How are these two short stories similar, how are they different? What can one gather about short story writing from contrasting the two? Is it instructive to compare the two protagonists? What have the authors sought to achieve with their stories?
The are strikingly different. I think of one in terms of the world view the protagonist exemplifies, and of the second as a life who’s contradictions come to a crisis during the tale’s telling.
Achebe’s story is brief, striking and deceptively simple. War and love for his family have defined Jonathon Iwegbu’s world view. There are certain things you can control, like the construction of a palm-wine bar, or the baking of small cakes to sell in the morning, but beyond that, events are governed by an inscrutable God. It is not profitable to ask why he gives, or why he takes; instead one must recognize that there are greater forces at play than one can understand, and continue to fight through what one can control in order to survive.
Adams writes a complex and nuanced tale that revolves around Dr. Benito Zamora’s life and his acceptance of his past actions. Consumed by a desire to possess San Francisco and the life of wealth it symbolizes, he partakes in sordid business ventures and manages to realize his dreams: a beautiful wife, great wealth, and a sterling reputation. His happiness proves transitory, and with the passing of his wife he is left alone and guilt ridden in his old age. Events at a party conspire to bring his sense of self to a crisis, and he relinquishes his artificial distinctions and resigns himself to exile from the city of his dreams.
Achebe’s story feels like a parable, told by an authoritative narrator and with most of the other characters featuring as ‘the children’ or ‘neighbors’ or ‘thieves’. Jonathon seems almost symbolic, representative of all good, strong people who strive to survive in terrible circumstances. Adam’s story on the other hand is very particular to Benito Zamora, and feels like a Joycean construct, meticulously and masterfully put together to represent a flawed man. The cast is varied, and the story features a rich interiority that affords us an understanding beyond that of the protagonist.
If I were to guess, I’d say that Achebe sat down to write this story thinking, “I want to show how people deal with the vicissitudes of life in a war zone. I want to write a story about a good, strong man and his family, and how they survive.” He probably then defined Jonathon’s world view, and summarized it in Jonathon’s expression, ‘Nothing puzzles God’. From there, he crafted the actual plot, showing Jonathon confronting both good luck and bad, and fleshed it out with his own experiences in Nigeria at the time.
And Adams? Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ had to have been lurking in that back of her mind when she wrote this. I can imagine her thinking, “I want to write a story about the price of success, about what happens when desire outweighs morality, and how success so achieved can warp a person’s spirit.” She might then have envisioned the ending, striven for that sense of aporia that results when artificial walls collapse the protagonist loses his constructed sense of self. A doctor, she might have thought, who seems wonderful from without, but achieved his goals through sordid means. And gone from there, refining and creating until she had his life laid out before her eyes. But how to reveal it all and bring matters to a climax? A party, where old lovers and business partners prompt his thoughts. What a challenge to create, to order and reveal!
I like Adams’s story better. I appreciate Achebe’s story, and find it powerful and striking, but enjoy Adams’s craftsmanship and unpacking of her protagonist more.
What can I take from them both, in terms of writing my own short stories? Have an idea. Know what your story is about first, and then figure out how to tell it. Be able to summarize your story in a line or two, no matter how complex it grows from there. Once you know what you want to write your story about, figure out how best to do it, and ensure that every part contributes towards the promotion of that idea.