Like this single Hemingway paragraph, “The Cough” contains so much within its short form. As Strunk and White famously said, every word tells. Every word is chosen for its shades of meaning, every image carefully crafted. It’s one of my favorite pieces of flash fiction, not only to read and enjoy, but to teach — especially to English learners — because it’s managable and shows the value of langauge.

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Establishing the Initial Dramatic Situation (EIDS)

Here’s a reading technique I learned long ago (and sadly can’t remember where or who to give credit to). This is a great strategy for English learners, in that it roots you in the story before you move on and read many words. We can all handle just one sentence!

The idea is that authors many times establish so much about the story in just the first sentence, so taking time to dig in will help give context to what we read later.

So first, let’s look at the title: “The Cough.” What do you think the story might be about? What words come to mind when you hear “the cough”?

Maybe sickness, illness, lungs, breathing, doctors, annoying or loud sound. What else comes up for you?

Now, let’s read the first sentence, the “initial dramatic situation.”

Our young father walked Ash Alley whistling “Rescue the Perishing,” but already he carried mine tunnels home in his black-streaked breath.

First, who are the characters? Circle the words that tell you who the characters are.

I see “young father.” Why choose this one word, “young” to describe him? Any ideas? Read on for more…

Who else?

“Our!” That one’s easy to miss. Who is the “our”? Well, probably the kids. So we know immediately this story is told from the children’s perspective.

What’s the setting? The overall situation? Underline key “clues.”

I found “Ash Alley,” which I think is the name of the street. Anything strike you about the name of the street? (Remember, authors choose those details carefully.) Also, He’s going home.

What’s the situation?

He’s whistling a song called “Rescue the Perishing.” What does “perish” mean?

Have you heard the phrase “perishable food” or “unperishable food”? To perish is to decay, die. (So food that’s perishable goes bad, decays.) Hmm… so the father is whistling this song — rescue the dying? What feeling does that give you?

And finally, he “carried mine tunnels home in his black-streaked breath.” Wow. Listen to that phrase “black-streaked breath.” It’s a powerful visual along with the harsh sound of the b’s and cutting “k”: his breath streaked with black. He “carried” the mine tunenls home in that breath. So he didn’t just go to work, come home, and support his family. He carried it home — he couldn’t leave it. It affected his whole life, including his children.

Now I’m thinking back to that title, “The Cough,” and I can see more of the context. This father has black-streaked breath, works in the mines. It’s about sickness, trouble breathing, his lungs affected.

Also, remember he’s “young.” He’s whistling. The contrast between those two details and the dark, haunting “black-streaked breath,” the mines, the suggestion of sickness, is disturbing to me. I feel the tragedy of it just in this first line — he’s young and yet what should be his happy whistling is instead a song talking about rescuing the dying. He’s walking home down “Ash Alley,” like a street of decay, breathing black.

Characterization through Details, Figurative Language

Can you believe we’ve found that much just in the first sentence? Let’s go through the rest of the paragraph, and then I’m going to leave you to do the same practice with the rest of the piece, trusting your own responses.

I say figurative language is especially important in this piece because there is so much of it — basically every sentence stands for more than its literal meaning.

Let’s start with the second sentence:

It was like first sleet against an attic window.

“It” here refers to the breath (from the first sentence). So what image do you get about this breath from this simile — his breath is like first sleet against an attic window?

Here are some things that come to mind for me: cold, harsh, startling, a loud sound, scraping, kind of distant (all the way in the attic), a little spooky (also the attic?). Any others for you? Can you imagine what that breath would sound like, or how the narrator feels when hearing that breath? (See the power of a good simile?!)

Next: We have a view of the mother —

My mother would look at him, her lips a line of impatience and fear. Your lungs will soon be stone, she said.

How does the mother feel? How is she characterized?

I think: She’s concerned about the father’s health! “Impatience and fear.” She’s a little mad at him for doing this; she’s fearful of losing him.

And then, we hear the father’s words:

It’s good money, Dorse. It’s the only money.

So, what is the father’s perspective on this situation?

I have no choice. I have to do it for the money. No other options.

After reading this paragraph, what is the child’s perspective, the narrator’s view? What is the story about so far? What do you think will happen?

Practice: Figurative Language and Characterization Through Details

Now, go through the remaining two paragraphs. Read each sentence as we have been. Focus on what each image, each piece of figurative language, each detail given about a character says to you. Read a sentence, then stop and reflect, make notes in the margin, underline key words or phrases.

Here are some key images to reflect on:

  • the other miners “gray-faced, shoulders bony, they all seemed about to cave in.” What does their presence show us?
  • the mother’s actions: What do we see about her through the details given — planting sage and primrose? The cough “followed her,” “hunkered close.” What do you make of that personification of the cough?
  • Speaking of, the cough is personified (a type of figurative language). It becomes a character. What does the cough do in the story? What is it compared to? What do you interpret about it through what it does? So, overall, what is the effect of that personification in the story? (Why make the cough like a person?)
  • And finally, the father’s conversation with the children about the orrery. What would this model look like? What is the father trying to show the children? What do the children think?

This last image is particularly tough! The orrery is a model of the universe, how the universe works. I always come back to asking myself: How does the father see the universe working, and how do the children see it?

Here’s one idea: Have you heard the phrase “Money makes the world go ’round”? I always think of that when I read this. To me, the children are questioning the father’s reality — Is money all there is? Is it worth it? Also, we’ve read how their world revolves around the cough. The cough is a never-ending, never-ceasing symbol of the father’s declining health, what he’s risking for money. It’s a pretty cynical view of the world the father has. They’re probably looking up at him and the other miners, and thinking: Is this my future? Is this really how the world works? Is there nothing else that’s important?

That’s just my take after reading this story many times! But I hear different interpretations every time I teach it. So … what do you think about this last image, or about the others listed here?

I hope you enjoyed, once again, how much can be done with so few words. Or, how every word can be so important, so layered with meaning through its sound, its shades of meaning, its figurative meaning.

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