Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writer
by Joan G. Kotker, English Faculty, Bellevue College
Published by Greenwood Publishing
Copyright © 1996 by Joan G. Kotker.
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The initial complication in the novel is the appearance of a stranger at the house of the doctor who is scheduled to deliver Laura. Although his colleagues at the hospital do not know this, the doctor has become a very heavy drinker and on the evening Laura will be born, he is drunk. Holding the doctor at gunpoint, the stranger calls the hospital and tells them that the doctor is drunk and will not be able to deliver the baby. Another doctor takes over and Laura is born healthy and sound, but her mother dies in childbirth. Subsequently we learn that if the original doctor had delivered Laura, he would have bungled the birth in such a way that her spinal cord would have been severely damaged and she would have spent all of her life in a wheelchair.
The intervention of the stranger sets the pattern for the novel as a whole: as Laura grows up, she is faced with life-threatening situations in which the stranger, who she comes to think of as her guardian angel, intervenes. The next event occurs when she is eight years old and a drug-crazed gunman holds up her father's corner grocery store, intending to rape the little girl as well as take the money. The stranger bursts in, kills the gunman, concocts a story for Laura's father to tell the police, and then disappears. She next sees the stranger when she is twelve years old and at her father's funeral. The stranger is there but does not talk to Laura, although she recognizes him from the events in the grocery store. He disappears as suddenly as he came, but a new character also appears here, a man dressed all in black who stares at Laura and asks her, "Why you?" She has no idea what the question means, but her impression of him is that he is evil. Like the guardian angel, he too disappears.
Complications continue building when Laura, now an orphan, is sent to a children's home. Here she meets the Ackerson twins, Ruth and Thelma. They are identical, very intelligent and very funny, and they become Laura's closest friends. In the home she is stalked by a pedophile who, if fate is allowed to play out its course, will repeatedly rape and beat her. The guardian angel appears to the pedophile and beats him up, warning him away from Laura, but this backfires and the pedophile becomes determined to get revenge for the beating on the girl. Shortly after, Laura is taken in as a foster child by two kind, loving people who cannot have children of their own. It now seems that she may have a happy life after all, but the pedophile follows her to her new home and attacks her there. In trying to get away from him Laura stabs him with the base of a broken glass. The shards go into his throat and he dies. The foster mother enters the house, sees blood all over the place, a dead man, and a terrified girl; has a heart attack; and dies on the spot. Laura goes back to the home, where she rooms with the Ackerson girls again and Tammy, a very quiet, depressed girl who has been sexually abused by both her father and, later, the pedophile attendant in the home.
When Laura turns thirteen, she is moved to a home for older children. Here, she learns that there has been a fire at her old home, and that two children were killed. She has a premonition that the two were Thelma and Ruth, but in fact they turn out to be Ruth and Tammy. Tammy, who had attempted suicide earlier, has immolated herself with lighter fluid and in the ensuing fire, Ruth is killed before Thelma can get to her. Thelma is moved to the home for older children, and she and Laura live there together until they are eighteen, forming the only family each has now. When they leave the home Thelma begins what will eventually be a career as a very successful comic, and Laura, helped by a small trust fund from her father, goes to college, where she majors in creative writing. She meets Danny, a very nice, sweet man who adores her. He's a stockbroker and a good one. He and Laura fall in love and marry, and Laura starts writing novels. She is published almost immediately, and each succeeding book she writes is more successful than the last. Danny quits his job to manage her career and they have a son, Chris. They are told that he will be their only child-Laura can have no more children.
At this point, the guardian angel intervenes in Laura's life once again, when she, Danny, and Chris are scheduled to be in a horrifying traffic accident on a hilly, icy road in a snowstorm. Their car will be hit by an out-of-control vehicle driven by a drunk and they will all die. Because the guardian angel forestalls this, all three survive, but then the man who appeared at the funeral dressed all in black appears again and opens fire on the three of them and Danny is killed. Thus, where fate intended that three people would die, two survive and fate is cheated again. The guardian angel helps Laura concoct a story about a drug feud that they were inadvertently caught up in (since no one is likely to believe that a guardian angel appeared out of nowhere to save Chris and Laura), and he warns Laura to be on guard at all times because people will come for her. As a result she masters the use of various weapons and always has one with her.
The guardian angel is identified as Stefan Krieger, an SS man working at a place referred to only as "the institute," which is set in Berlin in 1944, just before the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany. The institute has developed a time travel machine, the Lightning Road. It can send people forward in time but not back, and so the researchers at the institute go into the future to find out what happened at the end of the Third Reich, and what they can do to change the ordained outcome, the defeat of Hitler's Germany. Krieger comes from a family loyal to Hitler, but he is now thoroughly disillusioned, recognizing the Third Reich for the brutalizing dictatorship that it is. On one of his journeys into the future he sees Laura as fate intended her to be-in a wheelchair, autographing her new novel-and he falls in love with her. This is the catalyst that brings about his first intervention in her life, when he goes forward in time to see to it that she is not maimed when she is in the process of being born.
The researchers at the institute, in their attempts to guarantee that Germany will win the war, are particularly interested in collecting enough information on atomic weapons for Germany to be able to complete its own. One of these researchers, Kokoschka, who is head of security at the institute, becomes curious about Stefan's many trips into the future and his interest in Laura. How can she possibly relate to the war and the future of Germany? He follows Stefan and appears to Laura as the man all in black, who seemed evil. Once Kokoschka realizes that Laura has no role in the fate of the Third Reich, he shoots Stefan, having discovered that Stefan is a traitor. Stefan in turn kills Kokoschka and returns to the institute to destroy it, but discovers that he is too late and that his plan will not work. He returns to Laura, still wounded, just before a group of Gestapo hit men arrive to kill Laura, Stefan, and Chris. Laura kills them, takes Stefan to a doctor, and then the three of them go into hiding, with the help of Thelma, who is now very successful and very wealthy.
In the climax, Stefan goes back to Berlin to destroy the institute so that no one can go into the future and make Germany the victor in the war. While he is there he also appears to both Churchill and Hitler, assuring that on the one hand the institute will be destroyed by precision bombing and, on the other, that Hitler will suspect nothing and will think everything is going as planned regarding time travel and the saving of his regime. At the same time, another group of hit men, a squad of the SS, come for Laura. They trap her in the desert and in the ensuing shoot-out Chris is killed and Laura's spinal cord is severed, in both cases reinstituting what was originally ordained by fate: Laura was to have spent her life in a wheelchair, and there would have been no Chris in her life. Stefan comes back to the desert just after Chris is killed and Laura wounded, and through manipulations of time travel, sends a message in a bottle to Laura just before the SS attack so that she and Chris can run away and save themselves. The forewarned Laura is then able to kill all the SS men, saving Chris and herself.
Finally, in the denouement Stefan initially lives with Thelma and her husband, who shelter him until Laura can get him documentation that will give him a new identity and allow him to live safely in 1989. At the end of the novel, Laura has fallen in love with Stefan, Thelma is expecting twins, and all are living happily ever after. We also learn that because Stefan had warned Churchill that Stalin would, at the end of the war, create a dictatorship in Russia and Eastern Europe, Churchill has arranged that Stalin's regime be destroyed by the Allies. At the end of the story, people are casually commenting about how the losers in wars seem to benefit a good deal from their defeats, talking about how Germany, Russia, and Japan have become postwar industrial and economic success stories. Thus, besides changing Laura's fate, the fate of all of Russia and Eastern Europe has been changed.
One specific issue raised by Lightning is the horrible death by fire of Ruth Ackerson when she is only twelve. The other deaths in the book are, in one way or another, both acceptable and necessary for the story: it is the death of Laura's mother that introduces Stefan and his mission of saving Laura from the fate that was ordained for her. It is the death of Laura's father that makes her an orphan and becomes the rationale for her subsequent life in foster homes and the state children's homes, where she develops both her ability to endure and the imaginative world that will eventually make a writer of her. The death of Danny gives her the rationale for becoming a fighter and it also fulfills part of her destiny, since she was never intended by fate to know and marry Danny. All the rest of the deaths, with the exception of Ruth, are those of people who are evil in one way or another, such as the SS and Gestapo men, the drug addict who attempts to rape a little girl, the pedophile Willy Sheener who preys on the children in the home, and so on. These are people whose deaths are mourned by no reader.
The death of Ruth Ackerson, though, is death of another order. She is only twelve years old, and she is all the family Thelma has. The two girls were orphaned when they were nine and have been living in a home for the last three years, since it is difficult to find adoptive parents for children of their age, and finding them for a set of identical twins determined to stay together makes it even harder. Like many identical twins, Ruth and Thelma complement one another, seeming to be more together than each is alone, and they play off one another in clever, witty ways, with Ruth as the kinder, wiser sister, and Thelma as the wise-cracking cynic.
When Ruth dies, it is in a manner that is consistent with the good person she is. Ten-year-old Tammy Hinsen, a pitiful girl who has been sexually abused and who rooms with the Ackersons, has attempted to commit suicide in the past. She does so again and this time she succeeds, setting fire to herself with lighter fluid as she lays in bed. The fire flares up and Thelma breaks out the windows so they can escape. She turns to reach for Ruth, but Ruth has backed into the room, trying to smother the fire burning Tammy by throwing her blanket over the girl. Instead, Ruth herself catches fire and before Thelma can grab her, the room explodes into flames. Thelma, who cannot reach Ruth, goes out the window. Eventually she comes to accept Ruth's death and the fact that she could do nothing to save her. Life becomes good again for Thelma, "but never the same as it had been before the fire" (87). There is no plot necessity for having Ruth die-she does not enter into the drama of time travel and of Laura's guardian angel attempting to change Laura's fate-and her death is difficult for the reader to accept.
A useful way to approach an issue such as this, one that raises a question and poses no obvious answer, is to ask what would happen if the event were handled differently-to consider how this might change the work. If, for example, Ruth did not die, what effect would that have on the story? Perhaps Laura and Thelma would not become as close as they do, since part of their bonding is their joint mourning for Ruth; but as they are close anyway, this seems a weak reason for having Ruth die. Thelma's humor, the basis of her success as an adult, would probably not be as effective as it is, since the death of Ruth and the experience of her loss add a tragic undertone to Thelma's comedy; but again, this seems an insufficient reason for the death of a child.
However, Ruth's death does bring about another change in Thelma who, along with mourning Ruth, also comes to celebrate her, to think of all the good things in her life as in some way a testament to Ruth and to her love for Ruth. She assures Laura that Ruth would have approved of Danny, that she would have found him perfect for Laura. When Laura tells Thelma that she is putting her into one of her books, Thelma makes certain that Ruth will be in it, too. Thelma shares her own pleasure in the fact that she is carrying twins with Ruth, thinking what pleasure they would give her. Ruth seems always to exist in Thelma's memory and, in this way, to share in her happiness. If, then, Laura learns through her experiences in the novel first to endure, then to fight, and then to accept, Thelma takes the sequence one step further by going beyond acceptance and celebrating the love that she and her sister had (and in her memory, still have) for one another. In this, she becomes a model for Laura, and thus the plot rationale for Ruth's death is that it will provide a pattern whereby Laura, the protagonist of the novel, can attain peace.
Lightning's other major character is the protagonist Stefan Krieger, who is flat (nondimensional) and static (unchanging), even though he plays such a large role in the novel. Very little of Krieger's background is filled out, except for the fact that his father was an early member of Hitler's inner group. This is the rationale that gives credibility to Stefan's membership in the SS-he joined when he was too young to realize exactly what it represented-and for Hitler's trust in him. It also explains why he would have a very sensitive job in the institute. However, little more than this is given of his background, and although he says that the horrors he has taken part in as a member of the SS are what has turned him against it, the reader must take this on faith: none of these are shown, nor do we see him arriving at new insights concerning himself and the world around him. It is also never clear why Laura is so important to him that he returns over and over again to the future to protect her, although he says that it is because of the strength and beauty he sees in her face, even though she is in a wheelchair, and the power of her novels, all of which he has read. Since the reader never knows the Laura he's referring to-the one who was crippled at birth-and since we do not have the chance to read Laura's novels, the basis for the attraction must, like the SS experiences, be taken on faith. Like Laura, Stefan is a static character: at the beginning of the novel his goals are to protect Laura and destroy the institute and, with it, the chance that Germany might win the war. At the end of the novel, he has achieved both. What he may now become, a character from 1944 living in the world of 1989, is left to be developed in another novel.
The third protagonist of the novel is Thelma Ackerson. She is funny, witty, and dear, and she plays a larger role in the story than the number of lines given to her would suggest. Little is explained about her background before entering the children's home, but the interplay between Thelma and her sister Ruth, and their acceptance of Laura, creates the sense of a family and hence of a background. Their advice to Laura about what to do if she finds herself in a foster home that she can't stand is funny and credible, and feels exactly right for two twelve-year-olds who've been through the foster-child mill: "Ruth said, 'Just weep a lot and let everyone know how unhappy you are. If you can't weep, pretend to.' 'Sulk,' Thelma advised. 'Be clumsy. Accidentally break a dish each time you've got to wash them. Make a nuisance of yourself'" (57). And when Laura finds herself in such a home, the Ackerson techniques work. Later, when Ruth dies in the fire, Thelma's despair feels very real and we see her as a dynamic character-someone who has come to learn that the tragedies in life stay with us, and if we are lucky, they become one part of our total experience rather than dominating it. It is interesting that the loss she feels for Ruth is far more moving than is any other character's reaction to loss in the novel: Laura's father to the death of her mother in childbirth, Laura to her father's death and later, to her husband's. This is a function of the fact that Thelma's loss is always with her, that Ruth always exists for her in her present life rather than in the distant past of her childhood. At the very end of the novel, when she is talking with Laura about the fact that she might be carrying twins, she says, "Think how pleased Ruthie would be for me" (354). Thelma is an excellent example of Koontz's ability to flesh out a minor character in such a way that the character takes on life for the reader.
He does something similar with the character of one of his antagonists, the pedophile Willy Sheener, known to the girls in the home as the White Eel. He is a physically ugly man-Koontz's description of him makes him sound like a perverted Howdy Doody-and he seeks out the weak, lonely, unsure girls in the home, giving them candy bars and Tootsie Rolls in exchange for sex. He seems the epitome of evil until Stefan, in his role as guardian angel, breaks into Willy's home to wait for him. He enters his bedroom and discovers that it is a child's room, with bunny rabbit sheets on the narrow bed and furniture built to a child's scale. Sheener also has children's picture books and toys in his room, and they are clearly his, there for his own pleasure and not for some child he might bring there. It seems to Stefan that "Sheener molested children not solely or even primarily for the sexual thrill of it but to absorb their youth, to become young again like them" (61). With this brief description, Koontz takes a character who would otherwise be a stock character-the stereotypical dirty old man who lures children with candy-and he makes something more of him, a person who is tormented and in his torment, forever seeking that which he will never have. Sheener is, however, a static character, since he does not gain insight into himself or the reasons for his actions; he doesn't live long enough for this to take place.
The major antagonist in the novel is Heinrich Kokoschka, a member of the Gestapo and head of institute security. He is a fine example of a stock character, since all we know of him is that he is the classic villain: he is thoroughly evil, he tells Laura that he likes to kill, and when she first sees him, she thinks, "Wintery darkness was an integral part of the man himself" (37). He is so complete a bad guy that he even dresses in all black, and as soon as we read his description, we know his role-one that he never deviates from. There is virtually no background information on Kokoschka, and like all stock characters, he ends as he began, in his case evil to the core.
A final character who is also a stock character is Laura's eight-year-old son, Chris. Thelma always calls him "Christopher Robin" after the classic owner of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, and he could in fact be Christopher Robin or Timmy of Lassie fame or any other spunky young boy who is brave, sensitive, knowledgeable, and loving. Chris has a splendid scene in which, because of all the time he's spent watching Star Trek, he is able to explain the paradoxes and limits of time travel to his mother. Other than this, he is every brave young boy who has adventured through the pages of innumerable children's books and here he is, adventuring once again.
Other than the mountain retreat, Koontz does not do a great deal with homes and buildings in Lightning, with the exception of the pitiful child's bedroom that he creates for Willy Sheener. However, he makes very effective use of clothing to help establish Thelma Ackerson's character. When she appears in Laura's wedding as her witness, Thelma has her hair in a strange, spiky, multicolored style and is wearing tight black pants, a black shirt with artfully arranged holes all over it, a heavy chain belt, and red high heels. She also has on an earring that seems to be a fishhook. She explains to Laura that it's the punk look, popular in Britain but so far unknown in the States, and that it's the perfect look for her: "It's great for my act. I look freaky, so people want to laugh as soon as I step on the stage. It's also good for me. . . .[with punk] you get to hide behind flamboyant makeup and hair, so no one can tell just how homely you are" (105). The style exactly fits Thelma's personality: it's attention grabbing and audacious, and it also reflects her insecurity about her looks. (Apparently, when the Lord gave Thelma and Ruth intelligence, wit, and bravery, He decided that was sufficient, and moved on to others to hand out handsomeness and beauty.)
The most dramatic use of setting in Lightning is the phenomenon that gives the book its title. There are extraordinary lightning storms here, used to herald the arrival of someone who has come through the time tunnel-maybe Stefan, maybe one of the Gestapo squad, maybe SS hit men. The first use is typical of how lightning will be used throughout the novel. It occurs when Stefan is coming to stop the doctor who would otherwise deliver Laura and bungle the birth. There is a tremendous thunderclap that seems to come from the sky and the ground simultaneously, "as if heaven and earth were splitting open. . . .Two extended, overlapping, brilliant bolts seared the darkness. . . .A chain of thunderbolts made the front lawn and street appear to jump repeatedly. . . .All color was burned out of the night" (5-6).
In discussing the events that happened to Laura when she was a child, and whether or not some of them could have been avoided, Stefan tells her that is it very possible that they could not have been, since "Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be" (251). However, in the denouement this statement is amended somewhat when Laura, again thinking about destiny imposing a pattern, thinks, "But sometimes, happily, it fails" in the attempt. And on the next page she amends this again by thinking, when she learns that Thelma is to have twins, "And sometimes, happily, it succeeds" (354). She then has the discussion with Thelma about how she has come to accept fate, not just endure it or fight it, and Koontz's underlying theme here is what it is that enables her to do this-what enables her, like Thelma, to celebrate what she felt for her father, for Danny, for Ruth. These are all people she has loved dearly, and they are people who have loved her dearly.
Hence, Lightning's underlying message is that in loving one another, we give each other the courage to accept life and our individual fates. Koontz opens Part l of the novel with a quotation from the philosopher Lao Tzu: "Being deeply loved by someone/gives you strength;/while loving someone deeply/gives you courage" (1). It is this strength and courage that Thelma has gained through Ruth, and Laura through her father, Ruth, and Danny. Now, like Thelma, she can celebrate them and at the same time accept their fate and her own, recognizing the truth of Thelma's statement that human beings are a vulnerable species. As in many of his novels, Dean Koontz ends with the strong affirmation that it is our love for one another that makes life worth living. If we cannot control fate, we can at least control our reaction to it, and it is our love for one another that ultimately allows us to do this.
This, of course, raises the question of the value of doing any analysis at all, since a particular analysis may be valid only for a particular reader. In general, though, we share many of the same backgrounds and experiences, since we are members of the same culture and live in the same time period. Because of this, one person's analysis of a work is very likely to be similar-or at least acceptable-to that of a great many other readers. And coming from such a shared culture, it is also very likely that a particular analysis will shed light that will benefit other readers by helping them enlarge their perspectives on a work. If I see a work as emphasizing relationships between people and another critic sees the same story as emphasizing the constraints imposed on people by the society around them, perhaps each has had something to learn from the other; perhaps each of us, by reading the other, can broaden our sense of the novel we have read, and see more in it than either of us may have seen alone.
In doing a reader analysis, the critic consciously does a subjective analysis-one that is deliberately based on the critic's personal background-and readers understand that the reading is subjective. In my own case, Lightning is one of my favorite Dean Koontz novels (my other two favorites are Watchers and Dark Rivers of the Heart), despite the fact that Lightning is, in terms of genre, a work of science fiction and I rarely read that particular genre. Nonetheless, this is the Koontz novel with which I identify most closely. The reasons that I do so have little to do with its time-travel and history-altering elements; instead, it is because of the two protagonists, Laura Shane and Thelma Ackerson.
Like Laura Shane, I can absolutely relate to the fantasy of having a guardian angel. I think it would be wonderful to have someone out there watching out just for me, ready to intercede when something terrible is about to happen. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have that someone be a tall, handsome, blue-eyed blond who just happened to recognize how special I was. In fact, as a child I envisioned my guardian angel as looking exactly like this, and my longing for such a creature in my life came surely in part from the fact that I was a brown-skinned minority and, on top of that, a female. As many different studies have shown, members of minority groups tend to be more fearful of the world at large than are members of the majority. We tend to see bias waiting around every corner, verbal slights and put-downs likely to drop from anyone's tongue, and an attitude of caution toward us from most people around us who are holding us in judgment, waiting for us to prove ourselves as worthwhile. Of course, it makes sense to see the world in this way if one is indeed likely to be facing such attitudes, and any person who is in a minority at some time does indeed face these attitudes, but it's also an exhausting way of looking at the world. It's hard to go through life always keeping one's guard up. For this reason, it would be grand to have a guardian angel-someone who could just step in and take over if things got out of hand.
It is also particularly difficult for a child to understand prejudice. I vividly remember thinking that I couldn't help the color of my skin, that it wasn't something I had deliberately chosen in order to offend the people around me, and that surely I should be judged only on those qualities that were within my control, like honesty, kindness, loyalty, and the like. At the time, it seemed almost supernatural to judge someone for something that God had done to them, and therefore it also seemed reasonable that God would provide an antidote. And what better form for an antidote to take than that of a guardian angel? His being tall, blond, handsome, and blue-eyed wouldn't hurt either, since the dominant culture in which I grew up was white Anglo-Saxon male, and if you're going to have a protector, have that protector come from the strongest group around. Thus, because of my own childhood, I am predisposed to accept a guardian angel who acts as a protector for a little girl subject to forces well beyond her control.
I also find that I identify not so much with Laura, the novel's protagonist, but with Thelma, a positive character but, with respect to Laura, a minor one. I suppose the reason that I don't identify with Laura is because she is beautiful, not a self-image I grew up with. By the same token, one of the reasons I do identify with Thelma is because she is so definitely not beautiful. There is even some suggestion that one of the reasons she and her sister Ruth were unlikely to be adopted was because of their looks: "Not pretty girls, they were astonishingly identical in their plainness: lusterless brown hair, myopic brown eyes, broad faces, blunt chins, wide mouths" (44). I read this and think that surely they were meant to be triplets instead of twins, with me as the third member. They substitute for good looks the qualities of intelligence, energy, and being good-natured-qualities far more within my grasp as a child than beauty. I also identify with their roles as outsiders. They are orphans, belonging to no established group, and although I was not an orphan, I was definitely an outsider by virtue of being a minority group member. There is also something very seductive in the notion of twinhood. Like many children, I was convinced that really I was a twin, only something had happened and someone had taken my twin away. And, of course, for Thelma there was such a person, until something happened and her twin was taken away.
I also find that I identify with Thelma as an adult in her role as struggling comic. Humor is a powerful survival tool-if we can laugh at something, we are less likely to cut our wrists over it-and it is also a powerful weapon. People are a bit careful, a little on their guard, when they are around someone with a quick sense of humor, because they never know when it might be turned against them, and no one wants to be laughed at. Therefore, if one feels at bay in the world, humor acts as a survival tool in this way. Finally, the way Thelma dresses has the same effect. In her punk clothes she is attracting attention to herself rather than hiding, hoping not to be noticed, and this is exactly what women are told to do to protect themselves. Over and over we hear that the way to become a victim is to look meek and mild, to hide, to avoid eye contact, to become mouselike. (Poor Tammy, the sexually abused child who commits suicide in Lightning, almost exactly fits this description.) Instead, we are told to walk tall, look sure of ourselves, and meet everyone's gaze with a direct gaze back. If the world is a dangerous place, one way to meet that danger is by looking strong, assertive, and daring-and that is exactly how Thelma looks in her garish punk clothes. There is also an innocence and naļvete to this: if only the right clothes would protect us, how much easier life would be. And when one thinks about the power of logos, of such figures as the polo player prominently displayed on Ralph Lauren clothes, it would seem that many of us do buy into this concept and believe that clothes will make us powerful and, by extension, safe.
Clearly, this is a subjective response to the topic of guardian angels and the character of Thelma, and it is likely that few other readers will respond in this particular way. Nonetheless, such a response is both valid and useful because it can help readers to see a side of Thelma that they may not have thought about; in doing so, they will find more in the story than if they were limited to their own subjective responses. The danger in such subjective readings is that one's reaction to the story, or to some minor element in the story, may be so strong as to seriously distort the work. But this is unlikely to happen if readers analyze their own subjective readings and think about why they have reacted to a work as they have. In doing so, they will not only enrich their experience of the work but also gain self-knowledge, and that's as good a reason for reading a book as anyone has ever come up with.