Monday, January 30, 2023

The Monster

 "Even if there are a lot of fools in the world, we can't see any reason why you should ruin yourself opposing them. You can't teach them anything, you know."

--Stephen Crane, The Monster

Here is but one of a wealth of quotes that may be lifted from Stephen Crane's short story masterpiece, The Monster. It is not the best known among Crane's short stories, taking a back seat to comparable gems such as The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel, but in my own mind it the very best of his work, his most accomplished piece of craftsmanship. 

The Monster has always fallen behind the more well-known stories for three simple reasons: 1) Readers don't understand it; 2) Readers don't want to understand it; and 3) It deals at its heart with the enduring guilt of our society, the poison written into our founding document, the shame sewn into the fabric of who we are as a nation and as human beings. In short, it is about racism, ignorance, intolerance, denial, cowardice, hypocrisy. It gives us a good look at what we don't want to see. One character alone in the story sees, and for seeing, and responding, he is ostracized, banished, ruined. He has taken up our inherited cross, and that road leads inexorably to crucifixion. 

The Monster is a thorough, richly layered, deceptively complex, very long short story (though still firmly in the short story form). I find myself astounded on each reading at how good the thing is, and at how much more depth I find on each reading. 

Ah, and lest I forget--A fourth factor that keeps The Monster from its literary due, especially in our time, is the tender ears of the politically correct crowd, who would gasp and cover their eyes at the sight of plain depictions of life as it is, and completely miss the meaning of why any writer would want to educate them about such things. Yes, Crane uses prohibited words in this story--words such as nigger and coon--such that we might be acquainted with the blatant carelessness of his time, or any time. He uses these words fully aware of their power to offend, and that's the point. As with Twain, Faulkner, Harper Lee and others, he is not using the words for fun or because he likes them. Quite the reverse. He is painting a picture of human disregard and ignorance, so common that it seems mundane, normal. Sadly, The Monster is not likely to be found on your school reading list or library recommendation--which is probably a good thing, as Twain once said, as people will be more interested than ever in reading the work. 

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