My Opinions

The Half-Skinned Steer:The Present is the Past

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx, to scratch the surface, is about a very old man named Mero who travels for four days to his brother’s funeral, and he has tons of flashbacks along the way, but never makes it to his destination. The story begins with the death of the narrator’s brother. It is not actually his brother who died, it is the narrator who has died. His journey to the funeral is actually his journey to the afterlife destination. He decides to drive because it will take longer to get there, for he is afraid of death. All of the flashbacks that occur during his journey is him looking back on the life he lived. He doesn’t eat or drink during his journey because he is dead and doesn’t need the nutrients anymore.

He is also able to drive and portrays incredible strength and youth for his age. That is because when he died, the characteristics and pain of an old man exited from his body. In the end, he tries to escape death, which causes the storm because nature is angry he tried to escape his natural course. The skinned steer with the red eyes at the end represents death sort of pulling him into the afterlife he tried to avoid. The author doesn’t describe his death even though the readers know he dies, and that is because he does not die in the end, he was dead the whole time. This theory can be proven through the author’s treatment of time.

One of the largest dissected elements of this short story is time, which is the flashbacks and the inseparable past and present. These elements of time present in the story are used to emphasize the state of the main character. The main character is dead at the beginning of the story, and this is apparent through the author’s treatment of elements of time. Through the flashbacks and the undistinguishable past and present, Proulx is able to treat time, or the present, as something of the past in Mero’s life to emphasize that he is already dead. Nothing in the story is in the present, it is all in the past.

A large portion of the short story is comprised of flashbacks. The narrator is experiencing the flashbacks because he has died and is looking back at the life he lived as he travels to the afterlife. He has flashbacks about his entire life. One of his flashbacks he has is about a steer: “Guess I’ll finish skinning out that steer. But the steer ain’t there. It’s gone. Only the tongue, laying on the ground all covered with dirt and straw, and the tub of blood and the dog licking at it.” (Proulx) This flashback not only signifies an event from his past, it also represents his death.

Flashbacks in literature typically occur when death is near, or when death has happened. In this case, death has happened. To give an example of flashbacks being associated with death, take a look at the play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller. Through this play, the main character has flashbacks and lives through flashbacks. In the end, he ends up killing himself to get his family out of financial struggles. The father in the play knew death was near since he killed himself, so the flashbacks may be something that occur when you know you are going to die. Or, in “The Half-Skinned Steer”, it occurs when you are already dead.

This evidence supports that flashbacks don’t just occur when someone is dying. Flashbacks occur when someone knows they are going to die, or when they are already dead. Since the old man in the short story is confronted by death in the form of an ominous steer and is afraid, one can conclude that he did not kill himself. He is afraid of death and wouldn’t kill himself. And, since he did not kill himself one can conclude that he was dead at the beginning of the story and the flashbacks occurred after he died. He was simply afraid of the steer because he wasn’t ready to let go of Earth or the living world quite yet even though he was dead. Proulx uses this element of time in the short story to communicate to the readers that the narrator is not living in the story. Flashbacks are glimpses at the past that occur with death, and the author fills the story with flashback, treating time as something that only exists in a past state when someone dies.

Another element of time that supports this theory is the confusion of which state the narrator is in. It is hard for the readers to separate past events from present events. However, there is no past and present. There is only the past. That is why it is hard to distinguish the two, for all of the events that occurred in the novel occurred in the past. The story is perceived by readers as bouncing back and forth between flashbacks and the current time. However, there is no current time. All of the story is the past. The story does not have to occur chronologically because there is no present state.

For example the story jumps from talking about dinner “Dinner is chicken and dumplins, one of them changed-color chickens started out white and ended up blue, yessir, blue as your old daddy’s eyes…She was a total liar. The old man’s eyes were murk brown.” to talking about a possible snowstorm on the road “NTO the high plains sifted the fine snow, delicately clouding the air, a rare dust, beautiful, he thought.” (Proulx). She flops between flashbacks and what is thought to be where he is now so much that the past and what is deemed the present become merged together. It leads to the question of whether the past and present can be separated, and if the present even exists or if it’s all part of the past. Proulx created a complex order of events that made it hard to split the past from the present because she wants to emphasize that they exist together. The past is the past and the present is the past. There is no present. She uses the past and present collision to treat time as something that ceases and becomes the past with death. The present does not exist in death, it did not exist in the story for Mero.

One may say that flashbacks and an immersion of the past and present do not occur in death, but they occur with insanity. Insane people usually have flashbacks and have difficulty with chronologically accounting events. But, the idea of Mero being insane and discrediting the idea of him being dead can be omitted. Because Mero is on this journey alone, his mental state cannot be evaluated. He cannot be compared to other characters and there is no interactions with other characters. The readers are only given his thoughts and his past. Events in his past may be considered irregular, but one cannot always assume a person’s present state is the same as their past mental state. Keeping this mind, one must see he is telling the story and he is the only person, and because of this the reader is put in a position where they have to believe he is not insane because of how he depicts himself and assesses things. He is not insane because he is dead. The age is the biggest clue that he can be dead. He is 83. Some people live to be one hundred, but the older one gets, then the closer to death they get. The author made him this age on purpose, to emphasize death.

In conclusion, this theory aids the reader in understanding the plethora of complexities of the short story by Proulx. Before interpreting the story one may say, why is someone that is 83 and mourning driving a very long distance by himself, or even driving at all? After interpreting, the reader understands everything is not what it seems. This story is not about an old man who lost his brother and commits to a four-day drive to attend his brother’s funeral. The story is about the death of an old man and his journey to the afterlife. The reader can also understand why Proulx relied so heavily on time in the short story. The flashbacks she incorporated and the collided past and present events are used to enhance the theory that the narrator is already dead and everything in the story is his past. Up until the horrifying encounter with the red-eyed steer, Mero was looking back at his past. Proulx treats time as something that stopped and can only be past-tense to further show that Mero was dead the whole time. There is no present when you are dead. Your life becomes past-tense.

 

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