Analysis of 'Gryphon' by Charles Baxter

A Story About Imagination

Gryphon canopy brace.
Image courtesy of Laurel L. Ruswwurm.

Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" originally appeared in his 1985 collection, Through the Safety Net. It has since been included in several anthologies, as well as in Baxter's 2011 collection. PBS adapted the story for television in 1988.

Plot

Ms. Ferenczi, a substitute teacher, arrives in a fourth-grade classroom in rural Five Oaks, Michigan. The children immediately find her both peculiar and intriguing.

They have never met her before, and we are told that "[s]he didn't look usual." Before even introducing herself, Ms. Ferenczi declares that the classroom needs a tree and begins drawing one on the board -- an "outsized, disproportionate" tree.

Though Ms. Ferenczi executes the prescribed lesson plan, she clearly finds it tedious and intersperses the assignments with increasingly fantastic stories about her family history, her world travels, the cosmos, the afterlife, and various natural marvels.

The students are mesmerized by her stories and her manner. When the regular teacher returns, they are careful not to reveal what's been going on in his absence.

A few weeks later, Ms. Ferenczi reappears in the classroom. She shows up with a box of Tarot cards and begins to tell the students' futures. When a boy named Wayne Razmer pulls the Death card and asks what it means, she breezily tells him, "It means, my sweet, that you will die soon." The boy reports the incident to the principal, and by lunchtime, Ms.

Ferenczi has left the school for good.

Tommy, the narrator, confronts Wayne for reporting the incident and getting Ms. Ferenczi dismissed, and they end up in a fistfight. By the afternoon, all the students have been doubled up in other classrooms and are back to memorizing facts about the world.

'Substitute Facts'

There's no question that Ms.

Ferenczi plays fast and loose with the truth. Her face has "two prominent lines, descending vertically from the sides of her mouth to her chin," which Tommy associates with that famous liar, Pinocchio.

When she fails to correct a student who has said that six times 11 is 68, she tells the incredulous children to think of it as a "substitute fact." "Do you think," she asks the children, "that anyone is going to be hurt by a substitute fact?"

This is the big question, of course. The children are enthralled -- enlivened -- by her substitute facts. And in the context of the story, I frequently am, too (then again, I found Miss Jean Brodie pretty charming until I caught on to the whole fascism thing).

Ms. Ferenczi tells the children that "[w]hen your teacher, Mr. Hibler, returns, six times eleven will be sixty-six again, you can rest assured. And it will be that for the rest of your lives in Five Oaks. Too bad, eh?" She seems to be promising something so much better, and the promise is alluring.

The children argue about whether she's lying, but it's clear that they -- especially Tommy -- want to believe her, and they try to produce evidence in her favor. For instance, when Tommy consults a dictionary and finds "gryphon" defined as "a fabulous beast," he misunderstands the use of the word "fabulous" and takes it as evidence that Ms.

Ferenczi is telling the truth. When another student recognizes the teacher's description of a Venus flytrap because he's seen a documentary about them, he concludes that all her other tales must be true as well.

At one point Tommy attempts to make up a story of his own. It's as if he doesn't just want to listen to Ms. Ferenczi; he wants to be like her and create his own flights of fancy. But a classmate cuts him off. "Don't you try to do it," the boy tells him. "You'll just sound like a jerk." So on some level the children do seem to understand that their substitute is making things up, but they love hearing her anyway.

Gryphon

Ms. Ferenczi claims to have seen a real gryphon -- a creature half lion, half bird -- in Egypt. The gryphon is an apt metaphor for the teacher and her stories because both combine real parts into unreal wholes.

Her teaching vacillates between the prescribed lesson plans and her own whimsical storytelling. She bounces from actual wonders to imagined wonders. She can sound sane in one breath and delusional in the next. This mix of the real and the unreal keeps the children unsteady and hopeful.

What's Important Here?

For me, this story is not about whether Ms. Ferenczi is sane, and it's not even about whether she's right. She's a breath of excitement in the children's otherwise dull routine, and that makes me, as a reader, want to find her heroic. But she can only be considered a hero if you accept the false dichotomy that school is a choice between boring facts and thrilling fictions. It isn't, as many genuinely wonderful teachers prove every day. (And I should make it clear here that I can stomach the character of Ms. Ferenczi only in a fictional context; no one like this has any business in a real classroom.)

What's truly important in this story is the children's intense longing for something more magical and intriguing than their everyday experience. It's a longing so intense that Tommy is willing to engage in a fistfight over it, shouting, "She was always right! She told the truth!" in spite of all the evidence.

Readers are left pondering the question of whether "anyone is going to be hurt by a substitute fact." Does no one get hurt? Is Wayne Razmer hurt by the prediction of his imminent death? (One would imagine so.) Is Tommy hurt by having a tantalizing view of the world held out to him, only to see it abruptly withdrawn?

Or is he richer for having glimpsed it at all?

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Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'Gryphon' by Charles Baxter." ThoughtCo, May. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/analysis-of-gryphon-by-charles-baxter-2990403. Sustana, Catherine. (2017, May 7). Analysis of 'Gryphon' by Charles Baxter. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-of-gryphon-by-charles-baxter-2990403 Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'Gryphon' by Charles Baxter." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-of-gryphon-by-charles-baxter-2990403 (accessed November 23, 2017).