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“Summer Lightning” by Olive Senior Essay

“The child’s eye view is not childlike. It is a clear vision through which the irrationalities of adults [and] the inequities in society … are expressed.”

Olive Senior, in her collection of short stories Summer Lightning, uses child protagonists to highlight and criticize many aspects of the society they are raised in, and the destructive quality these have on the innocent world of the child.

In ‘Love Orange’, Senior uses symbolism to highlight the tragedy of the loss of childhood innocence due to the experiences and harsh reality of the adult world. This story shows a child so influenced by the intrusion of the world outside of childhood, that the reality and seriousness of adult concerns such as death and old age, along with a severe lack of communication and understanding, wipes away the bliss and carefree innocence associated with childhood.

This is illustrated within the first lines of ‘Love Orange’ which states, “somewhere between the repetition of Sunday School lessons and the broken doll which the lady sent me one Christmas I lost what it was to be happy” (p.11). The broken doll is symbolic of childhood hope being dashed away by the lack of understanding on the part of adults, as the little girl yearns strongly for a “plaster doll with blue eyes and limbs that moved.” The child is crushed as she sees the mutilated doll with “the one China blue eye and the missing finger” and all hopes and dreams of a child are drained from her. She becomes the damaged doll which is depicted as a personification of death and fear, youthful symbolism that cannot be understood by the adults in the story. Plagued by death, both in dreams and awake, the girl must endure her distress alone for her grandmother “never understood about the doll” and the painful effect it had on her. This disappointment at finding that the doll she so longed for was deformed, is only compensated for by the love orange which she constantly ‘conjures’ for protection in a world populated by disfigurement and death.

Thus the orange becomes a final source of strength for the girl to hold on to. This symbol of love and childhood imagination is all she has left as even her dreams are tainted with images of her own death. However, this symbol too is beyond adult acceptance as seen when, upon her grandmother’s final struggle with death, the child decides to relinquish the whole of her orange in the hope that she may recover. This gesture by the young protagonist signifies an absolute surrender of love; however, recognition of reality where death and pain cannot be wished away is forced upon her.

Alison Donnell in “The Short Fiction of Olive Senior,” Caribbean Women Writers: Fiction in English, suggest that “in learning that the gift of love is both more complex and demanding than she had thought and that the death of loved ones cannot always be deferred, the young narrator accepts the loss of childhood and of a secure future which can never be recaptured: ‘In leaving my grandmother’s house, the dark tunnel of my childhood, I slammed the door hard on my fingers and as my hand closed over the breaking bones, felt nothing’. The girl now is destroyed by these childhood experiences and is beyond salvage.” It is significant that she may now lead a broken life as her dreams, hopes and attempt to give love and be understood have all been shattered.

As in ‘Love Orange’, the child protagonist Benjy in ‘The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream’ also has an intense longing; ice cream. His desire for this was so strong that “the very words conveyed to him the sound of everything in his life he had always wanted, always longed for, but could not give a name to.” However, like the girl in ‘Love Orange’ and the doll, Benjy too faces imminent disappointment and broken hopes. Upon the arrival of the day of the fair, the purchase of the ice cream by his father is constantly delayed until the boy reaches the peak of his frustration.

“The simple nature of Benjy’s boyish desire is contrasted with the complicated and tangled adult world of those around him.” This view provided by Donnell “The Short Fiction of Olive Senior,” is relevant as Senior presents Benjy as a victim of his father’s jealousy seen where, due to his suspecting his wife of an affair and Benjy of being someone else’s child, he snatches the boy up thus causing the precious ice cream to fall from his hand.

The failure of the child to grasp the irrational concerns of the adult world causes him to constantly fear his father’s irrational behaviour towards him. This feeling of intimidation is seen as early as page 85 where the narrator states “the boy wasn’t sure why his father was sometimes so irritable towards him, and [he] lived in a constant state of suspense over what his father’s response to him was likely to be.” Thus, this led to “the notion of ice cream… [becoming] the one bright constant in a world full of changeable adults” (p.86).

The third person omniscient narrator used by Senior is elemental in describing the psychological and emotional state of the child, providing the reader with a clear understanding of the child’s pain and it influences a sensitive reaction to his intense frustration due to the deferment of his hopes and expectations. Also very critical in Olive Senior’s style of writing in this story, is her ability to capture the child’s anxiety, fears, increased hope, and then ultimate disappointment in the use of language. The devastation felt by the child as his ice cream drops is documented through the unpunctuated and highly subjective narrative which illustrates the confusion and lack of understanding felt by Benjy as he is yanked away from ‘childhood bliss’ by ‘adult jealousy’. The boy’s inability to make sense of the world he inhabits and the disorientation he feels is well communicated.

This incompatibility with the adult world is also seen in ‘Confirmation Day’, where the formality of religion fills Senior’s young protagonist with fear and distaste. From as early as the second paragraph, the reader is provided with a child’s concept or a ‘child’s-eye-view’ so to speak, of religion aided by the author’s use of language and diction providing an innocent yet negative outlook on the rituals accepted by the ‘world of experience’.

The author’s style of writing in this story places the reader in the head of a girl about to be confirmed, and we are made audience to a series of overlapping and repeated observations clearly showing a lack of understanding of the religious experiences she undergoes. The unpunctuated narrative helps the reader to view religion as children do; the outside world appealing more to the child’s inquisitive nature than the complex and confusing teachings of religion. This is seen on page 81, with Senior’s rush of unpunctuated words and images flooding the reader as it does the child, “… I will become a child of god yet I do not know what they mean for that summer during all the catechism classes we sat at the back of the church and I listened only to the bats squeaking cows…” creating a feel of absurdity which mirrors the confusion felt by the child.

Notice should also be paid to Senior’s excellent use of diction, capturing the girl’s lack of knowledge regarding the adult view concerning the importance of religious reverence. God is referred to using a common ‘g’ as opposed to the “I” used to refer to herself. This shows the protagonist’s incomprehension, as the child is ignorant of the ‘magnitude’ of what is forced upon her. Religious rituals which play a major part in adult life are tiresome and fearsome experiences for the child, resulting in feelings of powerlessness and intimidation.

The innocence of the child’s view shines a light on society’s treatment of religion, depicting it (in its purest form – free from adult prejudice and hypocrisy) as fearsome control. Thus the blissful, carefree life symbolic of childhood is threatened by the strict demands of religion and the redundancy of ritual which Senior illustrates using senseless repetitive language. She is making a comment on organized religion as being too complex and beyond the understanding of society. It is portrayed as a set of rules made out by a controlling God followed out of fear, making the people his puppets. In this view the child is used to represent society, possessed by faith rather than professing it. “…God is portrayed, not as a symbol of love and forgiveness, but instead as one of condemnation seeking to undermine self-worth and threatening to obliterate the self altogether,” Annette Major, “A CHILD’S EYE-VIEW.”

However, in this story, the girl is able to surpass the strictures of the conventional views of religion by discovering a new power in herself. According to Alison Donnell in “The Short Fiction of Olive Senior,” she has been freed from the “unknowable realm” of spiritual experience into the world of knowledge thus affirming “the ability of the girl’s consciousness to participate in but make different meanings from a ritual in which the self is traditionally humbled in an act of consensual sacrifice.”

In conclusion, Senior in the fore-mentioned stories illustrates that children are capable of experiencing some of the same emotions as adults and that their views should be given consideration, rather than being dismissed. The child protagonists are used to highlight issues such as the abandonment of children due to adult preoccupation with discrepancies which lead to a lack of understanding, communication and the alienation of the fragile world of childhood. The children are used to question and comment upon the irregular behaviour of adults that destroy the innocence of them, in many cases leaving them scarred beyond salvage as in “The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream.”

Also attacked by Senior are the conventions held by society, an example of which is seen in ‘Love Orange’ where the desire for a doll with blue eyes shows that the young protagonist has subconsciously adopted the dominant belief of colonial superiority. Senior’s use of the girl made comment on this practice of society – the clever symbol of the broken doll as well as the girl’s rejection of it, mirrors her rejection of colonial based convention. Yet, with the child’s prolonged traumatic response even after the rejection suggests that even though Senior is against this ‘colonial idolatry’, it still has a very profound and negative affect on society.

However, in the final story analyzed: ‘Confirmation Day’, the young girl in contradiction to the other two protagonists, has been salvaged in order for Senior to make her input upon conventional religious views showing that religion and God should be treated not as fearsome and rigid but instead as empowering.

Thus, in Summer Lightning, the child is indeed a major device for analyzing the society which disrupts and destroys its world.

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