‘Circus at Dawn’ by Thomas Wolfe: Short Story Analysis
‘Circus at Dawn’ is a realistic modernist short story penned in an impressionistic style in 1935 by American writer Thomas Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe was one of the most respected early twentieth-century writers of his time. He wrote novels, novellas, short stories, and dramatic works. In his autobiographical writing, we see Wolfe using poetic and an impressionistic writing style, which was unique in early twentieth-century American literature. ‘Circus at Dawn’ could have been part of his impressionistic autobiographical writings. Employing an ingenious descriptive manner and in a poetic and rhapsodical way, Thomas Wolfe describes the setting up of a circus tent witnessed by two brothers. They were young. One of them delivered the morning paper while the other suffered from stuttering. The short story is beautifully written but keep in mind that it was penned way before universal guidelines, writing norms, and values were globally established. Therefore, be warned that the narrator’s brother’s stuttering is painful to read because of the extended word stretches. Also, Wolfe has been racist in his descriptions of two African-American or Black American boys who, along with the two white American brothers, witnessed the erection of the circus tent. He uses racist slur language like ‘darkey’, ‘nigger’, and ‘ape-like’ to describe the two Black Americans, which doesn’t go down well with me, and I’m sure will not go down well with many readers. Still, apart from these glaring facts, the story is a good read.
I would compare Thomas Wolfe’s style to an early version of Jack Kerouac’s writing. I read Kerouac when I was at school. To know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page. Coming back to Thomas Wolfe, we notice the rhapsody type nature of the story as the narrator compares the setting up of the circus which has come to his area in North Carolina to the sun’s rising. Note that there was indeed a symbolic meaning for the rising sun in the form of Japan’s flag during Thomas Wolfe’s time. The Rising Sun flag is often likened to the Nazi Swastika, and rightfully so. It was used as a flag of war, officially made the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1870, and then used by the Japanese militarist dictatorship that cropped up during Thomas Wolfe’s time. At school events, the rising sun flag was always displayed in Asia during World War Two. Once thought by the Japanese to light the darkness of the world, the rising sun symbol became a symbol of darkness to the rest of Asia. In former Japanese occupied countries, the rising sun flag symbolized Japanese imperial aggression and war crimes. It is very coincidental that Thomas Wolfe, a racist, uses the rising sun as a poetical artistic expression of what the circus meant to him. Would I be going a little too far and say that the world in Thomas Wolfe’s time was indeed like a prosperous but regimented circus? That is for you to decide. We, too, are on the brink of totalitarianism, especially in America. To read up more on that, you can check out my book review and analysis of A Warning by Anonymous on my blog.
Here we have a very dubious background where two white and two Black American boys watch the circus people starting their day. Wolfe or the narrator has already done his bit by delivering the morning newspapers to his readers, woke his stuttering brother from the bed, and they took a streetcar to the depot where the circus was. The circus was in such a far-off place in North Carolina because that was the only available space. Then they pass through a railway station area filled to the brim with myriad visions, sounds, and smells. I have noticed that Wolfe is adept at using the five senses to express his descriptions more vividly, especially the olfactory senses. The white brothers smell oranges, coffee, tangerines, bacon, ham, flour, beef, and everything delicious at the station. At the circus, the animals in cages or roaming loose, like elephants, lions, panthers, horses, tigers, bears, camels, zebras, and a host of other animals, give off their own scents. A variety of great food is being cooked and served for breakfast by the circus kitchen staff. There are steaks, pork chops, rashers of bacon, eggs, fried ham, and wheat-cakes. So, you can see here a real feast to the senses as we are invigorated by the abundance of food being served in the early hours of the morning. It symbolizes the birth of a bright new and prosperous dawn about which, according to Thomas Wolfe, men would go on talking for the rest of their lives. Even on their death bed, they would remember such days, especially during the early hours of dawn. They would remember it because it was grand, glorious, and spectacular. We don’t see the ugly side of the circus at all here in this short story but its brilliance. But I must draw your attention to the fact that circuses are places where animals, as well as humans, are abused, and these shows should only be permitted, keeping in mind that:
- Animals should not be used in the circus at all.
- The performers should be treated with respect and dignity.
The beginning of the story depicted an early morning scene when the sun had still not risen, and the narrator and his brother had not yet seen the marvel of the circus. By the time they reached the circus area, the first light of dawn was coloring the sky, which is symbolic of a new life brought out magically through a circus’s working, a place where all impossible things are made possible. By the time the boys go back home after seeing the circus, people get ready for the day, and the sun is already shining bright in the sky. Color symbology is evident in the story. At dawn, the bright, happy color yellows were only yellow wagon or sumptuous looking yellow cars where the circus star performers slept and lived. When the circus people start their day’s work, the happy color yellow is seen in the sun in the sky.
One sees in this short story the innocent thrill of boys witnessing the circus life. The narrator and his brother are thrilled to see:
- The circus’ animals, especially the elephants and horses, are bathed in the nearby river or their cages.
- The curses, cries, and orders of the circus people who the boys first think is a rowdy crowd but later realize decent and civilized people who live lives just like them. This, therefore, is an almost coming of age short story.
- The elephant led by his trainer helping out at the circus by pulling the highest circus tent topmast and staking it with the circus men’s help. It is here that the Black American boys are noticed. Their colloquial banter is highlighted, which reads as something unnerving and very racist. The Black American boys were talking about the elephant with the tent pole. They were fascinated with what the pachyderm was doing and tried to imitate his actions by speaking in very crude English, typical among the African-American people. Notice also that the terms they use like ‘come with me’ and ‘send no boy’ and ‘wait a minute’ were terms often used by white American employers to get them to do menial jobs. These Black American boys were cheerful, happy, and muscled.
- The amount of food that the circus people ate for breakfast. The narrator mentions that the circus people ate their breakfast diligently and in significant quantities. This is because of their daring work, the excellent muscle power, and vigor needed to do the things they were going to do in the circus. They also had to stay awake in the night for long hours until the last show was over. Hence, they kept drinking cups and cups of strong boiling coffee, which was being heated in an enormous polished urn, a large metal container with a tap, in which tea or coffee was made and kept hot, or water for making such drinks was boiled.
- The camaraderie of the circus people and their fidelity towards one another, just like ordinary people have towards their loved ones in their family. The narrator and his brother saw this clearly in the case of two trapeze artistes and the strong man. One of the trapeze artistes was a handsome young man while the other was a young woman with blonde hair with the physique of an Amazon warrior. Amazon represents the mythical Greek women-warriors, the Amazons. Describing someone as amazon can sometimes have a negative tinge, but calling someone an Amazon can also be an admiring term for a statuesque, athletic woman. The strong man and the trapeze artistes were like a family who practiced together and then sat together for a large breakfast.
- The marvelous acts of the trapeze artistes swinging or practicing swinging on the trapeze in mid-air and being caught by the strong man. This showcased their human balance and precision.
It is evident in the story, especially in the last part, that the narrator’s stuttering brother was wise and not a fool and knew about the circus people. The narrator was aware of all the facts about the strong man and the trapeze artistes that his brother was trying to narrate to him through the chaos of his stutter. However, he loved his brother and wanted to indulge him. So, even though his brother mentioned facts that he already knew, the narrator pretended to be amazed. This shows that he loved his brother dearly, probably because the poor boy had a stammering issue. However, the way the stammering part was narrated is something that we as writers try not to do anymore because of writing protocol; check the original text to see what I mean. The narrator’s brother naively mentioned that the strong man was probably paid seventy-five or a hundred dollars a week and that he had a lot of responsibilities on his hands because he had to catch the trapeze artistes when they flew in mid-air. However, we know that circus people were not paid that well but were guaranteed good meals and a chance to practice their craft.
The images and especially the smells of the food being served at the circus, the smells of the animals, and the excitement of the African-American brothers made a lasting impression on them. They were undoubtedly very impressionable boys. After the sun had fully risen in the sky, they went to the lunchroom in their area to eat significant quantities of food in imitation of the circus people. They even went back home to eat huge breakfasts to imitate the fine men and women they had seen eating and drinking coffee at the circus. Their false notions about the circus people being rowdy, boisterous, loose, and the circus women being whores was corrected that day when they saw the circus people at the start of their day and at their work. They realized they were no different from regular people. Strange that Thomas Wolfe or the narrator sees the good side of circus people and not of the African-American community.
‘Circus at Dawn’ by Thomas Wolfe is undoubtedly a short story that seems from another time in history. One cannot imagine circuses of this kind existing today, especially not now during the time of the pandemic. Where circuses were an essential mode of entertainment for the American people even till the last decade of the twentieth century, that has changed since the advent of animal rights, occupational rights, insurance, etc., that started to safeguard the animals and circus artistes lives. The story ends with the sheer excitement of the circus anticipated by the two brothers. They had only seen the outer show of the circus. They saw the circus’ real side this early dawn, and they certainly liked what they saw.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Thomas Wolfe. I hope to read, review, and analyze more novels, short stories, essays, and non-fiction books by American writers in the coming days. This is in keeping with the fact that the most decisive 2020 American Presidential Elections have taken place, and I wish to celebrate American literary works on my blog. If you are looking for American bookish material, this is the site to keep your eyes on. This celebration of American literature will go on till January when the USA’s next President is sworn in.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page of my blog or author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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