Objectifying the World Through Journalist-Colored Glasses

A character analysis on Pat Arbuckle, the narrator of Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf, evolving from someone living a life of selflessness to someone living a life of emotional numbness.

Credit: Unsplash

Seeing your daughter’s dead, bloody corpse encased in a body bag is enough to make any parent cry. But when reporting on site at murder scenes become second nature to you as a journalist, eventually overexposure to the graphic imagery desensitizes you to the pain and suffering. Although Kent Haruf’s novel, Where You Once Belonged, chronicles Jack Burdette’s bloated ego and life of crime, it also chronicles how the narrator, Pat Arbuckle, goes from living a life of selflessness to a life of emotional numbness. Dissecting how he functions as a dynamic character, a reader better understands how the former photographer’s character development impacts the overall narrative.

Nora’s husband was not always the emotionally detached newspaper editor readers come to know. Rather, he commences in the book as someone always willing to put others before himself. The football hero flees Colorado for California with $150,000 he stole from the grain elevator company, thus abandoning his wife, Jessie, and his two young sons in the process. Determined to expose the new manager’s true colors, the expectant mother asks the editor-publisher to print an advertisement in Holt Mercury saying that she is not responsible for him because she does not care anymore: “he’s good at that. If nothing else, Jack Burdette knows how to disappear” (176). Pat, developing a crush on her, obliges and is soon met with the same hatred as his new lover. Journalists possess an objective lens about the stories they cover (at least they are supposed to), otherwise their target audience feeds off of their biases — not accept the facts presented to them at face value. The same holds true for Holt Mercury, except our unreliable narrator’s act of courage represents how, sometimes, weaving personal opinions into news stories humanizes the people affected by the events.

Jessie, like Pat, spends the bulk of her and Jack’s relationship living in his shadow; moreover, she feels pressure to make a name for herself to prove she has legitimate credibility in Holt as an independent woman. These mutual feelings, therefore, allow Jack’s foil to fully empathize with the eventual waitress. He figures it is high time the college dropout be exposed for his misdoings after years of praise — not to promote yellow journalism (the act of falsely exaggerating news to build up or destroy someone’s reputation), but to stand up for what is right. “Somewhere in this great world I want to believe that she is all right” (176) illustrates his commitment to emotionally supporting the single mother as she embarks her new, unprecedented journey of being the only provider for her household, something her husband would never dream of doing. Spreading word of Jack’s misdoings like wildfire, the people of Holt add fuel to the flames by projecting their new hatred of him onto Jessie. Pat, nonetheless, embodies generosity by validating her emotions, as opposed to being a bystander merely watching the Oklahoma transplant’s pain and suffering from the sidelines.

“The truth is, I did not miss her particularly. It was easier in the house without her there, without having to watch her everyday” (138) illustrates how now Pat essentially feels no emotion towards anyone — but especially not towards his spouse. Following the death of her daughter, Nora’s mother falls into a deep depression; she grows paranoid about the outside world, to the point where she refuses to water the plants in her garden. The married couple eventually decides it would be best for them if she lives with her father full-time, which the empty nester makes known in a letter she writes to Jack’s former classmate. Our unreliable narrator, despite the successes he continues having as editor-publisher of Holt Mercury, has not yet achieved self-actualization: becoming the best version of yourself through realizing your talents and using them to serve others.

Self-actualization, consequently, paves the way for how you set and achieve your goals. Yet the former photographer’s identity, though his father essentially molds it for him with his extensive background in journalism, revolves around observing situations from afar as a way to conceal his true feelings. Allowing himself to be overcome by emotion, such as being distraught about Nora’s permanent departure, would prevent him from moving on with his life, the way that a journalist separates opinions from facts to produce the most accurate, impartial article possible: “I worked steadily at the newspaper everyday…printing whatever was profitable and of interest locally without attempting to do anything that would take much effort” (161). Besides, he never took humanity into account when Pat married his wife eighteen years ago; objectifying her goes to show that superficial love almost always bodes badly for both spouses involved. While Pat’s indifference to Nora leaving seems inappropriate given their long union, it completes his character development because he feels unfulfilled in life. As a result, all he can do is numb the pain of confronting his repressed emotions by numbing the pain of an unsuccessful marriage.

Thank you for reading,

Avery Danae

❤️🧡💛💚💙💜

Originally written for my AP English Literature & Composition class on February 2, 2022.

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