In Darren Aronofsky’s short story entitled “A First Kiss,” the narrator recalls his experiences related to his first kiss. This story is part of the collection 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, which comprises short literary works written to help people recover from the tragedy. This paper aims to analyze Aronofsky’s short story using transactional reader-response criticism. This critical theory focuses on the reader’s experience from the text instead of the author’s biography or the work’s form or content. Transactional reader-response criticism posits that the reader is essential for the meaning of the text. This is because the meaning is extracted while reading, and the reader’s background knowledge and experiences influence the understanding of the text. Transactional reader-response criticism also distinguishes between efferent and aesthetic modes of reading. The former refers to retrieving the factual information from the text, while the latter describes the reader’s experience of the literary work, influenced by the used language. Applying transactional reader-response criticism to “A First Kiss” allows for looking at the story from efferent and aesthetic modes and calls for the reader’s background knowledge and experience to interpret the story.
When reading the story in an efferent mode, the reader retrieves simple factual information. The reader learns that the first-person narrator, whose name is never stated, had his first kiss in 1997, and it lasted “107 floors” (Aronofsky 32). After this short introduction, the narrator tells the story of his acquaintance with the girl he kissed for the first time. They met at “a grungy pad on Park Avenue,” and the narrator did not have the courage to approach the girl (Aronofsky 32). Yet, he introduced himself to her after a while, and they arranged a meeting for Wednesday. On Wednesday, they met in Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 107th floor, spent some time there and decided to go outside. When the elevator arrived at their floor, the narrator noticed that it was empty. So, he led the girl inside, leaving his grandfather’s jacket, which he wore for a long time, at the coat check. All the way to the ground floor, the narrator and the girl were kissing in the elevator, and the narrator never got his grandfather’s jacket back.
In an efferent mode, the story appears simple and seems to have significance only to the person whose experience of the first kiss is recounted. However, reading the story in an aesthetic mode reveals emotional subtleties in the use of the language, which help the reader interpret the text. For example, the reader can infer that the narrator was excited with his experience of the first kiss because his “heart beat fast, threatening to burst free,” and he regarded that kiss as “a wildfire” (Aronofsky 32). When the narrator saw the girl for the first time, his “stomach dropped,” and “a moist sweat broke [his] brow,” which implies that he extremely liked the girl (Aronofsky 32). The reader also realizes that the narrator is probably a person afraid of approaching girls since he apprehended “another night of regrets,” meaning that it was not the first time when he refrained from speaking to women he liked (Aronofsky 32). In addition, one can infer that the grandfather’s jacket was dear to the narrator since “It had seen better decades but I couldn’t seem to let it go” (Aronofsky 32). Yet, the desire to kiss the girl was so strong that the narrator left the “shitty coat” at the coat check and never saw it again (Aronofsky 33). Thus, an aesthetic reading mode allows the reader to understand better what person the protagonist is and what desires guide his actions.
Transactional reader-response criticism posits that readers’ past experiences and background knowledge influence their interpretation of the text. “A First Kiss” is intended for American readers, all of whom are familiar with or even witnessed the September 11 attacks. The knowledge of this tragedy comes to mind when reading “A First Kiss” because the narrator’s memorable event takes place at Windows of the World. This restaurant was located on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the attacks. Although Aronofsky does not mention the catastrophe anywhere in the story, the reader’s background knowledge and possible painful experiences are likely to influence the reader’s perception of the story.
The understanding of “A First Kiss” changes when the story is read more than once. After learning that the narrator’s first kiss happened in the elevator of the North Tower, the reader is likely to interpret some phrases used in the text differently. For example, the narrator remembers his kiss as “a wildfire,” which “exploded like a lit firecracker in your hand with an alarmingly short fuse” (Aronofsky 32). In these words, the reader may see a reference to the explosions that ruined the towers and buried over two thousands of people. Further, the author repeats the word “Wednesday” many times in the story. When reading the story for the first time, the reader may not pay much attention to it or may think that this repetition conveys the narrator’s anticipation of the date. However, knowing the place of the date and having the background knowledge of that place changes the possible interpretation. The September 11 attacks took place on Tuesday, so more than 2,000 people did not live until Wednesday. For the survived New Yorkers, Wednesday was a day marking the beginning of a new normal. From then on, the towers were obliterated, the US history was tarnished by a nationwide tragedy, and Americans had to figure out how to cope with the loss and the external threats.
According to transactional reader-response criticism, literary works often contain gaps that readers have to fill in based on their experiences. In “A First Kiss,” all the events are recounted from the narrator’s perspective, so the reader can see only his point of view and only to the extent that the narrator wants to disclose himself. So, the reader knows nothing about the girl, except that she was French and came to New York for one week. Further, the narrator says that he “never saw that jacket again” (Aronofsky 33). The reader may interpret this phrase differently because it is not clear whether the narrator returned for the coat but did not find it at the coat check or whether he never came back for it. Finally, the story ends with the words “C’est bon,” which is a French phrase for “That’s good” (Aronofsky 33). The reader may interpret it as the narrator’s joy from getting rid of the old coat. Or, given the fact that the phrase is stated in French, one may think that the narrator was able to build a relationship with the French girl because he chose to leave the coat. Readers have to fill in these gaps based on their background knowledge and experience.
To sum up, transactional reader-response criticism focuses on how the text and the reader interact. Aronofsky’s “A First Kiss” is basically a story of one’s first kiss, narrated in the first person. Yet, the setting of the story evokes readers’ memories of the September 11 attacks and makes them interpret this work through the lens of a person who is familiar with this tragedy.
Aronofsky, Darren. “A First Kiss.” 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, edited by Ulrich Baer, NYU Press, 2002, pp. 32-33.