Motifs of Light in The Stone Boy
Gina Berriault’s “The Stone Boy” follows the story of a young boy facing the aftermath of a terrible accident and trying to understand his responsibility in the matter. When Arnold does not respond emotionally, the adults’ false assumptions isolate Arnold. In “The Stone Boy”, Berriault uses the motifs of light to represent knowledge and truth and darkness to represent ignorance; together, they work to progress Arnold’s transformation of child to man.
The light references in “The Stone Boy” work to highlight Arnold’s awareness of his responsibility for a terrible thing. Arnold undergoes a drastic transformation in self-perception and identity based on how he feels, as well as how others view him. Arnold feels a burden for what happened, but he is unsure how to express himself. After the accident, a dazed Arnold continues to go and pick peas, following his routine, because it is the only normal thing he acknowledges. It isn’t until he feels “a warmth on his back, like a large hand laid firmly there” that he raises his head, indicating the sun is a source of insight, making Arnold aware of his brother’s absence (386). As Arnold makes his way back to the farmhouse, he notices that “while his head [has] been bent the land [has] grown bright around him,” which suggests how the world around Arnold is reflecting his own actions, continuing the responsibility of bringing warmth to the world, just as Arnold continues to pick the peas for his family (386). After Arnold tells his family what happened to Eugie, he flees to the barn. Arnold can “feel the morning growing heavier with sun,” the sun here representing the “growing” awareness of those around him (387). As the atmosphere around him becomes “heavier” with awareness of Eugie’s death, Arnold slowly becomes conscious of what his family will think of him. He “lay[s] still as a fugitive,” scared that his family will ostracize him, exiling him to live in the barn (387). When his father calls out to him, Arnold “climb[s] down the ladder and [goes] out into the sun,” signifying his illumination of the knowledge in the air of those around him (388). The awareness of those around him lead Arnold to face the false assumptions, thus turning his loved ones against him, leaving Arnold to deal with the burden on his own.
The juxtaposition of light and dark images in the courthouse scene is important in signifying truth and ignorance. The courthouse is described as “a two-story brick building with a lamp on each side of the bottom step” (388). The lamps positioned outside the courthouse signify truth. However, as they walk into the building, they “[enter] the darkly paneled hallway,” suggesting that the truth Arnold knows is being left outside and instead, he is entering into the ignorance of the adult world, represented by the dark hallway (388). While waiting to see the sheriff, Arnold flashes back to the conversation he had with his father and Uncle Andy before leaving the house: [H]e had explained to them how the gun had caught on the wire. But when they had asked him why he hadn’t run back to the house to tell his parents, he had had no answer—all he could say was that he had gone down into the garden to pick the peas. His father had stared at him in a pale, puzzled way, and it was then that he had felt his father and the others set their cold, turbulent silence against him. (388) Even though Arnold knows the truth of what happened, he doesn’t understand what he did wrong. Before the courthouse, Arnold is aware of the responsibility placed on him after the accident; however, entering the “darkly paneled hallway” sheds that truth and replaces it with the ignorance of those around him, forcing Arnold to question himself (388). The dark symbolizes this confusion and ignorance when Arnold feels “compunction imposed by his father’s eyes,” which takes place in the “darkly paneled hallway,” causing Arnold to feel self-reproach (388). His father’s silence is a part of the dark imagery because darkness at night is associated with silence. Arnold’s father is the authority figure in his life and is supposed to know how to handle situations like these, but his father’s silence clouds Arnold’s thoughts and makes him confused and ashamed. Because of this silence, Arnold becomes aware of not only his father’s puzzled silence, but also how “the others set their cold turbulent silence against him,” representing his knowingness of how the adults feel about him, thus further distancing Arnold from others (388). The darkness coupled with the cold silence Arnold faces in the courthouse symbolizes the adults’ ignorance and their false assumptions about Arnold.
The dark imagery continues to highlight Arnold’s confusion and the adults’ ignorance when evening blankets the land. While the family continues their tasks on the farm, Arnold makes sure to distance himself from them. Their mundane routine confuses Arnold because when he acted normal and picked the peas, they were confused by his action. When it becomes too dark for his father to continue working outside, Arnold watches him stomp inside; however, Arnold does not follow because “he [is] afraid that they [do] not want him to eat supper with them” (391). The dark brings to Arnold feelings of apprehension because he questions whether or not his family still acknowledges him. This is further emphasized at dinner because it is described as a “small, silent supper,” implying Eugie’s absence and the unpitying nature of Arnold’s parents (391). Up to this point, Arnold has been faced with unsympathetic silence by his parents, leaving him to deal with the load of Eugie’s death on his own and no one to express his feelings to. To make matters worse for Arnold, his family members and neighbors “[begin] to arrive, knocking hard on the back door. The men [are] coming from their farms now that it [is] growing dark and they [can] not work any more” (391). The darkness brings the adults with a hard knock, indicating the potency of their ignorant assumptions; the sun has now set, implying the truth is absent from their thoughts. Uncle Andy worsens the situation by turning the parlor’s attention on Arnold when he says, “Not a tear in his eye…He’s a reasonable fellow. That’s what the sheriff said” (392). Uncle Andy accepting the sheriff’s explanation solidifies Arnold’s isolation from his family due to the ignorance of the adults. In the dark, not only does Arnold’s family fail him, but also his community, by refusing to forgive his reaction towards Eugie’s death, blinded by their unwitting assumptions.
Coupling both light and dark imagery allows for the representation of vulnerability that Arnold feels brought upon by his awareness of the terrible burden and ignorance of his family. With their harsh assumptions, Arnold is coldshouldered simply because he reacts differently than what people expect. While Arnold’s family is saying goodnight to the visitors, Arnold makes himself scarce: [H]e pick[s] up one of the kerosene lamps and slip[s] quickly up the stairs. In his room he undress[es] by lamplight, although he and Eugie had always undressed in the dark and not until he [is] lying on his bed [does] he blow out the flame. He [feels] nothing, not any grief. There [is] only the same immense silence and crawling inside of him; it [is] the way the house and fields [feel] under a merciless sun. (393) Arnold flees from the ignorance of the adults, carrying the lamp with him to send away the cutting accusations. The lamp here represents Arnold’s awareness of the adults’ ignorance, and dressing by the lamplight signifies his acknowledgement of the adults’ assumptions, judging himself because he is unable to decipher between truths and falsities anymore. Being isolated from his family takes a toll on Arnold; he is uncertain what to think and is overwhelmed with the feelings of guilt. The burden of his responsibility as well as the mass of the shame on his shoulders makes for a heavy accessory, weighing Arnold down throughout the story. Uncle Andy’s nasty remarks cement themselves in Arnold’s mind, validating the idea that he is a cold, cruel boy who cares nothing for his brother. The repetition of the imagery of silence in the dark continues to represent the confusion Arnold feels, the same as when he feels his father’s stare in the courthouse. Not being able to express himself, Arnold relates his feeling to like being under a “merciless sun,” suggesting that the truth Arnold once held in his heart has turned against him. Later in the night, Arnold awakens suddenly, and at that moment, “he [knows] that his father [is] out in the yard, closing the doors of the chicken houses so that the chickens could not roam out too early and fall prey to the coyotes that [come] down from the mountains at daybreak,” implying how Arnold and Eugie went out at daybreak and Eugie falling prey to Arnold’s gun, just as the chickens fall prey to the coyotes (393). Arnold being jolted awake in the darkness represents Arnold’s vulnerability towards the ignorance and his realization that he cannot deal with this on his own, noting the absence of his brother.
Because of the vulnerability that consumes Arnold in the middle of the night, he feels the need to express himself to someone he cares about. But when Arnold goes to tell his mother about his true feelings, his mother yells at him to “[g]o back! Is night when you get afraid?” (393). Ironically, she refuses Arnold, denying her role as the comforting, motherly figure. The first time Arnold willingly exposes his inner feelings, he is rejected by the one who he thinks would care the most. Her asking Arnold if it “is night when [he] get[s] afraid” is impactful because it holds certain truth; Arnold is uneasy of the ignorance delineated by darkness, which consequently makes him feel vulnerable, seeking out comfort (393). After this rejection, Arnold notices that “[o]utside everything [is] still. The fences, the shocks of wheat seen through the window before him [are] so still it [is] as if they [move] and [breath] in the daytime and [have] fallen silent with the lateness of the hour” (393). Arnold realizes that, just as the crops have “fallen silent” in the dark, he too has become silent and impassive because of his mother’s rejection. This scene is pivotal in the transformation Arnold undergoes from boy to man. The silence Arnold notices also surrounds his father, “a figure moving alone around the yard, his lantern casting a circle of light by his feet” (394). Even though his mother rejects him, it seems Arnold is given another chance at enlightenment. His father’s lantern symbolizes understanding, seeking out Arnold to stop him from succumbing to the adults’ false assumptions. However, in that moment, Arnold realizes his nakedness, which “ha[s] become unpardonable” after his mother’s rejection, and he “flee[s] from his father’s lantern” (394). Arnold being naked in the dark is crucial to his transformation as well because his nakedness leaves him exposed to the ignorance of the adults. After his mother’s rejection, Arnold’s walls break down, letting all the harsh accusations about him seep into his mind, making him think he is the “monster” everyone thinks became after the accident. His father’s light is Arnold’s last chance at washing away the darkness in his mind, but because he is exposed and vulnerable, Arnold flees before his father’s light reaches him. At that point, it is too late because the sheriff and Uncle Andy’s words have pierced his heart, rendering him emotionless inside.
At the beginning of the story, Arnold’s awareness of his responsibility is represented by the light imagery, and while the light of dawn in the final scene still represents his responsibility, it has shifted from being the duty of a child to one of a man. During breakfast, Arnold “[keeps] his eyelids lowered as if to deny the humiliating night” (394). Arnold is aware that his parents have failed him, but he makes no effort to gain their sympathy back. Although the light imagery represents truth as well, it is unable to penetrate Arnold’s mind because it is clouded with the dark ignorance gained the night before. He understands what his responsibility is when his father attempts to reach out to Arnold saying, “Bessie’s missin’ this morning…Somebody’s got to go up and find her ‘fore the coyotes get the calf” (394). Arnold’s father is able to embrace the light of the truth as he tries to sympathize with Arnold, but his mother’s reaction is the catalyst towards Arnold’s self-banishment and his father is too late to save his son from taking on the responsibility of a man too early. Arnold recognizes that fetching the calf “had been Eugie’s job,” and he knows “if he [goes] for the calf he [will] be away from the farm all morning” (394-95). Arnold’s decision to exile himself emphasizes the effect the adults’ ignorant assumptions have on Arnold. Arnold’s loss of innocence is highlighted in the dawn of light when his mother calls out to Arnold, and “knowing that she [is] seeking him out, as his father [is] doing…he call[s] upon his pride to protect him from them” (395). The irony of the situation is heartbreaking because just as Arnold’s mother rejects him the night before when Arnold is at his most vulnerable, Arnold reciprocates the cold refusal, ultimately marking his loss of innocence. When his mother asks what he wanted last night, to which Arnold responds, “I didn’t want nothing,” it further highlights that Arnold is nothing like he innocent boy, but instead becomes the “monster” everyone makes him out to be (395). When his family finally wants him to express his feelings, he fails to communicate his feelings because he doesn’t know how. This story demonstrates the immeasurable effect that other people’s opinions have on the self-perception of oneself, illustrated by Arnold’s transformation from an innocent child, to a stone-like man.
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