Once More to the Lake: More to think (and talk) about...

These are lecture discussion notes (from a US college) that we can think about and discuss in class.

What is this story about? Can you find a clear thesis statement? This essay does not provide a stated thesis, though one is clearly implied. From your discussion, you may have come to many conclusions based on information that is in the story but which are inferences on your part. This is an advanced level of thinking, to be able to draw conclusions from a narrative which are not explicitly stated. When you are a proven writer, you will probably write narratives more like E. B. White’s that like the narrative you will write for our class, implying your purposes strongly but not putting them in writing. For this class, of course, you will have to be able to explicitly state your thesis. So it would be good practice for you to learn to state an understood thesis like the one from this essay. 

So where should we begin in this essay? Usually authors put important points at the very end of the essay as this is the most emphatic position. When you read the story, you were probably put off by the last sentence, the last word of which is "death." Young people, actually all people, don’t really want to think about death. If we ignore it, perhaps it will go away. But it does not. And we cannot undo the effect of that last sentence on our interpretation of the entire story. It probably made you depressed, confused you at first, and then made you rethink what the overall essay is all about. Most students’ first impression of the story while in the midst of reading it is that it is a nostalgic tale about one man’s memories of his own visits to the lake with his father which are stirred up by his visit to bring his own son to that same lake. Because of the last sentence, we begin looking around for someone who might have died to make our persona (the "I" in the story) think about death. And most students notice that the original father (who would be the grandfather now) is not at the lake, though it was said that he goes every August. The simple inference is that the persona’s father is dead, probably died within the last year, so that the persona wanted to come back to the lake rather than going deepsea fishing with his son as was his custom, perhaps to come to terms with the death of his own father. 

He hasn’t been to the lake in a while and gets confused because he associates with his own son as the son steals off to canoe out onto the lake or gets back into wet swim trunks to go swimming after a storm. E.B. White encourages this confusion using his paragraph structure and references to the persona’s confusion of identity. We become equally confused because the author keeps going back and forth in time until we aren’t sure if the story is talking about the father or the son having the same experiences. This leads us to one of the purposes of the story, a new view of time. Actually this view of time is not new; there seems to be a paradox between seeing time as cyclical, repeating with the seasons each year, in which case nothing much has changed on the lake and seeing time as linear in which case change does take place and the original son in 1904 is now the father in the present time of this essay (approximately 1935?). E.B. White resolves this paradox by suggesting that time is both linear and cyclical in that the place or nature can seem to remain the same but man ages and experiences nature at different times in his life.

The confusion between the son and the father in the present day and the juxtaposed view of time as both linear and cyclical lead us to our second important deduction: the epiphany or sudden realization that the persona goes through at the end of the story when he is watching his son pull on cold swim trunks and seems to feel the coldness himself but interprets it as the chill of death is that the persona himself will someday be in the same position occupied by his own father (the grandfather of the story) and that means he will be dead. This is a profound realization that few young people have gone through unless their experiences include having to face the death of a friend or someone else their own age. It can be so profound and depressing an awareness that it could completely alter the enjoyment the persona was having in revisiting the lake. The last sentence has, in fact, had exactly that effect on the reader, so it is particularly effective in getting the point or purpose across.
Although this is a narrative, it does not conform to typical chronological narrative structure. Since obviously I want to demonstrate good writing for you to base your own writing on, why would I assign this essay? Equally obviously "Once More to the Lake" contains many passages of vivid description, most especially one of my favorite paragraphs, the next to last in the essay about a typical storm. Reread that paragraph, perhaps reading it aloud to get the entire impact of the words. He uses the metaphor of the sounds of the storm being like percussion instruments. He puts many short actions into the same sentence to show how the storm builds and changes over the course of just a few hours. But also if you look at the length of the sentences at the end of this paragraph when the storm is quieting down, read the words aloud about the calm after the storm, you will discover that you cannot read those words fast, as you could the violence of the storm. This is another example of how form enhances content, how the structure of individual sentences matches the meaning those sentences are trying to convey. I want you to try to emulate this quality of matching the sentence structure, length, flow or rhythm to the meaning of the words. When you can be critical and perfectionistic about individual sentences in your paragraphs, you will be on the way to becoming an excellent writer.

The overall structure of the essay, the jumping back and forth in time to the point of confusion on the part of the reader is also a way form enhances content because part of the purpose of the essay is to convince us that the persona can associate so clearly with his son that he gets confused about whether he is experiencing the events as a son or as a father. This makes his realization that he would someday be in the grandfather position more powerful. I do not expect that you will have a similar important reason for choosing some other organizational principle--other than chronology--for your narrative essay, but it does suggest that you could break out of chronological order IF you had a very good reason and IF you conveyed that reason to us as part of your purpose.

So, in conclusion, this is an excellent essay for you to read and use as a model first, for its vivid description and metaphorical associations which help us experience the events in the same way as the author, and second, for the profundity of its purpose and the power of the last sentence which completely changes our typical, sentimental response to a nostalgic story into one of thoughtful questioning and critical thinking.


  1. The assigned essay thing is just a part of the article right? you aren't really assigning us ANOTHER essay to do??!!

  2. No.

    Just part of the notes....

    Deep Breath!

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