This article is filled with spoilers. If you haven’t read it already, you can find the 1948 story itself online here.
An Englishman spends time beside the swimming pool of a Jamaica hotel. He meets a man from South America, then they are joined by an American sailor and an English girl. The mysterious man proposes a bet: if the sailor can successfully light his lighter ten times in a row, he will win the man’s Cadillac; if he fails, the man will chop off the sailor’s little finger. The sailor takes the bet and, in the man’s hotel room, they set it up. After the sailor reaches eight successful strikes of the lighter, a woman enters. She informs the group that the man is an inveterate gambler, that the Cadillac is hers, and that she has won all of the man’s possessions for herself. The narrator sees that her hand is missing three fingers.
Narrator and POV
The narrator is an unnamed Englishman. He’s a barely-involved observer to the main events of the plot. The story is told in first person perspective, close but with direct thoughts attributed using phrases like ‘I told myself’.
One of the main functions of the narrator’s involvement in the story is that his observations tell rather than show: ‘There was a silence then, and I could see that the little man has succeeded in disturbing the boy with his absurd proposal.’ And later, ‘She seemed an awfully nice woman.’ In fact, Dahl uses the narrator to sum up the situation several times, as in: ‘I didn’t know what to make of it all. The man seemed serious about the bet and he seemed serious about the business of cutting off the finger. But hell, what if the boy lost?’
The tone is precise (‘I went over and sat down under a yellow umbrella where there were four empty seats’) and, at the start, mild (‘It was pleasant to sit and watch the bathers splashing about in the green water’).
There are very few descriptions involving metaphor, so they are impactful when they appear (‘She shook him so fast you couldn’t see him any more. He became a faint, misty, quickly moving outline, like the spokes of a turning wheel.’)
Some aspects probably wouldn’t be as readily accepted in modern stories. The man’s phonetically-presented dialogue (‘”Excuse pleess, but may I sit here?”’) becomes frustrating, or at least unnecessary. Dahl uses the verb ‘was’ a lot, when perhaps more active verbs might have served the story better – although some may argue that it blunts and simplifies the tone, usefully.
Character descriptions are all very neat, like this description of the sailor: ‘He was about nineteen or twenty with a long freckled face and a rather sharp birdlike nose. His chest was not very sunburned and there were freckles there too, and a few wisps of pale-reddish hair.’. Importantly, they’re consistent for each character, too, referring to common details each time – a later description of the sailor is ‘the boy with the long freckled face and the pointed nose, bare-bodied except for a pair of faded brown bathing shorts’. The man from the South becomes gradually more sinister through innocuous actions such as ‘The little man clapped his hands together quietly, once.’
Essentially, the structure involves planting the seed of an idea (the bet), then creating tension about: a) whether the boy will take the bet; b) whether he will succeed. The impact of the final reveal is that the sailor nearly lost his finger for nothing, as well as undermining what we think we know about the man from the South.
The plot – that is, the bet – is foregrounded over character and setting. We learn little about each character beyond their initial descriptions, and it’s four hundred words into the story before we learn that it’s set in Jamaica.
In the 1979 Tales of the Unexpected TV adaptation, the pace slows dramatically for the setup and execution of the bet. Each flick of the lighter is drawn out. It’s interesting that, in the story, Dahl chooses not to do this, as it seems a moment ripe for drawing out tension.
The story ends with the reveal that the woman has only a finger and a thumb. I expect that most readers conclude that she won everything from the man through bets that he himself set up, eventually getting lucky. (An alternative reading is that the finger-chopping bet is her own invention, and that the man is a poorer gambler than she is, despite the fact that she has lost many times in order to win overall.) We learn that the man is, in many ways, a hopeless victim, and that the woman (his wife?) is the truly formidable character.
But the most important aspect is ending on the shock reveal of the woman’s hand. Only in the final line is the tale revealed as retrospective, allowing Dahl to amp up the narrator’s horror: ‘I can see it now, that hand of hers; it had only one finger on it, and a thumb.’
What has ‘Man from the South’ taught me about writing short stories?
- It’s OK to keep character descriptions simple in a plot-centric story. Reusing character description tags may solidify the reader’s mental image of each character.
- In a plot-centric story, keep the focus fixed totally on the premise.
- Consider the pacing of key moments. It’s worth questioning whether moments of obvious tension – the execution of the bet – should be drawn out (as in the Tales of the Unexpected adaptation) or relayed at the same pace as the rest of the story.
- Make sure shock endings are rich, not cheap. The final reveal of the woman’s hand is more than simply a ‘punchline’. It undermines what we thought we knew, and raises questions. However, just before this moment the woman provides answers to many of our initial questions, so it’s a satisfying ending.
- Shock endings shouldn’t leave the reader stranded. In this story, the woman’s intrusion marks the end of the bet and therefore the plot. Presumably, the narrator, sailor and English girl would have been ushered out of the room moments later, so the reader’s experience of events matches the narrator’s own.