Rick Bass’s short story “Antlers” Essay Sample
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Rick Bass’s short story “Antlers” Essay Sample
The story at hand is about much more than the ethics of hunting, and despite its ambiguous, if not non-existent plot, I thought it was rich with meaning. Packaged as a glimpse of life into a small group of people, set in a beautifully rustic and occasionally harsh environment, the story eludes to several themes such as relationships, human needs, addictions, fear, stereotypes, hypocrisy, and our perceptions of reality. Like an old, mysterious house with trap doors and hidden rooms, each time I read Antlers, I found something I didn’t see before.
Bass uses the amazingly depicted setting to both attract and pacify the reader, sufficiently enough to discuss highly-charged issues without invoking an immediate emotional response. While we are busy visualizing a “cold, blue valley” filled with peaceful silence, and amused by the thought of people with antlers on their heads “dancing all night long, putting nickels in the jukebox” (52), the author skillfully challenges some of our deepest beliefs.
First addressing the most obvious theme, the subject of hunting, I get the sense that Bass, like the men in the valley, encourages a passive acceptance of hunting. He sees it as a necessary evil, and a means of survival. Does it really make a difference if it’s done in a controlled environment or in the wild? After all, “Dead’s dead, isn’t it” (53)? He drives his point home by making light of Suzie’s views, in her own words:
Cattle are like city people. Cattle expect, even deserve, what they’ve got coming. But wild animals are different. Wild animals enjoy life. They live in the woods on purpose. It’s cruel to go in after them (54).
I think it’s safe to say that Suzie isn’t an expert on cattle psychology, but most notably, her beliefs on the subject are based on assumptions and are largely hypocritical. It’s doubtful that cattle have the capacity to expect, and much less deserve, their predestined fate. Bass might be saying that eating meat is just a part of life. Whether we choose to buy it from a supermarket or kill it ourselves is irrelevant. After all, someone has to do the killing. Of course, we can also choose not to eat meat. This is one irony that is part of Suzie’s character; she eats meat, which essentially contradicts her own beliefs.
Even more ironic is that Suzie, much like Randy, is also a hunter. Similar to how “wolves eviscerate their prey,” (53) Suzie symbolically takes the hearts of men in the valley. The narrator felt his “heart was never going to heal–in fact [he] was certain it never would” (55). Unlike Suzie, however, Randy showed some remorse upon saying, “I feel kind of bad about [hunting] each time I see [a kill] like this, but I keep doing it” (57).
This brings us to the topic of addiction. Could it be that a hunter becomes addicted to hunting “for the thrill of it” (55)? In speaking to the narrator, Randy said, “I know it’s cruel, but I can’t help it. I have to do it” (57). Suzie had an addiction of her own–to companionship. Borne out of an acute fear of being alone, she explained, “It’s horrible, I can’t stand it. It’s not like other people’s loneliness. It’s worse.” When asked why, she said “I’m just scared … I can’t help it” (57).
Fear is, without a doubt, a contributing factor in the development of addictions. Bass illustrates the paradox of our love-hate relationship with fear, in how he describes the narrator’s attraction to Suzie and the “combination of strength and terror…that made her desirable” (56), and upon reuniting at the end, he commented, “I’m frightened, but it feels delicious” (58). One could liken that fear to the rush from hunting, gambling, or other addictions.
I think Bass also had concern for common stereotypes, too–especially those between men and women. For example, Suzie accused Randy of hunting “to prove his manhood” (56). Meanwhile, the men held beliefs on the value of strength, which could be seen when they observed the dead bull beside the creek, commenting “even after his death, he looked noble” (56).
The group’s opinion of Suzie was also interesting. None of the men seemed to think any less of her for having shared beds with most of them:
Even the most sworn bachelors among us enjoyed her company–she worked at the bar every evening–and it was always Suzie who left the men, who left us, though I thought it was odd and wonderful that she never left the valley (53).
Most of all, the story consistently attempts to blur the distinction between man and animal. Why is that? Man is the only living being said to have self-awareness. While it is widely accepted that we are products of our environment, that sentience gives us a unique ability to make choices, where animals would act on instinct. However, we often find ourselves making excuses and rationalizing unhealthy actions. I suspect Bass’ is saying in a number of words, “We are no better off than the animals.” Maybe he feels contempt for mankind’s poor utilization of this unique gift. Taking this a step further, one could say that we ultimately define our own needs, based on the choices we make within our environment.
Take, for instance, the statement “I can’t help it” which is repeated in this story in a number of ways. Is this true in each case–is it ever true? As strong as our influences are, I don’t believe so. From an optimistic perspective, I think the story could be interpreted as a call to action by Bass–a way of saying that each one of us has the ability to positively affect our own lives and to make a difference in the lives of others.
In MLA standard format. Page numbers from book: Fiction 100, 9th Edition, by James H. Pickering, published by Prentice Hall (c) 2001