James Robertson's short story 'The Claw' is a good example of a tale in which setting is crucial to both character and action. The narrative is set in a nursing home and the entire action of the story takes place during a single visit. A man of 35 visits his aging grandfather-the old man is 98. At first it seems like a casual situation, a conversation between two relatives who are fond of each other but hugely different in every way.
However, as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the two men have a great deal in common: each of them is facing illness and death, and each of them is afraid. The setting is immediately obvious from the start of the story. The two men are sitting having a cup of tea in the grandfather's room in the nursing home. The old man is very frail and needs help "to get to the bathroom or the dining room". He has to use a chair lift to get downstairs, and when the staff are too busy to help him, he has meals in his room. This is "happening more and more" and the old man half-jokes: "They " re keeping me a prisoner here".
The grandfather is clearly not only very old, but starting to deteriorate. His hand is compared to a 'claw', and this image, which also forms the title of the short story, quickly starts to symbolism the whole idea of the way the body breaks down before death. It also seems to represent fear-perhaps the idea that death itself is a claw, an aggressive threat. The nursing home is, in one way, a safe and caring place. In another, it really does represent the 'prison' the old man jokes about. He cannot manage without assistance and the woman who brings the tray of tea, Meg, appears at both start and end of the story.
She is a minor character, but she has an important function. She reminds the old man and the reader that this is a setting in which carers are essential and where death is never very far away. The story is told in the first person from the grandson's point of view. This allows him to give a vivid visual description of the old man, his bony body "like skeletal macrame" and his upper arms "thin as ropes".
The narrative tone is affectionate in its detail and quickly the reader picks up a sense of the old man. He is nearly blind, but he hasn't lost his sense of humour. He compares himself to a car with "98,000 miles on the clock". He has had two hip replacements but won't be having another as "They " re not making the parts for his model".
The mood in this early part of the story (apart from the sinister 'claw' image of the old man's hand drinking tea) is quite positive. The grandfather seems to greet his increasing infirmity with good humour and the grandson is obviously fond of him. The situation, in the old man's room, over a cup of tea and a pink wafer biscuit, feels almost safe. However, it is not safe. The first-person narrative allows for an unexpected twist which forces the reader suddenly to see the whole conversation in a different light. We are informed that the grandson has visited the old man three times in three months, watching his gradual deterioration but still feeling that the grandfather's face somehow "seems stronger, in spite of the sightless eyes".
Then suddenly a key piece of information is revealed: "I am only thirty-five but watching him I feel as old as he looks. I am HIV-positive. In the last year I've studied my soul from all sides, and every morning I begin the examination again". From this point forward, it is clear that the nursing home setting has a very particular relevance for both men. The old man is there because he is so near death; the young man is there, not just as a visitor, but as a person who knows that he will also need nursing care-perhaps in the none too distant future. So the visits to the grandfather serve two functions: partly the grandson is there through sheer affection, but clearly his visits are also part of the mental process he is going through, studying his "soul from all sides".
The situation over the cup of tea now seems less 'cosy' than it did. The two men chatting over past memories are both threatened, both examining their souls, in one sense or another. And the closeness is illusory too. The young man has not told his grandfather that he is ill. He has clearly not even shared the fact that he is homosexual. He is scared of dying and also isolated by the fact that he can't share any of his fears.
Even as he is talking to the old man he worries that his grandfather "sees and hears more than he lets on" and he finds the idea "disconcerting". He feels that the old man's knowledge of him is "constructed on a set of evasions and unrevealed truths". The conversation over tea continues, but now the reader knows the young man's secret fears. The idea of 'unrevealed truths's seems to change the tone and mood of the story although there is humorous description of the old man's nostalgic recollections and car trip to Perth in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is clear that the old man too, is actually more fragile than he seemed at first.
He has recently has "a turn" and this has altered his behaviour. He has been found unaccountably on his feet pacing the corridors of the home, in his imagination revisiting his dead wife or the men who died during the first world war. The young man relates to this closely and his observations on the old man can clearly just as well apply to himself: "Perhaps this is how we prepare for death, by revisiting the people that were dearest to us, or whose being taken from us was the worst to bear. Perhaps we have to apologise for surviving".
It becomes clear that the visit to the old man may be part of the younger man's preparation for death. The young man yearns for the 'safe' country of the old man's memories and his emotion strengthens as he longs to share his secret with his grandfather. A sequence of powerful rhetorical questions show his inner distress and isolation. "How can I tell him... ?" he thinks, starting three sentences with this same repeated phrase. "I would like to try to explain, to say that I've been in the trenches too". But there is to be no sharing of confidences: "Instead we sit and talk about jobs I might do...
". The setting at this point has receded a little. The two men might almost be sitting talking anywhere-in a caf'e or a private house. Then there is sudden change signalled by a section break and a paragraph break.
The old man suddenly becomes ill: "His face seems to collapse and drain of colour". Immediately the young man presses the bell for help and the nursing home setting reasserts itself. Meg, the carer, comes in. She is able to bring a degree of reassurance ("he just needs to lie down for a while") but at the same time she seems to represent the reality of illness and death. For the first time, the grandson sees that the old man is quite scared: "Suddenly I see fear swirling in his milky eyes".
Just like his grandfather, the younger man feels "helpless and afraid" and at the end of the story he leaves very quickly, horrified by the reality that he, too, will be dependent on a female carer, unable to look after himself. The last sentences capture his inner panic: .".. I wish I was away, and never coming back. I can't stand the thought of invalids.
Of being at the mercy of others". The "mercy of others" is deeply ironic: instead of having positive connotations, it suddenly evokes the idea that the carers have taken control, removed the person from a human situation and made them into a dying 'thing'. 'The Claw' is a very short story-only a few pages long. Its action similarly takes place over a very short period of time and in a very confined setting: one room in a nursing home. Yet this room, with the carer who comes in twice-at start and finish of the story-is a perfect setting for the central themes of mortality and fear of death. James Robertson.
The Claw (short story).