The Inevitable Despair

In “The Mistake” by Martín Kohan, hope and despair are prevalent macro-themes that are seen throughout the short story. However, how exactly does Kohan portray the themes of hope and despair in the short story? I will further examine the specific techniques used by Kohan, such as syntax, biblical references, and asyndeton, for example. As the story progresses, the narrator begins to feel a sense of hope, which inevitably transforms into a feeling of utmost despair at the end.

In his portrayal of hope, Kohan uses syntax as well as biblical references to demonstrate the narrator’s aspirations for achieving his or her crossing of the river. Kohan constantly integrates the phrases of “I think” and “I wonder” into the story in order to illustrate the narrator’s refusal of accepting reality. For example, the narrator contemplates, “I think I can spot a coastline in the distance. I wonder if it’s true or I’m just confused. I think I can make out Colonia in the distance” (Kohan, 4). By using this specific language, Kohan portrays that the narrator is very hopeful and is reluctant to accept the fact that he or she will be unable to cross the river. Furthermore, the use of biblical images essentially provides the narrator with a feeling of hopefulness that this is destiny. At the point in the narrative when the narrator has just jumped into the bare riverbed, he or she is suddenly driven by the image that appears in his or her mind: “I think instead of the Red Sea mentioned in the Bible, and of the miracle of divine will that parted the waters to allow the Jewish people to walk through” (Kohan, 3). Therefore, this image of Moses crossing the Red Sea provides him or her with hope and ambition that he or she possesses the courage and strength to endeavor on this journey to Uruguay.

Throughout the short story, the theme of despair is portrayed through the use of syntax and asyndeton. At the point in the narrative when the narrator is walking through the river, he or she begins to question his or her actions: “What’s the point of running? There isn’t one, and yet I run. What’s the point of shouting? There isn’t one, and yet I shout” (Kohan, 4). The use of questioning the purpose of his or her actions illustrates the feeling of utmost despair because these actions are essentially meaningless. Kohan repeats this paragraph structure in the following paragraph, rather using crying and praying in place of running and shouting, respectively. Another technique Kohan utilizes in this short story to portray despair is asyndeton. This technique is observed in the last sentence of the narrative when we encounter the phrase, “But so remote, so vague, so uncertain, so tantalising, that as it comes into view I also perceive another truth: I won’t be able to reach it” (Kohan, 4). The absence of a comma in between the descriptions of the horizon essentially represent that there is no true end, and it leaves the readers without a feeling of togetherness and unity. Similarly, the narrator is full of despair and without a sense of completeness.

Thus, throughout “The Mistake,” Kohan carefully uses distinctive techniques of syntax, biblical references, and asyndeton in order to effectively portray the themes of hope and despair.

5 thoughts on “The Inevitable Despair

  1. I agree that Martin Kohan presents readers with the macro-themes of despair and hope, however, I’d argue that false-hope is a more prevalent macro-theme. I definitely agree that Kohan uses strategies such as similar syntax, biblical references and asyndeton. I also think that the author uses other techniques such as posing questions within the protagonist’s head, as well as repetition of certain words, such as, “mistake.” Through using these literary strategies as well, Kohan definitely introduces the theme of false-hope to readers throughout the short story.

    One strategy that I noticed was the clear use of questions to let readers know what the protagonist is thinking. For example, when he watches his love leave on the boat, he ponders: “She only put a river between us. Does that mean I should go in search of her? That she is waiting for me? That she left, not to lose me but to allow me to find her?” From an early point in the story, the author clearly uses this as an effective strategy to reference hope and despair. By posing these questions, Kohan makes readers recognize that the protagonist is conflicted, which is why he has hope that he can find the love of his life. If the author had not included questions in these instances, it may have left readers unsure of what the protagonist was thinking, therefore not clearly bringing up the themes of hope and despair. Another strategy that the author uses is repetition. Over the course of the short story, the word “mistake” is used 11 times. By repeating this specific word, Kohan explores the macro-theme of despair. For example, “Apparently that was my big mistake. Now, I’m sure of it, I can make out the coast of Uruguay on the horizon. But so remote, so vague, so uncertain, so tantalizing, that as it comes into view I also perceive another truth: I won’t be able to reach it” (Kohan 2). By using the word “mistake” here, there is a clear tone of despair which is exactly what the authors wants readers to realize. Therefore, along with your choices of asyndeton, syntax and biblical references I think Kohan uses repetition and questions to reinforce the macro-themes of hope and despair.

  2. You did a great job at pointing out how the author structured this story in order to capture the readers’ attention throughout the play. The sense of hope you mentioned, I think it is mainly used to trick readers to think there is a chance for the men to survive from this horrific event. Their survival rate seems to decrease, according to me, when the author described them as ‘a human centipede’ and a ‘slithering snake.’ To further this discussion, do you think the biblical reference was used to show the nature of humanity? The words used to describe the men who are playing tug of war with the sea creatures dehumanize them. For me, I am stuck in the middle because along with the captains’ men, I believe there are two more men who are the lifeguards- the first to respond to a cry. It does not seem fair that they had to face death or be seen as ‘evil.’ I think the story focuses on the big picture than directed on the two innocent ones.

    On the idea of making readers feel detached from reality, I wonder the thought process the author went through to make it a combination of complicated and horror. I may not think the narrator is ‘without a sense of completeness’ but more like expressing the perspective from the sea creature’s side too. The sea creature is not painted as the ‘evil’ one in the story and the narrator spoke about hearing a laugh at the end. It’s up to us to perceive how evil or innocent that laughter is.

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