Don Lee’s ‘Yellow’

An essay I wrote for my Readings in Contemporary Fiction class. The topic was settings, as in the physical settings of the story. I chose to use more abstract concepts as settings, which did not go over well with my professor. The essay is based on the book ‘Yellow’ by Don Lee, a collection of short stories that take place in the same town with characters and stories who overlap.

March 28, 2007
Readings in Contemporary Fiction Essay Assignment #3

Settings in Don Lee’s Yellow

The fictional town of Rosarita Bay, Ca is the base setting for the eight stories contained Don Lee’s collection of short stories Yellow. Characters from all of the stories are either from Rosarita Bay or they travel to Rosarita Bay for some particular reason. In some of the stories the characters are connected by events or by mutual acquaintance. In the other stories the only connection between them is the town itself. The town may be the base setting, or starting point, but within each story lays other settings. These settings are micro-settings of the larger setting of Rosarita Bay and it is these micro-settings that control and effect the actions and motivations of each individual character. These are not just physical locations such as homes, workplaces and recreational spots but also the context, circumstance and background that each story takes place in. In this essay the focus will be on how Lee uses micro-settings to create the context and circumstance that affects his characters’ thoughts and actions.

The emotions and character of Dean, Caroline and Marcella are the settings of “The Price of Eggs in China.” The type of character, either good or bad, how they feel about each other and how they act in response to their feelings is what drives the action in this story. Dean is a somewhat dishonest person. He confesses to this by overcharging his clients and by telling them that the chairs take longer to build than they actually do. He is not blatantly lying and it is probably common among craftsman to protect themselves from clients and a market for their goods that can both be finicky. Dean calls this “planning for contingencies” but on its face it is still dishonest (Lee 17). This dishonesty will come in handy later when he places the fake threatening phone calls to himself and when he breaks into Marcella’s house to plant evidence in an attempt to frame her for burning down his storage shed. Dean also lies to Sheriff Becklund about the threatening phone call that he received and also to both Becklund and his insurance company about the fire that destroyed his lumber shed. These lies are much more serious than overestimating the amount of time and cost that it takes him to build his signature chairs. That could be considered part of the cost of having something handmade and people expect some sort of mark-up from tradesmen. But lying to the police and the insurance company, and also trying to frame innocent people are different matters. They are serious crimes and signal a lack of morals in Dean.

Despite being a liar and an arsonist Dean’s motivation is his love for Caroline. Twice he admits to loving her and must do something to “protect her” (Lee 37). After being accused by Becklund of stalking Caroline Dean says that he was “frightened” for Caroline and that he would do “all he can to protect her” (Lee 37). The second admission came as he was setting fire to his own shed saying that “he knew that he loved her” and that “he had to take this risk for her” (Lee 42). Never once does Dean stop and ask himself if what he is doing is right or wrong. He only knows that if he doesn’t do something he was “certain that he would lose her” (Lee 42). The question I have for Dean is which is more important: losing Caroline or Caroline herself being hurt or possibly killed? Both of these feelings motivate Dean equally, signaling true love for Caroline from Dean.

Caroline’s personality and character are more important than Dean’s because they are what drive’s the story. Her paranoia, neediness, narcissism and jealously cause her to fake being stalked by Marcella and set in motion all the events of the story. Caroline is jealous of Marcella’s success and believes that Marcella is trying to embarrass Caroline by enjoying that success. Marcella enjoyed the attention she received from being a successful new author and because Caroline wanted that to be herself she blames Marcella for her own failure. According to Caroline, the only reason that Marcella took the offers of jobs and fellowships and magazine publications that she received was because she wanted to show-up Caroline. If in fact the greatest amount of joy that Marcella received from publishing her book of poetry was being able to look down upon her friend then that thinking by Caroline may be correct. But it doesn’t seem likely. Marcella came from a wealthy family and after the publication of her book she received many offers for employment and magazine publication. She had no need for money and or a job so she has no reason to move three thousand miles just to harass someone who hasn’t been in her life for nearly a decade. Marcella was the successful one of the two, she has no reason to do this.

A true narcissist like Caroline would believe such a story. Upon learning that Marcella has moved to Rosarita Bay Caroline exclaims “She’s moved here on purpose!” (Lee 20) and “She’s come here to torment me”(Lee 22). Dean does not believe it so Caroline must do things to make him believe it. When she begins to receive anonymous gifts she blames it on Marcella. It is never explained who actually sends the gifts, only that it isn’t Dean. Based upon what the gifts are (candy, stuffed animals, lingerie) it can be inferred that Caroline has a friend or a secret admirer. Initially this is Dean’s belief until he learn from Sherif Becklund that Caroline has been receiving threatening and harassing phone calls. The calls are made at night and are recorded into Caroline’s answering machine–she doesn’t take them personally. She needed Dean to believe that Marcella moved to Rosarita Bay to hassle her. The anonymous gifts weren’t enough to overcome Dean’s inherent “Japanese politeness” (Lee 24) so Caroline needed to do something to pull on the strong emotions that she knew that Dean had for her. It is possible that Marcella did send the gifts in an attempt to reconcile with Caroline. The nature of the gifts suggests that they have been sent out of love or caring for the recipient. Plus Marcella admits to inviting Caroline for tea and to do poetry readings together. Caroline has been holding a grudge for so long that this possibility never occurs to her.

Throughout Yellow, Don Lee uses settings that can be physical locations, such as the bar in “The Lone Night Cantina” or the inn in “Domo Arigato,”and he also uses the emotional make-up or the character traits of people as settings, as he does in “The Price of Eggs in China.” Rosarita Bay isn’t as important to “The Price of Eggs in China” as is the motivations of the three main characters. Dean is motivated by his love for Caroline. Caroline is motivated by her jealously of Marcella and her own needs for attention and for everything to be about her. Even though she is the protagonist there is little explanation for what motivates her to move to Rosarita Bay and to pursue a friendship with Caroline. The lack of given motivation may be because her motivations are simple: she did just truly happen on that house in Rosarita Bay and she does truly want bygones to be bygones so her and Caroline can be friends again. Whatever their motivations, Lee does an excellent job of presenting them to his readers and creates characters who actions are believable.

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