This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.
Today’s assignment: Write a literary essay about the story The Disobedient Son.
I’ll say this. This was a BEAR. Mostly because there was a lot I didn’t understand about this story. What I came to is the idea that I have some learning to do about other cultures. There are differences in how we tell and appreciate stories, and it’s quite possible that my original resistance to this story is because I don’t have enough cultural understanding.
Throughout the world, folk tales teach values and morals. Stories across time and place show the benefits of being good and the consequences of being bad. The South American folk tale “The Disobedient Son” features a child learning the importance of listening to adults. This folk tale has many elements and themes as other familiar stories, but the ending is surprising and different.
The structure of “The Disobedient Son” follows many of the plot elements as stories in other cultures. The story begins with a familiar problem: “There was once a boy who was rude and wouldn’t obey his mother.” In tales like these, one can predict the boy either learns obedience or suffers consequences for his behavior. Once the problem has been established, there is a predictable response. Here, the boy’s mother sends him to work with his godfather, the priest of the town. “You’re a priest, and you can counsel and discipline this godson of yours; I can’t do anything with him…Let him come to stay here with you to see if he will learn to behave.” The mother thinks the boy would behave better with the priest.
“The Disobedient Son” also follows the pattern of a turning point and a test for the protagonist. In this story, the boy immediately changes his actions when he comes to live with his godfather. “All right, godfather, I’m going to work. I’m going to do whatever you tell me to do; everything you tell me, I will do, godfather.” The boy pledges to complete his tasks, and he holds true throughout the story. The priest also tests the boy, putting a skeleton in the bell tower to scare him away from the task of ringing the bell. The boy still obeys orders, telling the skeleton: “I’m coming to ring the bell…Get out of my way, for my godfather sent me to ring the bell.” In this humorous scene, the boy smashes the skeleton thinking it is a real person, rings the bell, and goes to his godfather.
It is at this point that “The Disobedient Son” departs from other folk tales. Usually, a scene like the one with the skeleton is used for humor, to show the reader how foolish a character is. They fall for a trick, and it is clear that another character has gotten the better of them. In this story, however, the priest uses the skeleton as a test of obedience rather than intelligence. Furthermore, most folk tales end with a statement about the lesson learned or consequence suffered. This story leaves the reader with the boy’s mistaken idea: “I pushed him and he fell and broke into pieces on the floor.” The end brings us proof that the boy has been obedient. However, the reader does not know if the boy has been punished or rewarded.
At first glance, a reader could dismiss this story as dissatisfying. It does not come to a customary and familiar end. Knowing that it is a tale from another culture, however, raises questions. Is it possible that the story was not translated well to English? Is this a culture that tells stories in different ways? What other, more important, values have I not considered? An American reader might expect a lesson learned, but perhaps this story simply exists to let people to laugh at the foolishness of a boy taken up entirely with his desire to show obedience. Or perhaps American readers do not have enough knowledge of the source culture to fully understand the interactions between characters.
“The Disobedient Son” follows many of the same structures and themes that other folk tales have. There is a a problem, action taken to solve the problem, a turning point, and a test. Beyond those similarities, the story differs from other folk tales. Whether this story is meant to be humorous, or whether key ideas have been lost in translation, it is clear that stories defy expectations from time to time. It is important to keep an open mind and to take surprises as an invitation to learn more.