The Contest by Annie Proulx
In The Contest by Annie Proulx we have the theme of independence, rivalry, humility, connection, determination, isolation, acceptance and education. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator it becomes clear to the reader after reading the story that Proulx may be exploring the theme of isolation. Elk Tooth seems to be in the middle of nowhere. None of the characters mentioned in the story leave the town during the completion or at least Proulx does not inform the reader of anyone leaving the town. It is as though each resident in Elk Tooth can find what they need in the town. Though the town appears to be relatively small. There is also a sense that the beard competition is connecting many of the characters. They have something in common. A determination to win the competition. It might also be a case that Proulx is suggesting that the competition is not only connecting those who live in the town but it is also building a community spirit. Something that is needed in order for a small town to continue to prosper. It is also interesting that those who come from outside the town to visit Elk Tooth are in positions of authority. This may suggest that Elk Tooth is not fully independent of others. It may be in the middle of nowhere but it still is reliant on others to help it to exist.
What is also interesting about the story is the fact that each contestant takes the competition so serious. It is as though an individual’s pride is at stake. With each contestant wanting to have the longest beard. It might also be important that there is a wide range of people from different age groups involved in the competition as Proulx could be suggesting again just how connected the people in the town are with one another. If anything there is a real sense of rivalry in the story. The fact that Proulx also uses Pee Wee’s as part of the setting is also interesting as it becomes clear to the reader that apart from the beard competition there is very little to occupy the residents of Elk Tooth apart from sitting in Pee Wee’s. This would further play on the theme of isolation. The most entertaining event throughout the whole story for the people who live in Elk Tooth is watching other people’s beards grow. In reality very little if anything happens in Elk Tooth. Which may suggest that the town is somewhat paralysed. A fact that does not appear to bother any of the residents in Elk Tooth.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which is important. The beards themselves may symbolize prestige. The longer the beard the better the person is. Books play an interesting part in the story too with Proulx possibly using them to symbolize a connection with the outside world. No matter how isolated Elk Tooth may be it is still in some way connected to the outside world. Ralph Kaups’ character may also symbolize the fact that no matter how hard an individual may try (to grow a beard) there will always be someone better. Which may play on the idea of humility and acceptance. Creel on seeing Ralph’s beard knows that he is beat and that others are beat too. Rather than fighting it Creel accepts that he is beat and knows that the competition is over. Proulx also seems to be using the local dialect of Elk Tooth. This could be important as it gives the story a sense of authenticity. The people are real, their actions are real and how they feel is real. It is as though Proulx is taking the reader directly into Elk Tooth.
What might also be important about Proulx’s use of books in the story is the fact that not only do they connect those in Elk Tooth with the outside world but they also empower them too with many of the characters learning things that they have never learnt before. It is possible that Proulx is suggesting or highlighting to the reader not only the importance of reading books but also how important it is for an individual to educate themselves. It would not be coincidental that Bill de Silhouette is the owner of the most books in Elk Tooth and he was well-educated. Similarly with Ralph Kaups. He too is well-educated and has the longest beard. It may be a case that Proulx is suggesting that the key to an individual’s success is education. Something that the majority of people in Elk Tooth would not find important or have use for. Life for those in Elk Tooth is repetitive. The same things happen over and over. The beard competition was the one thing that brought an element of change to Elk Tooth. It is somewhat ironic that it will most likely be won by somebody who would be considered an outsider to Elk Tooth.