Creative Essay Sample: Written for Critical Reading and Writing: Fiction Writing I class for the final essay assignment, which was to focus on an element of writing through the lens of three stories we studied in class. The sample below is a section from the essay thoroughly discussing the chapter “The Vomitorium” from John McNally’s The Book of Ralph. THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING By Melissa Huedem The relationship between setting, story, and character is also evidenced in “The Vomitorium”. The story begins at the characters’ grade school. “We were standing at the far edge of the blacktop at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, as far from the recess monitors as we could get…It was 1978, the year we started eighth grade i.” The setting informs the characters’ ages. Whatever they intend to do they are afraid the recess monitors will catch them. Their fears are aligned with their youthful ages. Their desires border between adolescent and adult. “Rumor was that Patty O’Dell had modeled panties for Sears when she was seven or eight, and for the past two years Ralph had diligently pursued the rumor ii.” Both Hank and Ralph are at an age where change begins to take over, both physically and mentally. “…and though I was starting to feel the first tremors of a boner, the girl in the photo was not Patty O’Dell iii.” This critical period helps to progress their character development. It also adds to the complications of the story. The blacktop of their grade school acting as the first setting is something to make note of. Hank and Ralph are not adults and the childlike setting emphasizes this, yet as the story continues Hank’s character will be challenged in the specific situation and spaces he is put in.
One major element of the setting is the story takes place on Halloween. Beyond Norm’s Tootsie Pop deal, Halloween plays a deeper role in “The Vomitorium”. On this particular holiday people dress up to take on the persona of another. Hank and Ralph are no different. Hank dresses up like Gene Simmons, while Ralph dons an elaborate Etruscan costume, complete with knives glued to his fingers. When Halloween night is over people reveal their true selves, removing any masks and obstructions. The fact that Halloween is a prevalent component of the story is not surprising. Hank discovers the true nature of Norm, seeing beyond the “spooky guy with spooky veiny arms” who gives him “bags of Tootsie Pops each month iv”. Hank and Ralph’s entry into the ‘real world’ begins with Norm pulling “into the parking lot of a ratty complex called Royal Chateau Apartments v.” The story’s complications start to heighten here because Hank is now in Norm’s territory. He is neither in the comfort of his grade school’s blacktop nor in his own home. He is in the backseat of Norm’s Chevy Impala, waiting for him in the parking lot of a rundown complex. While Hank is not completely at odds with the setting as seen in “Greasy Lake” it is certainly unfamiliar to him. The first major complication arises when the man Norm is doing business with refuses. “To make a profit I got to sell a hundred of these for every twenty of the big ones I’d’ve sold. You see what I’m saying? Kids want the ones they can stick in their mouths like a big cigarvi.” And with that the ‘fat guy’ returns back to his ‘Royal Chateau’ leaving Norm to figure it out on his own. “For an hour we sat in Norm’s car and said nothing while Norm drove vii.” Hank and Ralph are under Norm’s control. He directs them to their next location after driving
around in circles “from 79th and Harlem to 87th and Harlem, over to 87th and Cicero, then north to 79th and Cicero- a loop that eventually took us back to 79th and Harlem viii .” Their tracks are dizzying, but it parallels the story spiraling out of control. Norm is fucked, but the extent of it is hazy to both boys. Ralph believes it involves stolen drugs and guns, but in a way it is heavier than that. Even though Hank recognizes certain markers like the Haunted Trails Miniature Golf Range and the Sheridan Drive-In he is forced to see beyond the safe and familiar as Norm pulls into Guidish Park Mobile Homes. “When Norm finally deviated from his endless loop, he jerked a quick right into Guidish Park Mobile Homesix.” The way Hank describes their arrival [“he jerked a quick right”] relays Hank’s discomfort in the setting and situation. He is completely out his element and nothing is in his control. As Norm asks Hank for his help the setting creates an ominous tone. “It was so dark. I couldn’t even see his face x.” The darkness not only supports the eeriness of Halloween night, but also the shady business Norm wants Hank to partake in. It is not until Hank steps under the streetlamps when he realizes what he is holding. With a giant Tootsie Roll Bank in hand he heads to trailer number forty-seven. After a few moments with Bob, Hank is forced to follow him. “We walked down a short and narrow hallway to a door at the far end of the trailer. When Bob opened the door, he motioned for me to join him inside the roomxi.” The use of light is used again to create tone, disharmony, and gravity of the story’s complications. “It was dark, almost too dark to see, the only light coming from the room we had just leftxii.” The seriousness of the situation is portrayed through the setting. The last bit of innocence Hank had and
the miniscule amount of respect Hank reserved for Norm is symbolized through the “only light coming from the room [they] just left xiii.” At this moment Hank is forever changed. Because Hank is at discord with his surroundings he is forced to change. The process of discovery is set in motion when characters are in disharmony with their surroundings xiv. The most devastating, but most important complication occurs once Hank sees Jennifer lying on the bed. At first, because of the holiday Hank believes it is all a prank. “…at first I wanted to laugh, because one of the women was wearing Wes Papadakis’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon” mask, and the thought of a grown woman lying in bed in the dark wearing a stupid rubber mask struck just the right chord in me tonight xv.” But sadly his presumption is far from the truth. Again, the use of light reveals the truth of the matter. “…when Bob flipped on the light…I saw it wasn’t a mask at all. It was her face. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. It kept drawing me in, like a pinwheel or a pendulum: eyes so puffy she could barely see out…lips cracked open and swollen…the zigzag of stitches along her nostril xvi.” Suddenly the story about Patty O’Dell in her panties, Tootsie Pop deals, and a Gene Simmons costume becomes serious. Just as Hank starts to assess the situation he sees Patty O’Dell, the girl who inadvertently led him here. Because of Hank’s desires to see Patty O’Dell’s ads he agreed to go with Norm to Jennifer’s party. Now Patty sits before his eyes, “wearing a long white T-shirt that she kept pulling over her knees, trying to hide herself from [him] xvii .” Hank’s attempts to picture Patty naked dissolves into “something dark and grainyxviii .” What was once an innocent desire has now been tarnished. Hank tries to converse with Patty, but she is ashamed. The setting of Guidish Park Mobile Homes not only aids in
creating an uncomfortable tone for Hank, but it also rips away the image Ralph and Hank had of Patty O’Dell. She no longer seems as glamorous anymore. After Bob tells Hank to relay information back to Norm [“Tell him to expect the police at his door in, oh let’s say an hour, two at the most. Maybe that’ll teach the son of a bitch not to hit a woman xix.”] Hank clops his heels outside. This is the only time Hank is alone in the story. Although he is not necessarily at peace with the setting, he is able to weigh the situation and its implications upon his own character. “I was angry at Norm, certainly angry at Norm for beating up Jennifer, angry at Norm for driving us around and acting like it was nothing, a mistake, a mistake anyone could make—but I was angrier for how Patty had looked at me, then looked away, angry because I was close to something, I wasn’t sure what… Norm had ruined it for me, whatever it was. For that I wanted to hurt Norm myself, but the closer I got to him, the more unlikely that seemed. I was twelve. Norm was twenty-five. What could I possibly do? xx.” Hank’s solitary moment, standing on the asphalt leading to Norm’s car, is critical to the story. Janet Burroway claims that, “In many of the finest modern short stories and novels, the true territory of struggle is the main character’s mind, and so the real crisis action must occur there xxi .” This is no different in “The Vomitorium”. The crisis action happens in Hank’s mind, but again to quote Burroway, “…any mental reversal that takes place in the crisis of a story must be triggered or shown by an action xxii .” When Hank sees Ralph puking out the car door he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Norm punched him in the stomach. This proves that Hank is aware of
Norm’s capabilities. When Hank gets into Norm’s car—his territory—Norm revs the engine. This subtle action symbolizes Norm’s ‘toughness’ and presumed power over Hank. It is not until Norm begins questioning Hank does Hank show his authority over him. “ ‘She wants you to go home,’ I said, thinking of the police at his door later tonight, knocking with their billy clubs. ‘She said she’ll be there in an hour,’ I added xxiii .” Knowledge is power and in this situation it is manifested as the falling action. The resolution of “The Vomitorium” happens when Ralph joins the group of junior college students wearing togas. Hank confronts Norm. His answer is not satisfying: “Hell. I don’t know. You lose control sometimes xxiv .” But this makes sense to Hank. “Of course Norm doesn’t know. Of course xxv .” The various settings of “The Vomitorium” helped to develop character, but also aided in physically expressing the complications, crisis action, falling action, and resolution of the story.
McNally, John. “The Vomitorium”.
Ibid. Ibid. iv Ibid. v Ibid. vi Ibid. vii Ibid. viii Ibid. ix Ibid. x Ibid. xi Ibid. xii Ibid. iii
Ibid. Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. New York: Pearson, 2009. Pg. 144. xv McNally, John. “The Vomitorium”. xvi Ibid. xiv
Ibid. Ibid. xix Ibid. xx Ibid. xxi Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. New York: Pearson, 2009. Pg. 175. xxii Ibid. xxiii McNally, John. “The Vomitorium”. xviii
A sample from a creative essay discussing the importance of setting. This particular section explores the topic through the lens of "The Vom...