Author: Lenora Combs
Educator: Richard Norton
Through its numerous uses of irony, Lynn Venable’s short story “Time Enough At Last” is a perfect depiction of the outcome of focusing only on life’s negatives rather than appreciating what one has. Irony is a major concept in this piece and is portrayed on numerous occasions, from beginning to end. Evident in the character development, conflict, theme, and overall message, it plays a central role in nearly every other conceptual portion of the story. It is the irony that allows readers to sympathize with the main character whose plight can be very relatable. As the character searches for the opportunity to complete his biggest ambition, he does not take into account what he does have.
Henry Bemis was a man who wanted nothing more than to be able to sit down and read a book in piece. Never in his life had he been able to read a book, article, or other written form of entertainment all the way through. During his childhood, this was due to the fact that he needed glasses badly, but his parents did not realize this and thought him to be ‘mentally challenged,’ for lack of better words. “Nature had conspired against Henry by handing him a pair of hopelessly myopic eyes…For a while, when he was very young, his parents had thought him an idiot. When they realized it was his eyes, they got glasses for him. He was never quite able to catch up.” (Venable) When they finally figured out the real problem, he was already far behind other children his age and was never able to catch up. In his adulthood, Bemis’ wife, Agnes is domineering and somewhat cruel, tossing a paper her husband had been just sat down to read into the fireplace because she wanted him to get ready for guests. He feels as though his life is owned and divided between Agnes and his boss, Mr. Carsville, leaving him with no freedom or time of his own. It is because of this that Henry tries to sneak in some time to read whenever he can.
I align with this character, in part, because we share a love of books, and in a deeper sense, I am also able to sympathize with his struggles. Like Henry Bemis, I often feel as though I do not get to have much time to myself to do what I want. At this point in my life, my existence is divided between duties at home, at school, and other areas where I do not necessarily get to choose for myself. However, my freedom is not anywhere near being as limited as that of Mr. Bemis, for which I am grateful. This allows all readers to extend their sympathy toward this character because whatever their troubles in life, hopefully most of them do not have the extent of troubles Mr. Bemis has.
There are several conflicts in this work, as there tend to be in most. One such conflict is man versus man. The newspaper Bemis attempts to read in the bank vault has headlines warning about the possibility of a coming war with articles that talk about the new weapons. This conflict comes into play when the bomb goes off in the city, destroying it and killing a large portion of the population, as far as Bemis is aware. This conflict is not significant as it is only the positive turning point for Bemis rather than a tragedy. Another conflict is between Bemis and his wife and boss who prevent him from reading. The conflict of man versus nature is apparent in Bemis’ sightlessness without his glasses, which is significant at the story’s end. However, due to the outcome of his story and the events from beginning to end, the true conflict is more nearly man vs. fate, shown in Henry Bemis’ inability to read a book no matter what lengths he goes to.
A large theme in “Time Enough at Last” is the concept of loneliness versus the desire for solitude. Henry Bemis wanted nothing more in life than to be able to have time alone to read a book. The bombing that occurred while he was trying to read in the bank vault granted this wish, leaving him as, presumably, the only survivor in the city. Bemis’ love of books saved his life as he had gone into the vault to try to read just as the bomb struck. His desire to read is what saved him from what could have been a quick death, but in the end it cause him to lose his ability to see. Not only can he no longer read at all, leaving him with enough time to read to his heart’s content and all the books he could possibly want for a long while, rendered completely useless to him because he could no longer see. His desire for solitude was granted but at the larger cost of his glasses making his solitude inert.
The large destruction of the bombing of the city was clearly a big deal to everyone else, since there did not appear to be any survivors, but it was most nearly a blessing for Mr. Bemis, giving him the freedom to read. The breaking of his glasses caused by a mere shift in the shelf he had been sitting on was small in comparison, however, it held far more significance to Henry Bemis as it took away his ability to read or to see. Whereas the bombing created a swift end to the lives of everyone else, Bemis will have to be the one to suffer through likely starvation, loneliness, and the knowledge that his life’s ambition had been in his grasp, only for it to slip completely out of reach.
The central message of the story is to appreciate and make the best of what one does have while they have it, rather than focusing on only the negatives. Mr. Bemis had considered his life to be terrible and mundane without the excitement that reading brought. With the bomb’s dropping, he was finally given freedom to do with his time as he pleased. However, he took for granted the importance of his glasses. He had been so focused on how much time he had to do what he wanted that he had not even considered the dependence he had on two pieces of glass. With their breaking, he was left without the ability to read once again, but now he also without human companionship, which he had previously, believed to be a hindrance. In relation to this, the lesson could be that one should be very careful what they wish for. What we believe we want does not always turn out as we expect it to. The outcome may not be what we really want or need.
I selected this reading largely because the lesson to be learned and the ironies presented Henry Bemis had put more value on the existence of books than he did on human life. When he woke up after the bomb went off he immediately began his search for the library rather than looking for his wife. “A sudden panic gripped Henry Bemis. What if they were all ruined, destroyed, every one of them? What if there wasn’t a single one left? Tears of helplessness welled up in his eyes as he painfully fought his way over and through the twisted fragments of the city.” Henry cries over the thought that all of the books may have been destroyed but not over the loss of human lives even after seeing his boss and co-workers dead.
Irony plays a large role in the short story “Time Enough at Last”. Henry Bemis is desperate to read, but in the process, he loses sight of the real importance of life. He is more focused on materialistic possessions such as books that he wishes for rather than on the human relationships he does have. In trying to gain what he wishes he had, he ultimately loses that. Rather than going back to where he had started, he lost what he previously had as well.