18 July 2017

Story Structure and Theme: “Pigeons at Daybreak”

In Anita Desai’s short story, Pigeons at Daybreak, the author uses the following elements of structure to draw readers into its fictional world and prompt them to keep turning the pages.

While the story proceeds in a linear fashion in time, from noon on a hot summer day to dawn the next day, there are two flashbacks when the tension and conflict are escalated. One takes place when Otima suggested carrying her husband Mr. Basu to the rooftop terrace with their neighbor’s help to relieve the dire situation of his illness with asthma and no electric ceiling fan that night, Mr. Basu recalled the fight with their quarrelsome neighbors on the terrace many years ago. Another one occurs when Mr. Basu was led to the terrace, he recalled a brief yet meaningful moment with his grandson looking at the pigeons on the terrace. Both flashbacks add depth to the structure as they let readers peep into the back story and a pre-existing world. While the first flashback adds more tension to the plot, the second one introduces one of the themes of the story: the simple beauty and delight in the humdrum and dreary of daily life.

These flashbacks happen naturally as the events in the story flow in “a sequence of causally related events”, or “narrative profluence” as identified by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction”. The story starts with Otima reading news to Mr. Basu at lunch, and it proceeds from there to their argument about the news, the news of power outage that night, Mr. Basu’s anxiety and fear of not being able to get through the night without the electric fan, his genuine illness at night, Otima’s attempt to solve the crisis, the failing of that attempt, and to the resolution – electricity switched on earlier and cool morning providing relief to both Otima and Mr. Basu. One thing leads to another, and the coherence and clarity of the structure keep readers focused to find out what would happen next.

The rising tensions in the narrative also urge readers to turn the pages. When the news of power outage broke out, the story shifts to a higher gear of tension for both characters. Mr. Basu “gasped fearfully… and already his diaphragm seemed to cave in…” and Otima “put the papers away and rose with a sigh of irritation and anxiety.” The tension rises to climax when Mr. Basu was carried out to the open terrace, and that seemed not solving the issue at hand. He sobbed, could not find any comfort or ease, “his heavy body sank into it as into a hammock… that he could not turn on that wobbling net in which he was caught like some dying fish, gasping for air.” Otima “lost the lightheartedness…” and was exhausted. “Finally she gave up and collapsed onto her own string bed…”

The story’s resolution brings changes to Mr. Basu and his wife as both see light when the cooling morning comes. Otima saw light in their flat by surprise as the electricity was turned on earlier and this brought relief and energy back to her. Mr.Basu was relieved by the morning breeze, and morning light – “as delicate and sweet as the breeze itself…”

The characters’ slice of daily life and its ordeal in one afternoon and night bring out the themes of the story: old age, illness, marriage, holding on, break-through, and perhaps the most present ones – day and night, darkness and light. The story reaches its crisis point at night and the crisis is resolved at dawn. The cycle of day and night and the contrast of darkness and light are universal. The title of the story hints at the theme of light, and the story ends with the recurring symbol of pigeons “caught the light as they rose, turned brighter till they turned at last into crystals, into prisms of light.”

The story of “Pigeons at Daybreak” reminds me of a title of Eugene O’Neill’s play: “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, or the reversal of it: “Long Night’s Journey into Dawn”.