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Throughout many of his stories in his book "Emperor of the Air" author Ethan Canin explores the theme of happiness in relation to his characters. Depending on which source one uses, happiness ranges from the "quality or state of being happy" to "a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy" and according to the Oxford English Dictionary "Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity". Based on this, happiness is subjective to the individual. Every story in the book deals with the theme in its various forms but the three pieces I will examine each deal with this subject and its various definitions in their own ways, and I feel are the best representations of "happiness".
In his second story "The Year of Getting to Know Us" Canin introduces the idea of happiness directly and very matter-of-factly. Canin first questions the happiness of Lenny while he is at the counselors when he is asked "You sound as if you don't want to let people near youâ€¦Right?" and Lenny responds with "I'm a reasonably happy man" (Canin 26). After reading this, we get a sense that maybe Lenny is lying, that he is holding something back. How can someone be happy, going through what he has, and will continue to go through? The events that are explained further in the story: his fathers death and his wife's affair, impose on this question further. On the very next page Lenny goes on to talk about his life saying "I am struck by the good fortune of my life" (Canin, 1988). Perhaps Lenny truly is happy, as he early states an exact definition of the word in his thought of "good fortune". Despite all that has happened in his life, he remains optimistic, and believes himself to be happy, and maybe he is.
The opposition to Lenny's apparent happiness is the nearly constant "nagging" he receives questioning his emotions and ability to feel anything at all. Canin mentions such an instance immediately after mentioning Lenny's good fortune in life when he states "Anne says that I don't feel things" (Canin 27). Lenny never questions whether or not if he is able to "feel", but also never goes out of his way to show any emotion other than stating that he is indeed happy. Even after witnessing his wife's affair firsthand, the only way Lenny can express himself is by writing down on a napkin "you are a 40 year old man with no children and your wife is having an affair" (Canin, 1988). Lenny's apparent lack of any emotion that would come naturally to anyone in the same circumstance is quite intriguing and leaves the reader questioning his feelings, if he has any. Another moment where Lenny's feelings are under fire comes when he is a child and his mother asks him if he is angry and he responds with "I don't know" (Canin, 1988). This shows the reader that even though he was young, Lenny was indecisive about his feelings, and whether or not he felt anything. Canin leaves the decision of whether or not this character is happy or if he can feel, up to the reader.
I believe that Lenny is and was happy, and just because a person may not show outward expressions of emotion, or whether they know exactly what they are feeling at a given time or not, does not mean they are not happy or unable to feel. Lenny has more than likely felt very conflicted about things as is stated by Canin near the end of the story after Lenny's father has passed away "But I didn't feel what I thought I would. Just the wind on my throat, the chill of the morning." (Canin 40). Given such circumstances it is easy to see why some may view him as being unhappy or without feeling completely, but with that being said, it is all subjective.
"Lies" is the third story in Canin's collection and unlike "The Year of Getting to Know Us" it does not introduce the concept of happiness quite as clearly. From the very first paragraph we see a certain sense of naivety about the character Jack, which is no more evident than when he says to himself "Some guys my age are kids, but I'm eighteen and getting married and that's a big difference" (Canin, 1988). This thought alone says a lot about Jack, and what he must be telling himself happiness is, and what happiness can be. We do not yet know that Katy, his girlfriend, is pregnant, or that he is soon to be a father. Canin does not tell the reader this outright, but hints at it, and leaves the reader to question Jacks motives, and his state of mind. Jack is trying to convince himself that things are good, and that everything will be O.K. but the truth of the matter is, that things will probably not be good, and he does not want to acknowledge this. He chooses to live in the moment, and lies to himself to be happy.
Jack has no problems lying and Canin gives us an example of this when Katy says that she loves him, and Jack says to himself "I don't mind lying, but not about that" as if to say that it is O.K. to lie about some things, but not about others (Canin 50). When Jack does tell Katy that he loves her, it comes at the end of the story and almost seems forced, as if even he doesn't believe it and the lies he has been telling himself are starting to fade through. For a while jack is happy, but it is only a false sense of happiness because he had to lie to himself, had to trick himself into believing it. He acted in ways he normally never would have, and had to compensate with the lies.
A question one should take into consideration when thinking about Jacks situation is "should he be happy"? Does jack have the right to be happy by whatever means necessary, even if it means lying to himself with no mind of the repercussions? The answer to this is yes. Jack realizes his situation, as Canin states "I think about how this bit with Katy started and how fast it's gone, and it kind of stuns me that this is what happened, that of all the ways a life can turn out this is the way mine is going to go" (Canin 52). Despite his circumstances Jack chooses to remain optimistic about his future, and goes about this by lying to himself, hence the title of the story; "Lies".
"Pitch Memory" is similar to "The Year of Getting to Know Us" in a couple of ways. Both of the main characters insist that they are happy, both have "dilemmas" they need to overcome, and both have people in their lives who believe they are not happy. Lenny had both his mother and wife, and the main character of "PM", who is suspiciously nameless, has her klepto-mother.
Canin gives us insight into why she may not be happy through a first person narrative perspective. Through this perspective it is not really necessary to know her name, and was a wise decision on Canins part because we are able to keep an objectionable distance from the character. Although we do not know her name, we do know about her family and her profession, as Canin states on page one-hundred "Tessa is a heart surgeon" and "I am a waitress" (Canin 100). From here we can see as to why she may be not as happy as what she says or thinks, but then again, does ones occupation really determine ones overall happiness? The answer to this is no, people can love their job but still be miserable and vice-a-versa. It does not matter that she is a waitress, but this is a fact that her mother cannot seem to comprehend.
I have dealt with similar issues in my own life. I once told my mother that I would be perfectly happy with a "career" at Pizza-Hut, so long as I was able to live how I wanted. Granted this was a lie, but I was trying to make a point, and she understood this. Sometimes it takes people a little longer to come around, but if they truly care; they will. The first example Canin gives of her mothers thoughts occurs when she receives a phone call from one her fathers old acquaintances who said "Your mother is concerned about what you're doing with your life". This shows not only that her mother cares about her life, but also that she is still somewhat confused as to how someone could be happy "serving pancakes". She actually goes on to tell her mother directly that she is happy as Canin illustrates "I'm happy, Mother. I don't want another job, I don't need a husband. I'm happy" (Canin 107). With this Canin directly tells us that she is happy, as she lists reasons to her happiness, and gives her a unique sense of logic about it. People make their own happiness, there is no "standard" as to what constitutes being happy. Thanksgiving dinner is when she proclaims her happiness yet again during dialogue with her mother:
My Mother asks the waiter whether he minds working on Thanksgiving Day and he tells her that everybody's got to earn a living.
"That's right," my mother says when the waiter leaves.
"Mom, I am earning a living."
"Are you going to serve pancakes the rest of your life?"
"I think I will," I say, and this makes my mother start to cry
(Canin, 1988). This is the most obvious declaration of happiness in the entire book, as she is able to firmly stand her ground and tell her mother that she is happy, and will continue to do what makes her happy, be it serving pancakes or cleaning the bathrooms at the restaurant.
Canin's theme of happiness in each of these stories takes on its own forms, and leaves the readers asking themselves questions about their own happiness. He addresses if one can be happy despite the gravest of circumstances, whether happiness can be attained by lying to oneself, and if someone can be happy despite not having the best standing in life and by doing what they love to do. He addresses each story with a realistic yet optimistic viewpoint on the subject, and is able to maintain it to the very last sentence in each.