Priority and Perspective in “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s”

“The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” is an account of the author’s experiences in Bloomington, Illinois directly following the 9/11 attacks. Largely based around his thoughts while watching events unfold on TV at a neighbour’s house, the essay contains descriptions of the clips shown and insight into the reactions of the people surrounding the author. The word “view” can mean either a sight or a mindset, and it is clear that both meanings resonate in Wallace’s essay.

At first, Wallace concentrates not on the tragedy itself, but on his efforts to purchase a flag to display in the event’s wake. Although they’re everywhere in his hometown, uniting citizens across lines of class and geography, he’s unable to find one, and fears that the sight of his home without a flag will appear to be a negative statement on his part. Questioning his neighbours as to their reasons for hanging up flags, he notes that their statements are fairly identical: it’s about unity, support, and pride. Although he eventually creates a makeshift flag from paper and Magic Markers, the power of appearances and images to variably unite and isolate is an important theme in the essay, and one that seems especially relevant considering the racial profiling that occurred in the name of national security following 9/11. At the moment, however, this is not yet a concern. Wallace is watching the news in Mrs. Thompson’s living room, surrounded by other neighbours and fellow church members, and his description of the scene calls to mind an observation from the opening paragraph: it’s as if everyone’s standing there watching the same traffic accident. Despite their different opinions and mindsets, this tragedy is a shared horror.

Furthermore, the essay indicates that what people see and how they react to it can effectively reveal their priorities. For instance, although footage of skyscrapers crumbling were upsetting, they were still viewable, whereas the clip of people falling from the North Tower was shown once, and never rerun. As it plays, Wallace tells us that the people in the room with him looks traumatised, simultaneously terrified and jaded, and finally moves on, unsure what to say. Although he and his neighbours could handle the large-scale destruction of buildings, the sight of people jumping from them–almost but not yet lost–is too much to bear. Perhaps this is because people are naturally predisposed to sympathise with those in peril, or perhaps it’s because it could just as easily have happened anywhere, but these reactions to the images of tragedy on Mrs. Thompson’s television show that despite the increased consumerism and greed in American culture, when it comes down to it, humanity still matters to us infinitely more than property.

View could also refer to the differing opinions and perspectives which informed the American public’s responses to 9/11. In many cases, these differences are based on age, as that greatly affected the ability of people to comprehend the situation. For instance, Wallace mentions a woman who said at first her sons thought the tragedy was just a movie, until they noticed it was playing on every channel. This innocence caused them to react with less anger and grief than many adults, even after learning the truth of the matter.

Wallace also discusses how differences in geographical location affected people’s mindset with regards to the tragedy. He says that people in the Midwest tend to spend less time together, choosing to watch television at someone’s house instead of going out to a party, whereas the East Coast is much more focused on meeting people face-to-face. This likely creates a sense of distance and detachment in places like Bloomington, and increases the contrast between everyday life and the sense of unity that followed the tragedy. This isolated viewpoint also causes the tragedy in New York to seem more distant–if they choose to turn off the TV, the events are still happening, but they are less immediate and therefore less terrifying. New Yorkers, however, would not have had the luxury of that remote viewpoint. Their altered skyline is evident and viscerally felt, not merely an image on a screen.

The last difference in viewpoint that Wallace explores is the contrast between his cynicism and the prayer of the women in the room with him. Silently, he critiques Bush’s lacking speech and notes how as time wears on the networks seem to be presenting a manufactured reaction. However, he ultimately notes that it may be preferable to believe in Mrs. Thompson’s view of the president, the images on TV, the power of prayer, because that means America as a nation would be better than he believes.

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