax occurred in the lines 46 – 49, an extremely short paragraph describing the death of Joe. With the many events occurring in such a short paragraph, the pace is set to the passage’s maximum, making this the climax of the passage.

The presence of the baby is ironic in the passage, as babies usually represent birth, new beginnings and happiness. However, by falling in the river, this baby causes the death, or the end of Joe’s life, and along with all the references given above, the writer may have placed this character in the story as an omen.