‘When The Light Gets Green’ by Robert Penn Warren


When The Light Gets Green by Robert Penn Warren, 1936

The magic trick:

Establishing the story’s theme in the first three sentences

Memory and the tricks it plays is a recurring theme on this blog. It’s definitely one of my favorite topics to consider, so I’m sure I seek it out in these stories. But fact is I don’t have to seek too far. Memory and the tricks it plays is a recurring theme in literature. It’s kind of an important part of human existence, I’m pretty sure. Or maybe the theme here is that a blogger misremembers the stories he reads and then misinterprets them on his blog, thereby providing yet another layer of misty memory haze. That’s getting way too meta, though, so let’s just move on..

“When The Light Gets Green” is another story from a child’s perspective recalling his memories of a family member. Hemingway’s “My Old Man” and Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father…” spring to mind. This story falls somewhere in between those two in terms of reliable memory. Hemingway’s narrator remembers things accurately; he just is too young to interpret the correct meanings. Alexie’s narrator faces the issue of having the memories of his father skewed by his father’s habit of reinventing the past. In “Green” Warren’s narrator is forced to reconcile the heroic image in his head of his grandfather with the reality that his grandfather is frail and dying.

The story shows that nicely but in all honesty one can get that point from simply reading the first paragraph. The narrator admits to imagining his grandfather’s beard being long and white, only to be shocked every time when he saw that in reality the beard was short and gray. Three sentences in, he has presented the story’s central battleground between the real and imagined. And that’s quite a trick on Warren’s part.

The selection:

My grandfather had a long white beard and sat under the cedar tree. The beard, as a matter of fact, was not very long and not white, only gray, but when I was a child and was away from him at school during the winter, I would think of him, not seeing him in my mind’s eye, and say: He has a long white beard. Therefore, it was a shock to me, on the first morning back home, to watch him lean over the dresser toward the wavy green mirror, which in his always shadowy room reflected things like deep water riffled by a little wind, and clip his gray beard to a point. It is gray and pointed, I would say then, remembering what I had thought before.

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