'Compass and Torch' - Elizabeth Baines



Written in 3rd person. Mainly written in present tense and follows an intermittent pattern of prose. Very little happens in terms of action. The story is more concerned with sentiment and feelings. It is written from an omniscient narrative viewpoint which means that the narrator has access to all the characters' inner thoughts.

Story is essentially written from the boy's perspective, with brief insights into the fathers thoughts and feelings. We are left to draw our own conclusions - did something sinister happen in the night? Did the father and son become estranged following their trip? The author leaves us as readers guessing.

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Characters - The boy

Lives with his mother and her new partner. Acutely sensitive to all the adults around him and it becomes clear his parents seperation has had a profound effect on him. Nevertheless, he idolises his father, apparent throughout the story. "The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dadness." Drink is something you need to survive. Also a very empathetic little boy, demonstrated in the passage where Jim attempts to speak to him and "forcing himself to acknowledge Jim's kindness and affirmation. But Jim is not his Dad."

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Characters - The father

Reader knows little of who the estranged father is or what he does in his normal day to day life. Never given details about seperation. He is trying desperately hard to maintain a relationship with his son, to nurture a rapport and to bond through their shared expedition. He is not one to discuss feelings, allows the conversation to revolve around the tent, compass and torch. Despite, we know he has deep feelings for his son. Towards conclusion "in the plummeting darkness, the man's own anxiety began to mount. He could feel it gathering in the blackening chill: the aching certainty that already, only one year on from the seperation, he had lost his son, his only child."

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Characters - Jim and Mum

Jim - Jim plays a minor role in story. Represents altered dynamics of contemporary childhood, the stepfather or 'Mum's new boyfriend'. Know little of him, remains a quiet and vocally neutral party in the tense relationship between father and mother and he demonstates warmth and kindness to the boy.

Mum - Cares deeply for her son, words suggest acrimonious seperation. Belittling of the father. "No hope of him relating to his son on any personal level! No hope of him trying to RELATE to him, full stop!", "Well, what do you expect?", "macho avoidance activity", places the father within a very narrow and negative stereotype of masculinity.

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Characters - The horse

Horse serves as a device to highlight the father and son's preoccupation with both their worries and one another. Father and son fail to really see her and when she gets too close they dismissively bat it away. When horse is weeing quote.

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Language is simple, sentences are generally short and use of adjectives minimal. In setting the scene, author describes surroundings using words associated with decay or damage. 'bleached end of summer grass' which is 'bruised here and there'. Similarly, the 'ancient rocks glint like heaving carcasses asleep'. The ponies are 'ghost coloured' and the lake is described like a 'black mirror'. Language is suggestive of an underlying sadness. Impersonal distant narration adds to sense of estrangement; the boy is never named and the father is referred to as the man. Jim is only name in story, considered an outsider. Generally, the boy and father appear in seperate and alternate paragraphs, which serves to support this sense of growing alienation. See-sawing of emotions together with shifts of narrative perspective also highlight the precariousness of the father and son's relationship. The prose literally swings from one character to the other almost like a hand held torch in the night or a compass needle. Line 84 through to 95 is a good example, chronological: The BOY still chatters, the MAN says with robust authority, the BOY is thrilled, the MAN looks up, the BOY's eyes are suddenly wide, but then the MAN says, the BOY breathes with relief.

Boy's emotional switches follow the same fluctuating pattern. These oscillating emotions create a sense of tension, and they stress how important the trip is to the boy.

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Themes - Contemporary Childhood

Story involves emotions associated with contemporary childhood, specifically the angst of the child. Boy wants to please all adults in his life but feels torn between them. Lines 103 to 119 demonstate how preoccupied he is with everyone else's happiness. He is highly attuned to the adult's interaction and observes the nuances of tone and mannerism. This is shown where he talks about how the 3 adults interact.

As a child of seperated parents he is also deeply aware that while the trip is, or should be, a source of happiness for him, it provides the reverse for his mother: "her eyes were bulging and wobbly with tears, and he thought he couldnt bear this: that she didnt want him to go, that this moment which he had looked forward to, longed for, as his moment of joy, was a moment of unhappiness for her."

Throughout the trip the boy constantly seeks approval from his father. He tries to establish similarities between them, seeking reassurance of their relationship as father and son. We as readers can assume that these insecurities are a product of the parent's seperation and the boy's limited contact with his father.

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Themes - Fear of Loss

The mother, father and child all demonstrate a fear of loss. We know from the mothers emotions prior to the child leaving with his father that she fears loss and she verbalises these fears with Jim. She feels the trip poses a physical threat to her young son. Meanwhile the boys overwhelming desire to please his father communicates his fear of losing him. Towards the end of the story we learn the fathers fears: "He could feel it in the blackening chill: the aching certainty that already, one year on from the seperation, he has lost his son, his child..." The boy and the father fail to communicate this mutual fear and it remains internalised right through to the end of the story. Final line of story: "For years to come, though, in his dreams the boy will see their wild fringed eyes and feel the deep thudding of their hooves." If this is the boys last memory of his time with his father, one assumption we can draw is that the father's fear has transformed itself into a self fulfilling prophecy of loss.

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