'At the Bar' by William McIlvanney
Key questions you will be looking to answer are about:
2) Turning point
3) Moment of realisation
4) Surprise ending
Remember the big man has two moments of realisation; first when he realises the denim man has drunk his pint. He decides to ignore this and buy the denim man a pint. The second realisation comes when the denim man continues to be cheeky and the big man realises he will have to be violent to regain his pride.
The moment of climax is when the big man punches the denim man. This is the surprise at the end of the story!
Below I have simply listed key quotations from the short story. I have used the page numbers from the hand-out we used in class - Page 77- 80
Notes and quotes:
At the start of the short story the atmosphere is quiet and dull:
Line one: "The pub was quiet."
This set the atmosphere early on. The poet uses sentence structure to emphasise how quiet and dull the bar is. The kind of sentence he uses is a short sentence. This grabs our attention and lets this important piece of information sink in straight away.
The big man appears to have recently come out of prison because of his outdated and overlarge clothes:
Line 3: "The suit was slightly out of fashion yet looked quite new and it was too big for him."
The Big man seems to fit in with the quiet and placid environment as he seems quiet and innocent:
Line 11"He looked along the gantry with a bemused innocence, like a small boy in a sweet shop"
Here the poet uses a simile to compare the big man to a small innocent child in a sweet shop.
Just as a small child would be happy and excited with the choice of sweets on offer in a sweet shop so the big man is in awe at the amount of drinks he has to choose from. This simile makes him seem quiet and makes the moment when he flips out more surprising.
The poet uses a great metaphor to describe the skin tone of the big man:
"His pallor suggested a plant kept out of the light."
"Pallor" is the colour and look of his skin. Here the poet compares the big man's unhealthy pale skin to a plant that has been kept out of the light. This is a good metaphor to use as a plant kept out of the light would be yellow and unhealthy looking. The man may look yellow and unhealthy as he has spent so much time locked up away from the outdoors.
All of these techniques used to describe the big man are examples of 'Characterisation'. This is a good word to use when discussing how the poet has created a quiet and well behaved character.
Then the denim man enters and tries to get people to look at him so that he can accuse them of something and start a fight. The characterisation of the big man is very different.
Line 15 "Nasty hard"
Line 16 "Fidgety drinker"
Line 19 "He kept glancing along at the big man and seemed annoyed no reaction."
Line 20 "His eyes were a demonstration looking for a place to happen."
This makes the reader dislike this unpredictable and violent character. The big man seems to ignore him which winds the denim man up even more.
The atmosphere of the bar is still very quiet, calm and placid.
Line 28: "The barman was relieved to see Old Dave come towards the bar as if he was walking across America"
This is a good simile to show how slowly the pace of life is in the bar. It compares the amount of time Old Dave takes to reach the bar with the amount of time it would take to walk across America.
When the denim man does not get a reaction out of the big man he drinks his pint to cause tension.
The moment of realisation and the climax.
The big man remains calm and polite when he finds his pint is gone:
"Excuse me. Ah had a pint there"
This shows the big man's quiet manner in the short sentences and polite word choice. He does not blame the denim man or anyone else and he is not looking for trouble. This shows that he is not thinking of violence before his moment of realisation. However when the denim man owns up to it in a very sarcastic way the atmosphere changes from dull to electrically charged.
"The moment crackled like an electrical storm"
This is the moment the big man realises what has happened and turns from being quiet and polite to angry. This simile shows the friction and possibility as the big man has to think about how to react. The situation is made even tenser when the denim man challenges and provokes him further. The poet then uses a great image that would be perfectly at home in a western film:
"The silence prolonged itself like an empty street with a man at either end of it."
This shows the tense atmosphere between the two men and how the big man feels this tension also as he is silent while deciding what he should do. The reader realises there may be violence as the connotations (what the words or images make us think of) suggest two cowboys across a deserted street with some locals about to watch a gun fight where one dies and one is victorious. The big man continues to rise above the situation and appears to make his decision to defuse the situation.
"The big man stared and lowered his eyes, looked up and smiled. It wasn't convincing. Nonchalant surrender never is."
The big man tries to be pleasant and take it as a joke although the reader feels that he does not truly feel this. He continues to joke when he offers to buy the denim man a drink:
"Get the man a pint of heavy"
This seems to be the end of the moment of realisation where he decides that violence is not worth it and he seeks to avoid conflict. However, that changes when the denim man keeps pushing. He has already been very cheeky to the big man:
"Ye had a pint there but I drank it. That's the dinky dory"
When the denim man continues to be cheeky the big man has a second moment of realisation and realises he has to do something to get the denim man back.
The denim man continues to wind the big man up by saying: “Your good health. You obviously value it."
He is deliberately trying to make a fool of the big man and is assuming the role of the victorious person. He makes remarks like this which make the big man look like a coward. This statement and his wink to the bar man end the big man’s second moment of realisation as he realises that he needs to do something to regain his pride.
He realises now that he must teach the denim man a lesson in a language he will understand (violence).
The climax scene
The climax of the story is when the big man punches the denim man.
The poet's explosive language and imagery of the climax scene show the outcome of the big man's second moment of realisation for both characters. The big man suddenly attacks the denim man:
"...big man's clenched right fist had hit the base of the glass like a demolition ball"
This simile compares the big man's fist with a demolition ball and shows the reader the force at which the fist hits the glass. The notion of sudden violence is clear.
"Splintered scream among the shards of volleying glass and exploding beer..."
The verbs volleying and exploding show the force of the scene and the alliteration (repetition of 's' and 'sh') makes the glass seem all the sharper. The reader realises the outcome of the short story has suddenly changed and we have an unexpected ending. The big man has now come out as the clear winner. The most impressive thing is that the big man switches back to self-control and restraint:
"The name's Rafferty. Cheerio. Nice shop you run."
He is willing to take control and responsibility for his own actions and leaves his name in case the denim man pursues him. The reaction of the bar man lets us know that the big man did the right thing and left victorious:
"'You're barred', he said"
Essay questions for 'At the Bar'
1) Choose a novel or short story in which there is an obvious turning point or climax.
Show how the writer leads up to this turning point or climax, and say what its significance is for the overall story.
In your answer you must refer to the text and two at least two of the following: Structure, plot, key incident(s), or any other appropriate feature.
2) Choose a novel or short story in which one of the main characters has to struggle with difficulties in order to reach a satisfactory outcome.
Outline the difficulties which face the character you have chosen and show how her or his strengths and weaknesses affect the course of the story and how a satisfactory ending is reached.
In your answer you must refer to the text and two at least two of the following: Characterisation, plot, climax, dialogue, or any other appropriate feature.