A Close Read

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"And if you, the parent, have ever allowed yourself small helpings of private pride and satisfaction at your child's accomplishments, if you have ever stood beaming at a graduation in the June sunlight, swelling inwardly over the award for religious studies and feeling that in some unexplained but important way your daughter reflects your presence, that she represents you and your codes, both cultural and genetic; if you have ever felt that your beautiful daughter was somehow flowering forth from you, so then, when another area of her endeavors is revealed—addiction, say, to crack cocaine—you will also feel the heavy cowl of complicity settle over your head." —from "Blind Man," in A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories, by Roxana Robinson (Random House)

The meaning of this paragraph-long sentence is simple; anyone could express it in a few words, but Robinson takes what might have been a wad of an idea and stretches it like taffy until its painful snap. In so doing she both establishes an emotional truth that will make every reader, parent or no, nod in recognition and reveals the specific pride, guilt, bitterness, and despair of the character to whom these lines belong. Right away she draws the reader close. Up to this moment in the story and immediately again afterward, "the parent" is that character—Roger, with whom you sympathize but whom you can keep at a comfortable third-person distance. Now, suddenly, "you," the reader, must share his point of view. Skillfully Robinson alternates generalities that could apply to any child—accomplishments, cultural and genetic codes—with the details that apply to this particular daughter: the award for religious studies and the addiction to crack cocaine. She creates a story by making the universal particular, and implicates every reader in that story by making the particular universal.

Robinson's rich figurative language progressively intensifies the emotion of the passage, coaxing the reader toward her unacceptable but inescapable conclusion. "Allowed yourself small helpings" suggests the mildest of transgressions: consuming little treats, perhaps not entirely wholesome but certainly not harmful. An especially delectable morsel, however, leaves the parent "swelling," albeit "inwardly." The very weather echoes his glow of pride, as he stands "beaming" in the "sunlight." This, together with the notion that his daughter "reflects" his presence, hints that the parent sees himself in this relationship as the sun. At last modesty is abandoned with the idea that the "beautiful daughter" is "flowering forth from" the parent, an admission made heroic—and also a little ridiculous, as emotions are apt to be—by its final alliterative flourish. If there are hints that the pleasure expressed in these lines until now is a somewhat guilty one, the overall effect, colored by satisfaction, sun, and flowers, is almost giddily joyful. The final lines are all the more sober by comparison. Here Robinson again dramatizes a remarkable range of emotion in a very short space. The ironic use of the word "endeavors" and the devastatingly offhand way she tosses in the deadly vice set a bitter tone, while the final image of shame, "the heavy cowl of complicity"—its alliteration a neat echo of that which she used to indicate bursting pride—is purely, heartbreakingly sad.

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.
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