Here is an e-mail I recently received:

I read your piece (knock knock joke) in Robert Swartwood’s anthology
Be honest, I don’t expect find many feat in this book but I do.
And this cause a little obsession about understanding meaning of stories (I’m a English learner)
I am a little obfuscated:
is “she loves” means lover of his mother?
what was happening in the sink?
and what mean finish that joke with saying exactly?
Tanks

Although the grammar, word choices, and spelling here are a little comical, the writer seems earnest, and his questions are interesting because they point to the surprising number of cultural assumptions can be embedded in a piece of writing, even in an extremely short piece of writing (maybe especially in an extremely short piece of writing). So I ended up writing a lengthy response, which I have pasted below.

The piece we are talking about here is a 25-word bit of fiction titled “Knock Knock Joke,” which I wrote for the Hint Fiction Anthology, edited by Robert Swartwood. You can read the story here.

My response:

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for writing to me about my story, “Knock Knock Joke,” and thanks for taking the time to consider and think about the story. You asked three specific questions…

(1) Is “she loves” means lover of his mother?

The basis of your question is that the antecedent of “she” is unclear. In the same way, the antecedent of “his” in your question is also unclear. I think that probably you are assuming that the narrator is male, and, if I can rephrase your question, I think you mean: “Does the ‘she’ in ‘she loves’ refer to the narrator’s mother?”

Indeed, as I first began developing the story, I did think “she loves” referred to the narrator’s mother. I also think most readers will assume as much. Unless told otherwise, readers tend to assume that a fictional narrator is of the same gender as the author. And when a man with a child talks about love, readers will often assume that he is talking about his wife, and that his wife is the child’s mother. However, in order to meet the strict 25-word requirement for this story, any context making such connections explicit had to be stripped out. As a result, alternate interpretations are possible, which is a feature of the story that pleases me. The alternate interpretations are not incorrect. For example, it could be that the narrator is female, and “she loves” refers to the narrator’s love. A one minute film version of this story was made by a filmmaker named Patrick Sheridan, which takes this interpretation. You can see the film here.

(2) What was happening in the sink?

I actually adapted the beginning of my story from the opening lines of a wonderful novel, Season of Water and Ice, by Donald Lystra. That novel begins, “Standing at the kitchen sink with his hands in soapy dishwater, the sleeves of his white shirt turned up above his elbows, [my father] would ask me to explain the principles of science…” I liked the image of a man standing at a kitchen sink, washing dishes, with the sleeves of his work shirt rolled, because in the usual order of gender roles (although these things are beginning to break down in the United States, thank goodness), men do not do dishes. Consequently, the image implies that perhaps something has gone wrong within the family. Many different scenarios can be created out of that single image.

In my mind, washing dishes is what people usually do when standing at the sink with sleeves rolled. To be honest, until I received your question it didn’t even occur to me that something else might be happening in the sink. But the story does not say what is in the sink — it could be anything. The father might be washing his pet monkey. He might be stuffing body parts into the garbage disposal. These possibilities are interesting to consider.

(3) What mean finish that joke with saying exactly?

I’m not sure if knock-knock jokes are a part of the cultural currency in your country. Wikipedia says that “knock-knock jokes are well entrenched in the UK, US, Ireland, France, Belgium, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Philippines,” but they are not widely known in other countries.

A knock-knock joke is a traditional “call and answer” joke format. It is often used with children, which may explain why the father uses it in the story.

In this case, the father uses the knock-knock joke format as a device for causing his child express the father’s own thoughts. I can see how the use of the word “exactly” here might be confusing to someone learning English, but it is a common conversational usage. “Exactly” affirms whatever the other person has said. So, when the father says, “Exactly,” he is communicating something like, “You have just asked exactly the question that is in my own mind.” As a result, the knock-knock joke is no longer a joke at all.

But there are probably other ways to interpret the word, and those interpretations are not incorrect. This is part of the magic of fiction, and the intense compression of a 25-word story makes it even more important. Such a story, I believe, must create a large space in which the imagination of the reader can work. Because a 25-word story, if it were limited to only what can be conveyed explicitly in so few words, would be a very small story indeed.

Actually, one interpretation of the story’s last word, “exactly,” might be that it is an ironic comment on the nature of the story itself. Because nothing in the story is exact. Everything is subject to the observer’s interpretation. As it is in life, too.

Tanks,

Nick Arvin

(Cross-posted.)
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