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How Does Tone Influence the Story "Top of the Food Chain"?


The satirical tone of T. Coraghessan Boyle's short story "Top of the Food Chain" gives the story an over-the-top feeling of hilarious allegory rather than of a tale based on real events. Dark humor aside, Boyle's story somewhat parallels the events of actual malaria-extermination programs initiated by the World Health Organization in Borneo and other countries during the 1950s and 1960s. His tone implies that cures sometimes are more dangerous than the problems they treat.

Boyle's Story and Voice

A nameless chemical company representative reports to a Senate hearing about a failed project that was intended to wipe out malaria in Borneo. The author combines first-person voice -- primarily speaking as "we," but also using the pronouns "I" and "me" -- along with second-person voice by repeatedly talking to an individual senator and others as "you." This is part of the author's tone and makes readers feel like they are there. As the author heaps one chemical-company mistake on top of another, the story takes on an iterative quality similar to "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." The company representative's attitude is flippant as he describes how use of the insecticide DDT to kill mosquitos led to a series of errors in which each subsequent mistake magnified the previous one. The mosquitos died, but so did the wasps that were keeping caterpillars from eating the thatched roofs of islanders' homes. Both roofs and the island's ecosytem began to collapse.

Satirical Tone

Tone is the author's attitude toward a subject, but the author's viewpoint isn't necessarily shared by a story's narrator. Boyle's dark wit and irony make it clear that the malaria project was a fiasco, while the narrator spins his company's errors as being unavoidable accidents ending in a positive result -- development of a foreign aid program for Borneo. "To every cloud a silver lining," he quips.

Boyle's humor is relentless and sharpens as the story proceeds. It begins on a glib note with the narrator comparing his company's attempt to kill mosquitos using "safer stuff" as being no better than "spraying with Chanel No. 5." By the end, the narrator recounts airlifting cats to the island to replace ones that ate poisoned geckos, died and weren't available to combat rat overpopulation. Unfortunately, the narrator says, so many species died that crops failed and the islanders ate the new cats.

Satire As Political Tool

Satire often highlights folly and is used as a tool for communicating political criticism. Its humor attacks a target or situation of which the author disapproves. Satirical writing aims at persuading readers to the author's viewpoint, as well as entertaining them. In a 1994 review of Boyle's book "Without a Hero Stories," which contains "Top of the Food Chain," The Baltimore Sun noted Boyles "penchant for absurdity" and the way in which the author makes the narrator "bluster" comically about his company's "responsibility for lost species."

Actual DDT Malaria Programs

DDT is still used to fend off malaria in the tropics, because it is inexpensive and generally effective against mosquitoes. Boyle's story likely is based on a number of WHO anti-malarial campaigns in Bolivia, Malaysia and Thailand that involved spraying homes with DDT. In both cases, rodent overpopulation occurred because the DDT also killed cats. Unlike the cats in Boyle's story, the real ones died from brushing up against the walls of treated homes and then licking the chemical off their fur.

About the Author

Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.

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