Overcoming the Fire
In Susan Perabo’s short story, “Some Say the World,” fire is the most prominent element in the lives of the story’s three main characters: the daughter, the mother, and Mr. Arnette. Each of their lives is controlled and affected by the daughter’s obsession with fire. The fire is an essential part of the daughter’s life; she uses fire as a way to gain attention, deal with abandonment, feel alive and needed, and fill a maternal void. The fire has taken on its own life to her.
By the end of the story, we see that she is able to let go of her obsession with fire because she finally has a parental figure in her life to give her the love and attention that she had always longed for. For the title, Perabo chooses a line from a Robert Frost poem about fire and ice. Before the story ever begins, fire is assumed from the title, “Some Say the World. ” As we begin to read, our suspicion of fire is confirmed in the first sentence; in the first line where the daughter states, “There is a fire in my heart” (Perabo 198).
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This metaphorical fire that the daughter is speaking of is the emotional turmoil in her heart; the fire from a lack of attention and substantial abandonment issues. The first mention of fire is when the daughter was in sixth grade; this is also when she first became aware of her parents’ affair. With her father not having seen her since she was five and her mother leaving her alone to have an affair with the father that abandoned them, this created a feeling of being abandoned by both parents, especially with all of her mother’s moods being dependent upon her father’s moods.
The fire started as her outlet for her feelings of abandonment and became an unhealthy obsession to deal with her issues. For example, “They have met every Monday in the same motel since I was in the sixth grade and playing with lighters under my covers after bedtime” (Perabo 199). While her parents had their metaphorical fire, she began her love for literal fire.
Demonstrating her desire for attention, the daughter started a fire at Neiman Marcus, her mother’s workplace; “At Neiman Marcus, where my mother works, they found me in a dressing room last winter with a can of lighter fluid and my pockets stuffed with old underwear and dishtowels” (Perabo 199). If her obsession was strictly the enjoyment of setting things on fire, she could have chosen anyplace; instead, she chose her mother’s workplace, on a day her mother was at work. This is her way of letting her mother know she wants attention, good or bad. This was not done ith a malicious intent. She brought along a can of lighter fluid, old underwear, and dishtowels; all of these things that she had found at home, instead of damaging store property. She came to the store on a day when her mother was working, to start a fire, in hopes that her mother may finally notice her. With a lack of a maternal role, her descriptions of fire symbolize her view of a mother’s love and affection. Perabo writes, “When I realized the fire was like blood, water, shelter. Essential. The thing about fire is this: it is yours for one glorious moment.
You bear it, you raise it” (200). With this statement, Perabo shows the daughter admitting her dependence upon fire, since she has no one else to depend on. Much like a mother is supposed to care for her children; she is caring for her fire; by bearing and raising it. Perabo states: The first time, in the record store downtown, I stood over the bathroom trash can, thinking I would not let it grow, that I would love it only to a point, and then kill it. That is the trick with fire. For that thirty seconds, you have a choice: spit on it, step on it, douse it with a can of Coke.
But wait one moment too long, get caught up in its beauty, and it has grown beyond your control. And it is that moment that I live for. The relinquishing. The power passes from you to it. The world opens up, and you with it. (200) This is a description of her emotional state, and need for maternal affection. Much like her mother has done to her, she loves her fires to a point. She speaks of them like they’re her children. She feels that her mother has loved her to a certain point, and then metaphorically killed her emotionally by turning her back on the daughter, choosing men and a lifestyle above caring for a rehabilitating her daughter.
The fire is a comparison to the daughter. Much like the fire can get out of control, she realizes she is also out of control. At first the daughter used fire for attention, but eventually it grew to consume her life; it was the only thing that made her feel alive and needed. Perabo states, “He stuck his tongue in my ear in the Haunted House ride and I barely noticed because they had a burning effigy of our rival school’s mascot on the wall. The fire licked along the walls and I realized with absolute glee that they had set up one hell of a fire hazard” (202).
Perabo shows that the fire eventually became a habit for the daughter; it was the only thing that could produce amusement and happiness for her. She had become damaged from years of emotional neglect and abandonment; fire had been her only constant companion. Fire is her companion and comfort throughout life. After witnessing her parents in the hotel, she immediately wanted a cigarette and enjoyed the feeling of the heat from the car lighter. Emotionally numbed from years of neglect and medication, fire is the one thing that makes her feel alive.
She makes note of the feeling as she says, “I pull the lighter out, touch my fingers close enough to the middle to feel the raw heat. Then I light my cigarette and blow smoke into the windshield” (Perabo 208). She doesn’t mind the pain; it is something that makes her feel real, in a life hazed by medication. At the end of the story, the reader is able to see that the fatherly love and affection from Mr. Arnette is exactly what she needs to overcome her desire for fire. He has taken care of her in the parental ways that both of her parents have neglected to do.
She is prevailing over her obsession with fire; as Perabo states, “We swing around again. Below me, I see a circle of teenagers standing around a small bonfire, warming their hands. Sparks pop around them and die in the grass as the flame reaches higher. The Ferris wheel whips us towards it, and then away again, up into the night” (209). She is moving away from the fire, because it is no longer essential. Earlier in the story she had seen the fire as an essential element to life. She now has another person to be there for her; therefore, the fire isn’t a requirement any longer.
Throughout Perabo’s short story, “Some Say the World,” we see the daughter using fire as an essential part of her life. It makes her feel alive, needed, and assists her with her feelings of abandonment, lack of control, and need for attention. With coming to the realization that she finally has a loving parental figure in her life, she is able to move away from the fire. Throughout the story, Perabo shows a young girl willing and wanting to overcome her pyromania; the daughter is finally able to accomplish this by having Mr. Arnette in her life to show her the attention, love, and affection she desired in a parent through her life.
Perabo, Susan. “Some Say the World.” TriQuarterly, 1994. 198-210. Print.