Process Analysis

Download 64 Kb.
Size64 Kb.

Process Analysis

The Strategies

The process analysis essay is an elementary but essential writing strategy. Most teachers prefer to teach it as the first expository form because all students have had experience giving and following directions and because composition students can use the skills that they have already studied in narration and description to explain the stages in a process. Like the chronology of events and the pattern of details, the stages in a process provide a plan for the process analysis essay. Indeed, most students suspect that if they write about a process that has established stages--"how to fix a flat tire"--the essay will write itself. Students soon discover that drafting a set of clear and logical directions is not as simple as it looks.

The chief advantage of teaching the process analysis essay is that the class can often test written instructions against the process they propose to explain. For example, ask a few students to analyze a common procedure--finding a book in the library or typing a paper on a word processor. If they omit steps, reverse steps, or fail to explain the use of basic tools, fellow students should be able to detect the error, thus learning how defective instructions can produce unsatisfactory results.

Such demonstrations will prepare students to see the purpose of the information contained in the introduction to this section. Writers must examine their purpose and audience to understand why they are analyzing a process and whom they are analyzing it for. The sample paragraph from Henry Petroski’s “The Book on the Bookshelf” makes a painstaking analysis of the seemingly simple problem of replacing a book back on a bookshelf after its space seems to have changed dimensions.


Each essay in this section illustrates the use of these essential strategies. Barbara Ehrenreich describes a process that most readers have attempted: cleaning a house. The specific methods that she learns as a professional “Maid” will strike her audience as inadequate precisely because they have already learned better habits. Similarly, P.J. O’Rourke describes the common task of driving a car, complicated by the hazards and customs of Third World contexts.

Nikki Giovanni focuses on an entirely internal process--the attitude and actions that will help black students succeed at predominantly white colleges. Giovanni offers straightforward advice and backs it up with logical rationale.

Julia Alvarez plumbs the depth of a writers’ composing process by exposing the contents of her “Curiosidade” file. She shows how the things that catch her notice eventually work their way out as characters or incidents in her fiction and poetry.

Serena Nanda provides excellent examples of how this writing strategy can be used to explain complex sociological processes. She counteracts the American notion that romantic love should be the basis for matchmaking by exploring the positive and negative aspects of arranged marriage in India.

Elizabeth Winthrop's story about simple processes exemplifies the more complex process of maturation. Although her protagonist, Emily, learns to tie fishing flies and pierce her ears, emancipation from an oppressive family situation is her ultimate achievement.


James Stevenson’s comic flow-chart showing how many steps it takes to change a lightbulb demonstrates a rather serious point about process analysis: some processes necessitate additional projects. Notice that in the cartoon, the “installation of a new bulb” generates a secondary process that starts with “removal of obsolete item.” Of course, everyone knows who to change a light bulb. The myriad jokes on the topic are predicated on the simplicity of that task. However, it might surprise students to discover how many steps are involved in the other relatively simple operations suggested by the writing assignments associated with the visual text.


The writing assignments for process analysis encourage students to discover, outline, and test the steps in several kinds of procedures. For example, assignments 1 and 2 ask students to analyze some physical process (how to solve a mechanical or artistic problem) or to complete a personal project (how to compose a research paper). Assignments 3 and 4 invite students to discover, outline, and evaluate specific aspects of the process analyses they have read (Nanda’s exploration of arranged marriage). Finally, assignments 5 and 6 ask students to look to O’Rourke and Winthrop as models when they write an analysis of some event that could serve as a cultural metaphor.

Barbara Ehrenreich, “Scrubbing in Maine”


Going beyond Studs Terkel’s landmark sociological study reported in his 1974 collection of interviews with American wage-earners, Working, Barbara Ehrenreich actually takes on a series of low-wage jobs around the United States as research for her book Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In this essay, Ehrenreich finds that working as a house cleaner is not as “correct” as it appears in the BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs, or even as orderly and “serene” as it seems in her employer’s training videos. The Maids, the national franchise by which Ehrenreich is employed, tends to dehumanize its employees. Its policy of moving workers around prevents them from forming “sticky and possibly guilt-ridden relationships” with customers. Its “disturbing” training videos equate workers with their tools, and it requires that workers spend “only so many minutes per house,” precluding the opportunity to sit “down with a tall glass of water” after a particularly exhausting task. For little more than minimum wage, this mostly female workforce is driven to provide “cosmetic touches,” to clients’ homes the way their employer prescribes it (but not actually to “clean” them).

As the title of Ehrenreich’s book suggests, she is arguing that their employers are swindling low wage earners. Ehrenreich reports that an independent house cleaner is “likely to earn . . . up to $15 per hour.” On the other hand, she and her cohorts at The Maids are paid just “$6.65 for each hour [they] work,” while the company nets “$25 per person-hour.” Granted, the company furnishes its workers with uniforms, cleaning supplies, and cars, but the inequity is still appalling. Ehrenreich charges the company with preying on those who have few options, noting that it is possible to work for The Maids if one doesn’t have a car and must “arrive straight from welfare or . . . the bus station.” At the company, Ehrenreich discovers that her co-workers have settled for a lower standard of living than many Americans would, subsisting on pizza and Jell-O shots or residing with a boyfriend and his mother. Nickled and Dimed attempts to speak for those who have quietly resigned themselves to NOT Getting By in America.


Most everyone has some experience with attempting to clean house. Ehrenreich draws on her mother’s lessons in cleaning a bathroom, using “Niagara-like quantities” of water to demonstrate how far from common sense The Maids’ approach to house keeping is. “Germs are never mentioned” in the training videos that Ehrenreich watches, and, like most readers, Ehrenreich is haunted by the “possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next” using the methods espoused by the company. Instead of real cleaning, The Maids are instructed to “Fluff up throw pillows” or fold the loose ends of toilet paper and paper towels as they’re done in hotel bathrooms. One of the cleaning companies to which Ehrenreich applied indicated that it did not like to hire employees who had formerly worked in the business because they were “resistant to learning the company’s system”; presumably that means unlearning how to properly clean a house.

The audience for this essay has likely seen or heard of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs, about the antics of the 19th Century English serving class. Ehrenreich expects her readers to draw a parallel between those workers’ “egotistical masters” and Ted, the franchise owner and boss who is her employer. When he pops in to proudly announce that the activities on the training video were “figured out with a stopwatch,” he doesn’t seem to understand, as the readers of the essay do, that this over-regulation and mechanization of human activity is demeaning. When the inventor of the special vacuum cleaner that The Maids use announces that, when properly strapped in, its user becomes the vacuum cleaner, the transformation of worker to machine is complete. Thus, Ehrenreich finds ironic comfort in Ted’s pronouncement that “’Cleaning fluids are less expensive than your time,’” or, as the essay’s writer explains: “in the hierarchy of the company’s values I rank above Windex.”


Ehrenreich’s book is about the difference between the way affluent Americans see the nation’s working class and the reality of their lives. Behind the “glowing” uniforms and the “attractive, “”serene,” “obedient” “possibly Hispanic” model in the films are the real house cleaners whose personal habits are marshaled by “a special code of decorum.” The real maids “run” to their cars to head out for work and “run” to the doors of the houses they are to clean because of Ted’s draconian “time limits.” There is clearly a schism between the reality of work life for The Maids employees and that portrayed in their training films. Ehrenreich wonders if the maid in the films is “an actual maid” and whether the home in the films is “someone’s actual dwelling.” Even the setting for the films is stylized, romanticized, and “perfectly characterless and pristine even before the model maid sets to work.” In the end, Ehrenreich is not just criticizing bosses like Ted, but customers who unwittingly perpetuate such unfair systems as those that companies like Ted’s administer.

At the outset of her experience with The Maids, Ehrenreich makes a play on words with the title of the BBC show about service staff, saying that she had “no idea, of course, just how far down these stairs will take me.” In her first day out with a cleaning team, she says she discovers that “life is nothing like the movies, at least not if the movie is Dusting.” The training films, though, have already taught the new recruit about the fundamentally unsanitary cleaning methods practiced by The Maids. Her revelation on the job, then, is about the individual lives of her co-workers, who must perform physically strenuous tasks without sufficient nourishment. The sacrifices of her fellow maids don’t even pay off in financial gain, as Ehrenreich learns that one of her co-workers doesn’t have 89 cents to spare for a soda. Although Ehrenreich can’t impose her mother’s standards of cleanliness on The Maids employees, she does end up wishing she could “force” an undernourished co-worker to drink a glass of milk with “mommylike” influence.

P.J. O’Rourke, “Third World Driving Hints and Tips”


Sometimes a process analysis essay does not mean to provide directions or reliable information at all, but is simply a venue for entertainment. Such is the case with P. J. O’Rourke’s pseudo-cautionary breakdown of rules for driving in Third World countries. As he indicates in the essay’s opening paragraph, O’Rourke’s work as a journalist has put him behind the wheel in such diverse driving conditions as the roads (or what passes for them) in Mexico, Lebanon, the Philippines, Cyprus, El Salvador, Africa, and Italy. Presumably, he also has driving credentials from New York, Baltimore, and Ohio, but those don’t suit his comic “Americans Abroad” purpose in this essay. However, since what he is describing is largely the frustration of drivers who encounter, ruts, confusing traffic signs, impatient fellow motorists, police and other road-blocks, wildlife, and traffic accidents, one needn’t have traveled much beyond his or her own driveway to identify with much of what O’Rourke finds to complain about.

As early as his first sentence, in which O’Rourke carelessly classifies Italy as a Third World country, his real purpose, of entertainment (not driving instruction) is revealed. Transferring the classic comic timing of stand-up comedians in the tradition of Henny Youngman to paper, O’Rourke communicates familiar repetitions and comedic intonations to his readers. For example, after explaining that attempting to drive fast on rutted lanes will “result in disaster,” O’Rourke says that driving slowly in the same circumstances “will also result in disaster.” This sort of humor is best-suited to a night-club act, but O’Rourke applies it to a topic that is not typical night-club fare, so his readers must mentally supply their own laugh tracks and rim-shots to the text.


Because O’Rourke is lampooning his subject, he can afford to poke fun of his ostensible audience, too. In pretending to offer useful advice to Third World tourists, O’Rourke acts like he thinks his readers will be Americans with “Hertz #1 Club cards” who can afford to “throw big wads of American money at everyone.” In reality, the audience for this essay is fans who first discovered O’Rourke’s irreverent style on the pages of Rolling Stone or Atlantic Monthly, or possibly even in the mid-20th Century underground newspaper Harry. Such readers are as unlikely to exchange their office chairs or subway train benches for the driver’s seats of cars imperiled by Third World driving conditions as are the hypothetical moneyed travelers addressed in the essay. However, they might enjoy picturing the unlikely pairing of such adventure-seekers with recalcitrant goats and furious foreign constables.

Not that a tongue-in-cheek essay written in English is likely to find its way into the hands of the “natives” described in O’Rourke’s process analysis, but if it did, most would find themselves as unflatteringly-presented as the privileged American class he pretends to address. The humor of this piece depends partly on its audience’s temporary suspension of empathy with those “natives.” A reader who is apt to counter that O’Rourke’s facetious method of converting kilometers to miles represents typical American arrogance, or that chickens are precious in certain countries because they represent the difference between prosperity and starvation takes life too seriously to appreciate O’Rourke’s sense of humor. Far from lampooning the inhabitants of Third World countries, O’Rourke is actually poking fun at Americans, including himself, who feel inconvenienced by the poverty that envelops less fortunate nations that they are compelled or inclined to visit.

Probably the audience that would best receive O’Rourke’s work is comprised of fellow news correspondents who have found themselves in the backseats of rickety taxis endangered by the perils he describes. However, since American drivers also confront frustrations on roadways at home (“Road Rage” is ample evidence of that!), O’Rourke’s essay does suggest a process by which any driver can cope with problems that arise: humor. His quips that certain road signs look like the symbols on “Boy Scout merit badges,” that there is a direct correlation between the number of white crosses lining a curve and its danger for drivers, and his definition of a car horn as an “’Egyptian Brake Pedal’” will strike different chords with all drivers. In spite of writing about driving conditions in countries most of his readers will never visit, O’Rourke’s strategy of using familiar images to describe foreign conditions makes it applicable to his readers’ lives.


O’Rourke’s essay demonstrates one of the most complex uses of humor: to win sympathy. After joking about road conditions, speed limits, traffic signals, irate fellow motorists, roadblocks, and the proclivity of various animals to run from or toward traffic, the author introduces the sobering observation that “Third Worlders are remarkably fond of their chickens and their children,” and warns that “If you hit one or both, they may survive. But you will not.” Fierce protection of their children underscores the humanity of people. O’Rourke acknowledges through this detail that the lives of people in genuinely underprivileged nations is not so funny for those who aren’t just driving through.
NIKKI GIOVANNI, "Campus Racism 101"


Outspoken poet, educator, and activist Nikki Giovanni address Black students at predominantly white colleges in her book Racism 101. In this excerpt from that text she argues that Black students should not use racism as an excuse for abandoning their dreams of a college education, and she offers a formula for success in school. At the heart of her process analysis is an admonition to Black students to maintain self-control. She reasons that American Blacks will inevitably interact with whites, and "the only question is, will you be in some control of yourself and your actions, or will you be controlled by others?" She advocates self-control on the part of Black students as the best method of containing racism and its attendant explosive emotions.

Giovanni reminds Black students to remember why they came to college, encouraging them with the promise that "four years of college gives you an opportunity not only to lift yourself but to serve your people effectively." The alternatives she cites to peacefully discouraging campus racism (low paying jobs, unemployment, military service, and prison) are not personally fulfilling or culturally uplifting. She advises students to see themselves as individuals "worthy of respect, and make everyone else deal with you the same way."

As a Black professor at a predominantly white school, Giovanni offers compelling reasons why Blacks should participate in inter-racial education. Her own reasons for choosing to teach at Virginia Tech range from the mere fact of the school's existence, to a need to minister to its Black students, a desire to "not allow white students to go through higher education without interacting with Blacks in authoritative positions," and the recognition that integration is necessary because "predominantly Black colleges cannot accommodate the numbers of Black students who want and need an education." Her own commitment to succeeding in a predominantly white educational environment is summed up in her definition of tenure: "I have a teaching position for life. . . ."


Although students of all races will find good advice for achieving success in college and dealing with peers of differing backgrounds, Giovanni's essay is addressed primarily toward Black students enrolled in predominantly white colleges. Gradually, her opening paragraph reveals her intended audience as the examples she toys with become increasingly pointed toward Black would-be college drop-outs. Her final hypothetical cartoon shows students leaving school because they "want to be white." In her conclusion, she addresses these students directly, reminding them that education is a private goal; they must not let racism deter them. She cautions her audience against taking "the racial world on [their] shoulders," reminding them that "Your job is not to educate white people; it is to obtain an education."

As a Black professor at a predominantly white school, Giovanni offers compelling reasons why Blacks should participate in inter-racial education. Her own reasons for choosing to teach at Virginia Tech range from the mere fact of the school's existence, to a need to minister to its Black students, a desire to "not allow white students to go through higher education without interacting with Blacks in authoritative positions," and the recognition that integration is necessary because "predominantly Black colleges cannot accommodate the numbers of Black students who want and need an education." Her own commitment to succeeding in a predominantly white educational environment is summed up in her definition of tenure: "I have a teaching position for life. . . ."


Giovanni establishes her straightforward, authoritative tone early in the essay by posing hypothetical questions (such as "Is it difficult to attend a predominantly white college?") and answering them cryptic wit and surprising candor. Her strategy is to give advice plainly, offering a process analysis of academic achievement for minority students. The steps in her process are arranged chronologically, as well as being prioritized by order of importance. Therefore, she begins with the first, most basic step: "Go to class." This is necessary to complete the second step ("Meet your professors"), which, in turn, facilitates the following one ("Do assignments on time") and so on. The last task in her series of steps, "Participate in some campus activity" is so-placed because it should come after academic obligations are met and because it is the least pressing, although still important, of the elements of the process she outlines.

Another strategy Giovanni employs to plainly issue her advice is the modeling of appropriate behaviors through a series of sample questions and answers. Notice that the responses she suggests are informative but not deferential. For instance she suggests that

the age-old question, "Why do all the Black people sit together in the dining hall?" simply be turned around, and that Black students ask in return, "Why do all the white students sit together?" Reversing the inference subtly confronts the questioner. Giovanni urges her Black readers to use their visibility in predominantly white schools to educate fellow students and faculty.

JULIA ALVAREZ, “Grounds for Fiction”


Showing people how to find ideas to write about is a way of prompting people to begin telling their own stories. An accomplished novelist and poet, Julia Alvarez provides her followers with a window into her own creative process that both satisfies their curiosity about the origins of some of her published works and encourages them to emulate her practices in their own writing. She traces elements in her novels and poems to such stimuli as a letter found in the trash, an article in a medical journal, a question reprinted in an old housekeeping magazine, small town gossip, newspaper articles, errant facts from nonfiction, and a hand-written memoir from her father. Each of these was kept in her yellow pocket folder labeled “curiosidades,” or curiosities, which are the commonplaces Alvarez has collected. She advises her readers to start similar idea files for themselves and exhorts them to follow Henry James’ advice, “to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Her message is that life is filled with subjects to write about, and would-be readers need to be attuned to them.

Alvarez is convinced that everyone’s natural curiosity drives him or her to be a writer. She contradicts the popular wisdom that authors write what they know best with the opinion of writer Marcie Hershman, who said, “We write what we need to know.” Alvarez believes that writers are motivated by discovery, as well as by “the whole Scheherazade issue” of needing to tell stories. Scheherazade is the heroine of the ancient collection of tales, The Arabian Nights, who marries the vengeful king and stops his pattern of taking and murdering a new wife each day by weaving fascinating tales and withholding their endings until the next day has passed. Alvarez argues that story telling is a mode of self-preservation, a survival tactic that was denied Adolfo Gonzales when he was committed to an Oregon mental hospital because no one could understand his unique Indian dialect.


Ostensibly prompted by the requests of audience members at public readings who approach Alvarez with ideas for stories they hope she will write, this essay explains to those hopefuls why no one can tell someone else’s stories. Instead, she suggests that her readers who, in the words of poet W. H. Auden, “like hanging around words listening to what they say” might follow her example and begin a file of potential stories waiting to be told. The essay, then, is largely a set of examples designed to show her listeners and readers how ideas are discovered and nurtured into full-blown texts over time.

Alvarez assumes that her audience is largely made up of active readers. Her casual allusions to Wallace Stevens as “a vice president of Hartford insurance Company,” to the first line of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” show that she expects that her audience is well-read. She also supposes that they are familiar with a fair number of her own works, quoting snatches from poems that her audience might recall in total, or mentioning the Mirabal sisters, who fought against Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and were brutally assassinated by his henchmen in 1960. Their story is the basis for Alvarez’s book In the Time of Butterflies.


Ironically, Alvarez writes a very brief paragraph to outline the “hours and weeks and months and years” she spend writing a piece of fiction. Even for an accomplished and prolific writer such as Alvarez, the process by which text is composed remains a “mystery (or madness).” She has set herself a difficult task: to describe a process that can’t be observed or logically broken down into prescriptive steps. Its final stage must be performed by someone else: a lawyer who checks to see if anything she has written is libelous, or a family member who sees shades of him or herself in one of her characters.

Alvarez focuses instead on the tangible parts of a writer’s task: the scraps of paper in her yellow folder, “most of which have been in [her] folder for years.” She describes some of the artifacts that suggest to her “the seed of a plot that might turn into a novel or a query that might needle an essay out . . . ,” but she cannot say how she determined that each had “an aura” about it, or how she was attracted to that idea or story and not another. In retrospect she can describe the process by which certain artifacts wove their way into her work. An angry letter rescued from someone else’s garbage provides the voice of her character Marie Beaudry. An Indiana housewife’s trepidation at cutting yard goods married itself with the love of words to become Alvarez’s poem “Naming the Fabrics.” A long-held fascination and desire to write about the Mirabal sisters took root when her father described meeting one of the last men to see the sisters alive. In an irony as inexplicable as composition itself, the spark of beginning from her father’s letter became the ending of the book she wrote nine years later.

SERENA NANDA “Arranging a Marriage in India”


A common theme in process analysis essays that provide information is that the process in question is much more complicated than it first appears. That is true of “Arranging a Marriage in India,” as Serena Nanda learns that what she “had thought would be an easy matter [turns] out to be quite complicated.” Initially, she assumed that she could efficiently help her friend find a perfect mate for her eligible son during her year’s stay in India. When Nanda returns to the United States, her friend seems “no further along in finding a suitable match for her son,” although Nanda has learned a great deal about the complexity of arranging a marriage. She also learns to be patient with the Indian way of choosing a mate, and that pays off two years later when she succeeds in finding a wife for her friend’s son.

Before taking the opportunity to discuss arranged marriage with single, young Indians, Nanda considered the practice “oppressive.” However, Sita, an eligible Indian bride, convinces the American author that the practice is not so unreasonable as it might seem. Nanda discloses her “second thoughts on the matter.” Because brides become part of their husband’s households, it is essential that the whole family find a mate who will fit comfortably into their lifestyle. The essay presents Sita’s arguments that the wisdom and experience of her parents is valuable in choosing a mate, arranged marriage allows young people to focus on personal development rather than popularity with the opposite sex, and it provides a newly-married couple with the excitement of learning about one another—all of which contribute to the low divorce rate in India. In her essay’s postscript, however, Nanda also describes more sinister reasons for the infrequency of divorce among Indians: social stigmatism and “dowry deaths.” This process analysis is designed to curb the knee-jerk response that romantic Westerners often exhibit toward the concept of arranged marriage.


An American anthropologist writing for American readers, Nanda asks the kinds of questions a Westerner would pose about her subject. For example, she assumes that arranged marriage might mean that Indian women “don’t . . . care who [they marry],” or that they are missing the fun of dating. Sita’s calm responses demonstrate that these are not concerns shared by her Indian counterparts. Nanda herself acknowledges that her research embodied “more curiosity than tact,” and she writes about delicate issues that Indians would almost certainly not tell an audience of strangers. Indians probably would avoid discussing this subject among themselves as frankly as Nanda presents it. The author is an investigator, conducting cross-cultural research to enlighten her compatriots.

Throughout the process of finding a mate for her friend’s son, Nanda makes the sort of mistakes that a Westerner would. She is impatient with the exacting and critical role of her friend, and she is quick to assume that a proposed match is a good one without considering all of its ramifications. For instance, she does not understand the liabilities of the boy’s former military career or his short stature and dark skin. Nanda must keep “pressing for . . . explanation[s]” when her friend rejects potential brides. One comes from a family with so many daughters, they might not be able to afford an elegant wedding, and her married older sister wants to visit home too much besides. Another young woman is well-educated, but too independent-minded to fit into the family; she takes the bus out and about Bombay on her own, and she is of a slightly higher social caste, which may cause problems in the future. The last rejected candidate is “fat and wears glasses.” None of these attributes is likely to be a serious liability to a sincere American suitor, so Nanda takes pains to explain why each results in a failure to make the match.


Nanda’s essay chronicles the exacting and sometimes tedious task of arranging a marriage. Happily, it concludes in the wedding of her friend’s son, but it demonstrates that many considerations are involved between the time that parents decide to seek a mate for their child and the surrender of a daughter to her husband’s family. The steps of the process are illustrated through narratives of failed and successful matches. The importance of issues that are foreign to Nanda’s American readers, such as caste and dowry, is demonstrated through stories of failed matchmaking attempts. The essay’s postscript, which describes the abuse some Indian women face when the match has been uneven, emphasizes the weight of matchmaking decisions.

Comparing an unfamiliar concept with a well-known one is a good way to help readers understand new information, and Nanda presents the unfamiliar Indian rituals alongside American customs. Her discussions with Sita in the essay’s opening, counter-act American prejudice against arranged marriage by making it appear more reasonable and successful than dating many potential mates or marrying for romantic love. It is not until the essay’s postscript, when the audience has had a chance to see how well arranged marriage can work, that Nanda exposes the dark side of the Indian tradition. Following an “accident” or “sucide,” the boy’s family might crank up the whole process again, trying to choose a “suitable” bride for themselves.

ELIZABETH WINTHROP, "The Golden Darters"


Elizabeth Winthrop's short story, "The Golden Darters" deals with many processes. Although it deals overtly with the process of tying fishing flies and obliquely with the processes of smoking, leg shaving, and ear piercing, it is mostly concerned with the processes of maturation and emancipation. It about an adolescent girl's efforts to free herself from an irascible, dominant, quick-tempered father.

Emily, the story's narrator describes herself as "a cautious, secretive child," who "could not bear to have people watch [her] doing things." Such a temperament is alien to her "large, thick-boned" father, a man with "sweeping gestures, a robust laugh, and a sudden terrifying temper." The father sets up his fly-tying operation in a corner of their summer cottage living room, working in full view of his wife, two sons, and timid daughter. He naps on the lawn "for all the swimmers and boaters to see," although this behavior embarrasses his retiring wife.

When her father insists that Emily, who is allowed to closely observe the patriarch at his hobby because she doesn't "bounce" as her brothers would, receive instruction in the delicate art of fly-tying, she is reluctant. Emily is shy and afraid of arousing her father's anger, but most importantly, she does not share in his enthusiasm for fly-tying and, ultimately, luring "a rainbow trout out of his quiet pool." Differences between father and daughter are further emphasized by the opposite effects the process of fly-tying has on the two characters. The father is tying flies to relax and pass the time needed to mend his back following surgery. Emily, conversely, finds her father's hobby tedious with little opportunity to rest her "aching spine against the chair."

At first, Emily finds it difficult to escape her father's insistence that she join him in his newfound hobby. However, by the end of July, when her young friends have arrived at their lakeside homes, she is beginning to separate herself from her family's expectations. The twelve-year-old narrator consents to having her ears pierced, even though her mother has forbidden it until she is college-aged. When the shy Emily acts boldly, wearing as earrings the golden darters she has tied with her father and pulling her hair up so that the adapted fishing lures make her look "free and different and dangerous," she has escaped her parents' control. Her mother objects that the earrings make her "look cheap," and her disappointed father remarks distastefully, "that is not the purpose for which the flies were intended." However, when Emily's father turns off the light, so that she "couldn't see his face anymore," readers sense a small victory for the story's struggling protagonist.


Everyone struggles with defining his or her own identity as separate from parents and family, and in that respect, most readers will readily understand Emily's plight. Winthrop paints the family in her story with broad strokes, making it essentially like many households in America. The father is overbearing; the mother, although she tries to defend her daughter from her husband's demands, is often absent, leaving the room whenever a potentially tense situation arises. The energetic brothers seem relieved that their father prefers to control their sister with his attention. In short, they are an average middle-class family, straight out of twentieth century middle America.

Winthrop uses a comparison between a familiar and an unfamiliar object when she tells readers that the fly-tying instruction manual "read like a cookbook," saying "things like, 'Cut off a bunch of yellowtail.'" She also describes the "golden darter," the fly that takes on new significance at the story's end, explaining that it is "A big flashy fly, the kind that imitates a small fish as it moves underwater. While her readers are likely to be familiar with family dynamics and the emancipation process, they are less apt to know about fly-tying.


What passes at first for attention to the process of fly-tying in Winthrop's story is, in fact, the careful creation of the picture of Emily's father. He has forbidden the maid from coming near his fly-tying station, he self-centeredly announces "the completion of" each "latest project to the family," and the narrator finds it unlikely that her father would use "thread and bobbins," needles, feathers--the "tools normally associated with woman's work." As details of the father, his hobby and its elements ranged upon his worktable accrue throughout the story, readers are prepared to fully imagine the story's final scene involving the anxious mother, the disapproving father amid his trappings, and the bouncy daughter.

The two processes overtly described in the story, tying fishing flies and piercing ears are described with comparable attention to detail. The author seems to assume that her audience would not be entirely familiar with either procedure. Readers learn that one begins tying a fly by clamping a clean hook in a vice, adding feathers, wrapping thread about the body and cementing a head in place. Securing the slippery feathers to the tiny hook is the most precarious of these steps, and it is the point in the process where Emily makes mistakes. Similarly, Winthrop tells her audience the major steps in ear piercing: numbing the ear lobes with ice cubes, sterilizing a needle, stabbing it through the lobe, inserting stud earrings, twisting them and swabbing the wound with alcohol to avoid (or to treat, in Emily's case) infection. Ironically, the most difficult steps in each process involve using sewing needles for other than their strictly-intended purpose.

Download 64 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2022
send message

    Main page