Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
“My Father Sits in the Dark”
Jerome Weidman’s short story “My Father Sits in the Dark” is ultimately about connection to family. To explore the deep connection between the narrator, his father, and their extended family, Weidman uses elements of craft, such as repetition of the titular image like a refrain, controlled prose rhythm, and expertly ties in the family to images of light and darkness.
The image of the father sitting by himself recurs throughout the story and becomes a preoccupation for the narrator. At its most basic, this repetition shows the narrator’s concern about his father’s behavior. However, it is the connection between the activity of the narrator’s father and the father’s father that really brings out the familial relationship. The narrator describes that his father “sits in the dark, alone, smoking, staring straight ahead of him, unblinking, into the small hours of the night” (168). Later, a similar image is described in greater detail:
I see a wide-beamed kretchma, with my grandfather behind the bar. It is late, the customers are gone, and he is dozing. I see the bed of glowing coals, the last of the roaring fire. The room is already dark, and grower [sic] darker. I see a small boy, crouched on a pile of twigs at one side of a huge fireplace, his starry gaze fixed on the dull remains of the dead flames. The boy is my father. (170)
At this point, the narrator realizes his father’s action is a connection to the past. These two images are complimentary as they show sitting in the dark as a movement across time. It is an image handed from father to son, a kind of paternal heirloom which is now shared with the narrator. As a native New Yorker from a family of immigrated Jews, Weidman could have understood this strange connection that is simultaneously intimate and remote because of blood relations and geography respectively. As opposed to making the image of the story culture-specific, though, as someone of his background could have done, he opts for a more universal symbol of a man sitting alone in the dark, staring. On closer examination, though, the reader, like the narrator, understands the father is not alone but partaking in his history and the history of all his forefathers who sat and stared into the dark.
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Another element in these images is their physical structure on the page. The rhythm of the story changes at the point in which the narrator has this vision of his father as a child. As Janet Burroway says in Writing Fiction, “Often and abrupt change in the prose rhythm will signal a discovery or change in mood; such a shift can also reinforce a contrast in characters, actions, and attitudes” (87). The previous parts of the story are delivered in abrupt sentences: short and packed with mostly used to convey information; the dialogue is especially terse. However, at the sudden moment of insight, the prose rhythm moves into longer, more complicated sentences befitting a vision as wonderful as the narrator imagines. Again, this use of the language is tied to the meaning of family and real cultural inheritance, and the richness and complexity of the language are connected to the richness and complexity of the revelation.
Working in conjunction with this vision of the narrator’s father is the use of light and dark imagery. The father only sits and thinks of “nothing” when he’s in the dark (167). There is little light in the story and the narrator comments that “The dim shadow of light that comes through the window only makes the room seem darker” (169). When looking to get a drink of water, the narrator turn on a light, and, for the first time in the short story, takes action other than just sitting in the dark. Weidman writes, “He straightens up with a jerk, as though he has been struck” (169). When questioned, the father gives the telling reply, “I can’t get used to the lights. We didn’t have lights when I was a boy in Europe” (170). This statement is the fulcrum upon which the rest of the story swings. The explanation of the lights is what leads the protagonist to the vision of his father as a boy opening up a new world of understanding. It also signals the change in prose rhythm. The universal image of a father sitting in the dark is linked to archetypal ideas of light representing logic and learned wisdom whereas the darkness is symbolic of dream-like, chthonic forces. The father cannot engage in his transcendent memories in the light for two reasons. First, the light is distracting and artificial and it jerks him out of a quiet, contemplative state. On a second, metaphoric level, light disturbs the father’s movement into the dream-world of his memories where every detail of sitting in the ember-lit kretchma is just as clear if not clearer than when he first experienced it. The reader sees that the father is not thinking in the traditional sense because when asked if he is worried about anything he replies, “Nothing’s worrying me, son. I’m all right. It’s just restful. That’s all” (169). Also, the narrator’s sharing in this vision is not an act of reason or logic but one of imagination and non-linear thought. The reader comes to see the use of light and dark in the short story is similar to its use in the film. However, the darkness is not just a lack of light but a means of moving into a near-mythic realm of thought where the narrator’s connection to his family—especially his father—can be explored in a way not accessible in the waking world of light and logical cognitive function.
Weidman’s story succeeds because of his judicious use of craft elements to bring the meaning of his short story to life. It does not read like an exercise to see if he could write well with the symbolic use of light and darkness or if he could purposefully manipulate sentence length and diction as an amusing means to advance the plot. Rather everything seems to work in service to his idea of an almost magical transmission of the experience of just quietly sitting alone in the dark. As such, “My Father Sits in the Dark” makes itself not only an excellent example of how to skillfully use craft techniques like a repeated image or prose rhythm but also illustrates why such elements of craft should be employed in the first place.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (6th ed.). New York: Longman, 2003.
Weidman, Jerome. “My Father Sits in the Dark.” Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories. Eds. Howe, Irving and Wiener-Howe, Ilana. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.
© 2014 Seth Tomko