Analysis of 'Tenth of December' by George Saunders

Imagination, Reality, and Integration

A frozen pond

Winslow Productions / Getty Images

George Saunders' deeply moving story "Tenth of December" originally appeared in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. It was later included in his well-received 2013 collection, "Tenth of December," which was a best seller and National Book Award finalist.

"Tenth of December" is one of the freshest and most compelling contemporary short stories, but it is almost impossible to talk about the story and its meaning without making it sound trite: something along the lines of, "A boy helps a suicidal man find the will to live," or, "A suicidal man learns to appreciate the beauty of life."

It's not that the themes are wildly unique—yes, the little things in life are beautiful, and no, life isn't always neat and clean. What's impressive is Saunders' ability to present familiar themes as if we're seeing them for the first time.

Below are some of the features of "Tenth of December" that particularly stand out; perhaps they'll resonate for you, too.

Dreamlike Narrative

The story constantly shifts from the real to the ideal, to the imagined, to the remembered.

For example, the boy in Saunders' story, Robin, walks through the woods imagining himself a hero. He trudges through the woods tracking imaginary creatures called Nethers, who have kidnapped his alluring classmate, Suzanne Bledsoe.

Reality merges seamlessly with Robin's pretend world as he glances at a thermometer reading 10 degrees ("That made it real"), as well as when he begins to follow actual human footprints while still pretending that he's tracking a Nether. When he finds a winter coat and decides to follow the footsteps so he can return it to its owner, he recognizes that "[i]t was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of."

Don Eber, the terminally ill 53-year-old man in the story, holds conversations in his head. He is pursuing his own imagined heroics—in this case, going into the wilderness to freeze to death in order to spare his wife and children the suffering of caring for him as his illness progresses.

His own conflicted feelings about his plan come out in the form of imagined exchanges with adult figures from his childhood and, finally, in the grateful dialogue he fabricates between his surviving children when they realize how selfless he's been.

He considers all the dreams he'll never achieve (such as delivering his "major national speech on compassion"), which seems not so different from fighting Nethers and saving Suzanne—these fantasies seem unlikely to happen even if Eber lives another 100 years.

The effect of the movement between real and imagined is dreamlike and surreal—an effect that is only heightened in the frozen landscape, especially when Eber enters the hallucinations of hypothermia.

Reality Wins

Even from the beginning, Robin's fantasies can't make a clean break from reality. He imagines the Nethers will torture him but only "in ways he could actually take." He imagines that Suzanne will invite him to her pool, telling him, "It's cool if you swim with your shirt on."

By the time he has survived a near-drowning and near-freezing, Robin is solidly grounded in reality. He starts to imagine what Suzanne might say, then stops himself, thinking, "Ugh. That was done, that was stupid, talking in your head to some girl who in real life called you Roger."

Eber, too, is pursuing an unrealistic fantasy that he will eventually have to give up. Terminal illness transformed his own kind stepfather into a brutal creature he thinks of only as "THAT." Eber—already tangled in his own deteriorating ability to find accurate words—is determined to avoid a similar fate. He thinks that he "would have preempted all future debasement" and that his "fears about the coming months would be mute. Moot." 

But "this incredible opportunity to end things with dignity" is interrupted when he sees Robin moving dangerously across the ice carrying his—Eber's—coat.

Eber greets this revelation with a perfectly prosaic, "Oh, for sh*tsake." His fantasy of an ideal, poetic passing won't come to be, a fact readers may have guessed when he landed on "mute" rather than "moot."

Interdependence and Integration

The rescues in this story are beautifully intertwined. Eber rescues Robin from the cold (if not from the actual pond), but Robin would never have fallen into the pond in the first place if he hadn't tried to rescue Eber by taking his coat to him. Robin, in turn, saves Eber from the cold by sending his mother to go get him. But Robin has also already saved Eber from suicide by falling into the pond.

The immediate need to save Robin forces Eber into the present, and being in the present seems to help integrate Eber's various selves—past and present. Saunders writes:

"Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med-bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring."

Eventually, Eber begins to see the illness (and its inevitable indignities) not as negating his previous self but simply as being one part of who he is. Likewise, he rejects the impulse to hide his suicide attempt from his children because it, too, is part of who he is.

As he synthesizes the pieces of himself, he is also able to integrate his gentle, loving stepfather with the vitriolic brute he became in the end. Remembering the generous way his desperately ill stepfather listened attentively to Eber's presentation on manatees, Eber sees that there are "drops of goodness" to be had even in the worst situations.

Though he and his wife are in unfamiliar territory, "stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s house," they are together.