Seemingly Insignificant Memories Impact Us The Most

Freshman (College 1st year) ・English ・MLA

Tobias Wolff's short story is an excellent example of how seemingly insignificant memories become more significant during a pivotal period in a man's life. It reveals the memories of a man named Anders who was a victim of a bank robbery in this case.
The story follows Anders, who is stuck in a long line at the bank trying to complete a transaction. Already irritated by the situation, he became even more enraged when he overheard a loud conversation between two women in line ahead of him. It appeared to be a routine occurrence, something that most people go through a few times in their lives. However, the story takes a drastic turn when two ski-masked bank robbers burst into the scene, threatening the entire bank. Anders, who was described as a “book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed”, is painted in a rather unsympathetic light. Despite the dangerous situation in which he finds himself, Anders never took it seriously enough when interacting with the robbers. Instead of restraining himself to save his life, he chooses to criticize everything around him, from the bank robbers themselves to a mural whilst having a gun aimed at his head. In other circumstances, being caught in a criminal action would be a life-changing memory that would be remembered for the rest of a person’s life. Yet in this case, Anders instead got shot in the head, removing that opportunity.
What Wolff highlights in this case, however, are the character’s final thoughts, some of which he barely remembers until right before his death. While he would not have a long time to reprocess how these insignificant events turn out to have a profound impact on him, Wolff chooses to use these to humanize Anders instead. Through these memories that he chose not to be reminded of, such as failures in his relationships with women and his family and the stresses he endured from his job, it is shown that Anders became who he was at the present time shown in the narrative.
The most striking of these memories, however, are the last recollections before his death that seem insignificant compared to those he chose not to remember. He remembered a time when he was younger and playing baseball with his friends, when he was less critical of everything around him. He also recalled how he was charmed by the musical southern accent of another child. It is interesting that these memories are the final ones Anders remembered because it may symbolize his innocence and childhood that was effectively erased by his experiences as he grew older. Perhaps by being shot in the head, Anders will finally relieve himself of all the pain, disappointment, and stresses of the life he knew and would simply see himself in an environment where all he will have is innocence and happiness.

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The Black Walnut Tree

Through this poem by Mary Oliver, what takes center stage in the narrator’s memory is a black walnut tree. Specifically, the debate between the two characters serve as the seemingly insignificant happenstance of the narrative because of what is initially perceived as a discussion over a trivial matter.
The main conflict in the poem comes from the dilemma of both the narrator and her mother of whether or not to remove the black walnut tree within their property in order to pay off the mortgage of their house. While it was not clarified in the poem who is against the removal of the tree, Oliver wrote the details of the discussion between the two characters in such a way that turns a paltry debate into a journey with ramifications far bigger than they could have imagined.
To start with, the first half of the poem presents a simple question: should the black walnut tree be removed from the property of the narrator and her mother? They look at the potential problems that the tree may cause them, such as its ability to withstand a storm that can otherwise damage their house and its impracticality considering that its “leaves are getting heavier” and the fruits are becoming “harder to gather away”. With the money they can make be used to pay for their home and possibly other expenses, the practical choice would seem to simply have the tree taken down and sold to a lumberman for profit. There appeared to be no other significant implications for such an action by the narrator and/or her mother.
However, the second half of the poem depicts how the importance of this debate over a seemingly minor issue is elevated into a lasting memory for these characters. Specifically, the black walnut tree represents strong ties to the history of their family. The lines “my fathers out of Bohemia / filling the blue fields / of fresh and generous Ohio / with leaves and vines and orchards” suggest that the tree serves as a reminder to these characters about those moments they have spent with their relatives. These moments may have been family celebrations, simple gatherings, or their relatives tending to the fields where the black walnut tree stands. It could also represent how their ancestors may have had preserved the land on which the tree is located, placing a lineage-based value for the tree to the narrator and her mother.
Because of this association, the characters ended their debate by deciding not to have the black walnut tree removed from their land. In the end, the narrator and her mother decided that it was not worth losing the black walnut tree and what it represents in terms of their family’s history and traditions. So while the looming issue of paying off their mortgage clearly weighs in the mind of the narrator’s family, the seemingly minor debate between her and her mother ends with a rather positive outlook for them. In the end, in an environment “of sun and leaping winds / of leaves and bounding fruit”, the black walnut tree stands tall, not knowing that its mere existence has long-term consequences for the characters in the poem.

Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957

In another poem by Mary Oliver, the memory described occurred when the poem’s narrator was simply picking blueberries on a summer day. The narrator ended up encountering a deer on the field, which captivated her and creating a memory that, according to her, remains vividly remembered by her years later.
The narrator was clearly fascinated with her random encounter with the aforementioned animal. What made it special to her is how this happenstance evoked in her a sense if child-like wonder for seeing with her own eyes a representative of the natural beauty of the world. Getting an opportunity to observe another creature in close proximity is an opportunity not everyone is blessed to experience, which highlights its importance to the narrator.
Perhaps more profound to the narrator is her admiration of what seems to be the oblivious wisdom of other living beings such as the deer. This is exemplified in the lines “the flower of her amazement / and the stalled breath of her curiosity / and even the damp touch of her solicitude / before she took flight”. In this section, Oliver describes the narrator’s interpretation of the deer’s expression on its face as it being as fascinated with its encounter with the narrator as she was. By describing the deer as having its own sense of intelligence and self-awareness by listening to the wind’s “instructions” and fleeing from the narrator, Oliver also gives her a unique perspective, a connection through which she sees the deer that makes the memory special to her.
The impact of that seemingly random event on the narrator is also exemplified in the poem’s final lines, wherein she likens the deer to a “beautiful girl”. It presents a rather romantic view of the encounter while at the same time, depicting the narrator as wondering whether or not the deer is still freely roaming the countryside years later and, if she meets the deer again it will recognize her and replicate that experience.
Lastly, what further drives home the emotional resonance that elevates the importance of a seemingly insignificant memory to the narrator is how detailed the poem was written. From the title of the literary work to how she described her moment with the deer to her wondering the whereabouts of the creature after a long period of time, the specific manner to which the entire experience was elaborated emphasizes just how much that memory meant to her.

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Through these three literary works (Bullet in the Brain, The Black Walnut Tree, and Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957), they describe how seemingly insignificant memories turn out to have a lasting impact on humans at crucial moments of their lives. Whether it involves a baseball, a tree, or a deer, the human experience is described creatively through a narrative centered on memories and their impact on human behaviour.
What these narratives share in common is how these reminiscences are elevated in their significance by their emotional resonance to the human experience. Specifically, these moments tend to be remembered during times of distress for the characters in the aforementioned works. As they represent simpler yet happier times for them, such memories offer solace, inspiration, and a connection to their past that reminds of their humanity when they are feeling lost or unsure of what to do. The stress under which they find themselves in magnifies the impact of these memories, which allows for a breakthrough for these characters.

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