Examination: The Unreliable Narrator

B.A. Goodjohn

Section One: Short Response

  1. Describe the normal or average relationship between sisters. (15 pts)

Pay particular attention to the key phrases contained in this question. For example, average: what is average?; sister: consider the wider implications/responsibilities of sisterhood; normal: what is normal and why are you still asking this question?

  1. Identify, explicate, then respond to the following: “The background [of the wallpaper] is pale grey, and one strip, by the night stand and illuminated by the blue goose-neck lamp, has been badly pasted so that the heads of the repeating pattern of white-robed geisha (who look back over their shoulders as they shuffle across the emerald river bridges) are severed at the neck. Other geisha, hair black and coiled, kimonos pink and gold, are safely locked up in red-brick pagodas, and they look down on their little sisters, who look back at things that cannot be seen but which threaten to hurry across the bridges (or under the bridges) and carry them off.”

In your response, consider the above from a position of hindsight: Might things have been different had the bedroom walls been papered with, say, roses or polka dots? Might the narrator’s relationships—with her body, with her family, with a succession of lovers—have been different had she not been forced as a child to share her space? When did she learn that geisha were NOT prostitutes? When did she learn that her present was predicated on her past? (Do not attempt to respond to all these points in your analysis; however, your response should demonstrate an understanding of all the material you have covered.) (15 pts)

(Extra Credit: what did the gold writing on the pagodas mean? Really. What did it mean?)

  1. Read the text in Section Two; then draw a picture of

A.  the little sister

B.  the big sister

C.  both sisters and the horse of which they dreamed.

Caption all three drawings. Include the word “normal” in each caption. (20 pts)


Section Two: Informed Response

The following text presents a situation and three possible responses. Pick one. Defend it for the rest of your life. Bear in mind that only one response is acceptable. (Do not sit on the fence; do not prevaricate; do not seek to placate: that horse has bolted.) (25 pts)

Bad Hand

What was I, a good sister, to do that night when you called to me from across the bedroom we shared, Mickey Mouse’s tail already wound through my fingers in a pre-sleep habit, but drop the mouse, cross the room, my bare feet cramping on the cold, cracked linoleum, and slide inside your bed, all body and breath warm? It was freezing that night, wasn’t it? January in North London and a council house with no heating, and ice on the inside of its windows.  And you, thirteen, in that pink baby doll nightie Mum got you for Christmas, and me, nine years old in my train-print pajamas. Your hand on my hand, guiding it down beneath the covers, inside the pink panties with the scratchy black lace, to a place well beyond my own borders. My bad hand full of you, and you all strange and thrashy, and me, palm hot and damp.

  1. Then afterwards, giggling (did we giggle?) in the dark at stinky bad hand, in the bedroom with the Japanese Lady wallpaper. You quietening to snore, us spooned and wrapped in sheets like perfect candies, the day slowly waking up around us: an electric milk truck humming down through the village, the postman’s letters waking dogs to bark in a racket of houses, our father crossing the hallway to the bathroom, mother padding downstairs to the kitchen to light the boiler, to set the breakfast table with milk and cereal.
  2. Then afterwards, loneliness (did I call it lonely?) in the dark with the bad hand, in the bedroom with the Japanese wallpaper and its decapitated ladies. You turning to wood, then to the wall, and in the turning, taking all the blankets. Back in my own bed, turned cold and narrow, mouse discarded, fingers searching for switches, for beginnings, for the beautiful madness I had given you, for the right words to name all this. Finding nouns: Snare, Lure. Later, verbs: to load, to bait, to spring.
  3. Then afterwards, sorrow (was it sorrow?) that you didn’t free us from our own bad bravery with a laugh, and I’m back in my own bed, in all the loud shame, the Japanese Ladies in their wooden sandals, frowning down from their pagodas, frozen on the bridges, you swearing me to secrecy from across the room, me cracked open, the very tip of Mouse’s tail tight inside my fingers, something else burning inside me and me never old enough to call it by name.

Section Three: Essay Question

Answer the question below clearly. Include support for any claims you make. Beware of logical fallacies and loyalty. Beware of stable doors left ajar. Use complete sentences and paragraphs to illustrate your thoughts. Beware of horses and their kind eyes. (25 pts)

If Abuse was a board game, what rules would we find inside? Repeat for Love, for Play, for Forgetting.


B.A. Goodjohn is the author of the novel Sticklebacks and Snow Globes. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including The Texas Review, Cortland Review, and Connecticut Review. In 2011, she won the Edwin Markham poetry prize. She teaches English at Randolph College in Virginia and blogs at www.bagoodjohn.com.

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