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The House on the Hill
The central hub of the Stamper clan is their large home overlooking the Wakonda Auga River. It's where Henry, Hank and Joe Ben discuss business and where the families meet for large dinners and celebrations. The home is perched high on the hillside and it looms like a fortress. It is accessible only by boat across from the river. It is symbolic of the Stamper's fortitude and isolation. Yet as the river rises, the structural integrity of the home is comprised. Henry grows obsessed with nailing wood to a support brace for the home, though it proves futile. During the novel's climax, the river sweeps the home off the hillside, symbolizing the downfall and destruction of the Stamper operation.
The Oregon Landscape
As a longtime resident of Oregon, Kesey was acutely aware of the local landscape. He describes the flow of rivers, the green of the hillsides, the falling of rain, and the consistency of fog. He is incredibly detailed in these depictions, offering Sometimes a Great Notion a visually vivid setting. In doing so, Kesey suggests many things about Oregon and the Stampers who inhabit it. It is at once bountiful like the Garden of Eden, providing vast resources like fish and lumber yet at the same time it is punishing and harsh, with the river flooding and destroying the Stamper's home. It is these contradictions that make Kesey's Oregon such a rich and fascinating location.
The Lumber Industry
At the core of the plot, Sometimes a Great Notion is a novel about the lumber industry. For three generations the Stampers logged the woods of Oregon independently. When the workers of Wakonda decided to strike for beter pay, the Stampers continued working thus initiating one of the central conflicts of the novel. Throughout the novel, Kesey describes in detail the process of logging. He meticulously leads the reader through the entire process, from spectating the landscape, to setting up camp, to completing the cut and finally, delivering the lumber. To do so, he uses specific jargon. There is reference to machinery and manoeuvres that require detailed attention to follow. He also describes the physical toll logging takes on the human body, with Leeland's blisters being described in nauseating detail. Above all, Kesey portrays logging as a rough and dangerous enterprise, manageable by only tough crowds like the Stampers.
Joe Ben's Death
Unlike the other Stamper men, Joe Ben possessed a positive disposition. He was kind and caring, well-liked by the people of Wakonda. Whereas Hank was driven by pride, Joe Ben was driven by his Christian faith and enjoyment of logging. During the climax of the novel, when the men are struggling to complete a large lumber order, a felled tree pins Joe Ben against the bank of the river. Meanwhile, the river is rapidly rising. Hank desperately attempts to free him from the log but his chainsaw fails. In painful detail, Joe Ben's death is depicted. Slowly the river rises up to his face level. He is able to lift his head just far enough to breathe. As it rises further, he is submerged. Hank attempts to breathe into his mouth but it is unsuccessful. He watches Joe Ben drown and die. In his tragic death, Joe Ben's death is symbolic of the dangers of hubris. The Stampers attempted to complete a log run that far surpassed their capabilities. Due to Hank's pride they worked in adverse conditions, completely under-supplied. It is also suggestive of the importance of leadership. Hank lead the operation and because of his failures, a good man died.
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