The Powerful Use of Tone in John Collier's The Chaser
"Alan Austen, as nervous as a kitten, went up certain dark and creaky stairs in the neighborhood of Pell Street . . ." From the very outset of John Collier's "The Chaser," the protagonist, Mr. Austen, appears to be very apprehensive. While it may seem that a young man who is venturing into a strange old man's house to buy some sort of love potion is actually quite fearless, it is made clear through Collier's use of tone
that Alan is anything but brave. Interestingly, while his situation pertaining to his sweetheart, Diana, never changes, Alan is so taken with the old man's words (which are really nothing more than a sales pitch) that he actually allows himself to let down his guard and be taken advantage of. Collier drastically alters Alan's demeanor over the course of his brief visit; in fact, by the end of the story, Collier's use of tone has changed he who was once "nervous as a kitten" into a man "overwhelmed with joy." He achieves this transition through his physical descriptions of Austen, as well as Austen's own words, and his fading skepticism surrounding the old man and his goods.
The very first line of the book provides the most powerful and captivating image of Austen: "nervous as a kitten," slowly walking up "creaky stairs
," "peering about for a long time on the dim landing." Collier is creating a clear sense of apprehension right away. This makes the contrast all the more striking when Mr. Austen relaxes later on. For now, he is very nervous. "He pushed open the door, as he had been told to do," Collier writes. This gives the impression that had Austen not been instructed to open the door, he may have just taken the opportunity to turn around and head home. It is clear that Austen is not really sure
if he even wants to enter the tiny apartment, let alone do illegal business with the complete stranger inside.
Nevertheless, he continues on, as if driven by necessity. Once inside, his attitude begins to change quite rapidly. Though his initial apprehension is evidenced by his stuttering and his incomplete sentences, this quickly evolves into a keen interest, almost an infatuation, with the old man's goods. While he tries to avoid discussion of the poisons ("I want nothing of the sort," he states with an ironic air of finality,) he is consumed with the powers of the love potion. "Dear me . . . How very interesting! . . . I can hardly believe it . . . she will actually be jealous? Of me? . . . Wonderful!" Considering how hesitant he was to even set foot inside the building, Austen's sudden emotional swing is both fascinating and worrisome. While the reader may breathe a sigh of relief that Austen is not going to be beaten or murdered at this strange apartment, it seems Collier's underlying goal is to make the reader wonder: exactly what is Austen being set up for?
By the time the story is half over, it is clear that the old man is taking advantage of Austen. The strange thing is that the old man's attitude never really seems to change. What indicates that Austen is being had is not the old man's attitude, but rather Austen's own demeanor. When Austen entered the building, his awkward ambivalence was accompanied by a healthy skepticism. As he becomes more and more comfortable with the old man, his apprehension fades, but so does his skepticism. The result is a clear sense of gullibility, a feeling that is reinforced by Austen's refusal to question any of the outrageous claims made by the old man.
It is a testament to Mr. Collier's skill as a writer that he can so dramatically alter the attitude of a character without actually having anything happen to the character in question. Although "The Chaser" is barely two pages long, and spans only a matter of possibly two or three minutes, Collier leads his protagonist through a wide range of emotions. While under normal circumstances the reader would identify with the main character, Collier's technique allows the reader to sit back and marvel at Austen's foolishness. Such manipulation of the reader's perspective illustrates true mastery of the use of tone in writing.
Collier, John. “The Chaser.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Henry E. Jacobs and Edgar V. Roberts. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 1998.