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West Chester University

Fall 2002

West Chester University

Spring 2002

Fall 2001

 

 

 

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Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Ambiguity
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

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~~ Notes on "Story of an Hour," "A Sorrowful Woman," "A & P," and "Eveline" ~~

Your responses to the questions below were various and interesting. I realize my views are not always the same as yours—so much the better! It gives us a chance to expand each other's perspectives. I would hope that if you think something different than what you hear in class you'd offer your own perspective in the same spirit.

"The Story of an Hour" and "A Sorrowful Woman" are alike in that they both present portraits of women who seem trapped in their marriages, trapped in their roles. They have both become "sick." And they both die at the end of the story. What do you think is at the root of their illness?

Mrs. Louise Mallard's weak heart can be understood literally or more symbolically. Although she's young, she's lived a "repressed" life, seemingly devoid of joy. She seems like someone Henry David Thoreau might describe as living a life of "quiet desperation," keeping up appearances, meeting her obligations, but slowly dying on the inside, rotting away from boredom in a marriage that's not intimate enough. Her husband doesn't seem to know the real Louise. Maybe because she's kept herself hidden from him, afraid to make waves. She's been dishonest, repressing herself, maybe out of self-preservation, maybe needlessly-we don't fully know. She may have made herself sick in the effort. The stress and tension of keeping up appearances in an unhappy marriage has perhaps given her heart disease. We see pretty clearly that Mrs. Mallard is heartsick in a broad sense when we witness her uncanny reaction to her husband's death and try to make sense of her feelings of liberation, of her joy at the prospect of her husband's death granting her, finally, the "possession of self-assertion." It's as if she's never experienced freedom before, and it's her first taste. Who doesn't crave freedom? Who wouldn't see freedom as the one necessary condition for the pursuit of happiness? But it's this taste of freedom that ultimately kills her. She can't go back in the cage. Mrs. Mallard's death might be ironic in that no one but the reader seems to understand why she died, but her death is also pathetic in that she died for the same reason the Sorrowful Woman died: both women lacked the imagination that might have granted them more choices. They didn't need to remain in their cages, but they could imagine no way out. And so they shut themselves in, imagined no alternatives. But there's always some alternative if you use your imagination and stop depending on others to do your thinking for you-whether those "others" be social convention, your husband, mother, father, friend, whoever. No one should ever do your thinking for you. Both women should have been brave enough to say, "I'm unhappy. I need to make a change." But neither would allow themselves to imagine any kind of significant change for the better, and so I think a lack of imagination is one of the root causes of illness in both cases.

Along these lines, some of the immediately relevant questions this story raises are--
  • How do I want to define a good marriage (or a good relationship)? A bad relationship? (And how do the Mallard's compare to my standard?)
  • Is it "normal" to feel like you've lost your freedom once you're married (or committed to someone)? If you think it is, how much loss is too much loss? What can you do about it?
  • When a partner is unhappy in a marriage (or any relationship), who is responsible for making that person happy?


Most readers sympathize strongly with the husbands in "The Story of an Hour" and "A Sorrowful Woman." Did you? Why or why not?

We don't know much about Brently Mallard, Louise Mallard's husband, but what we do know creates a positive impression. Mrs. Mallard immediately erupts in a fierce storm of physically exhausting tears at the news of his death, so we know that she had strong feelings for him. And even later, after she realizes that his death has become liberating in a way she hadn't expected and cannot deny, even after she experiences the joy of that liberation, she still knows she will grieve again seeing "the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her." We can infer from these and other small details ("She had loved him -- sometimes.") that the Mallards must have had what would have been called a good, happy marriage, and Brently Mallard seems to have been a "good husband," a good provider, taking the train to work day after day, paying the bills. And for that, he usually gains readers' sympathy. Is there another way to look at Brently Mallard that might hold him partly responsible for his wife's unhappiness? Some readers go between the lines to ask why Louise was so repressed and whether her husband had anything to do with that. What kind of expectations did he set for his wife? Did he view her as an equal partner in their marriage, a human being with a will, ideas, ambitions of her own? Did he notice that she was bored and unhappy in their marriage? Would he have been willing to do much about it if he did notice? Can you imagine what his reaction might have been if Louise had complained to him? Since he's such a lightly drawn character, it's only possible to answer these kinds of questions imaginatively, not definitively. But readers who have less sympathy for Mr. Mallard tend to imagine him as someone overly conventional, repressive, and out of tune with his wife's true feelings.

The husband in "A Sorrowful Woman" is far more visible than Brently Mallard; his intentions are a lot clearer as we see him in action throughout the story. And he elicits great sympathy from most readers as he tries in vain to help his wife overcome her illness. Nothing he tries helps; in fact, his best efforts only serve to make her more and more ill. There's a terrible irony in that the harder he tries, the more he fails. That's just not fair, and most readers (even sympathetic ones) get disgusted with the woman's "ungratefulness" and "selfishness." The sacrifices the man makes seem more and more "heroic" as the story progresses. First, he reads their child his bedtime story, and the next night he puts his ailing wife to bed. The next day, he plays with the child all day in the park, comes home and cooks supper. But the wife doesn't get any better. She's frightened when the boy tries to play with her. She locks herself away, which is the beginning of a progressive isolation leading to complete withdrawal. Throughout this ordeal, the husband keeps trying to comfort her, maintaining that he "understands these things" and can fix them. He hires help. He dismisses the help. He indulges her withdrawal every which way and serves her up the "sleeping droughts" that give her the oblivion she's craving, but all the while her condition worsens and her self-absorbed isolation persists. There's no other word for it but that he fails. We feel sorry for him in his failure. Of course, the woman fails, too, but that's another issue, evoking a different tangle of emotions and questions. The husband's failure gets the better part of most peoples' sympathy because the perception is that he's trying so hard. But some readers (me) go between the lines to ask why, for instance, the husband keeps insisting he "understands these things" when obviously he hasn't got a clue? It seems as if he's as trapped in his role as "husband" as the woman is in her role as "wife and mother." As the "husband," he's supposed to be in control of everything, on top of every problem, the Fixer. He can do the man's work and the woman's work if he has to. Whatever the crisis, he can handle it. He never once questions whether he's doing the right thing, whether his efforts are hurting or helping. Those sleeping droughts he gives his wife anesthetize her symptoms but don't address the root of the problem. He's drugging her (without a license), but she's not comfortably numb. She's still sick. What is her sickness? She seems severely depressed. She hasn't just got the blues. She's got full blown, not-going-away-anytime-soon-without-treatment depression, a pretty serious illness that can lead to suicide. And her husband is trying to treat it himself. It's not working. Why can't he admit defeat? What is that blind spot in him, that fatal flaw?

"A & P" and "Eveline" both present portraits of teenagers (19 yr-olds) at a defining moment when they have the opportunity to "grow up." In your reading of the two stories, are they successful? Why or why not?

This is such an open question, there's can't be any definitive answer. In fact, answers just lead to more questions. What does it mean to "grow up"? There's a lot of room for different definitions here. Deciding whether Sammy and Eveline seize their opportunities or not would seem to depend on one's definition of what it means to grow up. So here's one interpretation, based on one possible definition.

If we agree that maturity means self-reliance, independence, and a healthy amount of self-confidence to stand by one's decisions and choices, then it's just possible that Sammy in "A & P" is finally growing up. He may not be there yet, but he's taken the first step. I know a lot of readers see him in a far less positive light, but it's also possible to interpret his decision to quit as the first important decision, the first existentially authentic decision, he's made for himself. Until now, he's made no waves, though he's obviously really bored working this job his parents have approved for him (maybe they even arranged it for him). He's putting in his time, amusing himself by making fun of the customers. But if you look closely at that "fun," you notice it has a lot of bite to it. It's a pretty thin veneer for the total contempt he has for everyone around him; beneath all the patter he amuses himself with, he hates this job and even the town he's in. He even somewhat hates the girls he's been ogling in his cheerful, wiseguy way. Sammy knows this job is going nowhere. He has no intention of making a career out of the A&P, unlike his friend Stoksie. He's impatient, like most 19 year olds, for some kind of real life to begin, and it isn't happening at the A&P. So he seizes his opportunity to quit. He goes out valiantly, gallantly, a hero in his own eyes. But the growing pain associated with this grown-up decision comes immediately: "…my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." For a moment it felt good to be a "man of principle," but how long will Sammy be able to maintain it? How many people stand up for their principles when their jobs are on the line? Sammy knows he's setting himself a high standard here, and how things turn out for him is so open to interpretation that it's difficult to settle on just one reading. Maybe he realizes how tough it will be to explain everything to his shocked, disappointed parents, and he goes back in to ask for his job back. Maybe his parents talk him into asking for his job back, and he postpones growing up indefinitely (some people do). Or maybe he leaves town and moves to Greenwich Village and writes beat poetry for a few years before going to NYU? This is a small moment but a defining one. He takes a step into unknown territory -- his parents' disapproval. (How harsh will the consequences of that disapproval be? Sammy risks it for the sake of making his own decisions.) Was Sammy acting childishly or maturely? Now that he's quit, should he move on or go back? A lot of readers thought he should have kept his job because quitting represented shirking his responsibilities. That raises a great question, though. Properly speaking, how should we define Sammy's responsibilities? What should be his first priority?

The same questions could be asked of Eveline. What are her proper responsibilities? What should be her first priority? The portrait Joyce paints of her at the end of the story is not one most nineteen year olds would jump to emulate: "She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition." She drained, emptied, devoid of life, emotionally crippled, paralyzed at the story's end. Whether you agree with him or not, it seems that Joyce is implying she made the wrong decision; she should have gone with her lover and pursued a new life unburdened by the threat of violence and by responsibilities that weren't rightfully hers. But her ability to make the right decision for herself has been irreparably destroyed by her upbringing. She hasn't received the nurturing care Sammy has, and now it shows. She can't take the necessary step away. Although she's in love with a wonderful man who is in love with her, she can't break free. The moment goes away, leaving Eveline a "helpless animal." "Eveline" is such a sad story, compared to "A & P."

 

 

 

     

 


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