A short story’s key features – plot, characterization, and theme – are portrayed within the very first paragraph of the story, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” by Tom Perrotta. The first sentence of the story alone expresses a surprising grudge that the main character has towards a Little League team, and places a stout stake of emotion when Jack narrates, “I wanted them to lose.” This sentence strongly implies the narrator’s great focus for such a negative goal, and due to the strength of that implication, the inner conflict of Jack is established and remains prominent as the meaning of the story is further complicated and revealed throughout, like a stake planted in the ground on a frighteningly stormy day. In the next few sentences, this stake of resentment is hammered into the pages even more as Jack specifies his almost cruel wishes for the Wildcats team to be “humiliated” and “taunted mercilessly,” and by the end of the first paragraph, the narrative has smoothly transitioned from an initially simple concept of hate to a deep stake for theme: the struggle in dealing with shameful feelings.

Already, in this first paragraph, Jack’s unique character is presented through his harsh thoughts of aiming to see the Wildcats team lose and of his willingness to sever his hand to hide his shamefulness. Also due to this paragraph, the story has been well established for the story to develop; the setting of the story is a Little League baseball game, the main character is a grown man and serves as umpire for the game, and most importantly, the main character’s desires are staked into the story to shed meaning as the story progresses.

The next paragraph further clarifies the real reason for Jack’s negative attitude towards the Wildcats team: his resentment towards their coach. Immediately after the narrator describes himself with disappointment – “feeling huge and bloated” – Jack describes the greatly contrasting coach, Carl; first by his perspective of the physically fit man, and second by actual physical physique (“ripping muscles”). Jack’s description of Carl as a “shamelessly vain man” is the eye-catcher in this paragraph. Recalling the stake placed in the paragraph before about Jack’s inner conflict in freely exposing his shameful thoughts, the fact that his resentment towards Carl is due (at least partly) to their contrast in handling shame is apparent. The insertion of the statement, “A shamelessly vain man,” implies Jack’s disapproving and judgmental perspective towards Carl. Without the existence of that phrase, the description of Carl in this paragraph would merely serve as exactly that – a physical description of a character. Due to the inclusion of this phrase and the thematic stake placed before, however, more insight about the source of Jack’s inner conflict is gained – that he resents Carl for possessing what he lacks.

Although subtle, the revelation of Jack’s contempt for Carl’s well-being in comparison to his own is a result of taking advantage of the first-person perspective. Instead of simply stating that Jack has an inner conflict involving Carl, the narration from Jack completes the task of revealing the conflict in a smooth and complex way. . In my own writing of a short story, I found that my tendency is to leave out instances in which the narrator’s own personal thoughts of a situation or person are expressed, leaving descriptions, and ultimately, the meaning of the story bland. Thanks to first-person narration, both characterization (in this case, that of Carl’s character) and portraying meaning (hiding shame) are carried out in an engaging way by the simple thought of the narrator on a subject.

What is very interesting is that Jack’s resentment towards Carl, similarly to his strong desire for the Wildcats team to lose, is intensified even more when he unexpectedly curses Carl, thinking, “Fuck you.” This phrase represents the great height of Jack’s hatred towards Carl (and therefore, the severity of his inner conflict). In addition, the surprise of Jack’s relationship with Carl itself presents Jack as an even more unique character.

As the story continues, based off of all that is set up in the first couple paragraphs, more of Jack’s personality and inner conflict is expressed through the narrative voice – particularly the instances in which he swears in anger towards Carl, his suspicious description of Lori Chang as “undeniably sexual,” and his violent reaction to his son’s rebellion. Jack’s aggressive, prideful voice is certainly a risky decision for the personality of a main character, since it could cause Jack to be a character that cannot be sympathized with. The choice, however, to consistently use this risky voice, and thus, character, causes Jack’s imperfections to be highly apparent, which can make him instead, very relatable to any reader. Furthermore, creating a relatable character allows sympathy and a deeper desire to see inner conflicts resolved arise.

The plot intensifies throughout story along with the rise of Jack’s character and inner conflict. When the climax of the plot is reached (when Lori is hit in the head with a baseball), much tension is created, as Lori’s life is in question while she is knocked unconscious on the ground, and her seemingly uncaring father, Happy Chang, unexpectedly violently tackles and punches Carl, the person to cause Lori’s injury. As both the plot of the baseball game and Jack’s desire to reunite with his family escalate, the moment appears when these two initially separated ideas merge into a finely knit conclusion, when Jack narrates he saw Happy Chang’s facial expression after he attacked Carl for the sake of his daughter, “the proud and defiant smile of a man at peace with what he’d done and willing to accept the consequences.” Here, the thematic stake in the first paragraph of the story, about boldly proclaiming personal shamefulness is again recalled; Jack is ready to make a decision due to the event of seeing Happy Chang’s face in the plot. In an attempt to follow after Happy’s example, Jack resolves to truthfully claim his failure to watch the winner-determining play as the umpire, and finally accepts his shamefulness for all to see, but more importantly, for his family to see in hopes that his would see this inner change. From the setup of plot, characterization, inner conflict, and desire within the first couple of paragraphs, each of these aspects are complicated and revealed as the story progresses, and by the end of the story they come together that result in a very satisfying resolve in conflict and meaning.

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