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The short story Number 40, written by Sarah Butler and released in 2012, deals with various issues such as mental confusion and being out of place.
From the outside Melissa looks like the typical, normal girl next door. She lives with her boyfriend, they go on vacations and invite other couples to dinner and so forth. But something is deeply troubling Melissa and she can’t quite put her finger on what it is. Until it all collapses. Something mystical and extremely bizarre happens to Melissa and she has to make sense of it all by herself.
The short story begins in “medias res”, and begins by giving an introduction to the protagonist of the story: Melissa. We are not told anything about her exterior appearance but she is being described as a woman who hasn’t got her life quite figured out. She is in a rush in the morning, off to a work-related team meeting, and therefore forgets her phone at home. The story quotes that the absences of her “Wallet, umbrella, diary [and] keys” leave her feeling “anxious and unbalanced”. This signifies that her forgetting these important objects is a relatively frequent occurrence and correlates to her not being the most organized person.
When she rides the bus to work she has many different thoughts going through her mind. They mostly centre around the last time she was on vacation with her boyfriend and when the next time will be. These flashbacks happen in regular intervals (other examples: the recounting of the boyfriend, Simon, enjoying a cigarette with another woman and the repairing of her house) and they all underline the fact that Melissa isn’t exactly focusing on the upcoming team meeting but rather on other things. This is all correlates to her mind being distant from reality and to her maybe wishing to be anywhere else than her current whereabouts.
The narrator’s perspective is, throughout the entire short story, centred on Melissa and he has thorough insight to Melissa’s mindset and emotions. This can be seen by the narrators descriptions of Melissa’s surroundings on an almost nanometric scale recounting every single object no matter how small or irrelevant it may be e.g. in the text: “The bus stopped. People got off. People got on”. This insight to the vision of the protagonist creates a connection between the protagonist and the reader and makes it easier to be immersed in the story and follow and understand the main characters actions and choices. Never the less the narration is not written from a first person perspective but from a third person giving a slight distance to the protagonist. This is probably a deliberate effort from the author’s side and it invites the reader to be reflective of the text while still maintaining a strong connection to the main character. The third person narrator is never distancing himself from the happenings of the story and is probably as close to the protagonist as a third person narrator can possibly be. The other character’s, like the boyfriend’s or the neighbour’s, thoughts are never mentioned throughout the entire short story signifying that the narrator is a character tied third person narrator.
The human senses also play a significant role in the linguistic style of the story. As already mentioned the narrator is giving a very thorough description of Melissa’s vision. Other senses being mentioned is e.g. her feeling the key not sliding into the lock of the door. The frequent flashbacks in the text, the narrator’s close ties to the main character as well the senses playing a contributing factor to the telling of the story all point towards this short story being heavily influenced by literary impressionism.
From the beginning of the short story a theme of loss is struck and it goes all the way to the end. It begins with Melissa losing her phone at home before going to work. Then she feels as though she is losing her boyfriend, Simon, when he goes out to smoke a cigarette with another woman at a dinner at their own place. And at last she can’t find her house, which seems to have vanished. It seems very likely that Melissa is concerned about her relationship with Simon which seems distant. A probably intention narrative technique sees Melissa never communicating with anyone throughout the story (with one exception). Not even her boyfriend. This non-communication goes as far as Simon buying a table without consulting Melissa beforehand and Melissa feeling that attention is very hard to come by at her workplace. It is also mentioned, after the team meeting has ended, that Melissa feels as though she could just as well have stayed at home without anyone at work having noticed. This “lack of attention-theme” coupled with the many narrative/mental breaks in the text, in the form of flashbacks, gives the feeling that Melissa is mentally absent from her current existence.
Then the plot twist makes it’s entry. On her way home from work Melissa walks down the street and up the doorsteps only to realize she is at the wrong house. But then she backs up and realizes that the house is gone. Melissa and Simon live at number 40, but the houses are numbered 38 and 42 with no number 40 in between. Melissa is very confused and contemplates what to do. She decides to speak to the neighbour in number 38. He doesn’t really seem to care and had never noticed that the house numbers range from 38 to 42 with no number 40. This latter part of the short story seems very surreal and makes one contemplate what the purpose of the missing house number 40 means.
As previously mentioned the whole story has a theme of loss. The losing of objects and other things is incredibly important to this story and therefore the disappearance of the house number 40 is interesting. The question to be answered is whether this is a surreal element in the text or whether it is a real element. If it is a surreal element the whole text has to be read in that context and be treated like e.g. a dream. That is one way to go but it seems more suitable to think of the story in a realistic context. It seems very probable that Melissa is suffering from a psychological disease, maybe schizophrenia. Maybe she has been walking by the street noticed how the street numbers don’t make sense then seen the man across the street who she thinks is Simon (and later realizes he isn’t) and afterwards fabricated this fictional story which she believes to be true. If this all is the case the story very much resembles the classic movie Fight Club which deals with the same issues.
It is difficult to conclude whether the text is written with surreal or realistic intentions but any way it is a very enjoyable and confusing read and in any circumstance a great piece of literature.