‘The Patented Gate And The Mean Hamburger’ by Robert Penn Warren

Warren, Robert Penn 1947

The Patented Gate And The Mean Hamburger by Robert Penn Warren, 1947

The magic trick:

Pivoting the action and the storys narrative tone on Mrs. Yorks first comment

In just the same way as the title is separated into two distinct objects, the story is composed of two sections. They aren’t differentiated by anything obvious like a chapter number or a section header. The story hinges on one comment by Mrs. York.

In the story’s first half, the omniscient narrator lays out the setting and situation in a fairly relentless manner. There is no action to observe or nuances for the reader to decipher. Just plain telling, no showing. Notably, this is the section of the story about Mr. York and his house with the patented gate. Mrs. York is mute, in the background.

Then, at the story’s hinge point, she speaks. She shows interest in buying the hamburger diner. Suddenly, everything changes. Warren’s narrator now is doing a lot less telling and a lot more showing. Now the reader has action to assess, conversations to digest and interpret. The story’s world has opened up as Mrs. York takes on more and more dominance. She now has a voice, both literally and figuratively.

A very cool way to play with format and narration. And that’s quite a trick on Warren’s part.

The selection:

There was another snicker, louder, and Jeff York, whose hamburger had been about half way to his mouth for another bite, laid it down deliberately on his plate. But whatever might have happened at that moment did not happen. It did not happen because Mrs. York lifted her flushed face, looked straight at Slick Hardin, swallowed hard to get down a piece of the hamburger or to master her nerve, and said in a sharp, strained voice, “You sellen this place?”

There was complete silence. Nobody had expected her to say anything. The chances were she had never said a word in that diner in the couple of hundred times she had been in it.

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