Charles Baxter’s What Happens in Hell essay is effectively a progression of sadness and occurrence of an existential crisis for the narrator after being driven from the airport to his hotel, the discussions about hell, and finally the near death experience in a car accident. Alice Munro’s Train short story revolves around the relationship between Jackson, a man who jumped out of a moving train on the Ontario countryside after serving in World War II, and Belle, a woman around 15 years his senior, whom he meets in a small farm just off the tracks. In Train, the personal family life of Belle initiates the sadness and loneliness she has experienced after the death of her father in a train accident and her mom whom had passed away recently when Belle is first presented. In both Baxter’s and Munro’s work the idea of melancholy and solitude are highlighted throughout the text with the support of death and existentialism as a commonality that illustrates the isolation characters in the texts have to go through.
The most explicit theme that can be presented as a parallel between the two texts is the presence of solitude existing in the lives of both narrators. Firstly, Baxter’s ride with Niazi, his Pakistani driver, is what triggers a deeper realization of sadness in his life through the initial discussions of what occurs in Hell. Through his inner thoughts Baxter conveys his feelings of being a stranger wherever he goes early on in his work when he highlights “I am usually an outsider everywhere” (Baxter, 144), which is also effectively highlighted when he mentions that “I’m a Midwesterner by location”(Baxter, 142). What this does, is that it makes the presence of melancholy much more explicit in Baxter’s life and his feeling of solitude. He also states how he does not feel comfortable in his current situation as he says, “I don’t really enjoy sitting in the back seat of Lincoln Town cars” (Baxter, 142). Both quotes highlight a fundamental degree of isolation the narrator feels due to his surroundings. Furthermore, he states, “there was no one around to tell me not to” (Baxter, 146). Baxter’s high degree of loneliness is further perpetuated by the fact his wife has recently left him. The discussions about hell creates a darkening and forlorn experience in the ride for Baxter as when he gets to the hotel he seems to feel “immobilized” (Baxter, 144) and “puzzled by the persistence of Hell” (Baxter, 144). Baxter is feeling of isolation and a significant degree of insecurity is made a lot worse due to the bustling and “self-confident” (Baxter, 144) nature of the Bay Area.
In Munro’s Train story the character, Belle is central to the theme of solitude and isolation. Her life is surrounded by death. Most specifically the death of her father in a train crash and the later the death of her mother who lost her ability to speak (Munro, 149). Although her mother had recently died the fact that “she lost her speech a long time ago” (Munro, 149) conveys the idea that Belle had become accustomed to a degree of loneliness as she would be the only engaging in discussions with her mother, whereby, her mother would just “understand” (Munro, 149). Her father’s death signifies Belle’s childlike attributes, for example her still calling him “daddy” (Munro, 149), these attributes fundamentally show how she may have a lot of sadness because she. However, Belle’s loneliness becomes less of an issue over time as Jackson ends up staying on the small farm, and several years pass by. They developed what could be considered a brother and sister bond, which effectively gave Belle that sense of belonging and family, she had lost over time after the death of her father and mother.
Before focusing on the other characters in the story Train, one fascinating moment where the aspect of solitude tunes our mind is the point where Jackson decides to jump from the train. He falls down and gets up with dirty and dusty clothes, which he rubs. In a state of loneliness, he decides to go back against the direction of the train. It is realizable that, Jackson passes numerous trees of which he does not know the respective names. Jackson sees a different scenario from what can be observed under normal circumstances (Munro, 139). As he wandered along the train runaway, he sees a flash of fields behind a thick embankment, however, he cannot see, the grass, green and yellow plants. In essence, he knows less than the audience can imagine. In this scenario, the audience can learn that, the state of melancholy is evidenced by the actions of one Jackson. On a similar note, Jackson’s perception that whenever he meets his friends, they see him as one from the country, which is not a true imagination, adds evidence of the lonely nature of Jackson.
Another instance of solitude in the story Train is evidenced by the isolation of Belle, who is in her fifties. A person of this age needs a company of others to share her experience about life, achievement, failure and future plans, among others, however, this is a situation whereby she is in isolation and according to the narrator, and she might be under the influence of drugs. The narrator uses a creative approach to reveal a state of loneliness in Belle, as she depicts her as a woman can visualize her life when alone and under influence of drugs (Munro, 144). It is a common phenomenon, that when individuals are disturbed by some situations in life they resort to drug an alcohol abuse, purporting to be meditating on the way forward and trying to forget. However, this is not the case, since sound decisions and planning cannot be made under the influence of drugs.
Belle’s sigh of relief that she was not responsible for her father’s death may not be believed by a majority of the readers and the audience at large because of her state at the time she is exclaiming that “ I feel so released”. Bearing mind that, she is under the influence of drugs; the audience can presume that whatever, she says at this time is irrelevant and meant to comfort her. This state of isolation as seen throughout the story forms the centrifugal force through which the characters express their experiences (Munro, 143). However, from another point of view, we cannot rule out the aspect of self-realization and actualization that is evident in the story. The thematic relationship between solitude and self-actualization is that, they take place at the same place and situation. We see the characters isolate themselves in the name of trying to visualize and realize themselves, and this is where the theme of solitude and melancholy creeps in this story.
On the other hand, Baxter puzzles the readers and the audience, with his exclamation statement upon arrival in the Bay Area. Baxter exclaims that “under the blue skies and polished sunshine” he appears to have reached a special place with special features. The place appears to be unique to him. He continues saying that he did not see even a single boarded-up front window. In relation to the thematic approach were presently investigating in this text, we can realize that, Baxter had gone to a state of solitude and the numerous questions he was asking to come out without realizing. Saying that, Baxter is undergoing a state of self-actualization, visualization will be wrong, and a lie to the audience, because, there is nothing personal, Baxter realizes for individual definition (Baxter, 137). On a similar note, Baxter feels isolated by the use of the Mandarin language between the driver who offered the narrator a lift and this other in-law, left him outside the topic. However, thanks to the diver who noticed his state of loneliness and tried to help to him to interpret. In another instance, when Baxter arrives at the San Fransisco airport, his wife, whom they have not been together for a while now, welcomes him. After the Baxter’s wife took her to the apartment, where he remained alone and began thinking of weird things, such as posting a Facebook post on his accident. He wants to gauge how people comments. This state indicates how desperate and lonely the narrator’s is and needs at least a company of other persons. The thematic approach in relation to melancholy and solitude is evident in Baxter’s story, by the numerous instances, where Baxter is seen sad and lonely pondering about his life (Baxter, 147). The aspects that Baxter thinks might not indicate self-actualization nor self-realization, abuse most of them are negatively attributed. Baxter is seen having a negative attribute towards almost everything.
Similarly, at the end of the story “The Train”, we see Belle and Jackson decide to stay very far away. They agree to be married and live in isolation. The two individuals who form a very significant part of the story remain in isolation to focus on their lives; this is a real depiction of the lonely state shared by these two characters. Another impeccable aspect of solitude is indicated in the last scene, when Belle passes on, Jackson makes his final withdrawal to Kapuskasing (Munro, 148). Jackson begins with wondering alone and the scene ends with Jackson wandering. This is a sure framework of the strong thematic approach them, braced by the writer and this sees the story thrill a lot of people both the readers and those who watch films.
In essence, both Charles Baxter’s What Happens in Hell and Alice Munro’s Train short stories successfully elucidates the thematic parallelism in the two stories. The two narrators are creative in depicting the primary characters as vulnerable of difficult situations, which makes them struggle with life and at the end; others die without self-actualization and visualization. In essence, the theme of solitude and melancholy is evident in these two stories. Their thematic approach is of primary use in understanding the connection of the solitude and the overall flow of the story. In addition, In both Baxter’s and Munro’s work the idea of melancholy and solitude are highlighted throughout the text with the support of death and existentialism as a camaraderie that illustrates the segregation characters in the texts have to go through.
Baxter, Charles. "Train." Ed. Cheryl Strayed. The Best American Essays. N.p.: 145-72. Print.
Munro, Alice. "Train." Ed. Elizabeth Strout. The Best American Short Stories. N.p.: 145-72. Print.