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Text analysis of the short story Piano by William Saroyan

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Piano by William Saroyan

Text Analysis

Saroyan, William (1908–1981) was a successful playwright. The eccentric, spirited author was born in Fresno, California, where his Armenian parents were fruit farmers and where he worked at odd jobs before gaining fame as a shortstory writer. He came to playgoers' attention with My Heart's in the Highlands but became famous with his much lauded The Time of Your Life , which won the Pulitzer Prize, although Saroyan noisily rejected it. His later works included Love's Old Sweet Song (1940); The Beautiful People; Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning and Talking to You ; Hello, Out There; Get Away Old Man; and The Cave Dwellers. Wolcott Gibbs called the writer “the most completely undisciplined talent in American letters,” and Brooks Atkinson, in a preface to Saroyan's published plays, noted, “When he writes out of general relish, usually in isolated scenes, [he] is at his best and made a definite contribution to the mood of these times, [but] when he permits himself to discuss ideas he can write some of the worst nonsense that ever clattered out of a typewriter.”

As in most of his stories, William Saroyan presents, in Piano, a casual episode of the common life. The narrative, descriptive and dialogical sequences form together a perfect technique of rendering the content in a captivating way. The work of non-fiction is characterized by the presence of a covert narrator, who keeps to a more or less neutral voice and a fixed focalization. Thus, the third-person narrative creates the impression of objectivity in an attempt of seeming more trustworthy for the readers. saroyan piano documentary life

The main narrative code employed is the documentary one, which reproduces a true-to life situation, involving the reader in a vital issue. Thus, by reading the story, one is a spectator of Ben and Emma’s walk and conversations, the young man’s short performance in a shop, and their genuine regret of the fact that he cannot buy a piano, despite his natural talent of playing. The simplicity of the plot centers the reader’s attention to the main themes explored by the author, like talent, poverty and hope. These seem to stand for the three stages of the short story, which present the process of discovering the young man’s personality through the eyes of Emma. Therefore, at the very beginning, she becomes aware of his gift of playing the piano, then she realizes his inability of accomplishing his dream and buy a piano, and finally, she expresses her optimism stating that one day he will be able to purchase the object of his passion.

The story follows a straight-line narrative, in which the elements of the plot uncover the events arranged in a chronological order, and significant elements of flashback. In order to grasp the reader’s attention, the author begins with an unconventional exposition consisting of a dialogue. The two characters involved pass by a store. Ben is attracted by a piano and he asks for Emma’s accord to get in and try a small piano in the corner. From the very beginning, his passion for music becomes obvious: I get excited every time I see a piano. This indirect way of expressing the idea denotes the fact that this sort of feeling is inexplicable to the protagonist himself and his further reply confirms it: I don’t know. The small piano in the corner is a symbol of Ben’s modesty, and the hidden, mysterious aspect of his talent is marked by the place-in the corner. Emma was unaware of this likeness, so she becomes puzzled, facing an inner conflict: She’d go along for a while thinking she knew him and then all of a sudden she’d know she didn’t. The repetition of the question Can you play? emphasizes the girl’s interest in understanding the young man. Ben replies negatively, but his actions contradict his statement, as shown in the simile his hands go quietly to the white and black keys, like a real pianist’s. The adjective quietly, in this context, is meant to point out his fear of being seen using the piano, an idea reinforced by the epithet quiet chords.

The girl is amazed by the playing, and she expresses her feelings with the first chance: I think it’s wonderful, while Ben disregards his own participation, referring only to the instrument: It sounds good, followed by an explanation it has a fine tone, especially for a small piano. A new character, a clerk, comes into the picture, making a short speech about the product. The young man’s first question about the price alludes to his desire of buying it. The price of 249, 50 is evaluated as high even by the clerk himself, as he immediately adds You can have terms, of course. The interlocutor’s way of changing the subject hints at the fact that he doesn’t afford such a luxury, setting thus the conflict of the short story, followed by the development of the action.

Ben’s strong desire of playing some more becomes more intensified, as it is visible even to the seller, who allows him to try it some more. At this stage, he is still skeptical of the fact that his activity is actually called playing, but he is reassured by the clerk: sounded good to me, go ahead, I’d like to hear you play some more. This comment is meant to diminish the self-criticism emphasizing the idea of a great inborn talent.

The sentence he fooled around fifteen or twenty seconds and then found something like a melody and stayed with it two minutes is highly significant. First and foremost, by mentioning the seconds, the author underlines the value of every moment in front of the piano. The expression he fooled around classifies Ben’s activity as entertaining and spontaneous. Further on, something like a melody highlights his status as an amateur rather than a professional, one who trusts his instincts. A repeated mentioning of the immediate time: 2 minutes is just another way of saying that the time spent in front of the piano flies too fast for him. The young man’s passion increases substantially, and his sadness at his approaching depart is felt in the music, which suggests the fact that he plays from the depth of his heart, rendering his feelings through the music: before he was through the music became quiet and sorrowful and Ben himself became more and more please with the piano.

Ben and Emma then go to a little restaurant and order sandwiches and coffee. These details and the previously mentioned financial situation make the reader think that both persons belong to an average social class of people, the sort of people who have to consider making enough money for a living and postponing the realization of their dreams. Ben explains, by means of flashback, the origins of his passion and its evolution. He touches upon the theme of money. The simile he smiled the way he did when e stood over the piano looking down at the keyboard shows that he likes Emma, that she is another of his passions and this makes her happy: Emma felt flattered. This fact points out the reciprocity of their relationship. This latter idea is reinforced some time later by she smiled back at him the way he was smiling at her. One may consider that the displaying of these feelings constitutes the climax, the point when they seem to see a sort of connection between themselves, when the emotion near a piano finally equalizes with the emotional next to a dare person.

The text has an open text structure, only suggesting a possible outcome: somehow or other she knew he’d get a piano some day, and everything else, too. But the character cannot be considered trustworthy due to her emotional implication in the entire affair. In such a way, her desire may generate the prediction and not the facts.

Ben may be considered a dynamic character, as he changes his concept about his musical activity, becoming aware of the fact that what he produces really is music. He is sensitive, polite in addressing the clerk, and acts like a real gentleman with Emma (asks her before entering the shop, talks about his great passion, sees her off to The Emporium). The girl, on the other hand, is also a dynamic character, as she changes her perception of Ben, she has new ideas, and the two become closer due to the sharing of personal information and mutual support.

The title of the text has an orientative, providing a general idea on the content. It is a noun which encodes a hobby: playing the piano. The definite article is avoided in order to make the term more general, as the protagonist doesn’t possess a piano of himself and the specific instrument used in the text is only one among many others that he had tried.

The short story created a sad atmosphere which is intended to resonate with the readers. They are expected to feel compassion and appreciation towards the protagonist, becoming aware of the fact that talented people are, sooner or later appreciated. The main idea is rendered directly by Ben himself, who states a general truth: Never having money keeps a man away from lots of things he figures he ought to have by rights. This philosophical approach to his own situation illustrates the character’s mature attitude and his partial resignation, as he accepts his destiny humbly, without complain. However, Emma’s last words induce a positive expectation, arousing the reader’s hope for a happy end, for the triumph of justice over fatality: Somehow or other she knew he’d get the piano some day, and anything else, too.

If it is to regard the text from the perspective of music being an outer exposition of the inner state, denoting the musician’s feelings, the text bears a remarkable resemblance to an extract of the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. The passage when Coalhouse Walker Jr. plays the piano to render his true feelings towards Sarah, the regret of losing her and the hope for reconciliation. Likewise, Ben’s music also expresses the regret and the hardly perceptible hope: the disappointment of not having a piano and the hope of ever getting one. The two works have a similar style too, as the dialogical markers are completely missing, simplifying the form to the advantage of the meaning. To sum it up, the two works are indeed works of art, exploring literature in a musical way. Therefore, a form of art which expresses the beauty of another is bound to rejoice success.

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