Friday, June 8, 2012

Dark Passages: "Commencement"

This is the time of year for graduation, but no school's closing ceremony will be filled with more pomp and ominous circumstance than the one in Joyce Carol Oates's story "Commencement":

The University orchestra is playing the alma mater more urgently now.  The tempo of Commencement is quickening, like a gigantic pulse [creepy simile gives intimations of the behemoth].  Only just beginning to register uncertainty, the Poet, the Educator, and the Scientist [echoes of joke-telling formula in this trio of generic labels] are being escorted up the inlaid granite steps of the Pyramid, to the sacred apex [terrific assonance]; ascending just before them are the Mace Bearer and the Assistant Mace Bearer [symbolic or sadistic figures?], taking the steps in measured stride.  There's a collective intake of breath through the stadium.  The sacred moment is approaching!  A glimmer of pale sun is seen overhead, bordered by massive clouds [the atmosphere is darkening].  The Poet stammers to the Provost, whom he had mistaken as a loyal companion through the ritual of Commencement, "W-what is happening?  Why are--?"  The Educator, a stout woman, is suddenly short of breath and smiles in confusion at the sea of faces below, greedily watching her and the other honorees [a dubious distinction, no doubt]; she turns to her escort, to ask, "Excuse me, why are we--?" when she's abruptly silenced by a tight black band wrapped around the lower part of her face, wielded [suggestion of weaponry] by the Dean of Education and an assistant.  At the same time, the Poet is gagged, flailing desperately.  The Scientist, the most suspicious of the three elders, resists his captors, putting up a struggle--"How dare you! I refuse to be--!"  He manages to descend several steps before he, too, is caught, silenced by a black gag and his thin arms pinioned [imprisonment rhythmically captured] behind him.
In the wild widened eyes of the honorees, there's a single shared thought.  This can't be happening! Not this!  (296)

Work Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol.  "Commencement."  Lovecraft Unbound.  Ed. Ellen Datlow.  Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2009.  277-303.

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