Story Notes "Recitatif"

Meaning of the title: to recite; the power of memory in revisiting an event or events to explore its (their) meaning beyond safe recollection. Music: recitative: a single voice sometimes with minimal musical accompaniment. Emphasis is on the natural rhythm of speech (voice).


From the laws of thermodynamics, which help explain changes in energy (e.g., heat) and the availability of energy for work in closed or isolated systems.

1st law: Total energy of the universe is constant; energy is neither created or destroyed.

Energy gained in one place must have been lost in some other place. Energy lost by one system must appear as an energy gain in somewhere else.

2nd law: Entropy of a closed system increases with time or remains unchanged. Entropy is the measure of a system's degree of disorder on a molecular scale. Increase in entropy: greater inability for work, disorder, chaos, randomness. Probability dictates that a spontaneous change will move from an ordered state to a disordered state.

3rd law: Entropy of a perfect crystalline substance is zero at absolute zero (temperature).

Heat death of the universe: universe unwinds itself. The temperature remains constant and no energy is left for work.

Condition of the More Probable: There is a higher probability (statistically) that a spontaneous change will go from a more ordered to a more disordered state. This is because an ordered state conforms to predetermined conditions, which is less probable.

Two apartments: Meatball Mulligan--chaotic party--ending suggests a move (for the moment?) toward greater order, or as a "reversible process" remains the same--back to the beginning of the story--does not become more disordered or at least the movement towards disorder is slowed down. Apartment of Callisto and Aubade above is hermetically sealed--end of story--Aubade smashes the window glass--wait for equilibrium.

How do you read the ending of the story? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Simply accept inevitability of scientific laws? Human response can attempt to make sense or meaning of the world? Address the move toward disorder and chaos?

The story also uses the concept of entropy as a metaphor--Our culture: Heat death of ideas: see page 749 (bottom) Madison Avenue//American consumerism. (See your notes for examples we discussed in class.)

Saul and Miriam's argument: Communication: Sender of the message (Ordered idea and meaning)---(leakage, noise, ambiguity, distortion)---Receiver of the message (Misunderstanding, confusion, disorder) See page 750.

Character names: In Greek Mythology, Callisto was changed into a she-bear by Hera, but Zeus saved her by placing her in the sky--she became the constellation Ursa Major. Aubade: French: morning serenade (convention from Middle Ages) or a love song greeting the dawn that signals when lovers must separate.

"In the Penal Colony"

Opening: Officer, explorer, machine//setting--tropical island yet comments on world events--WWI and perhaps looks ahead to WWII

Tradition--Officer believes in ritual/tradition of the past; Old Commandant (768)/old days, ceremony (576). He is a true believer, faith. Believes in universal truth and justice//wants to preserve tradition.

Role of the explorer (570, 575, 577-80)--neutral observer, Enlightenment thinker--reason, skepticism//not absolute faith, indifferent.

Condemned man: doesn't understand his sentence/no defense. Is taken in by the machine. His sentence seems disconnected from his offense.

Technology and religion: Machine--embodies tradition but it breaks down: machine is a self-defeating agent or its breakdown is caused by the new Commandant and the ladies. But the breakdown and the officer's violent death signal the end of the old ways/tradition.

The machine literally makes the word (law) flesh by writing on the body.  The officer believes in the sinfulness of man because of the Fall, and he views punishment and death through the machine as a means of revealing sinfulness. He believes in the Word as law by writing it on flesh.   However, the Word of God is associated with Light; the Word becoming flesh is the incarnation of Christ--we all have the ability to be God's children/light into the world. See in the Bible John 1: 1-18. The law is given through Moses but grace and truth through Christ (God).

Is there a conflict in this story between the letter of the law and grace and truth (Judaism and Christianity)?

Consider from the Bible: Galatians, 3:19-25 (purpose of the law); Ephesians, 2:1-8 (grace through faith); Romans, 3:19-26 (righteousness through faith)

The story suggests that the Old Testament Biblical world and its justice are divorced from the present. The Word (written letter of the law) is not clear--language cannot fully communicate it. Consider that the script cannot be simple--there are embellishments or flourishes around the actual script (573). Also, the officer knows that the explorer's words will be misinterpreted, that his meaning will be intentionally misconstrued. Even the plans for the machine seem unreadable, but the officer believes in them. The inscription the officer chooses--Be Just (581)--is the simplest and clearest of commandments but also so general as to be meaningless.  As long as we are under the letter of the law, we will have knowlege of sin.  But if we are free from the penalty of the law, we still must try to live by it but also seek God's grace, forgiveness, and righteousness, given through Christ.

Is God a presence in the modern world? Are universal values and absolute faith possible in the modern world? Ending of the story: parody of the old Commandant as a Christ or Messiah figure. (584-85) The explorer runs away.


Note that the setting of the story is 1936, during Japan's campaign (war) in China. (The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was 1941.) Section 3 of the story provides the reason for the lieutenant's (and his wife's) suicide--importance of honor.

How would you characterize the relationship between the lieutenant and his wife? See section 2 of the story. Does Reiko have her own identity? A sense of self? Does she reveal independence? Consider the suicide notes each leaves--920-21. (Is the trust, love, devotion, and respect between husband and wife admirable?

How is the couple's lovemaking connected to their suicides? See 911 and 918-19. Consider the similarities and differences between the feelings associated with sex and death.

How does Reiko's perspective (limited omniscience--sections 3-5) affect our understanding of the story? What do her observations reveal about her husband and herself? See, particularly, the last two sections of the story.

How do you view the notion of patriotism presented in this story? Is seppuku (ritualized suicide) beautiful, honorable, heroic? Or is it brutal, wasteful, antiquated? (Consider par. 63 on page 917.) Is seppuku a ritual out of place in contemporary society? Do some traditions need to be abandoned, even if they were once accepted and relevant in a culture?