Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
A Death in the Family
Bobby Agadganian seems to be a bit player in this drama, but he's the guy on the narrator's mind when he begins the story of his (Jean's) Montreal adventure. The story is meant to be a eulogy to the man he called stepfather for so many years. We also learn that we'll be reading something that won't necessarily "make sense" (1). Just as importantly, we learn that the narrator hopes the story is "ribald" – which means bawdy and humorous, like a dirty joke. The first paragraph clues us in to the fact that we might be walking into a tragicomedy.
The initial conflict is laid out in paragraph five. Bobby and Jean come to see that they're both in love with the same deceased woman" – Jean's mom (5). The result seems to be a strained, but intense politeness that does little to mask the awkwardness of their situation, or as the narrator calls it, the "ghastly little after-you-Alphonse relationship" (5). These two probably just some time apart. Everything about Bobby reminds Jean of his mom, and everything about Jean reminds Bobby of his wife. Jean is smart enough to realize that something has to give. He takes action to rectify the situation.
Fake resumes and real art
Jean's uses his creative skills to create a solution to the conflict. He takes his identity as an artist and embellishes it, pretending to be a twenty-nine year old widower from the south of France. But, he backs up this fake identity with very real art, highlighting the idea that creative acts can be useful in dealing with grief and the other problems. The big complication isn't the fact that Jean lied. It's that Jean's solution to the conflict leaves him alone with nobody to confide in. He even imagines confessing the whole thing to M. Yamamoto when he thinks he won't be given any students to work with.
The problem with letters…
Imagine if Jean had the Internet – he would be dangerous. He's dangerous enough with snail mail. In any case, things start to look up for Jean when he encounters Sister Irma's work. He thinks he's found a kindred soul, one he can guide to her true destiny, which he believes is leaving the convent to be with him and follow the potential of her art. We think that Mother Superior and Father Zimmerman have probably been screening Sister Irma's mail, and may have been worried about his high praise of her art. His comment about being an "agnostic" doesn't help matters much (45). We think the climactic moment in the story is when Jean gets the letter from the Mother Superior, which pushes him toward waking from his fictional dream. At this point he is forced to change course.
Will Jean be OK?
At this point Jean seems to be spinning out of control, which in the case of Jean doesn't means lots of drinking coffee and writing a bunch of letters (though not necessarily in that order). We aren't quite sure what will happen to Jean. We don't know if we want him to visit Sister Irma or not. While we think a visit to the convent would be a bad idea, we are curious to see what she looks like, and entertain the possibility that she and Jean might just be perfect for each other. But, that is kind of secondary suspense for many readers. The primary suspense is created by the empathy we have for Jean. We want things to work out well for him, but see him dangling dangerously close to the edge. Of course, all this suspenseful melodrama is executed with a sense of humor, which somehow makes it all the more poignant.
"Everybody is a nun" (84)
This is definitely the most famous moment in the story, and perhaps the most mysterious as well. This has a number of implications for the story, and we explore them in "What's Up With the Ending?" This is the denouement because it sets in motion the falling off action. Jean has decided not to contact Sister Irma, and seems to be in a state of dreamy contentedness. When he wakes up he's feeling much more gentle toward the world and himself, as is illustrated by the reinstatement of his disgraced students.
Bambi, and girls in shorts
At the end of the story, Jean seems to have learned that life doesn't have to be so serious, and that it's OK to enjoy life's simple pleasure, likes girls in shorts or like the less than serious art of Bambi Kramer. He also decides not to contact Sister Irma, but isn't sure whether this was the "[r]ight or wrong" thing to (88). This uncertainty throws a wrench in any plans we might have of squeezing out a neat and tidy interpretation out of this story.