Thoughts on "An Incident"
So, hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to read and/or listen to An Incident.
A couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine who lives and works in Korea sent me a copy of this edition of Lu Hsun’s Selected Stories, saying, essentially, that Hsun was the Chekhov of China. That was good enough for me. When I read “An Incident,” I instantly remembered that I’d read it before, years ago, and been blown away by it.
I’ve never really taught it in detail before, so thought it might be fun to take it on here.
My intention when I read a new story (especially if I’m planning to teach it) is to move the story into my artistic body, so to speak. I’m not that interested in a traditional literary analysis or in talking about the history of the period or the author’s life or the theme or politics of the piece – I mostly just want to understand how and where it moved me, so I can bring that to the class.
I sometimes think of working with a story in this way as being like going, as a group, to one of those haunted houses we visited as kids on Halloween, of the “These mashed potatoes are the brains of Dracula” variety, usually held in somebody’s gasoline-smelling garage. The class walks in together, experiences something intense (in this case, by reading the story and then attempting to analyze it) and then we all come out on the other side. Something different has happened to each person. And hopefully, whatever happened was…intense, and, let’s say, “trajectory altering.” That is, whatever issues were occupying you (in your writing life, your reading life, your actual life), the experience of immersing yourself in the story activated something in you, or knocked something loose, or advanced you slightly along your path.
That’s the idea, anyway.
After I’ve read a new story for the first time, I’ll sit back and let my mind wander over it, in whatever way it wants to. What I’m asking is, “What just happened here?” And then, when I’m ready: “Where precisely, did it happen?” and (later): “Why did it happen where it did?”
My reaction to “An Incident” goes something like this:
First, I like it. Something powerful happened to me when I read it. The story feels like a direct moral teaching. It puts me in mind of certain times in my life when I’ve done the right thing by the standards of the world but deep down knew I hadn’t done the (really) right thing, not really.
As my mind wanders over the story, I note, for some reason, that it consists of an introduction (paragraphs 1 and 2) and an epilogue (paragraph 18). The essence of the thing seems to be in paragraphs 5 through 12. That’s where the action is. I make a mental note to come back later and figure out what the introduction and epilogue were for – to ask what critical work they’re doing for the story (how they’re “earning their keep.”)
But I can’t do that until I figure out the story’s larger purpose.
At this stage, I’ll sometimes attempt an outline, as a way of keeping the hands busy while the mind works quietly in the background. I’m not really worrying about theme or meaning or any of that. I’m thinking more technically, on the assumption that, whatever the story did in terms of themes and meanings, it did it by technical means (because what else is there?) My outlines tend to be focused on events. I don’t do much interpreting - I’m interested in the basic action that make up the story.
Here’s what I come up with:
Paragraphs 1 and 2: An introduction.
Paragraph 3: The scene is set: the narrator is riding in a rickshaw on a cold winter day.
Paragraphs 4 and 5: The first real action of the story: a woman becomes “entangled” in the shafts of the rickshaw and falls to the ground (she is not, according to the narrator, “seriously injured”).
Paragraphs 6 and 7: The narrator reacts to the woman’s fall. (He doesn’t think she’s hurt and urges the driver to “Go on.”)
Paragraphs 8 – 12: The driver feels otherwise; he helps the woman to the police station.
Paragraphs 13 - 16: The narrator reacts to what the driver has done. As part of this reaction, he has an interaction with a policeman.
Paragraph 18: The epilogue.
Next, I’ll try to boil the whole thing down to its essence:
A rickshaw driver hits a woman. His passenger feels the driver should drive on. Instead, the driver helps the woman to the police station. The narrator reacts.
And sometimes I’ll boil it down even further: A driver hits a woman. His passenger urges him to go on. He doesn’t.
Now, this might seem facile, but let’s just note that the radically simplified version — Once upon a time a driver hit a woman and his passenger urged him to drive on and he didn’t — doesn’t have nearly the power that “An Incident” does.
Why doesn’t it?
An interesting, crucial, daunting question.
The power of “An Incident” must be due to the various additions and embellishments that differentiate it from the simplified version. So, examining the nature of these additions and embellishments (noting where these occur and what they do to us as we read them) should teach us something about the way this story works (and the way any story works).
Here's something I notice after my second read: the story’s doing something interesting with point-of-view.
Events are being narrated by a first-person narrator. Our natural inclination is to believe him. But he is not necessarily telling us the (objective) truth; he’s shading things a bit, interpreting them for us. He’s lightly coaching us on how to understand these events.
Check out the following version of paragraphs 4 and 5), in which I’ve bolded certain “coaching” phrases:
“We were just approaching S—— Gate when someone crossing the road was entangled in our rickshaw and slowly fell.”
“It was a woman, with streaks of white in her hair, wearing ragged clothes. She had left the pavement without warning to cut across in front of us, and although the rickshaw man had made way, her tattered jacket, unbuttoned and fluttering in the wind, had caught on the shaft. Luckily the rickshaw man pulled up quickly, otherwise she would certainly have had a bad fall and been seriously injured.”
To help us see the effect of these “coaching” phrases, here’s the above text, without them:
“We were just approaching S—— Gate when someone crossing the road was entangled in our rickshaw and fell.”
“It was a woman. Her jacket had caught on the shaft.”
What’s the difference? Well, the narrator seems to be making the case that the fall was not serious (with that “slowly fell”) (italics mine) and that she was to blame (she left the pavement “without warning” and the accident happened “although the rickshaw man had made way.”) We might even feel that the narrator’s characterization of the woman as old and poor (she has “streaks of white in her hair” and is “wearing ragged clothes”) serves, in his mind, to lightly disqualify her and her injuries from serious consideration.
On first read, I wasn’t noticing these coaching phrases; at that point I was just accepting the narrator’s observations as “the truth.” He and I were essentially one and the same person.
So, an assignment: read the rest of the story (again), on the alert for places where the narrator is shaping the narrative/coaching us in this way. Try to steer yourself toward the specific and technical; examine it phrase by phrase, in other words.
We’ll discuss next time.
Btw - this is the first of three posts to come on "An Incident."
Another way to think about this idea of “coaching” - how purely factual is a sentence? Is there “spin” being added?