Critical Essay on Eric Ankrim’s Personal Narrative, "The Fair"

In his narrative, "The Fair," author Eric Ankrim describes the journey of adolescence through the thoughts and encounters of a young boy. About the fair, the narrator says, "It surrounds me with smells, sounds, and sights that are alien to my senses" (1). This image of the fair serves as a microcosm of American culture, the influences of which are foreign to the innocent boy at the beginning of the narrative. One such influence is the importance placed upon superficial appearances, which is depicted in the speaker’s recollection, "The only attraction I could really make out was an oversized mirror for people to examine themselves in. Apparently, people found it endlessly entertaining to look into them" (1). The disproportionate importance that the culture presented in the narrative places on appearances pressures the protagonist to construct a surface identity to present to others. The society of the story places such importance on superficial qualities that the protagonist invests his identity in a mask which not only hides his face, but makes his own self-perception dependent on the feedback of others; however, by assuming that society is accountable for his mistakes, the protagonist reveals his characteristic inability to take responsibility for his actions.

The preoccupation of society with surface qualities is first presented when the protagonist is faced with the decision of which ride to go on. The speaker says, "On the left hand side stood a classic merry-go-round, with elegant horses and carriages decorating the interior. On the right, a shiny neon funhouse lit up the sky with music blasting and signs blinking" (1).While the loud, flashy funhouse is distinguished as the popular alternative to the genuine appeal of the "classic" merry-go-round, a subtler, more important distinction is made between the two rides. The description of the merry-go-round refers to the "elegant horses and carriages decorating the interior," implying that the inside of the decorated attraction is completely visible, and that there is nothing hidden. The description of the funhouse, however, gives no details as to what lies beyond the shiny neon exterior and blinking signs. Yet, the speaker says that, "the line (for the funhouse) stretched for at least a quarter-mile…" (2). Thus, it is apparent that the people at the fair were more attracted to the flashy exterior of the funhouse and the speculation of what might be inside than they were for the merry-go-round, who’s main attraction was completely visible. Moreover, the priority of exterior appearance among the masses of people at the fair indicates that the society presented in the narrative values superficial qualities. Thus, in choosing the funhouse, the boy succumbs to the superficial qualities valued by society.

Having embraced the importance that society places on appearances, the protagonist invests his identity in his physical appearance. As the line for the funhouse shrinks, the boy finally arrives at the first attraction, an oversized mirror. Upon seeing his distorted image in the mirror, the boy is horrified. After the initial shock, the next thing that the speaker says is, "I wondered why my parents never told me that I was a freak" (2). The boy did not wonder why his parents never told him he "looked like a freak"; rather, he assumes that he is a freak, which is a powerful statement about his identity that he bases solely on his physical appearance. In this line, the protagonist also reveals an important characteristic about our physical perceptions; they are dependent upon the feedback we receive from others. In the case of the boy, they had previously been constructed from the feedback he had received from his parents as a child. The protagonist’s next action, however, is to create a superficial identity in the form of a mask. By limiting his identity to the appearance of a mask, which has no other functional purpose than to provide a visible means of presenting oneself, the protagonist ensures his dependence on feedback from others to base his self-perception. Upon wearing the new mask, the speaker says, "The boy with the new face felt strong, renewed, and proud of his new identity. He strolled through the fair showing his mask to everyone who would look. All the children smiled at, complimented, and envied his mask" (2). This passage affirms the protagonist’s need for feedback on his new mask and, in the first line, makes a specific connection between the boy’s face and his identity. Just as significant, however, is that this passage breaks from first person and is told in the third person. This transition solidifies the protagonist’s attempt to see himself the same way he sees himself in the mirror, the same way everyone else see him, from the outside. Thus, by investing his identity in his physical appearance, the protagonist limits his self-perception to the feedback he receives from his mask.

By the end of the narrative, the protagonist realizes that basing his identity in his mask was a mistake; however, the protagonist assumes this mistake to be the fault of the society he lives in, thus revealing his inability to take responsibility for his actions. In the beginning of the story, as the protagonist is explaining the foreign qualities of the fair, he says, "Fortunately, I am able to stay out of trouble, with a little help from my parents, until I am familiar enough with the territory to take responsibility for my actions" (1). In this passage, the speaker is clearly revealing that he believes that there is a time at which, because of ignorance, one is unaccountable for his or her actions. What could lead to such a misguided perception of responsibility? Looking at the last paragraph, it becomes clear that it is the speaker’s assumptions about society. The speaker says, "I now sit on the merry-go-round, and witness children peer into the mirror for the first time. What other choice do they have?" (Ankrim 4). The speaker clearly suggests that like himself, the children peering into the mirror have no other choice. Yet, just like the protagonist, the children have another choice, the merry-go-round, and from where the protagonist now sits, it is apparent that this is the better choice. Thus, the speaker seems to be suggesting that because of some unseen influence, adolescents like him have no choice but to make mistakes. By redirecting the blame for the shortcomings of all adolescents, the protagonist effectively justifies his own mistakes. In the last lines, the speaker says, "I am sure there will be other fairs, other worlds, and other masks. Life" (4). By assuming that there will be "other fairs," the speaker implies that there will be other situations similar to his at the fair in which he will be faced with difficult choices. Likewise, in stating that there will be "other worlds" and "other masks," the speaker suggests that there will be other circumstances, like the pressure of society within the fair, which will perpetuate the same decisions or mistakes, like choosing to wear the mask. Thus, the speaker’s understanding of "life," is simply that society perpetuates mistakes. Thus, by assuming that the society that he lives in is responsible for his shortcomings, the speaker is able to separate himself from his mistakes. In revealing this assumption about society, the protagonist reveals his characteristic inability to take responsibility for his own actions.

Therefore, while the protagonist invests his identity in his appearance and becomes dependent upon the feedback he receives from others, he reveals his true identity in the assumptions he makes about society in the narrative. The society in the narrative appears to be the force that not only drives adolescents to mask themselves with superficial identities, but provides them with a scapegoat for their mistakes. Thus, while it might be foolish to underestimate the influence of society today, it would be equally as dangerous to assign it responsibility for the actions of our adolescents.

 

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ankrim, Eric. "The Fair". UPS, English 101D. 2000.