Close Reading Guide—Details in Richard Yates’s “Doctor Jack-o-Lantern.”
Note: The following questions can be used to guide a closer reading of the text. Students should read through the story once, framed by an essential question, and then look back through at several of the specific instances, guided by their responses.
Essential Question: Which details make this story particularly effective?
Why might the story have chosen to name the teacher Mrs. Price?
Much of the story makes notice of details regarding Vincents’ gestures. “his spine very straight…ankles crossed precisely…hands folded on the very center…as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous (2).
How is the word prestige significant to the story?
What do the details about Vincent’s appearance tell you about him as a character?
What reptilian details are attributed to Vincent?
Evaluate Mrs. Price as a teacher? Cite specific evidence to support your answer.
How does Nancy’s tendency fall “shrieking into the mud” (5) relate to Vincent?
How does Nancy’s story (and Warren’s) act as a foil for Vincent? How does Vincent’s story compare?
Who is Edward G. Robinson and how does he relate to the story?
Explain the significance of the word “apron” in the context of Vincent at recess.
What is significant about the lack of dialogue when Vincent “did not deny” his aunt buying him the windbreaker over the weekend?
Looking at the paragraph on page 15 that begins “He got his windbreaker…” describe what Vincent is experiencing.
Why does the story show the extensive detail with the drawing of Mrs. Price at the end?
A price indicates how much something costs. Looking at the actions of Vincent, it comes with the cost of alienation. Mrs. Price is similarly responsible for Vincent’s actions, seen in her inability as a teacher and her failure to act, and when considering the last drawing, her behavior similarly comes with a price.
The word prestige is associated with honor, influence, success. This is the opposite of the associations with Vincent and it is what he tries to fake later in his story. His desired prestige stems from his peers and it is something he continually lacks.
His “tangled black hair” and “gray skin” establish an ashen, dirty quality that lacks order. This is contrasted with “absurdly new corduroys; absurdly old sneakers.” The pants clearly do not fit with the shoes further setting him apart. The most telling detail is the “yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design” (4). It matches the dinginess of the shoes, in particular with the color. It doesn’t fit, just as the combinations previously did not fit, but what makes the image is the Mickey Mouse design. It is a clear visual that continues the level of poverty, and it is also emblematic of the ‘shredded’ childhood that Vincent has had.
“Croaking voice” “squirming” “an unintelligible croak” and “the roots of his teeth were green.” (4)
Mrs. Price is arguably lacking as a teacher. When introducing Vincent to the class, she decides to let him get to know everyone on his own, saying that “I think it’s simpler just to let you learn the names as we go along…[and] we won’t expect you to take any real part in the work for the first day or so” (4). This comes after calling more attention than he wanted to his newness and mispronouncing his name. Mrs. Price takes no initiative to make the class welcome Vincent, laying the burden on him,(“making friends is the most natural thing in the world” (9)) which he is in no way prepared for and also lowering her expectations of him, setting it up for him to already perform lower than he is capable. She also says later that talking to him was as simple and gratifying as “stroking a cat”, which dehumanizes him, a process that was established earlier in the reptilian details, and paints Mrs. Price as misguided at best.
The sound that Nancy is said to make is similar to Vincent’s croaking, which also makes sense with the mud, being a natural habitat for a frog. Nancy’s expression is a negative thing, meaning that she is not only above Vincent socially, but detests the idea of ‘sinking to his level.’
It would be helpful to identify the concept of a foil for students. Nancy’s story highlights all the aspects lacking in Vincent’s life, characterizing him by contrast. He does not get to ride in a “new Pontiac” with his family, nor go to White Plains to eat dinner at a restaurant. He does not have a sister who is getting married or siblings who are in college. This life Nancy describes is just as foreign to Vincent as he is to them. Warren’s accomplishes the same. Vincent’s is a Hyde-like version of their story in that it is clearly made up, exaggerated, and representative of what he lacks. He uses the term ‘mudda’, reminiscent again of the reptilian mud imagery.
Edward G. Robinson is an actor from the 30’s known for his gangster roles. After his initial success, he became typecast as a tough. This compares to Vincent’s initial first impression and how he becomes typecast by the students. It also plays on duality of Vincent and Mrs. Price, being that they both adopt roles.
Vincent stays on the outskirts of the playground, the ‘apron’ reminiscent of a child clinging to a mother; in the case of the story, Mrs. Price is the mother-figure that Vincent latches onto and then rejects and it is emblematic of his childhood and his dependency on adults.
The story leaves out Vincent’s dialogue, allowing the reader to fill in the blank. What is important is the sentiment that according to Mrs. Price, Vincent did not deny what she said. It is a very charged moment, and the absence of dialogue gives the situation more weight than anything Vincent could have said.
It is silent as Vincent leaves, showing his isolation and loneliness. It may be a good time to bring up that this story comes from Yates’ collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and discuss how it fits that concept.
The story forces the reader to see each part of the drawing as it happens, experiencing the raw emotions as Vincent does, the crumbling chalk, etc.
There is little mention of this other than Warren’s story and the name-calling at the end. The Stevenson story is about a man who cannot control his darker, more evil nature and ends up dying because of it. Vincent’s end is not as extreme, but it is similarly tragic. He struggles to contain a dual persona, that of Vincent, and that of the tough Robinson gangster that he wants to personify, that he thinks will gain him acceptance. The description Warren gives connects back to the visual details about Vincent, in particular the teeth. It is significant that Vincent mispronounces the movie title, similar to Arthur Cross’ ‘botormoat’, evidence that he has not seen the movie