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Exercises in Style Summary & Study Guide Description
Exercises in Style Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
The Young Man, appears in All the Exercises
The Young Man (referred to by name, Andre, only once—in "Ode", Part 9) is the central character in the basic story, and in all its permutations. He is most frequently described as being under thirty years of age, as having an unusually long neck, an aggrieved, attention-seeking way of speaking, and in most cases an eccentric, exotic way of dressing. In several variations, he is described as being something of a dandy, a man who dresses extravagantly for no apparent reason other than to impress. He is also frequently portrayed as somewhat petulant—specifically, when his complaint that the second man keeps stepping on his toes seems to be ignored and he (the young man) takes the nearest empty seat. There is the strong sense throughout the variations that he is doing so in a sulk. The latter part of the story, in which the young man is seen talking to his friend about the apparently superficial matter of a button, reinforces the sense, frequently established in the various narrations of the story, that the young man is shallow and childish. This point of view is particularly evident in the variations that are recounted from the young man's point of view, "The Subjective Side" (Part 3).
If the reader looks at the characters in the basic story and its variations in metaphorical terms, and if the reader considers the book's basic narrative and thematic premise to use language in non-traditional ways, it may be possible to see the self-centered Young Man as a metaphor for a certain aspect of being French (see "The French", below). In other words, the apparently precious self-interest of the young man can be seen as making a satirical point about the precious attitude held by many French, throughout history, about their language.
The Second Man, appears in All the Exercises
In traditional analytical terms, if the young man is described as the story's protagonist, the second man might be described as the antagonist, the character/person who acts in opposition and who generates conflict with the protagonist. The important thing to note about the second man is that he is portrayed in a wider variety of ways than the young man, and with fewer details about his appearance. In many variations the second man is not really described or defined, given that the focus of the narrative is on the reactions and attitudes of the young man. In other words, the second man is a catalytic character. In other variations, however, the second man is endowed with a clearly defined set of characteristics. In "Reactionary", for example (Part 9), he is portrayed as being an elderly veteran of World War I, which makes the young man's reactions to him, at least in the eyes of that particular narrator, particularly offensive. Another example of a more specific, characterized way in which the second man is portrayed can be found in Another Subjectivity (Part 2), in which the second man is portrayed as stepping on the young man's toes deliberately as a kind of punishment for his arrogance and petulance.
To continue the metaphoric interpretation of the story introduced above, if the young man is a satirical, metaphorical portrayal of the French obsession with the propriety and sanctity of its language, the second man might be perceived as a metaphor for an individual, group, or agency, who infringes upon that sanctity. In other words, the second man could be interpreted as representing someone like the author himself, who refuses to take the purity of the French language as seriously as some French might suggest.
The First Man's Friend, appears in Most of the Exercises
This character appears in the latter section of the story, and is most frequently described as being similar in visual character to the young man. He is dressed in a similar way that suggests to various narrators (and therefore to the reader) that the two young men are of similar character: dandyish and superficial. The Friend is portrayed as telling the young man, often in terms that come across as being rather lecture-like, that the button on his coat is in the wrong place.
To conclude the metaphoric examination of the three central characters, there is the sense that the friend, like the second man, might be perceived as the author's satiric metaphor for an individual, group or agency determined to reinforce and/or maintain the integrity and purity of the French language, down to the minutest detail. For further commentary on this aspect of the basic story, see "Objects/Places - The Button."
The French have for centuries insisted on maintaining the purity and integrity of their language, both in terms of what it means and how i spoken. In 1635, the government established an agency (the Academie Francaise) to oversee the usage and development of the French language, more often than not defending its traditions and discouraging change. This linguistic context gives the author's exploration of the flexibility of language a certain irreverence.
In several of the Exercises, the voice of the narrator could be perceived as neutral, as simply recounting the story, albeit in a specific way. For example, "Negativities" (Part 4) and "Asides" (Part 6) are straightforward presentations of the various narrative style in question without any sense of attitude in the narrative voice. In several other cases, however, that voice is defined by a clearly developed sense of identity. In "Cockney" (Part 6) and "Feminine" (Part 10), the narrators are specific types—a British Cockney and a woman respectively. "Reactionary" (Section 9) takes character development even further, with the narrator telling the story from within a specific emotional context. Finally, there are several exercises in which character can be inferred, in which the style explored communicates a sense of character without one actually being defined—in other words, an "implied" character. "You Know" (Part 6) and "Awkward" (Part 7) are examples of this version of narrative shaping. For further consideration of this aspect of the book, see "Topics for Discussion—Go through the various exercises ..."
The Bus Conductor, appears in Some of the Exercises
The conductor appears in relatively few of the ninety-nine exercises, "Comedy" (Part 5), "Casual" (Part 7), "Biased" (Part 7), "Reactionary" (Part 9 ) and "Opera English" (Part 10 ) being most notable. Throughout his various appearances, however, the character of the conductor is portrayed consistently. He is essentially surly, officious, and self-important, making him an intriguing parallel, in some ways, to the similarly self important Young Man. This also makes him a source of tension; very few people are comfortable being confronted with mirror images of themselves.
The Bus Line Director
This character makes his one brief appearance in "Word Game" (Part 3), referred to in passing as a wealthy man who oversees the operations of the Paris Bus System and who, the narrator of "Word Game" implies, has given the bus to his daughter as part of her dowry.
The tension between the young man and the second man is personified in "Noble" (Part 5) as the Goddess of Discord, whose name in classical Greek mythology was Eris.
Chorus of Passengers
For the most part, the rest of the passengers on the bus are described in casual, non-reactive terms. In other words, throughout the various exercises they are portrayed as being merely bystanders to the confrontation between the young man and the second man. Essentially, all the reader is told about the other passengers is that there are a great many of them. However, in "Opera English" (Part 10), the other passengers become a chorus, commenting on the action as it unfolds.
The author makes a brief appearance in his own fiction in "Reported Speech" (Part 4), in which the narrator comments that he is passing on the story as he heard it from "Dr. Queneau"
This section contains 1,302 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)