In “Birth, Copulation, Death,” Helen Klein Ross presents the account of a young unnamed narrator’s experience one day in arithmetic class. The narrator is fixated on the boy sitting next to her, Jimmy Lovely, noticing his artistic expression and rebellious nature. She watches him color his nails with a No. 2 Pencil, observes the artwork on his book cover, and notices the fundamental differences between their characters. When the instructor —who is a nun— catches Jimmy, she proclaims that “a girl was born in class that day” and makes him walk around to each of the eighty-three students and show his nails, shaming him. When Jimmy reaches the narrator’s desk, she doesn’t look at his nails, but rather his face, which is staring out to the field. She imagines them lying together in the field, rolling in the grass and “falling off the edge of the earth.” This story serves to convey a certain disdain for societal and religious oppression of individual expression.
In this analysis I will examine how the author uses point of view to express this concept in a way that connects to the reader emotionally through not only her choice in a first person narrator, but also her specific choice in the identity of the narrator and the implications of that choice:
When Jimmy finally arrives at my desk, I don’t look at his hands. I look at his face. He is staring out the windows behind me, at the glossy field where I sometimes imagine us lying together, rolling over and over in tall, fragrant grass, falling off the edge of the earth. (Ross “Birth, Copulation, Death”)
The above is the closing passage of the piece, and the use of first person narration is primarily why it resonates so much with this reader. We are seeing this image and feeling these emotions directly through the narrator’s senses. This enhances the reader’s emotional connection to the narrator as we place ourselves within that feeling of disdain when watching Jimmy being publicly humiliated for simply being himself. This makes us feel the cathartic release at the end that much more potently; the reader can feel themselves blocking out the oppressions of society and simply existing in a field, rolling off the edge of the earth. A third person narrator could convey the same emotions, but in a piece this short I don’t feel I would be near as emotionally invested. Consider: “I sometimes imagine us lying together” versus “She sometimes imagined them lying together.”
There is also a significant effect caused by the choice of narrator. In this story we have three notable characters: our narrator, Jimmy Lovely, and the nun. The nun would not be a good choice for narrator, as she would completely flip the tone and mood of the piece. I found myself asking, why not Jimmy Lovely? It really is his story, and he is completely central and crucial to it, so why not have him narrate. I believe this choice can be summed up quite nicely with a single line from the piece. “A girl has been born in our class today and when she says this, something hardens in me.” Ross wants us to feel that emotion, to have that hardening within our own consciousness when seeing Jimmy’s punishment. That is really the essence of this piece for this reader.