A Close Reading of Milos Macourek’s
The story can be read in Sudden Fiction (Continued). Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.
New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
This story (three pages long) is told using only three sentences. I read the story several times over before I noticed that. The sentences appear to represent paragraphs or even chapters which serve for the structure of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Macourek’s story is one of my favorite short-shorts and the humor in it is wonderful. It treats with humor a very serious topic– how we sometimes educate or miseducate our young, imaginative, and creative children.
Outstanding Characteristics of the Story:
- excellent use of humor, satire, irony
- effective use of second person address
- fine repetitions of key phrases
- the transcendence of the particulars to depict something even larger than the text itself.
First Sentence Hook:
The first sentence of the story draws a reader in fast. Macourek uses second person address effectively: “A chicken is a chicken, you all know how a chicken looks, sure you do, so go ahead and draw a chicken the teacher tells the children, and all the kids suck on crayons and then draw chickens . . . ” Macourek also hooks with his humor and with his use of second person address (the second person address to the children and which becomes an address to the reader as well).
Second Person Usage:
What makes this second person address effective is that Macourek uses a common experience, one most of us have had or can easily imagine– the order from a teacher to draw and color a common object. In this case, a chicken is the object to be created. As readers, most of us have to respond with “yes, we know how a chicken looks”– hence the effectiveness of the second person address. (At any rate, we think we know how a chicken looks.) And many of us, in trying to please our teachers, will follow the rules, will color within the lines, and create common chicken drawings.
We also get our rewards, praise from our teachers, and will often take our cues from our teachers on how to view other people’s efforts as to what is good work and what is not. So Macourek presents the “you all” address with a common classroom experience and a common drawing done in classrooms. He effectively draws the reader into his story.
Repetition of Chicken Description:
The description of the chicken in this first sentence/ paragraph/ chapter is repeated in the second and third sentence/ paragraphs/ chapters. Jacob’s chicken is orange headed, has blue wings and red thighs, and looks sort of like a turkey, sort of like a sparrow, sort of like a peacock, quail, and swallow. Each repetition of the description in each sentence/ paragraph/ chapter gives more information on how the chicken is being viewed.
In the first segment, the teacher and most of her students view Jacob’s chicken as ridiculous, not worth being hung on the wall. In the second segment, when Professor Kapon views it, it is viewed as unusual, unique, worth study. In the third segment the chicken is viewed as beautiful — by the teacher and her students again (but for humorous/ serious reasons). All three segments repeat the description but each segment provides new information about how this chicken is being viewed.
Jacob Doesn’t Pay Attention
The first sentence introduces Jacob, the little creative artist in the classroom. All the children are instructed to draw and color a chicken. While the other kids draw chickens that are black or brown, little Jacob colors his chicken with every color in the crayon box and even borrows other crayons from other children to add even more color, shape, and depth to his creation.
The teacher calls attention to how Jacob doesn’t pay attention and with her cue on how to view Jacob and his chicken, the other children laugh and ridicule Jacob’s effort. He receives a failing grade for it and the “misfit” drawing is relegated to the top of the teacher’s cabinet while the other children get their chicken drawings pinned on the wall.
The Chicken Gets Its Feelings Hurt
The laughter and ridicule doesn’t bother Jacob, the boy who supposedly doesn’t pay attention, but it does hurt the feelings of the chicken he created. Jacob’s chicken is so creative and animated that it turns into a sentient creature. It got its feelings hurt over the teacher and the children’s assessment so it flew away, right out the window– a remarkable thing for a chicken drawn and colored by a little boy! Thus ends the first sentence. Jacob’s art now takes on a life of its own.
Repetition in the Story– Second Sentence
The first sentence of the story opens with the phrase “a chicken is a chicken.” The second sentence/ paragraph/ chapter begins with “But a chicken is a chicken” and Macourek adds a variation to the original phrase by adding, “a chicken won’t fly too far.” Macourek again uses second person address in this segment as well.
The Chicken Professor Kapon Sees
Jacob’s chicken then ends up in a garden next door, in the garden of sad and frustrated Professor Kapon, “a recognized authority,”” an expert ornithologist” who has written seven books on birds and is working on his eighth. But he is depressed and frustrated because he has never made a bird discovery of his own. But then he spies Jacob’s chicken in his garden. This is a bird no one’s ever seen before, with its colorful “orange head, blue wings and red thighs” and which “looks like a turkey but not quite… like a sparrow and a peacock, big as a quail but lean as a swallow.”
Professor Kapon goes to great and humorous lengths to capture the chicken who is eating his rare baby-blue currants “that dammit he didn’t grow for chicken feed….” Kapon finally captures the chicken, studies it and writes everything down in his eighth book, and then bestows his own name on Jacob’s chicken, naming it *Gallina kaponi.* The second sentence/ chapter ends when Kapon takes the newly christened chicken to a zoo. The chicken has made Kapon a happy man because his long-awaited dream of discovering and naming a bird came true at last.
Professor Kapon Legitimizes The Chicken
The chicken that Professor Kapon names also gives him a “name” as an even more expert ornithologist who has discovered and captured and named and “published” an unusual bird. Professor Kapon in his garden is like Adam in Eden, naming creations (and bestowing “scientific” legitimacy on them). The name of the professor is also significant, for “capon” means a castrated male chicken. However, with his discovery he once more has something to crow about.
With Professor Kapon presented like Adam of the Bible in officially naming this creation, Jacob is in the position of the creator God, the one inventing and actually breathing life into his artistic creation.
Repetition of “That would make anyone’s blood boil”
Another effective repetition is in sentence/ chapter two and three. “Now that would make anyone’s blood boil” is voiced by Professor Kapon when he’s furious over that chicken eating his currants. Then it is again expressed in the third sentence/ chapter by the aggravated teacher when she realizes Jacob isn’t paying attention again and that repeated phrase is what she screams at Jacob and that’s the phrase that ends the story.
Repetition — Third Sentence
The third sentence begins with “A chicken is a chicken, who would fuss over a chicken, you think, but this one must be well worth the bother for the whole zoo is in an uproar…” Again, Macourek uses second person address in this segment. He keeps the reader involved with that “you” as if to say, “you know how it is… so keep following me on this.”
The Chicken Loves The Attention
At the zoo lots of activity is taking place. People are excited over this rare creature and zoo employees are building it a fine cage. The nameplate shows the chicken’s “official” and authoritative name: Gallina kaponi and Jacob’s chicken is “having the time of its life… moved to tears” by all the loving care and attention. Because of the chicken, the zoo has never had so many visitors.
The Children and Teacher At The Zoo
And who is among the ever-growing throngs of people coming to view the marvelous chicken? Jacob’s teacher, Jacob, and Jacob’s entire class. The teacher explains to the children about this wonderful bird and the description in the first and second sentences is repeated once more. But the ignorant teacher (who herself tends to NOT pay attention, who tends to ignore quite important things) now proclaims the chicken a marvel, without even realizing it is Jacob’s creation. A noted authority, a scientist has bestowed a name on it so the teacher takes her cue from that in how to view and value this chicken. She calls the chicken beautiful.
The children, taking their cue from their teacher, also pronounce the chicken beautiful, and even get the teacher to confirm their assessment, “ain’t that right, teacher?” (whereas they had originally ridiculed Jacob’s chicken when they took their cue from their teacher to laugh at it ). Neither the teacher nor the children recognize this as Jacob’s chicken. Except for one child.
Jacob’s Chicken Recognized
Some children are terribly smart and not easily blinkered or blinded. Laura, a little girl in the group, realizes in the lightning flash of recognition that this chicken is actually Jacob’s chicken. She pulls on the teacher’s sleeve and tells her that it is Jacob’s chicken they are viewing. The teacher is irked at the child’s “prattling,” and at this “silly child’s ridiculous notions.” The teacher doesn’t even remember Jacob’s chicken at all. She is viewing the “legitimate expert’s” chicken now.
But the teacher does remember Jacob and wonders where he is… and again she says, as she did in the first sentence/ paragraph/ chapter, that “he is not paying attention, now, wouldn’t you know.” The repetition that Jacob doesn’t pay attention creates wonderful irony because it is actually the educated and unimaginative teacher who doesn’t pay attention.
The teacher realizes that Jacob is now off looking at an anteater when he is supposed to be looking at Gallina kaponi , Professor Kapon’s chicken. To the teacher Jacob just will not do what he is told and just will not pay attention to what he is supposed to pay attention to. Again, delicious irony is created. The teacher finally screams at Jacob that next time he will stay home from their field trips… because something like that “would make anybody’s blood boil.” And the story ends with that.
Jacob The Artist
Unflappable Jacob, as he was in the beginning and who shows himself to be unflappable at the end, is a boy not concerned with the unimportant things taking place around him– the laughter, ridicule, and having his creation taken over by someone else does not affect him. This isn’t a story about a “victim.” It is a story about a young imaginative and curious artist and those who deal with his kind. Jacob is too busy paying attention to life and its colors and textures and discovering how to “see” and imagine and create genuine art that comes alive and takes on a life of its own. He sees the wondrous in the ordinary and brings it to life with a god-like disinterest (which is different than lack of interest).
This reader is left imagining that Jacob will be a great artist one day. He will no doubt release a marvelous anteater upon the world, just as he loosed upon the world his marvelous chicken. His creations will likely continue to take on lives of their own, while the other children’s pedestrian creations will remain “hung on the wall”– the wall where their teacher pinned (and limited) their visions, their art work, their appreciation and seeing of life and art.
The Story Transcends The Particulars
The story does what most really good short-shorts do. It manages to transcend the particular story and characters depicted to give readers a look into the creation of, practice of, and recognition of art/ life. We might try to place ourselves in that classroom to discover whether we were or are the nameless, parroting, rule-following children, or the little Laura who has the ability to see what others do not, or the little Jacob who creates marvelous lively creatures with his art. Or we might even sometimes be the educated and educating teacher who is not able to see what she most needs to see. The brief story is a fine interrogation on how we might come to hold the opinions and views we have of whatever might come before our eyes.
About the writer:
Pam Casto, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), in Fiction Southeast, in Abstract Magazine, and in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new collection titled Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (2017).
About Milos Macourek: Milos Macourek (1926-2002) was a Czech poet, playwright, author and screenwriter.
Image: “#14” from the CS Series by Tim Jaeger. Acrylic and oil on canvas. No size specified. Through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.