The “Crimson Shadow,” by Walter Mosley, is a short story that depicts a lengthy morning encounter between two disparate, yet similar souls. It is a twining of events that connect and capture, evade, and then reunite under the bonds of commonality. The protagonist, an aging ex-convict who goes by the name Socrates, finds that a young man, a boy, really, has killed a rooster that resides across the alley, and someone he had considered his friend. Darryl, the boy who has committed the misdeed is an obvious product of his environment, struggling to survive the mean streets of Los Angeles, and who, at a very tender age, has also become its victim. The elements which make up this story are striking, and develop rapidly into a tightly woven interlude which allows the analysis of New Criticism to be utilized well, enabling an investigation which clarifies the components that help to create this piece.
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Both characters depict a sense of loss and tragedy, but also possess a keen intellect which helps them to overcome the depravity of their surroundings. When Socrates first realizes that Billy, the rooster to whom he had become attached-his crowing that had awakened him each morning for the past eight years has not been heard-he investigates by going out to where the bird lives, only to find that his head has been badly mangled by the serrated blade of a steak knife. When he sees Darryl move out of the shadows of the morning, he understands immediately that some wrong has been committed. The old man is, at first, justifiably angry at the fact that a senseless act of violence has been done, a crime committed by a troublemaking kid out to cash in on someone else’s misfortune the boy has created; but the two have a shared past that connects them in more ways than either can initially appreciate. As the morning wears on, and Socrates gets to know the boy and his situation a bit better, the ex-con sees that the youngster and he have more in common than he would, possibly, like to admit. When Socrates gets the boy into his kitchen, and the two begin to talk, the elder sees how similar their situations are. Both have committed heinous crimes, that of murder, and he uses the time to try and reason with the boy as to the path he’s headed toward, first, enticing him to open up when the man realizes his accusations of having killed his friend have the boy visibly nervous, and then understanding that it’s not only the rooster he has killed, but also another mentally challenged young man who wouldn’t leave him and his friends alone. Although it was an accident, and Socrates tells him so, the older man sympathizes with Darryl, telling him that he is welcome in his home whenever he likes, this, an indication of his compassion, and perhaps of his empathy, with the boy.
The setting of “Crimson Shadow” is marked by crushing poverty, the description of what is Socrates’ home scarred by time and neglect. Its depiction and its imagery are stark, as witnessed by the cabinets that are now simply shelves, the doors having been torn off, and the magenta tiles that have faded to grey. A red spider spins her web above a naked bulb that shines above a photo of a woman Socrates once knew. The use of sharp and focused vocabulary that prime colors and distinctive smells evoke is also prevalent and speaks of a harsh reality. When the boy enters the two room shack, he looks at the red spider, and the women in the picture who also wears a red hat and a red dress, which, as the sun shines down upon her, throws a similarly red, or crimson, shadow across her face, indicating heat, or maybe wrath at the wrong committed by Socrates. The picture also contains the primary colors of yellow and blue, as well, those of the sun and the sky, which can similarly indicate the simplicity of how these two must survive: only with the mixing of other elements can the blending and shading of emancipation occur. When the old man begins cooking the equally-aged rooster, the well-defined description of the ingredients used, tomatoes, basil, and garlic, each possess their own and equally pronounced hue and aroma, a luxury that both men revel in and that can help to begin to express a possible solution to their bleak existence.
The tension is tightly woven into the “Crimson Shadow,” especially in the beginning, when Socrates confronts his much younger and much weaker opponent in the alley. His big hands, known as “rock breakers,” are seen as weapons, able to crush the young boy with a single blow, and his apparent time spent in prison is evidence enough that he is a disreputable man capable of both creating and enduring great harm. The story is immediately suspenseful when he realizes his friend, Billy the rooster, has been killed, but because he is an ex-convict who quickly acquires the position of a moral and upstanding citizen, a man who is eventually looked upon, ironically, as a role model, he is the protagonist, and as such, can be considered an anti-hero.
This irony and its resulting paradox are, however, resolved in the end, when both boy and man agree, silently, to become friends in this hostile world they must both inhabit. The killing of the innocent rooster, as well as of the innocent young boy who would not leave Darryl and his friend alone, are both necessary catalysts for both Socrates and Darryl, for if the two are to survive at all, they need each other in an essential, yet obscure manner, a mirror in which Darryl is able to see himself, yet set himself apart from the man that Socrates has become. The name, too, that Socrates owns, is but a taunting mockery that he must live with, ever knowing, but forever damned.
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It is also essential for one to observe the discussion Socrates initiates when speaking to the young man, for this is indicative of a common theme seen throughout literature; that of the wizened elder, competent and worldly, offering advice to the younger, less experienced, and woeful Darryl. His advice, although unwanted and disregarded at first, is deemed highly authoritative and even indispensable later, when Darryl finds himself floundering at the mercy of his actions, a child in the hands of fate, ignorant and vulnerable. He decides that since Socrates might just well have power over his destiny, he might have power over his own.
In the end, the utilization of the New Criticism theory in the analysis of the “Crimson Shadow,” by Walter Mosley, is quite effective in understanding the elements used in the creation of this work. Characterization, setting, imagery, theme, and dialog, all come together in unison to produce an effective tool in the dissection and ultimate recovery of this short story, especially taken individually, which allows the reader to view through a lucid and comprehensible lens, a work of innate truth and redemption.
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