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Summary of Bernard Malamud's "My Son the Murderer"

Summary of Bernard Malamud's My Son the Murderer

Keep in Mind...

"My Son the Murderer" is a tour de force of pathos and betrayal; one of the most memorable, as it is surely one of the most succinct, testimonies to the generational dissonances of the 1960's in an America at war with Vietnam" (504). Leo is having difficulty relating to his son, Harry. Leo is 59 years old, and Harry is 22 (fresh out of college). The story takes place in February. There is an alternating narrator, sometimes it's the father and other times it is the son.

Summary


Leo is worried about his son, so he is constantly watching over Harry. Harry feels his father's presence hovering from the time he wakes in the morning until he goes to sleep at night. His father stands outside of his bedroom door, listening. Harry is silent as he goes about his day. He looks in the mirror with his eyes closed. He is lonely. Leo feels like his son is a stranger, because he will not let Leo into his inner world.

Harry opens his bedroom to find his father standing there, and asks him why he isn't at work. Leo took his vacation early that year, because he was so worried about his son. It is winter. Harry shouts at his father, "Why are you always spying on me?" (505). Leo goes away, but creeps back to his post after a while. Leo hopes that Harry will write him a letter one day, telling him everything. Harry is a prisoner of his own making. Leo works as at the post office as a clerk at the stamps window.

Leo's wife spends the days with her daughter, who is 31 years old, because she is having a bad pregnancy. She has high blood pressure, and her doctor has ordered her to be on bed rest. Leo's wife is worried that there is something really wrong with Harry. Since Harry graduated college the previous summer, he has become a recluse. He mostly stays in his room with the door shut, but once in a while he will go for a walk. If you ask him about the walk, he will give a snippy remark. Harry's mother advised him to get a job, because it will make him feel better. He looked for work a couple of times, but always turned down an offer of employment. He says that it isn't that doesn't want to work, he just feels bad. His parents would ask if it was his health, but he would just say he didn't want to talk about it. His mother suggested that he take something that was temporary. To which Harry replied that everything was temporary.




Harry watches the war on the news every day. Harry says that "It's a big burning war on a small screen. It rains bombs and the flames go higher. Sometimes I lean over and touch the war with the flat of my hand. I wait for my hand to die" (506). He expects to be drafted, but doesn't worry about it; he plans to flee the U.S. if it happens.

Worrying about Harry is the worst kind of torture. When you worry about yourself you know what your're worrying about, but when it is someone else you have no idea what is going through their mind. Leo tries to reminisce with Harry about when Harry was a little boy, but Harry doesn't want to think about that. Leo misses the day when they were able to share their love with one another. Leo asks Harry if he wants an egg, he says no. Leo asks him what he does want, and Harry puts on his coat and goes for a walk down Ocean Parkway. Leo follows Harry down the street, which infuriates Harry. When he reached the corner of Avenue X, Harry crossed the street and went home; Leo followed. Harry pretended his father wasn't there. When Leo got home Harry was already in his room. Leo got the mail. Leo looked for a letter written by Harry to his father; there wasn't one. There were two letters for Harry. Leo took the letter from the draft-board up to his son. Leo asked Harry if he wanted him to open it for him. Harry said no, upset by his father's invasion of his privacy. Leo asked Harry if he wrote the draft-board another letter and Harry said it was none of his business. Leo went down to the kitchen. Leo opened the second letter, intending to re-glue it and stick it back in the mailbox for his wife to find when she came home. It was a letter from a girl asking Harry to return some books that he had borrowed from her that were very important to her. Harry came down stair while Leo was reading the letter, and Harry could tell by the ashamed look on his father's face that the letter was for Harry. Harry tore the letter out of Leo's hands, and told him that he "ought to murder [him] the way [he spies] on me" (509). Harry read his letter then tore it up. Harry threatened his father with murder again then left the house.

Leo went upstairs and searched his son's room. He found a letter written to Edith telling that if she writes him another letter he will murder her. Leo put on his hat and coat and ran after his son. He followed half a block behind Harry. Harry went to Coney Island Avenue and boarded a trolley bus. Leo had to wait fifteen minutes until the next one came along. Coney Island was deserted. Leo finally found his son down at shore, standing with his feet in the water. Leo ran towards his son. Leo apologizes for reading his letter. Harry says nothing. Leo tells Harry that he is scared. Harry says nothing. The wind blew Leo's hat off of his head, so Leo chased it all around until finally he caught it. Leo returned to his son, crying and out of breath. Leo concludes that his son is the type of man that is just lonely, nothing will ever change. Leo tells Harry that life is hard for everyone; the only alternative is death, but you can't do anything if you are dead. It is better to live. Leo begs Harry to come home. Harry ignores his father. After a while Leo leaves Harry and goes home. The wind blew Leo's hat off of his head again and rolled down the shore.

"My father listens in the hallway. He follows me in the street. We meet at the edge of the water. He runs after his hat. My son stands with his feet in the ocean" (510).

Sources

Malamud, Bernard. "My Son the Murderer." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 504-10.

Published on February 2, 2012 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

2 comments:

  1. Good evening Ms. Brookshire. I will have a presentation about this story, My Son the Murderer. I've read the story. It is really interesting and I liked it very much. But I think that the story is very complicated. I couldn't understand the connection between the title and the story. That is the point that I will ask for your help. What do you think about this? What could be the aim/reason of author Bernard Malamud for choosing this title? And also what do you think about what is going on with Harry? Why does he act like this? Why does he choose to be such an recluse?

    I will wait for your reply. I want to thank in advance.

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  2. "My Son the Murderer" is a timeless tale about the relationship between parent and child. When we are little we look up to our parents and equate them with superheroes, but when puberty hits something changes. The relationship between child and parent inevitably changes. Teenagers tend to be moody, impatient, secretive, and hurtful towards their parents. They shut their parents out because they think that their parents couldn't possibly understand what it is that they are going through, which leaves the parents feeling dejected and wondering where they went wrong. Harry has just graduated from college and is not sure where his place in the world is yet, in fact, going out into the world on his own scares him. His anxiety about the world is probably coupled with a bit of depression, which makes him alienate himself even more from his father. Harry doesn’t know how to communicate with his father anymore, and the more that his father tries to get Harry to talk to him, the more distant he becomes. Leo is scared that Harry is going to commit suicide, which is why he stands outside his bedroom door and follows him to the beach. Leo’s constant intrusion on Harry’s life makes him appear to be overbearing, but he is just as scared for Harry as Harry is for himself. As for the title, Harry is a metaphorical murderer: Leo believes that Harry is going to commit suicide; he is killing his father by shutting him out; he killed their relationship; and in a sense, he killed his childhood self. I believe that Malamud entitled this story “My Son the Murderer” to grab people’s attention and metaphorically he wants to grab Harry’s attention.

    I hope that this helped you. Let me know if you’re still confused.

    -Sophia Brookshire

    ReplyDelete