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Choice and Circumstance Essay

What happens when the life we choose for ourselves conflicts with the life that is chosen for us? “Shoplifters,” by Maura Stanton, describes a group of shoplifters whose circumstances speak to the theme of isolation. They are alone, stealing by choice to fill the void they each share–a lack of relationship with another human.

“Night Waitress,” by Lynda Hull, describes a woman working the night shift by choice. The waitress complains to herself about the isolation she feels from her decision to take this job. She too longs for relationship, but her situation makes her incapable of fostering any sort of companionship. The structures of the two works share a similar pattern but in a reverse order.

One poem goes from focusing on a group to focusing on the individual; the second poem does the opposite. In both works, routine intersects with reality–usually represented by job related tasks against human nature and impulse. Then one must ask if either of these categories are the result of personal choice or involuntary circumstance. The poems “Shoplifters” and “Night Waitress” illustrate the contrast between choice and circumstance in the context of relationship, structure, and routine versus reality.

The sense of loneliness and longing for relationship is so strong and easily distinguished in both works. The shoplifters circumstances forces them to steal so that they can foster or mend some type of relationship in their lives. All characters but one choose to steal something that will benefit some other influence in their lives. “Night Waitress” is a different story. Her choice is determining her circumstance. She longs and feels the need for relationship but chooses not to do anything about it because of her job. The lack of a male figure is also another common factor of the two works.

Not as easily recognized, but it is there. “Shoplifters” mentions three type of women, a widowed mother, a nun, and two old sister. All three lacking the influence of a male figure. The widowed mother has the lack due to death. The nun obviously is lacking a male figure due to choice. The two old sisters could have the lack by choice or perhaps just coincidence. They could be referred to as spinsters, which is a term used to refer to single older women who live with other women. Structure is a very important element in literature. “Shoplifters” and “Night Waitress” use a very unique type of structure.

“Shoplifters” starts out with the phrase “I’d smoke in the freezer among the hooked beefsides, wondering about the shoplifters who wept when the manager’s nephew tugged them to his office. ” (Stanton, 1) This phrase gives the poem a cold, dark sense. The poem ends up making a complete position reversal. Ending with the phrase “Now he peers through the window, watching me bag groceries for hours until my hands sweat” (Stanton, 38). The poem still has a dark feel, but it now gives the sense of hot and sticky. “Night Waitress” has a similar reversal but instead of using temperature, it takes the reversal in the sense of perception.

The server talks as if she is invisible to the men that come into the dinner at night, she says that they don’t see her because she’s tired. “At this hour the men all look as if they’d never had mothers. They don’t see me. ” (Hull, 10) By the end of the poem this perception has turned. “Men surge to the factories and I’m too tired to look” (Hull, 41). Instead of her being invisible to the men, they are invisible to her. What is the quality that links the waitress and the bagger? Both poems are told in the first-person, with both speakers discussing their occupations. It is a description of routine, responsibility, and obligation.

The waitress seems to view herself as a robot: filling the customers’ drinks, taking orders, and finding that she is never noticed by her primarily male patrons. She believes that the time of night makes it difficult for them to acknowledge her–as if she were not human. The bagger is given the task of catching shoplifters, calling-out criminals, as part of her job–or part of her programming. The routine actions of these main characters give them machine-like qualities. What happens when that which seems artificial mixes with reality? Perhaps the reader could consider that these “robots” must interact with those who are human.

For example, the bagger, programmed to catch shoplifters, begins to verbally explore the lives of the thieves. The shoplifters steal because of their pathetic circumstances, and eventually, the bagger begins to be frightened by the guilt she feels from her actions. It was her choice to take the position at the supermarket, but that choice determined her circumstance of playing prosecutor. At the point where the bagger begins to “sweat” from the stare of the old man, a shift is made: unfeeling action to guilt, robot to human. The waitress, on the other hand, makes this shift in the opposite direction.

She works in the diner by choice, serving as if she does not exist, but still yearning for human relationship. She describes her appearance, hoping that she is not unattractive and brushing off the inattentiveness of the men as exhaustion. This continual rejection of her human needs turns the waitress into what she describes as a “machine. ” When she leaves work in the morning, she passes by all of the men who are in the state that she would claim to be “attentive” to her as a person. She does not acknowledge them. Instead, she walks past, emotionally numb from the previous night’s torture.

She becomes what the men thought of her: a machine. It was the waitress’ choice to take the job. This choice dictated a circumstance that eventually turned her into the embodiment of routine. From first glance, it is difficult to see any similarities in the two works besides the obvious, but after an in depth reading the prior can be argued. In my opinion, the two works are similar in so many ways. Such as emotion, structure, and perspective. I feel that the content of both stories could have been thought up in one persons mind, and then transfered from thought to narrative by two separate authors.


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