Choice and Circumstance
What happens when the life we choose for ourselves conflicts with the life that is
chosen for us? “Shoplifters,” by Maura Stanton, describes a group of shoplifters whose
circumstances speak to the theme of isolation. They are alone, stealing by choice to fill
the void they each share--a lack of relationship with another human. “Night Waitress,”
by Lynda Hull, describes a woman working the night shift by choice. The waitress
complains to herself about the isolation she feels from her decision to take this job. She
too longs for relationship, but her situation makes her incapable of fostering any sort of
companionship. The structures of the two works share a similar pattern but in a reverse
order. One poem goes from focusing on a group to focusing on the individual; the
second poem does the opposite. In both works, routine intersects with reality--usually
represented by job related tasks against human nature and impulse. Then one must
ask if either of these categories are the result of personal choice or involuntary
circumstance. The poems “Shoplifters” and “Night Waitress” illustrate the contrast
between choice and circumstance in the context of relationship, structure, and routine
The sense of loneliness and longing for relationship is so strong and easily
distinguished in both works. The shoplifters circumstances forces them to steal so
that they can foster or mend some type of relationship in their lives. All characters but one choose to steal something that will benefit some other influence in their lives.
“Night Waitress” is a different story. Her choice is determining her circumstance.
She longs and feels the need for relationship but chooses not to do anything about it
because of her job.
The lack of a male figure is also another common factor of the two works. Not
as easily recognized, but it is there. “Shoplifters” mentions three type of women, a
widowed mother, a nun, and two old sister. All three lacking the influence of a male
figure. The widowed mother has the lack due to death. The nun obviously is lacking a
male figure due to choice. The two old sisters could have the lack by choice or perhaps
just coincidence. They could be referred to as spinsters, which is a term used to
refer to single older women who live with other women.
Structure is a very important element in literature. “Shoplifters” and “Night
Waitress” use a very unique type of structure. “Shoplifters” starts out with the phrase “I’d
smoke in the freezer among the hooked beefsides, wondering about the shoplifters who
wept when the manager’s nephew tugged them to his office.” (Stanton, 1) This phrase
gives the poem a cold, dark sense. The poem ends up making a complete
position reversal. Ending with the phrase “Now he peers through the window, watching
me bag groceries for hours until my hands sweat” (Stanton, 38). The poem still has a
dark feel, but it now gives the sense of hot and sticky. “Night Waitress” has a similar
reversal but instead of using temperature, it takes the reversal in the sense of
perception. The server talks as if she is invisible to the men that come into the
dinner at night, she says that they don’t see her because she’s tired. “At this hour the
men all look as if they’d never had mothers. They don’t see me.” (Hull, 10) By the end of
the poem this perception has turned. “Men surge to the factories and I’m too tired to
look” (Hull, 41). Instead of her being invisible to the men, they are invisible to her.
What is the quality that links the waitress and the bagger? Both poems are
told in the first-person, with both speakers discussing their occupations. It is a
description of routine, responsibility, and obligation. The waitress seems to view
herself as a robot: filling the customers' drinks,...
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