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The Smell Of Disappointment: A Study Of The Mind, The Body, And The Building

2085 words - 8 pages

The narrator in “The Axe” by Penelope Fitzgerald is the Manager of an unsuccessful company. This unnamed protagonist addresses a letter to his elitist, stereotypically self-important boss. The Manager explains the outcome of the redundancies that he had been assigned, reporting in full detail the termination of his clerical assistant, W.S. Singlebury, an older gentleman whose work is “his life” (Fitzgerald 667). In his letter, the Manager repeatedly makes reference to a pungent smell in the office, about which many staff members complain. The smell of the building is brought up at crucial points in the narrative, and thus the sickening scent, combined with dampness, becomes a strong motif throughout the story.
What is the smell that permeates the office building? This essay will argue that the smell in the office is a physical manifestation of the attitudes and emotions of its inhabitants. The reactions of different characters to the smell in the office building will be examined from cognitive and anthropological viewpoints. For the purpose of this essay “cognitive” will refer to the emotional associations that the characters make with the physical smell and the function of memory in its relation to smell. From the “anthropological” aspect, this essay will focus on the cultural representations of scent appraisal within the narrative. The reader learns about many of the static characters by their reported reactions to the smell: their persistent complaints are contrasted by Singlebury and his alleged understanding of its origin. In this way, the smell in the office building acts as a foil for the Manager, Singlebury and their colleagues. The smell lurks antagonistically throughout the story, growing stronger, highlighting crucial details in the story and cumulating, with the dampness, in the shocking dénouement.
The smell in the office is first revealed as the Manager recalls an unsolicited visit from a damp eliminating firm which he never hired. The mysterious appearance and disappearance of these workers is mentioned right after the Manager describes the appearance and demeanor of the assistant he fires, W.S. Singlebury. The details, such as his simple style of dress and diligent work ethic, make Singlebury seem like an unworthy victim of coercion and job loss. The “odd connection” between the unjust act that the Manager committed and the Manager’s irritation with the dampness and smell seems to indicate a subconscious sense of guilt (Fitzgerald 677). As the letter continues, the Manager grows paranoid, believing with near certainty that Singlebury would return “out of habit” after he is let go (678). He becomes even more concerned when he does not see or hear from Singlebury. The disturbing scent is then wafted again to the forefront of the story, as Patel is said to resign, due to “the damp and the smell” which was “affecting his health” (678). While the physical smell and dampness are tangible enough to affect other workers in the office,...

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