Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
“Eyes of a Blue Dog” was first published in the Bogotá periodical El Espectador on June 18, 1950, when García Márquez was twenty-three years old, and later became the title story of his collection of early stories, also called “Eyes of a Blue Dog,” (“Ojos de perro azul.”)
“Eyes of a Blue Dog” is unique not only for its setting (the story takes place completely within a dream the narrator is having) but also stylistically: the author makes use of long, Faulknerian paragraphs, each heavy with sensory details.
While reading the story, which is often a complicated read due to its dream-logic of details, it might be helpful to think of someone you truly love, and imagine if you only saw this person in your dreams, and were unable to ever see them in waking life.
The narrator and the woman in the dream–the narrator’s beloved–are desperate to connect with one another, but cannot. The melancholy and heartbreak of this story reaches a bitter crescendo at the end, with the realization of both that their love is a hopeless, impossible cause.
Reading As a Writer: “Eyes of a Blue Dog,” by Gabriel García Márquez
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “Eyes of a Blue Dog,” designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all: pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises, for the purpose of generating new work of our own!
Then she looked at me. I thought that she was looking at me for the first time. But then, when she turned around behind the lamp and I kept feeling her slippery and oily look in back of me, over my shoulder, I understood that it was I who was looking at her for the first time. I lit a cigarette. I took a drag on the harsh, strong smoke, before spinning in the chair, balancing on one of the rear legs.
It is this moment, “spinning in the chair, balancing on one of the rear legs,” that lets us know we are in a dream, and that dream-logic will be the underpinned logic of this story. The physical rules that govern quotidian, day-to-day life are being suspended. The emphasis will continue to be on character, but in a dreamscape.
Generally, he first sentences of any story set the theme and mood for that story: by the end of the first paragraph we generally know the point of view and the the tone and style the story will take, if not the conflict, main characters, and setting.
Writing exercise: in a first paragraph, create the world that your characters will inhabit. Is this a dream? Or a daydream? Or a universe that you create with its own rules? Set all this out at the outset.
After that I saw her there, as if she’d been standing beside the lamp looking at me every night.
Notice that the emphasis continues to be on character, not the “excitement” of a world governed by dream-logic. Even though we’re in a story in which the physical rules are different, we don’t lose the emphasis on the two main characters. Sometimes in creating new or unusual worlds, we think these worlds are enough: as this story shows, the needs and wants of the characters still take center stage, not the world in which they inhabit.
Writing exercise: two people are looking at one another. What is their relationship? What is the point-of-view character thinking?
For a few brief minutes that’s all we did: look at each other. I looked from the chair, balancing on one of the rear legs.
While the focus remains on character, even in this moment of connection we’re also reminded that we’re in this dream world, related as it is in an everday, quotidian, matter-of-fact way. Just as the author’s creation of the dream-world doesn’t interfere with the building of character, the opposte is true: the building of character takes place within this imagined world. This is true whether we’re writing “realistic” fiction, or fiction that takes place in some kind of alternate reality, such as a dream.
Writing exercise: in one paragraph, show the relationship between two people, while also showing the world in which these characters live.
She stood, with a long and quiet hand on the lamp, looking at me. I saw her eyelids lighted up as on every night. It was then that I remembered the usual thing, when I said to her: “Eyes of a blue dog.” Without taking her hand off the lamp she said to me: “That. We”’ll never forget that.” She left the orbit, sighing: “Eyes of a blue dog. I’ve written it everywhere.”
We’re given the phrase in this paragraph that will serve as the title of the story: the lens through which to read the story. We’re also starting to see the central conflict of the story: he can’t remember the phrase after he wakes up, and she (whether she exists or whether she only exists in the narrator’s mind) writers it “everywhere,” trying to find him.
Writing exercise: place the title of a story as a phrase in the first couple of paragraphs.
Writing exercise: present the core conflict of a story through dialogue, as above. Have the characters overtly talk about the thing that is keeping them apart. In “Eyes of a Blue Dog” the conflict is that he can’t remember the words and she writes them everywhere (again, whether that is actually true or only exists in the dream the narrator is having doesn’t matter to the purpose of the story: it’s enough that the narrator thinks she exists, whether or not she does.)
I saw her walk over to the dressing table. I watched her appear in the circular glass of the mirror looking at me now at the end of a back and forth of mathematical light. I watched her keep on looking at me with her great hot-coal eyes: looking at me while she opened the little box covered with pink mother of pearl. I saw her powder her nose. When she finished, she closed the box, stood up again, and walked over to the lamp once more, saying: “I’m afraid that someone is dreaming about this room and revealing my secrets.”
The details of this dream world are what make the dream world come alive: the “glass of the mirror,” the “hot-coal eyes,” the “little box covered with pink mother of pearl.” Even though we’re in a dreamscape, the sensory details are just as rich as if we were in the “real” world.
Writing exercise: create a dream world using specific, sensory detail. Bring it to life through touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound.
And over the flame she held the same long and tremulous hand that she had been warming before sitting down at the mirror. And she said: “You don’t feel the cold.” And I said to her: “Sometimes.” And she said to me: “You must feel it now.” And then I understood why I couldn’t have been alone in the seat. It was the cold that had been giving me the certainty of my solitude. “Now I feel it,” I said. “And it’s strange because the night is quiet. Maybe the sheet fell off.”
The dialogue between the two characters is dream-logic dialogue: it doesn’t necessarily make any sense to us as readers, but because it makes sense to the two characters, we accept it as revealing and advancing their relationship.
Writing exercise: write dialogue between two characters that would make no sense to any outsider listening in, but makes perfect sense to the two people speaking to one another.
She didn’t answer. Again she began to move toward the mirror and I turned again in the chair, keeping my back to her. Without seeing her, I knew what she was doing. I knew that she was sitting in front of the mirror again, seeing my back, which had had time to reach the depths of the mirror and be caught by her look, which had also had just enough time to reach the depths and return–before the hand had time to start the second turn–until her lips were anointed now with crimson, from the first turn of her hand in front of the mirror.
In addition to the dream-logic of the dialogue and the sensory details (the chair balancing on one leg), we also find here the dream-logic of action: the actions of the two characters wouldn’t make sense in our “real” world, but in this world, they don’t seem out of place.
Writing exercise: in one paragraph, create actions happening in a dream that wouldn’t make sense in real life, but make perfect sense to the characters in the dream.
I saw, opposite me, the smooth wall, which was like another blind mirror in which I couldn”t see her– sitting behind me–but could imagine her where she probably was as if a mirror had been hung in place of the wall. “I see you,” I told her.
Even within all this dream-logic of action, description, and dialogue, the focus stays on the relationship of the two characters: their ongoing attempts to connect.
Writing exercise: place two characters into a room and show them trying–and failing–to connect, in some way.
And on the wall I saw what was as if she had raised her eyes and had seen me with my back turned toward her from the chair, in the depths of the mirror, my face turned toward the wall. Then I saw her lower he eyes again and remain with her eyes always on her brassiere, not talking. And I said to her again: “I see you.” And she raised her eyes from her brassiere again. “That”s impossible,” she said. I asked her why. And she, with her eyes quiet and on her brassiere again: “Because your face is turned toward the wall.” Then I spun the chair around. I had the cigarette clenched in my mouth. When I stayed facing the mirror she was back by the lamp. Now she had her hands open over the flame, like the two wings of a hen, toasting herself, and with her face shaded by her own fingers. “I think I’m going to catch cold,” she said. “This must be a city of ice.” She turned her face to profile and her skin, from copper to red, suddenly became sad. “Do something about it,” she said. And she began to get undressed, item by item, starting at the top with the brassiere.
The details give way, suddenly, to the sadness and melancholic feelings of her character, revealed as it is still with the particulars of the dream-logic, which cut just as straight to the heart as it would in any “real”-world story. “This must be a city of ice,” she says, suggesting her disconnection, her unaffiliation. She insists that the narrator do something about it, heightening the conflict: she wants to ease her pain, she wants him to help her, he doesn’t know how.
Writing exercise: have a character directly tell another character what it is that they want/need. Have the character being spoken to be unable to help. How does that affect the relationship between the two?
The dream-logic of action, description, and dialogue continues:
I told her: “I’m going to turn back to the wall.” She said: “No. In any case, you”ll see me the way you did when your back was turned.” And no sooner had she said it than she was almost completely undressed, with the flame licking her long copper skin. “I”ve always wanted to see you like that, with the skin of your belly full of deep pits, as if you’d been beaten.” And before I realized that my words had become clumsy at the sight of her nakedness she became motionless, warming herself on the globe of the lamp, and she said: “Sometimes I think I”m made of metal.” She was silent for an instant. The position of her hands over the flame varied slightly. I said: “Sometimes in other dreams, I”ve thought you were only a little bronze statue in the corner of some museum. Maybe that”s why you”re cold.” And she said: “Sometimes, when I sleep on my heart, I can feel my body growing hollow and my skin is like plate. Then, when the blood beats inside me, it”s as if someone were calling by knocking on my stomach and I can feel my own copper sound in the bed. It”s like- -what do you call it–laminated metal.” She drew closer to the lamp. “I would have liked to hear you,” I said. And she said: “If we find each other sometime, put your ear to my ribs when I sleep on the left side and you”ll hear me echoing. I”ve always wanted you to do it sometime.” I heard her breathe heavily as she talked. And she said that for years she”d done nothing different. Her life had been dedicated to finding me in reality, through that identifying phrase: “Eyes of a blue dog.” And she went along the street saying it aloud, as a way of telling the only person who could have understood her:
“I’m the one who comes into your dreams every night and tells you: ‘Eyes of a blue dog.’”
We’ve returned to the central conflict laid out at the beginning of the story: she goes everywhere “in reality” trying to locate the narrator through the secret phrase, “eyes of a blue dog,” and he can never remember when he awakens.
Writing exercise: write a story in which the specific problem is laid out in the first paragraph, then give us the background of the story and the world of the story (whether realistic, dream-based, or something else entirely.) Then return to the specific problem.
And she said that she went into restaurants and before ordering said to the waiters: “Eyes of a blue dog.” But the waiters bowed reverently, without remembering ever having said that in their dreams. Then she would write on the napkins and scratch on the varnish of the tables with a knife: “Eyes of a blue dog.” And on the steamed-up windows of hotels, stations, all public buildings, she would write with her forefinger: “Eyes of a blue dog.” She said that once she went into a drugstore and noticed the same smell that she had smelled in her room one night after having dreamed about me. “He must be near,” she thought, seeing the clean, new tiles of the drugstore. Then she went over to the clerk and said to him: “I always dream about a man who says to me: “Eyes of a blue dog.”” And she said the clerk had looked at her eyes and told her: “As a matter of fact, miss, you do have eyes like that.”
The melancholy aspect of the story has become specific and heartbreaking. Through these very specific details, we see the woman as she goes from place to place, desperately seeking the narrator.
Writing exercise: create a connection between two people that is impossible for them to fulfill, for whatever reason. How does this affect them?
And she said to him: “I have to find the man who told me those very words in my dreams.” And the clerk started to laugh and moved to the other end of the counter. She kept on seeing the clean tile and smelling the odor. And she opened her purse and on the tiles with her crimson lipstick, she wrote in red letters: “Eyes of a blue dog.” The clerk came back from where he had been. He told her: Madam, you have dirtied the tiles.” He gave her a damp cloth, saying: “Clean it up.” And she said, still by the lamp, that she had spent the whole afternoon on all fours, washing the tiles and saying: “Eyes of a blue dog,” until people gathered at the door and said she was crazy.
It’s important to remember, here, that we still don’t actually know if the woman in the story truly exists, and does these things in real life, or if the narrator is dreaming it all up.
Reading question: does it affect the meaning of the story of one of the two above ways of reading the story is true? Does either reading make the story more compelling or weaker?
Now, when she finished speaking, I remained in the corner, sitting, rocking in the chair. “Every day I try to remember the phrase with which I am to find you,” I said. “Now I don’t think I’ll forget it tomorrow. Still, I’ve always said the same thing and when I wake up I’ve always forgotten what the words I can find you with are.” And she said: “You invented them yourself on the first day.” And I said to her: “I invented them because I saw your eyes of ash. But I never remember the next morning.” And she, with clenched fists, beside the lamp, breathed deeply: “If you could at least remember now what city I’ve been writing it in.”
The central conflict–the inability of the two to connect in the real world–becomes heightened. The narrator doesn’t even know what city she is in, in their waking life. The impossibility of finding her becomes greater and greater. We also continue to see their desire to connect, which makes the story all the more heartbreaking.
Writing exercise: write a short story in which the impossibility of two people to come together gradually becomes more and more heightened. What is the effect on the two people as they realize this? What do they do, if anything, to try to overcome the obstacles keeping them apart?
Her tightened teeth gleamed over the flame. “I”d like to touch you now,” I said. She raised the face that had been looking at the light; she raised her look, burning, roasting, too, just like her, like her hands, and I felt that she saw me, in the corner where I was sitting, rocking in the chair. “You;d never told me that,” she said. “I tell you now and it”s the truth,” I said.
The narrator’s desire for connection leads him, for the first time, to tell her that he wants to touch her physically. Note that he does not: their connection/disconnection remains expressed only through dialogue.
Writing exercise: have a character tell another character that they want to touch them, physically. How does the second character respond to this?
From the other side of the lamp she asked for a cigarette. The butt had disappeared between my fingers. I”d forgotten I was smoking. She said: “I don’t know why I can’t remember where I wrote it.” And I said to her: “For the same reason that tomorrow I won’t be able to remember the words.” And she said sadly: “No. It’s just that sometimes I think that I”ve dreamed that too.” I stood up and walked toward the lamp. She was a little beyond, and I kept on walking with the cigarettes and matches in my hand, which would not go beyond the lamp.
The attention to the dream-logic of this world returns: the cigarette, the long distance that he walks–“I kept on walking”–and that the matches and/or his hand would not go “beyond the lamp.” These are things that make no sense, realistically, yet make complete sense to the characters in the world of the story.
I held the cigarette out to her. She squeezed it between her lips and leaned over to reach the flame before I had time to light the match. “In some city in the world, on all the walls, those words have to appear in writing: “Eyes of a blue dog,” I said. “If I remembered them tomorrow I could find you.” She raised her head again and now the lighted coal was between her lips. “Eyes of a blue dog,” she sighed, remembered, with the cigarette drooping over her chin and one eye half closed. The she sucked in the smoke with the cigarette between her fingers and exclaimed: “This is something else now. I”m warming up.” And she said it with her voice a little lukewarm and fleeting, as if she hadn’t really said it, but as if she had written it on a piece of paper and had brought the paper close to the flame while I read: “I’m warming,” and she had continued with the paper between her thumb and forefinger, turning it around as it was being consumed and I had just read “. . . up,” before the paper was completely consumed and dropped all wrinkled to the floor, diminished, converted into light ash dust. “That”s better,” I said. “Sometimes it frightens me to see you that way. Trembling beside a lamp.”
The physical details continue to change, but what doesn’t change is the obsession that each of these characters have for the other. In addition, the use of dream-logic allows for their mutual desire and their individual pain to be manifested in different ways that we might be used to, as readers and writers of “realistic” fiction. By placing the story in a dream, new ways of getting to the heart of character can be used.
Writing exercise: write a couple of sentences of a character having a dream, of some sort, that shows them clearly in an “unrealistic” fashion how they feel about someone else.
We had been seeing each other for several years. Sometimes, when we were already together, somebody would drop a spoon outside and we would wake up. Little by little we’d been coming to understand that our friendship was subordinated to things, to the simplest of happenings. Our meetings always ended that way, with the fall of a spoon early in the morning.
So beautiful. So heartbreaking. And impossible to know if the narrator really has been having this dream for years, or if it’s only in the context of this particular dream that he’s been having this dream for years. But either way, the fragility of their connection is shown more and more deeply.
Writing exercise: create a connection between two people that is delicate, that can be separated by something as simple as “the fall of a spoon early in the morning.”
Now, next to the lamp, she was looking at me. I remembered that she had also looked at me in that way in the past, from that remote dream where I made the chair spin on its back legs and remained facing a strange woman with ashen eyes. It was in that dream that I asked her for the first time: “Who are you?” And she said to me: “I don”t remember.” I said to her: “But I think we’ve seen each other before.” And she said, indifferently: “I think I dreamed about you once, about this same room.” And I told her: “That”s it. I”m beginning to remember now.” And she said: “How strange. It”s certain that we’ve met in other dreams.”
She took two drags on the cigarette. I was still standing, facing the lamp, when suddenly I kept looking at her. I looked her up and down and she was still copper; no longer hard and cold metal, but yellow, soft, malleable copper. “I’d like to touch you,” I said again. And she said: “You”ll ruin everything.” I said: “It doesn’t matter now. All we have to do is turn the pillow in order to meet again.” And I held my hand out over the lamp. She didn”t move. “You’ll ruin everything,” she said again before I could touch her. “Maybe, if you come around behind the lamp, we”d wake up frightened in who knows what part of the world.” But I insisted: “It doesn”t matter.” And she said: “If we turned over the pillow, we”d meet again. But when you wake up you’ll have forgotten.” I began to move toward the corner. She stayed behind, warming her hands over the flame. And I still wasn”t beside the chair when I heard her say behind me: “When I wake up at midnight, I keep turning in bed, with the fringe of the pillow burning my knee, and repeating until dawn: ‘Eyes of a blue dog.’”
As her body turns to “yellow, soft, malleable copper,” we, as readers, go with it. We’ve been conditioned by the story to accept the unusual as usual: the details of her copper body are strong and specific and real, and perfectly organic to the world of the story. Often, writers will try to introduce some new aspect to their stories too late in the story, and the reader won’t believe it or go with it: creating the groundwork/planting the seed early for what will bear fruit later means that when we get to these surprises, the reader stays with us, as it feels integral to the story.
Writing exercise: have something surprising happen in a story (for example, a woman turns into copper), but because we believe the world that you’re creating, the surprise feels organic to the story and believable within the story’s context.
Then I remained with my face toward the wall. “It”s already dawning,” I said without looking at her. “When it struck two I was awake and that was a long time back.” I went to the door. When I had the knob in my hand, I heard her voice again, the same, invariable. “Don”t open that door,” she said. “The hallway is full of difficult dreams.” And I asked her: “How do you know?” And she told me: “Because I was there a moment ago and I had to come back when I discovered I was sleeping on my heart.” I had the door half opened. I moved it a little and a cold, thin breeze brought me the fresh smell of vegetable earth, damp fields. She spoke again. I gave the turn, still moving the door, mounted on silent hinges, and I told her: “I don”t think there”s any hallway outside here. I”m getting the smell of country.” And she, a little distant, told me: “I know that better than you. What”s happening is that there”s a woman outside dreaming about the country.” She crossed her arms over the flame. She continued speaking: “It”s that woman who always wanted to have a house in the country and was never able to leave the city.” I remembered having seen the woman in some previous dream, but I knew, with the door ajar now, that within half an hour I would have to go down for breakfast. And I said: “In any case, I have to leave here in order to wake up.”
The dialogue continues to make no sense in a “literal” way, yet make perfect sense in an emotional way. Although the way the two are talking to one another is unusual, to say the least, we can feel the pain of their incipient separation, and their fear of parting.
Writing exercise: two characters are about to be torn from one another. They are powerless to stop it. What do they say to one another? What do they do?
Outside the wind fluttered for an instant, then remained quiet, and the breathing of someone sleeping who had just turned over in bed could be heard. The wind from the fields had ceased. There were no more smells. “Tomorrow I”ll recognize you from that,” I said. “I”ll recognize you when on the street I see a woman writing “Eyes of a blue dog” on the walls.” And she, with a sad smile–which was already a smile of surrender to the impossible, the unreachable–said: “Yet you won”t remember anything during the day.” And she put her hands back over the lamp, her features darkened by a bitter cloud. “You”re the only man who doesn”t remember anything of what he”s dreamed after he wakes up.”
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “Eyes of a Blue Dog” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- Write a short story of 55 words set inside a dream. With only 55 words to be used, it forces us to get immediately to the true heart of our own work.
- Play with the letters. Write a short work of 101 words with the title “Ladybugs,” or “Edgy Fogs” or “A Blue Dog’s Eyes,” or “Sold Seed Oafs,” or anything else that mixes up the letters! How can this title be used to frame and supplement the story you end up writing?
- Write a short work of 300 words that takes place entirely inside a dream.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which you re-tell “Eyes of a Blue Dog” from the point of view of the woman in the story.
- Write a short work of 750 words that takes place inside a dream, using a third-person point of view instead of first.
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which the story takes place in the real world, but has a little bit of dream logic behind it.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which one character attempts to remember their dream, feeling that something important happened in it, but they can’t remember. To what lengths will they go to try to remember? Is this a recurring dream, or a one-time dream.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words in which a significant portion of the story involves a daydream, as opposed to a dream-dream.
- Write a short work of 7,500 words that involves two or three different dreams that the protagonist has. Are they related? What does your character dream about, and why? What does this show about their inner self?
Read the collection of short stories “Eyes of a Blue Dog” alongside one of Gabriel García Márquez’s later collections of stories. For example, “Big Mama’s Funeral,” “The Incredibly Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” or “Strange Pilgrims.” What differences in his prose style do you notice? Which of his styles do you think are most effective, and why? Which techniques would you use in your own work, and why?