[(essay date 1964) In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Bloom focuses on mood, tone, and theme in "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," contending that the story tells us that "to cease striving, to endure the atrophy of the sense of wonder and inquiry . . . is to perish."]
Until the concluding paragraphs, the story ["Only the Dead Know Brooklyn"] has what might be taken for a clear enough literal meaning. That is, we read a rather amusing account of an experience in Brooklyn, a well-tried subject. But the literal, we discover, does not carry us very far. What does simple paraphrase reveal? A stranger in Brooklyn looking for a location asks some natives for directions. None can agree on the location or a way of getting there, and they quarrel among themselves. Ironically, although they have lived in Brooklyn all their lives and pride themselves on their familiarity with the city, they do not have this particular information.
It is then that the truculent first-person narrator takes over, tries to guide the stranger and fails. But at the same time he has the irrepressible curiosity of the legendary Brooklynite, and pumps the stranger to discover his motives. The narrator learns--to his intense surprise--that the unnamed stranger habitually wanders around Brooklyn with a map, looking for places that have pleasant-sounding names. Suddenly, without forewarning, the stranger asks the narrator (also unnamed) whether he can swim, and whether he has ever seen a drowning. The story ends on this puzzling note and the narrator, with justification, considers the incident one of some lunacy. For such peculiar things simply do not happen in Brooklyn.
Before we consider the actual meaning, point, or significance of the story, let us look at the fundamental details of technique.
mood. Although we may choose to identify Wolfe...