Discussion: “The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Karen Joy Fowler story “The Pelican Bar”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How does tone function in this piece? How would you characterize the tone, and how is it created?
  • This story skips over large amounts of time. How does Fowler manage this, and what effect does it have?
  • Is this a “realist” story? How do you know? Does it make a difference one way or another?

10 thoughts on “Discussion: “The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler

  1. The Pelican Bar is a story about a girl named Norah who on her fifteenth birthday was sent away to a “boarding school”. Her parents, frustrated by her stubbornness and misbehavior send her to this school hoping that it will change her. When she arrives at the school she meets a woman who introduces herself as Mama Strong. We quickly realize that this “boarding school” is a nightmarish hell where the girls who live in it are forced to live in horrible conditions and are psychological manipulated to hate themselves and turn on each other. Norah spends multiple birthdays in the “school” and begins to lose grip of herself, but finds comfort in the idea of visiting the nearby Pelican bar. On her 18th birthday she leaves the “boarding school” and finally visits the Pelican bar. The story ends with Mama Strong telling Norah that humans and the real world in general will be no better to her than she and the “boarding school” were.

    I am really interested into how the idea of time was used in this story. All the major events that happen to Norah are marked by her birthday. She leaves for the “boarding school” after her 15th birthday, the first mention of her hearing from her parents comes on her 16th birthday, and she finally leaves on her 18th birthday. Her birthdays act as mile-markers, but there are really no landmarks or benchmarks between her birthdays. Also, Norah herself is unsure as to when her 17th birthday was; she just woke up one morning assuming that she must be 17 now. This mile markers work towards giving us a framework of how time is general passing in the real world, but their absences is a much more effective literary element. By omitting them, Fowler creates a sensation of timelessness within the world of the “boarding school”, as if time is passing by and just like Norah, the reader becomes trapped in this “boarding school”. Even during the portions of the story where Norah is sent to the TAP for 2 weeks, these periods of time seem to just pass by.


  2. In The Pelican Bar, Karen Joy Fowler manages to skip over large portions of time within the story while still managing to keep the reader engaged and able to follow along. One way she does this is by centering most major events around Norah’s birthdays. This gives the reader at least some reference of time, because we know that not more than a year has passed, but it also creates a familiar pattern that is easy to follow. I also think that Fowler is able to skip over large chunks of time in the story because Norah herself does not have much concept of time within the story. Since we are being told the story primarily through her perspective, it makes sense that we do not know exactly how much time has passed. We only know what she knows.


  3. One thing I noticed about the tone is how clinical it is. That is to say, the narrator tells us a lot about what physically happens to Norah, but often avoids telling us what she thinks about when these things are going on. Through this mode, the things that are done to Norah become her interiority, mirroring the way her ego slowly vanishes as her physical and mental torture progresses. The narrative also skips over large portions of time, but still uses Norah’s birthday’s as a device to allow the reader to more clearly track changes in her character. For example, when she first arrives at the “school” after her 15th birthday, compared to several years later on her seventeenth birthday, the reader can see how the answers to the “5 things that are true about myself” change from being unique to herself to being the same as everyone else’s.


  4. Fowler manages to make the huge time leap work in her favor, because the most important parts of the story, or what, in opinion, are needed to be known has been done, or has not been said, like how she escapes her nightmarish boarding school and what she does when she leaves.

    I think this could be a realist story. Characteristics about the story, such as the boarding school, reasons for being shipped off, and much more, make this story seem as if it really happened, or could happen, which it could. However, if the story is or is not a realist story, it does not matter.


  5. I enjoyed reading this story SO MUCH especially as I went to boarding school and it brought back many memories. Fortunately for me, my school wasn’t as horrible but nonetheless I still couldn’t help but feel Norah’s frustration especially with her parents.

    I like how Fowler tells most of the story through summary. We start the story when Norah is 15 and we end when she is 18. Fowler packs three years of her life in a few pages adeptly by summarizing most of what is going on. The tone of the voice is relaxed and I almost felt like I was sitting down talking with a friend who was telling a nice story. This piece is fluid and conversational especially as it is told in the 3rd person narrative.

    I appreciate the narrative voice n 3rd person because it can easily go over Norah’s situations without letting us go into her brain to see how she feels. If this story were written in 1st person it would be so depressing.

    Although the story isn’t realist, it still does a great job of creatively and subtly commenting on tourism and tourists facade. This piece reminded me of “A Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid who explicitly bashes tourism and tourism industries in Antigua.


  6. I think the jumps in time were meant to seem to the reader the way they seemed to Nora. Everything was the same every day for the longest time that she couldn’t even tell when a year had passed. Time snuck up on her like it did on us. I think that was very well done on Fowler’s end.

    The tone of this story was a mixture of hopeful and hopeless. While we were in the institution with Nora, it seemed like whatever she did, she was one step farther from being able to go home. No matter what she said or who she threw under the bus, points were taken away. It was hopeless. However, when we were at the Pelican Bar with Nora, we were filled with hope. Filled with the possibility of getting out and going someplace better. The balance between the two created this tone of fantasy and unknowing. It aided the author in making the audience feel with Nora.


  7. In this story, the author skips over large amounts of time as we hear from the protagonist, Norah, and her years spent in Mama Strong’s motel. Fowler manages to successfully skip over this amount of time because she creates a setting that is monotonous and never-ending; Norah experiences the same hell and torture day in and day out. Once Fowler sets up the poor conditions and awful treatment, the reader can assume that nothing has changed in the time that Fowler skips in order to get to the next piece of significance. The effect of skipping time makes the reader feel for Norah, we feel the pain and the sense of hopelessness and it also allows us to see Norah’s character change from self-absorbed and rotten to fearful and obedient.
    At first we hear about Norah’s 16th birthday and are aware of how much time has passed, but by her 17th birthday Norah has lost all concept of time and just thinks it’s her birthday when she realizes that enough time has gone by that’s she’s most likely 17. This loss of time Fowler uses makes the reader feel lost too, it adds to fear this short story elicited for me, I felt lost and scared for Norah and the thought that someone could torture children like this made me uncomfortable because this scenario may have been fictional, this type of abuse has most certainly happened before in real life.
    When Norah finally realizes she’s 18 because she is set free, time is re-established but it’s also still lost in a sense because Norah has lost her identity and the stress and reality of needing to make up for that lost time sets in for the reader. At this point we are unsure of how Norah will handle her freedom, considering the amount of abuse she has taken. She has spent so much time growing accustomed to the torture that she just assumes out of habit that everyone is out to get her and in no time at all she could be back at the motel.


  8. The Pelican Bar is an incredibly interesting work of short fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Throughout her piece, author Joy Fowler utilizes the story’s tone in a very interesting way, which is vital to how it is interpreted by the audience.
    First off it is important to note that the tone Fowler is working to establish in her piece, or at least the qualities she is trying to apply to it, is one that is extremely methodical and even systematic. In other words, it feels very cold and distant. A good example of how Fowler creates this in The Pelican Bar is in the first paragraph. In this paragraph the narrator is describing all the items that the protagonist, a young girl by the name of Nora, has received for her fifteenth birthday. Fowler chooses to present this information in the form of a very disconnected and, to repeat myself, cold list (“for her birthday, Norah got a Pink cd from the twins, a book about vampires from her grown-up sister, High School Musical 2 from her grandma (which Norah might have liked if she’d been turning ten instead of fifteen) and an iPod shuffle…”).
    Under most circumstances the description of birthday gifts, especially those of someone who is just turning fifteen, would come with the expectation of joy or happiness because, for obvious reasons, the average (young) person equates their birthday with pleasant and happy thoughts. However in this short story the author chooses not to do this, in fact she chooses to apply a tone that is arguably the complete opposite of what we would expect. This is something I believe that Joy Fowler did with a very specific purpose in mind. In my opinion, I believe that this surprisingly distant and emotionally stagnant tone is meant to give audience insight into the kind of person that Nora is; to give us a look at what makes her tick, for lack of a better word. I find this incredibly interesting because by applying this tone to the speech of the narrator, Fowler gives us this insight, without having to have her protagonist, Nora, be the narrator. We are given the opportunity to get to know Nora in a way that, for the inexperienced writer, would be extremely difficult to do without the use of a first person narrative through said protagonists point of view


  9. In the story “The Pelican Bar” the gradual shifts of tone, as well as the erratic passage of time, reflect the transformation of the main character Norah. Initially, Norah’s tone is defiant. When she is first taken to the reform institution, her tone reflects her denial. As she adjusts to this cruel new way of living imposed on her, her tone reflects her despair and soon her apathy. In the same manner, the passage of time changes to reflect her. She remembers her 16th birthday, but after that she’s uncertain when her 17th is, and she only realizes her 18th when a man on the beach comments to her that “At eighteen, they have to let you go. The law says,” he tells her, in reference to the institution. Norah becomes so jaded by the system that after a year she is just going through the motions in a sort of numbness, having lost what she feels is her personality and identity.


  10. The time skips found in this story are done so by Fowler in a way that focuses the plot events around her birthday. By centering the plot on an important date such as Norah’s birthday, it allows for the audience to be engaged with the story throughout the multiple time skips. The tone, at least in my opinion, seemed to be pretty dark, and it progressively gets more so as each birthday passes. This nature of the school had a negative effect on Norah, and having it being told by her allows the audience to see what exactly is going on in her head. Because of this, the tone is directly relayed to the audience through Norah’s experiences.


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