February 5, 2013

The Strategic Ambiguity of "Baby Shoes"

A famous six word short story makes a quick and easy first test case for my latest ideas. Legend says Ernest Hemingway wrote this to settle a bet, which seems most likely apocryphal, but whoever wrote it crafted a fascinating short story.
For Sale:   
Baby shoes. 
Never worn.
You may feel free now to partake in a moment of silence. (pause) Okay? Good.

Now. How does this work? According to my budding theory, each word offers potential meanings mitigated via relative ambiguities. If the composition succeeds in communicating effectively, the writer will have evoked a series of recognitions within the reader, each word or phrase recalling possible connotations, which the reader must sort through along the way, seeking the proper connections with which to assemble one coherent storyline.

Special Note: It may be helpful to realize in this case, these six words themselves are not actually a narrative. They are the text of an advertisement. They do, however, prompt the reader to craft her own mental narrative from adding up likely implications as the details pile up. Unlike Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the story does not 'unfold'. The story is put together by the reader, and the writer has worked very hard to evoke her response. Let's examine this short piece as it progresses sequentially, analyzing each two word phrase in three segments, one at a time.

(1) How is "For Sale:" strategically ambiguous?

In the 20th century - whether this was authored in the 30's, 40's or 90's - the most common evocation for this phrase is a newspaper ad. However, this recollection is not singular. The familiarity of "newspaper ad" does not come to mind in words (despite those scare quotes) but in images, feelings, general connotations associated with all the times pseudo-Hemingway's readers would have seen such a newspaper ad, heard tell of one, or considered posting one of their own. This vast mental file includes types of things that go into an ad, the typical style of how such ads are written, the brevity of such ads (an important coup for p-H here, as it set expectations immediately for the short story's incredible brevity!), and many other aspects of the common 20th century experience of seeing such ads. 

Nevertheless, the phrase is deliciously ambiguous, vitally pregnant with possible meanings, and perhaps one ideal exemplar of an intriguing first thought. It's openness is a bit like a cinematographer's wide pan which gradually narrows in focus, while also setting the frame of a world we're about to explore a bit more deeply. "For Sale:" provides at once the general context and complete range of possibilities for whatever might come next.

Other brilliant writers were asked to assemble their own six word stories, and some of these are quite good, but none come close to pseudo-Hemingway in their opening phrase. "For Sale:" evokes an entire paracosm, one already existing inside readers' minds, one that is both commonly familiar and potentially exotic, one that is both finite in definition and limitless in possible content. A writer could begin a somewhat longer short story with "Play Ball!" and successfully evoke perhaps as many potential details, but excepting serious baseball fans the intrigue and the pregnancy would not be nearly so intriguing. Pseudo-Hemingway not only created great intrigue within great familiarity, he made the commonality nearly universal. Probably any literate person in the 20th century must have had some experience with newspaper ads.

That is the considerable ambiguity of "For Sale:" It creates story potential in various meaningful directions.

It also embeds one particular mental grenade in the memory banks... which we'll come to in reviewing point three, below, but it basically goes to motivation. For now, we proceed to point two.

(2) How is "Baby shoes." strategically ambiguous? 

First, the rush of memorable connotations is so full and vast that the mind takes a moment to make the surprising connection. By themselves, these two words evoke memories of all that is typical in our society about reacting to babies, and cute little baby paraphernalia. Heart strings are automatically tugged at, without any overtly cognitive processing. Just the word "baby" touches something deep in our consciousness. Babies are precious and adorable, and yet we also know deep down - without thinking about it - that babies are difficult, and require much care, and they are delicate, and they are fragile. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, infant mortality was improving but the built up social memory (memories embedded within the countless linguistic connotations for 'baby') was familiar with an even worse infant mortality rate, which was doubtlessly present in the deep memories of families' stories of loss going back to the late 1800's.

In combination with the opening line, however, these two new words introduce mystery. "For Sale: Baby shoes."?? Who sells baby shoes? Another familiar cultural phenomena that was fairly ubiquitous in the 20th century - albeit certainly more prominent near the beginning of the 20th century, than at its end - was the peculiar but sentimental custom of having baby shoes bronzed. Among the more literate members of the early 20th century, who were more likely to know people that happily afforded the minor but unnecessary expense of bronzing baby shoes, this would have been very familiar. Still today, many mothers consider them keepsakes, bronzed or otherwise. The most popular alternatives were almost as ubiquitous; that being, "hand-me-downs". Something so small on a child growing so fast doesn't wear out. If one has family, if one has neighbors, if one has young married couples anywhere in their church or among friends, the greater value was not in selling such cherishable items, but in passing them on.

The wide open paracosm of the 'want pages' has just narrowed dramatically. Of all the common "For Sale" items in the reader's experience, "Baby shoes" would be virtually unknown. Thus, the second line is startling precisely because it works against the familiarity of the first line. That enormous ambiguity of expectation has collided with uncertain meaning. Probably the most natural emotion is "What!?" followed quickly by "Why?" 

Why would someone sell baby shoes? Despite the wonders of cognition, most of us think - and especially react - by conjuring mental images and connecting with familiar emotions, more than by verbalizing thought patterns. Nevertheless, the basic evocation Pseudo-Hemingway is aiming for here must be something like, "Why would anyone sell baby shoes?"

This natural feeling of perplexity sets up the reader to answer her own question, tragically.

(3) How is "Never worn." strategically ambiguous? 

There are many possible reasons why baby shoes, once obtained, might never have been put to use. As the readers' minds race through those scenarios, none of them are not tragic. Thus, even at the last part of Pseudo-Hemingway's masterpiece, there is no dictated conclusion, no monster in the attic, no smoking gun, no shocking facts to reveal, no other shoe left to drop. The other shoe has indeed dropped, but we don't know how why or when. What we do realize, as we rush to put details and potentials together, is that it seems none of these options is good. Each possibility feels horribly sad.

Thus, strangely, the ultimate mixture of ambiguities results in a general sort of conclusiveness. It's not that the writer causes us to choose one explanation. It's what all the likely explanations have in common. Therefore, the open ending is only partly open. Pseudo-Hemingway doesn't want to dictate the precise details of the narrative's ending; just the effect.

And yet still, one more layer remains! Upon considering the connection of lines two and three, the reader's mind sooner or later comes across another connection, between lines one and three. With reflection, we might even decide that the saddest thing of all is that these unused baby shoes are being sold!

The initially wide sense of ambiguity has narrowed further and further, shrinking logically each time by cross-referencing possibilities until the likely meanings are reduced to a handful. One suggestible connection at a time, the combined meaning(s) have drawn together one final ambiguity into our minds, this being the "mental grenade" which I teased about the author having planted from the beginning, back at line one. It goes back to selling.

Of all the various evocations brought about by "For Sale:", this one particular aspect of meaning surfaces only now, being specifically re-evoked by the uncertain implications of line three. This aspect is, simply, the readers awareness that sellers' have three basic motivations for selling things. In this, also, the new connection re-evokes and deepens the basic ambiguity evoked previously when taking line two by itself. Why would someone sell baby shoes?

If the baby is dead, why would you sell the shoes? If the adoption fell through, why would you sell the shoes? If there is some other horrible scenario where the baby never arrived, or never needed the shoes, why would you sell them? Presumably - we must conclude - you would sell them for one of the reasons nearly anyone sells things in the want ads. You don't want them anymore. You don't need them anymore. Or you are simply that desperate for money. Again, none of these options is positive. Each of these options only adds to the 

A critical piece of pseudo-Hemingway's strategy - for the entire piece - is that this final aspect, hiding there all along, has a particularly tight range of possible implications. At the close of the story, all three of these possibilities present tragic implications when suddenly brought into combination with the last words, "Never worn." 

Part of the "magic" accomplished by any successful short story is that the ending begs reinterpretation of the beginning. In this case, what may be most impressive of all is to realize again that no story has actually been told! For this particular trick, the magician Like a magician performing a trick - which is how all short story writing operates, ideally - the writer has distracted his audience at precisely the right moments, directing their attention at things which they think are connections, which are not necessarily in evidence as connections.

There is a seventh word in this story, and it is "story". The legend of this tale begins with your being told, "Hemingway wrote a short story..."

Except, technically, it's not a story. It's not a story at all, in the telling.

The reader makes it a story by guided inference, by imagining implications, by the evocation of strategic ambiguities (unfolded and cross-referenced in deliberate sequence!).

But imagine this ad actually went in the paper. Strictly speaking, you wouldn't know for sure that anything tragic had happened at all. For these six words to be true, a grandmother could have bought pink shoes in advance but her daughter gave birth to a son. It could have been that a father came home with a nice pair that were cute but too small, and the store doesn't accept any returns. It could have been that a young couple planned to adopt an infant but fell in love with a darling one year old child, instead.

Instead of dwelling on *why* readers' minds go so naturally to the negative possibilities, we might better conclude this analysis by recognizing that Pseudo-Hemingway correctly expected that precise chain of reactions and successfully evoked that precise chain of reactions - for nearly all readers, we trust - by crafting a sequence of words with strategic ambiguity.

It was not that a reader had to "fill in the blanks". There were no blanks there for filling! In fact, nothing blank was provided, but specific ranges of potential meaning were generated, each in turn, and then cross-mingled, along the way, to collectively bring the readers' minds into gradual focus, from the general possibilities to the more particular. It worked somewhat like the way a long distance camera shot methodically zooming in on a small piece of a larger more intricate world. In the last moment, the amount of ambiguity left with the reader has also been managed. Yes, the reader can "choose" one scenario over another, but the most aware reader will realize, even while choosing, that although she is making a choice, and although the possibilities are broader, that they are not so very broad, and that the writer has drawn her to these precise options.

That is one example - concise but exhaustive - of Strategic Ambiguity at work.

Hopefully, this helpfully illustrates my new working theory and method for interpreting rhetorical narrative.

More examples and case studies, hopefully, to come...

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