Supplementary Discussion of Amy Hempel's "In The Cemetery Where Al Jollson Is Buried"

  You are not assigned a specific question to answer in supplementary discussion, but feel free to use any of the question below or create your own. 

You are required to post to 5 supplementary discussions over the course of the semester. You can do more for extra credit, so long as you do it in the scheduled timeframe.

13 Questions To Ask of Every Story: 

1.          What makes this story “literary”? 


2.          Why is this story considered one of the best stories of the past hundred years? If it’s an old story, why has it endured?


3.          Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?


4.          Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?


5.          Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?


6.          Character: In what ways does the writer show character?


7.          Character: In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?


8.          Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?


9.          Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?


10.      Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?


11.      Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?


12.      What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it?

13. How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?


  1. 11. Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?

    A: Through my research, I learned that Hempel is considered a generally minimalist writer, which tracks for me based on the style of this piece. I also learned Hempel has a fascination with animals, particularly the ways in which they express emotions and bring them out in humans. It's not hard to see where that fascination comes into play in this piece; a major narrative thread tying the piece together is the story about the mama chimp that could speak sign language and her baby.


    1. Yes, her using the chimpanzee to express grief is one of the most poignant things about this story.

  2. Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?
    The climax of the story is when the woman dies at the hospital and is buried. This irrevocably changes everything by having the narrator's tone be more sad and depressing especially when they bring up the chimp calling for her dead child at the very end of it. It also is reveled that the narrator doesn't even know if the useless stuff they were telling her was even true or not which (I think) ties into her being buried at the same cemetery that Al Jolson was buried being unclear whether or not this is true.
    - Michael

    1. It was interesting what you said in class about this. I had not looked into Al Jolson, either. It just seems like the kind of detail that people use when they are describing places.

  3. I think something that’s really interesting about this piece is that we see the narrator and her friend going through the grief of her friend’s terminal illness. Her friend copes with company and the small, fleeting facts that mean very little, while the narrator seems to cope by looking for other things she can’t control to be afraid of: planes falling out of the sky, earthquakes, the man who saw his own skinned arm and died from the horror. The narrator seems to historically have a harder time coping with fear than her friend. And there’s such a gut punch because the two of them are trying to be strong for the other. The narrator tries to indulge her friend’s requests and avoids sad topics, and her friend puts on a brave face for as long as the narrator stays with her. There’s an unspoken fear the friend seems to have about the idea of dying alone, while the narrator is terrified of being there when her friend dies. It’s only when the narrator abandons her that her friend’s fear boils to the surface, and she tries to escape. The last paragraph about the chimpanzee mourning her dead offspring feels especially poignant in this context. There’s a sense of guilt in the narrator not having been there for her friend and having tried to run away from her grief. The chimp’s desire for one more hug becomes the desire for just one more moment with her friend.

    1. I agree. I don't think I've read another literary short story that deals with grief in such a complex-but-authentic-feeling way.

  4. 10. Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?
    1) “If nothing happens, the dust will drift and the heat deepen till fear turns to desire. Nerves like that are only bought off by catastrophe.” (4)
    There is something about this that hits hard. Especially if you know what it’s like to pace and worry in a way that is almost all-consuming. But there is something there that makes the narrator sound like they are looking out for something. Like they see something, but aren’t quite sure if it is what they assume it is.

    2) “‘The best thing to do for the poor is not to be one of them.' "
    Within this, it kind of goes at you and kills the tension. And yet builds something up, kind of like what I mentioned in the last paragraph. It’s an incredibly American/Capitalistic thing to say. Something which sets up an interesting look, if you are apart of the group like this. The little nods to how religion and America interact with the citizens around them.

    3) “Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.”
    A powerful ending line, even if there is the ending segment that is an acknowledgement. It makes you realize that perhaps the child has changed the narrator’s significant other. Something which might be why they get sicker and sicker. It’s something relatable, and under the guise of the monologue like form that the author uses in this. Especially when taking in the idea that not even the narrator can help their own child through the pain grief can bring. Especially grief in someone the baby will never know.

    1. All great lines. That last line, "fluent now in the language of grief" is particularly impactful. It has that poetic punch.

  5. 6. Character: In what ways does the writer show character?

    In the story we see the friend's character develop with little flashbacks that the narrator has. The narrator is scared of earthquakes and planes, but their friend is unfazed by them. At one point they are in an earthquake and the narrator is wanting the friend to be scared with her (probably not to feel alone), but all her friend was just not scared.
    We also get shown some character with how the narrator knows a lot of strange stories and facts that she tells her friend. The narrator purposely stops herself before going onto too depressing topics to keep the probably heavy situation from getting heavier.
    We also see that death is on the front part of her mind while visiting her friend. Thinking about how she knew someone who worked at a morgue, and thinking about the story how a man got scared to death. The story about how the monkey grieved over it's child.
    Her friend is the opposite with her joking about death with her wrapping the phone chord around her neck. Though in the story it's implied that she has this positive outlook, but it's more of a way for her to cope with her fears.

    1. Yes--there's a lot that we come to understand about each character by how they compare to each other and what they choose to talk about and what not to say.

  6. 1. What makes this story “literary”?

    This story is dripping with subtleties. Hempel definitely avoids expository language throughout this story. Everything that the reader picks up on is from dialogue, or description of the setting. It is very artful in a way that can only be literary. Additionally, the connections between the main character, her friend, and the chimpanzee's relationships with her baby are another factor that contribute to this story's literacy. In my recollection, genre fiction is mostly on plot and character. Literary fiction draws on meaning and allusion more often I would say.

    - Elizabeth S.

    1. Agreed- literary fiction is concerned with showing us, in a vivid, intense and hopefully fresh way, some part of the human condition. This story is definitely reaching for that.

  7. 13. How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

    One way that this story is like the others we have read is a quality we have talked about since the beginning, careful attention to words. This story relays its story in the same way the narrator is experiencing it. It makes the beginning feel like a show because the narrator is in the denial over her friend's terminal illness, and she is trying to distance herself from reality. Her friend calls her "The" best friend as a subtle way of downgrading their relationship because she is hurt by the narrator taking so long to visit her. The narrator uses other stories about death and fear to distance herself from her own fear of death. Specifically, this story and its minimalist style reminds me most of Raymond Carver's story, where the characters tell each other stories about love to avoid their own relationship problems.

    -Logan O.

    1. YES. The language here is key. I, too, am reminded of Carver. Also, Hempel is letting the reader pick up some of the work of figuring out what's happening in the story, which is also very Carver-like.

  8. 3. Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

    I think that this story is considered one of the best because the narrator and friend are never named in the story so the readers can easily imagine themselves related to the narrator and the dying friend. I think this story is also very relatable in the way that both characters are hiding their real feelings. Death of a loved one is very hard to deal with and this story deals with the perspective of someone dying and someone losing a loved one.

    - Zoe

    1. The relatability is what helps us feel the emotions of the story on a gut-level.


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