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Time is ever changing and the clash of generations is nothing new, although it has only become increasingly relevant in the most recent decades. The exponential growth of technology outruns every generation to the point where their children scowl at the lack of understanding of current mainstream culture that their parents possess. This is most recently the case for the complexity of the Internet, iPhones and similar technological advantages in contemporary society but also for the decline in use of mules in agriculture back in the old days, which the story ‘Mule Killers’ by Lydia Peelle uses as a metaphor to describe the generation gap.
‘Mule Killers’ takes place in current time but the majority of the story is told in the form of a flashback that takes the reader back to the brink of the American industrialization of agriculture when mules were being replaced by tractors.
The narrator is a grown man, who is currently visiting his old pop in the garden that the mother used to take care of. The father tells a tragic story from his youth that reveals why and how the narrator came to be.
The father of the narrator lived with his father – the narrator’s grandfather – on an old fashioned farm where traditions were the main force behind most of their actions.
The grandfather was a proud and deeply religious man who didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve and his son strived to be like him, despite the growing discontent of doing so. The father of the narrator is described as carrying his father’s height apologetically, meaning that he didn’t feel like he lived up to his father’s expectations.
In fact, as the story progresses and the reader gets an idea of where it is heading, it is obvious that the father will do something that will disappoint his father greatly, and like any fairy tale, it starts with a girl. More specifically, Eula Parker.
Eula Parker is a girl from church whose unfathomable beauty the father instantly falls in love with, but unfortunately Eula does not feel the same way about him. Instead of simply letting this defeat go, the father decides to try and make her jealous by kissing and subsequently engaging in sexual intercourse with her best friend but alas, he must return empty handed. Or so he thought.
The result of his imprudent action is none other than the narrator himself. This is obviously a tragedy because, as previously stated, the father does not love this girl, he was simply using her. He doesn’t even seem to think of her as attractive when describing her hair early on in the story: “[…] hanging limply down, onion paper pale.”.
As any teenage boy would have done, he decides to look for advice from his role model, the grandfather. Being overwhelmed by the pressing modernization, the death of one his workers earlier that day (which foreshadows the rift to come in the relationship between the two) and most importantly the fear of the future, the grandfather is in a vulnerable spot and thus the news of his son’s mistake is all too much for him. He breaks down in a crying prayer, bringing down his façade with him. It seems like this is the first sign of affection that he shows, so when he implies to the narrator’s father that he has to marry this girl in order to make up for what he has done, it is not taking lightly. Although the father continuously states that he will not marry anyone but Eula Parker, the future proves that he eventually put aside his childish naivety and took up the responsibility of what the grandfather would call an adult, even if it meant that he had to sacrifice his love and doom himself to a life of misery and despair.
The grandfather obviously felt this as a blow to the stomach. He is watching everything he ever believed in crumble before his very own eyes. The hands and the mules, with which he used to work in the fields, have been replaced by machines, and the future of his son (and perhaps also grandson) has been stripped away in one single afternoon. He has been outrun by his own time and he couldn’t fight the change.
This is partly why the father of the narrator feels so depressed: Not only did he end up with the wrong girl because he was forced into marriage by his own teenage stupidity, but he also turned his father’s scheme of things completely upside down making him acknowledge the generation gap that separates the two.
The fact that the narrator isn’t the father himself but his son retelling the tragic love story to the reader does provide some hope for the tale.
It is implied that the son is capable of reading between the lines and understands the father, despite him ignoring the topic of the son’s conception and birth.
It was easy to presume that because the father distanced himself from his own father by wanting to go against the old traditions, and because history has its way of repeating itself, that the son would experience the same feelings towards his father.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The son is retelling the tale in the present tense, which makes it relatable not only to the reader but to the narrator as well. He isn’t telling the story with hostility. He is able to put himself in his father’s shoes and thus realizes how tough the decision must have been.
That is why they are standing in the overgrown garden picking asparagus. The wilderness that has grown in the garden due to the lack of care that followed the death of the mother symbolizes the mess that is time itself. It’s a strange entity that can never truly be understood. On one hand it is absolute chaos that can separate generations and turn parent against child but on the other hand there will always be the asparagus; “[…] the asparagus, which comes up year after year.”. The one constant in the midst of the clutter that we call our existence. That one asparagus that tells us that there is still hope for the future as well as the past. Things change and things stay the same, and without the asparagus we would never be able to truly understand each other.
 Peelle, Lydia; ”Mule Killers” p. 1 l. 7
 Lydia, Peelle; ”Mule Killers”: p. 1 l. 16
 Ibid., p. 3 l. 7-8
 Ibid., p. 3 l. 16-17
 Lydia, Peelle; ”Mule Killers”: p. 2 l. 12
 Ibid.: p. 4 l. 11