analysis and interpretation of short fiction

Epiphanies for characters in short stories are often express or implied.  Epiphanies occur when the character gets hit with a thought, reflection, insight, experience or feeling that changes the way he thinks or feels about himself or his world.  In some cases, these epiphanies are something which the character, or the first person narrator, is himself aware of.  On the other hand, it can also be something that the character is experiencing, and which the reader recognizes as an epiphany even if the character himself is not aware of it.  What the character may experience is the change, but he does not consciously label the experience as an epiphany.

            In the three short stories to be analyzed for this essay, the epiphanies or lack thereof of the main characters will be examined.  The differences in the way these characters experience these epiphanies will be discussed and compared.

The Conversion of the Jews
The main character in this short story by Philip Roth is a young Jewish boy named Ozzie Freedman.  At the start of the story, we see Ozzie having a conversation with his friend Itzie Lieberman.  They are discussing the existence of Jesus Christ.  According to the rabbi in their school, Rabbi Binder, Jesus Christ is just like any other person, and he is not God.  Ozzie cannot get over the fact that, according to what was taught to them in school, God apparently created Jesus Christ without intercourse.  Ozzie says, “He started all over again explaining how Jesus was historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn’t God.  So I said I understood that.  What I wanted to know was different” (Roth, 1959).

            This best describes the kind of boy Ozzie is.  Ozzie was always asking questions.  He never simply accepted things at face value.  He always wanted to understand what their teacher expects them to simply accept as true.  For instance, Ozzie couldn’t understand why his teacher kept calling Jews “The Chosen People” when under the Declaration of Independence, all men were created equal.  Rabbi Binder tried to explain to Ozzie the difference between political equality and spiritual legitimacy.  But for Ozzie, there shouldn’t be any difference.  And what Ozzie cannot understand is how God can make Jesus without going through the process of sexual intercourse.

            Ozzie tries to address this question to his teacher Rabbi Binder: “Why can’t He make anything He wants to make?”  (Roth, 1959).  Rabbi Binder does not have a ready answer for this.  This frustrates Ozzie.  He yells to his teacher, “You don’t know!  You don’t know anything about God!”  (Roth, 1959), and when Rabbi Binder hits him Ozzie bolts to the roof in order to get away.

            Ozzie’s teacher and fellow students panic.  The custodian calls the fire department and they beg Ozzie not to jump.  Ozzie is surprised – he never thought of jumping.  He went to the roof to get away (Roth, 1959).  The firemen set up a net for Ozzie to jump into.  Rabbi Binder commands him not to jump, but Ozzie’s friends start chanting and encourage him to jump.  But before he jumps, Ozzie makes everyone kneel, including Rabbi Binder.  He tells Rabbi Binder, “Tell me you believe God can do Anything” (Roth, 1959).  He adds, “Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse” (Roth, 1959).

            But Ozzie demands of his mother (who is also present), “Make him tell me” meaning Yakov Blotnik, the custodian, who never prays.  Ozzie’s epiphany is something that even he is not directly conscious of.  In Ozzie’s mind, religion should not be limited to what the adults insist it should be.  It should involve asking questions and helping him to understand.  And it should never involve hitting someone.  Ozzie says, “You should never hit anyone about God” (Roth, 1959).  Ozzie makes this point clear before he finally jumps off the roof into the waiting net below.

Guests of the Nation
This short story by Frank O’Connor involves two English soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins, who are held hostage by three members of the Irish Resistance Army (IRA): Noble, Jeremiah Donovan (the commanding officer), and Bonaparte, the narrator of the story.  Even though they are fighting for opposite sides, Bonaparte and Noble become friends with their two English hostages.  They play cards and have long conversations about morality and religion.  We see how they actually have values in common even though they are fighting for opposites sides.  The hostages and their captors actually end up becoming friends.  So when Jeremiah Donovan orders Bonaparte and Noble to kill the two English hostages, a conflict arises.  Bonaparte and Noble are torn between the friendship they developed with Belcher and Hawkins and the duty they have to perform.  The duty they have to perform is for their country, supposedly, since England and Ireland were at war with each other.

            We see how Bonaparte and Noble develop a certain feeling of disapproval for what they have to do as members of the IRA.  They have second thoughts about executing their two hostages who have become their friends.  They were described as “They’re not the sort to make a pal and kill a pal” (O’Connor, 1931).  As new recruits to the IRA, Bonaparte and Noble find it difficult to assassinate the two hostages who have become their friends.  Thus, it is Donovan who takes the first shot and fires at Hawkins.  Watching his friend Hawkins die, Belcher, the other hostage, mentions the conversation they all had about the existence of heaven.  Belcher says of Hawkins, “Now he knows as much about it as they’ll ever let him know, and last night he was all in the dark” (O’Connor, 1931).  The “it” he is referring to is life after earth or heaven.

            Seeing that Bonaparte and Noble are troubled by what they had to do, Donovan tells them, “You understand that we’re only doing our duty” (O’Connor, 1931).  But it is obvious that both Bonaparte and Noble now have doubts about the purpose of their duty.  Belcher himself says, “I never could make out what duty was myself” (O’Connor, 1931).  It is something that Bonaparte, the narrator, finds himself not understanding as well.  At the end of the story, he describes how he feels lost and lonely like a child because of the war, of the military, of what he had to do to his two friends.  It tells us that even the participants of war themselves – the soldiers – sometimes find themselves wondering about the purpose of war and their duties.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been
This short story by Joyce Carol Oates is about the coming-of-age tale of a fifteen-year-old girl called Connie.  She does not quite fit into her family.  Her mother is always criticizing and comparing her to her older sister Jane (who is plain and not as pretty as Connie), and her father is silent and does not participate in Connie’s life.  We read about how Connie entertains herself by going to the shopping plaza with her best friend Betty Schultz.  The epiphany for Connie in this story is when a boy called Arnold Friend appears at her driveway with his friend Ellie Oscar while her whole family is away at a barbeque.  Arnold convinces Connie to step out of the house and to take a drive with him.  He convinces her to let him love him.  We can interpret this as Arnold convincing Connie to allow him to make love or have sex with her.  Connie is initially afraid by Arnold.  He tells her: “ I’m always nice at first, the first time.  I’ll hold you so tight you wont think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you know you can’t.  And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me” (Oates, 1970).  Connie senses that Arnold has plans for her, this is why she at first threatens him that she’ll call the police.  But Arnold doesn’t give up.  We see how Connie eventually gives in, even though at the back of her head she probably knows what Arnold has planned for her.  Arnold says, “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out” (Oates, 1970).  This may signify innocence or youth, and Connie is aware that if she goes with Arnold, she will forever lose that innocence and that she will not be the same girl after.  She decides to go with Arnold at the end of the story, even though she is not certain where they are going or even if she wants to go there.  “So much land that Connie had never seen before, and did not recognize except to know she was going to it” (Oates, 1970).  It may not necessarily be a sexual experience, but it may simply be taking things to level with a boy that she has never done before.  Whatever it is, Connie has already decided that she is ready to take that next step away from innocence.

Ozzie Freedman, Connie, Bonaparte and his buddies, all exemplify characters which go through different kinds of epiphanies in their lives.  Ozzie has an epiphany about his perception of religion.  Bonaparte realizes that war and being in the army is not always about service and duty to one’s country.   Connie realizes that her decision to step out and take a ride with Arnold will take her to a level that she never experienced before as an adolescent.   In all three cases, Bonaparte is the one who is most aware and conscious that he is experiencing an epiphany.  He voices out how he feels lost and lonely after executing the two English hostages.  Ozzie and Connie on the other hand do not voice out their experiences or try to analyze them.  They are however both aware that they are experiencing or are going to experience something that could change their lives.

            In sum, the characters in the three short stories all experienced an epiphany in their lives.  The way the epiphanies took place may differ, but in all instances, you see how these experiences leave the character at the end of the story as a little different than the way he or she is at the start of the story.


Oates, Joyce Carol.  Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page. 1970. 20 Sept. 2006.

O’Connor, Frank.  Guests of the Nation.  Elements of Fiction. 1931.

Roth, Philip. The Conversion of the Jews. American and British Studies, New Bulgarian University Website. 1959. 20 Sept. 2006.


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