In fiction, story and character are paramount, and may carry a message going beyond time and place. Certain characters and events are so distinct, they themselves generate the drama and interest in the tale. At the same time, external forces like social order may be equally forceful, and actually create the drama of the story through creating the world around it. This is true of Edwidge Danticat’s “A Wall of Fire Rising,” and in a way that reveals how character may actually be enhanced through the development and revelation of it within the immense power of the social order shaping the lives and the narrative.
The writer who relies on a powerful setting takes something of a creative risk. There is the very real danger that, when economic conditions and a dominant social order are vital elements within a story, the characters and the story itself are eclipsed by a “message.” They become, too often, props in the perceived greater need to point out injustice or reveal how social status alters humanity. The characters then become less real, and the reader sees them as instruments, rather than as dimensional, fully-realized creations unto themselves. Then, the more extreme the external conditions, the greater the danger that the fiction will be rendered more of a manifesto than a creative work. Danticat deftly avoids this trap. There is no mistaking the power of Haiti as setting a scene virtually prison-like; Guy, Lili, and their son are essentially defined by the wretched poverty and denied opportunity of this world, from the story’s beginning to its conclusion. Nonetheless, these same influences do not overshadow the story, but are instead used by the author to enhance the individuality and reality of her characters.
This artistic process of employing environment and social order to shape character is evident most clearly, not unexpectedly, in the mother and father. Having lived in this way for so long, what they are as people is very much a result of the surrounding circumstances, and Danticat is careful to never exaggerate the effects and allow the environment to dominate them. Guy, for instance, is oppressed. He resents a life spent in virtually begging for work, and such a history leaves him, realistically, less than grateful for when a day’s employment is his. Even as Lili reassures him of the integrity in cleaning latrines, he retains a frustrated hope, one reflected in his identifying with their son and his likely future as similarly trapped: “’Me too. I can do other things too’” (Danitcat 153). At the same time, Guy remains a father and husband able to surmount his pain and take the best that certain moments offer, as when his son’s recitation of his lines grips him emotionally. The lines themselves touch him as they go to the subjugated spirit of his race, but there is also the clear sense that he has any father’s pride in the accomplishment of his child. Guy lives every hour within the misery of the social order, yet he can see within this arena what is good and important. He is then dimensional, and by no means a character created to serve as representing a victim of oppression.
With Lili, there appears to be more convention in gender terms. In a sense, she is less “real” than Guy because her responses to their circumstances reflect a stereotypically maternal acceptance. Danticat, however, defies this stereotype even as she initially creates it. If Lili seems content with their poverty, there is an undercurrent within her as strong as her husband’s. After reassuring guy of the decency in taking any honest work at the sugar mill, she is firm about any idea of setting their son up to follow in this dismal path: “’For a young boy to be on any list like that might influence his destiny. I don’t want him on that list’” (153). With little reason to hope in this miserable society, she nonetheless refuses to surrender hope for their son. Here, then, social order as an element in the story is transcended by the reality of Guy and Lili as being linked in this way. They are more dimensional through the shared, burning frustration, even as it is expressed differently in each.
Then, depth of character and complexity as forged by, while rising above, the social order are revealed in the father’s and son’s reactions to the balloon. The boy is not fascinated; he stays with his mother in the fields, and it is Guy who reacts like a child, seeking to reach or cut through the fence protecting it. In a subtle fashion, there is here an emotional process to observe, for it is possible that Guy’s deeper desire to fly is fueled by his son’s potential acceptance of such things as beyond their grasp. His frustration may well be rising in proportion to the way his son is becoming a part of their oppressed world. Danticat never directly expresses this, but it is there to perceive in the intimate family relationship she has constructed. This is as powerful and real as the authentic love story Danticat sets out, which also has an integrity beyond the misery of the setting.
The risk in setting a story in an extreme environment is great, as the characters often become merely symbolic. This is a risk Edwidge Danticat rises above in “A Wall of Fire Rising,” for her people exist as dimensional, even as they are realistically shaped by their circumstances. In this short and well-crafted story, Danticat reveals how individual character may actually be enhanced through the development and revelation of it within the great power of the social order influencing both the lives and the narrative.
Danticat, E. In Title. Eds. City: Publisher, date. Print.