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Washburn’s “What the Ocean Eats” and Stevenson’s “The High Road”


Both of the selected stories, Kawai Strong Washburn’s “What the Ocean Eats” and Bryan Stevenson’s “The High Road,” are interesting to read and focus on important topics resorting to one’s emotions and feelings. However, a detailed analysis of the two pieces allows noticing structural differences and making conclusions as to which story is written better in terms of plotting and characterization. Despite being much shorter, “The High Road” contains many elements constituting a well-written story. Still, “What the Ocean Eats” has more of the crucial aspects executing narrative criteria better. Based on the analysis of the selected literature standards, “What the Ocean Eats” is considered better than “The High Road.”

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The first narrative criterion by which stories will be compared and contrasted is plotting. In both stories, the sequence of events is driven by realistic characters and seems natural rather than artificially contrived. In “The High Road,” the character of the law student is rather authentic: the young man repeatedly mentions how sorry he is for his lack of experience (Stevenson 387). The man whom the narrator has come to visit is also described as quite natural, looking “immediately familiar” and “like everyone” the narrator “grew up with” (Stevenson 387). The course of events that are described in the story is not artificial, all emotions and words of the main characters sound sincere and personal.

The narrative is complete since there is a beginning, middle, and resolution. The conflict stage is when the narrator first sees the client and does not quite know how to behave. The crisis stage is when the convicted man realizes he is not going to be executed “anytime in the next year” (Stevenson 388). This part of plotting is the most extensive one since the two men spend much time talking, which results in their finding out many things in common. Finally, the resolution demonstrates that both characters have been transformed from the way they were at the beginning. The law student has become more confident and passionate about his future job. To him, even the “still silence” of the space where they met “sounded different” from when he entered (Stevenson 389). Meanwhile, the convicted man turned from “worried” to hopeful and compassionate (Stevenson 388). Hence, it is viable to consider the story’s narrative as complete.

Finally, the resolution is believable rather than neat or happy. There is no mentioning of the convicted man’s future, but he will probably end up on death row. The author does not try to make the ending optimistic despite both main characters feeling rather hopeful after their conversation. Plotting as a narrative criterion in “The High Road” is structured rather successfully and contains all the necessary elements.

The sequence of events in “What the Ocean Eats,” as well as in “The High Road,” is driven by realistic characters and seems quite natural. The relationships between the daughter and father are depicted with numerous details, starting from the point when the girl’s parents got divorced. The girl’s inner confrontation, driven by different views and interests of her parents, is described so ardently that one has no doubt about the events’ authenticity.

The narrative of “What the Ocean Eats” is complete, containing conflict, crisis, and resolution. The conflict stage is the longest, including Pomai’s thoughts about her childhood and parents’ disagreements (Washburn 375-382). Then, at the crisis stage, the father and daughter engage in an unannounced surfing competition which, in fact, is their interpersonal battle. Pomai wants to prove to her father that she has learned to surf by herself and can do it better than him.

Meanwhile, Rylan desires to show his daughter that her nature is truly Hawai’ian, just like his, and that she inherited more from him than she thinks. Most of all, the crisis is vivid in the revelation of the man’s desire to prove to his daughter that he is worthy of her respect and love (Washburn 384). The transformation of Pomai is evident since the girl starts recollecting her childhood and teenage years and realizes that he truly was there for her, much more often than she had wanted to remember (Washburn 386). Finally, the resolution is real rather than ideal: despite the father’s hope to see his daughter’s happiness at noticing him, she is “still so far away” (Washburn 386). Therefore, both “What the Ocean Eats” and “The High Road” are well-written in terms of plotting.

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Whereas the evaluation of the two stories’ plotting shows a similar level of correspondence with narrative standards, the analysis of characterization demonstrates divergences. In this respect, “What the Ocean Eats” is better-written than “The High Road.” To begin with, there is no clear division between the protagonist’s and antagonist’s roles. Both the narrator (law student) and his client (convicted man) seem equal in their roles. Only one of the characters’ appearance is described in detail: the narrator describes him as a “young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair—clean-shaven, medium build” (Stevenson 387). What concerns the narrator, his appearance is not mentioned in the text, but he notes that he is of the same age as his client.

Another drawback of the story’s characterization is that the characters’ emotions seem to be represented with hyper-drama rather than realism and subtlety. In the beginning, the narrator repeatedly says how sorry he is that he is “not a real lawyer” but only a student (Stevenson 387). Then, the convicted man’s reaction to the law student’s news is also somehow overdramatized: he grabbed the narrator’s hands, and then “squeezed” his hands tighter (Stevenson 388). Probably the most positive element of characterization in “The High Road” is the description of the convicted man’s emotions through action rather than telling when his singing is mentioned. His “strong and clear” baritone and voice “filled with desire” awed the narrator (Stevenson 388, 389). However, this element is probably the only positive one about the story’s characterization. The convicted man’s way of speaking does not suit him; it would be more relevant if he used more contractions or some slang words. Furthermore, no figurative language is employed to make the story’s characterization deeper.

On the contrary to “The High Road,” “What the Ocean Eats” contains many elements pertaining to the standards of literature. First of all, it is clear that Pomai is the story’s protagonist, and Rylan is the antagonist. The primary character is complicated rather than flat, and the author utilizes description, action, and dialogue to explain her nature instead of describing it by words. The same concerns Pomai’s father, the antagonist, whose manner of speaking and actions speak better than any words would do. The dialogue between the two main characters allows the reader to learn much about them. For instance, the father’s mistakes in speaking indicate his level of education and resistance to accept the rules of the “mainland” (Washburn 378). Rylan speaks simply and not necessarily grammatically correct: “How you been?” “You going to wait” (Washburn 376), “when you was” (Washburn 380). Pomai’s speech is also vivid, not ‘wooden,’ filled with contractions, slang words, and even a few vulgarisms.

Another significant positive element of the story’s characterization is the use of figurative language as descriptive devices. At the very beginning, the girl’s feelings are described by means of a metaphor “An eel of fear,” indicating that anxiety and dismay are so strong that they can approach and choke her silently and unexpectedly (Washburn 375). There are many more metaphors, the implied meaning of which serves better than any direct description could: “swiping through the ashes” is used to denote Pomai’s path toward success through difficulties (Washburn 375). The metaphor “industrial blades of the government” symbolizes Rylan’s hatred toward politicians’ activity (Washburn 377). Particularly beautiful and pronouncing metaphors are used to describe the ocean: “the slow-breathing lungs of an animal,” “the ocean spits at her,” “the blue cave of glass” (Washburn 379). By using these descriptive devices, the author shows the characters’ attitudes toward nature, each other, and their feelings without having to name these directly. Similes bear a similar function, but they are more direct in meaning: “face like concrete” (Washburn 376), “whooping, like a war cry” (378), “wave breaks like a truck accident” (384). Overall, figurative language in “What the Ocean Eats” makes the story’s characterization much richer than in “The High Road.”


At first glance, Bryan Stevenson’s “The High Road” and Kawai Strong Washburn’s “What the Ocean Eats” are interesting stories with unique features of plotting and characterization. However, a thorough analysis of the two readings allows concluding that “What the Ocean Eats” is structured better in terms of figurative language, dialogue, and characters’ description and voice. Whereas plotting is equally well-reflected in both stories, characterization in “What the Ocean Eats” is much better, which indicates that this literary piece executes narrative criteria best of all.

Works Cited

Stevenson, Bryan. “The High Road.” The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015, edited by Adam Johnson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015, pp. 387-389.

Washburn, Kawai Strong. “What the Ocean Eats.” The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015, edited by Adam Johnson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015, pp. 375-386.

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