West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Thoughts on the Short Stories About Identity ~~
A & P and Eveline
"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"? Does it mean being comfortable with your identity? Making your own choices, your own decisions? It might mean, in the case of Sammy at least, not only making decisions but standing up to their consequences without backing down.
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."
A Sorrowful Woman
"A Sorrowful Woman" is a cautionary tale, really, about what happens when we allow the roles we play in our everyday lives to consume our the whole of our identity. It has the feel of a fairy tale; the "once upon a time" raises expectations that things may be a little magical, a little otherworldly. Is there anything that seems otherworldly or "impossible" about this story? Is the story exaggerated for effect? Could it happen?
I think it's pretty believable, actually, an "anti-fairytale," despite the "once upon a time," the unnamed "type" or allegorical characters, and the exaggeration. I think, despite the drastic nature of the outcome, some people do suffer this way. They don't always die. But depression is a serious illness, and it can be a killer.
But whether you find it believable or fairy-tale, the story presents a portrait of a woman who seems trapped in her identity as "wife" and "mother." She's become "sick." Her death at the end of the story is a dramatic way of emphasizing how impossible it was for her to breathe in the narrow space she had confined herself to. She can't re-define herself, her identity, outside of the narrow roles of "wife" and "mother" she's outgrown.
Although she's young, she seems to have lived a repressed life that seems devoid of real joy. It's a life in which she meets her duties, meets society's expectations, but sacrifices her own happiness in the process. You can imagine her leading, before we meet her, what Henry David Thoreau describes as a life of "quiet desperation," keeping up appearances, meeting her obligations, but never feeding the fire inside, forgetting how to even raise a spark. As a result, she finds herself "sick and tired," literally. Her husband is equally trapped in his role, trying very hard to meet the expectations for what it means to be a good husband, a good man. He never allows himself to become exasperated, and he never wants to admit that the situation has gone beyond his control, beyond his understanding.
"She" (never named) lacks the imagination that might have granted her more choices. She simply can't imagine a way out. It's very tragic the way she tries to imagine something different for herself and can't.
When you've always been dependent on others to make your choices for you-whether those "others" be your mother, father, sister, brother, friend, husband, wife, religion, social convention, whoever-you may wake one day to discover there's a big blank tablet where your own thoughts and feelings might have been. And this may be a disturbing discovery.
Ideally, the wife/mother would be brave enough to say, "I'm unhappy. I need to make a change. I'd like you both to help me, if you love me." It's possible, you may be a little confused, from the vantage point of 2005, thirty years past the women's rights movement, why she hasn't done this. But in the early 1970s, when the story was written, that kind of request, or demand, would have broken the bounds of "normalcy." And how many people are willing to do that?
The wife/mother is tragically unable to imagine anything to that will make her happy. Imagining changes means making choices; she's got something in common with Eveline, who is perhaps more tragic in that she can imagine a better life but she rejects it because she can't take that risk, that journey into the unknown. The sorrowful woman is more pathetic, perhaps, because she can't even imagine what will "save" her.
Most readers sympathize strongly with the husband in "A Sorrowful Woman." Did you? Why or why not?
The husband in "A Sorrowful Woman" is one of the story's main characters. His intentions are clear as we see him in action throughout the story. He elicits great sympathy from most readers as he tries in vain to help his wife overcome her illness, which is intractable, enigmatic. 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? His choices are also tragically narrowed by his desire to be "a man"; there are limits to what he'll choose to imagine in terms of a cure beyond his own cure; he won't allow himself to imagine he's helpless.
This is a powerful story about a move we all make-a move from the state of innocence into a state of "experience," or a state in which we lose what Freud called our "illusion of central position." We understand that we are not the center of the universe, that our needs won't automatically be met by any special force "out there." Our cleverest hustle may never be clever enough. Even doing good is no guarantee of a fair shake in the wide world. We begin to understand the real nature of reality, free of comforting illusion. The world out there may be imperfect, unjust, oppressive. It's a world where, even in America where we uphold the ideals of equality (or do we merely give it lip service?), the numbing inequalities of social class are painfully evident. To wake up from a state of innocence into knowledge of a world of haves and have-mores and have-nots, and to see yourself as a "have-not" is a jarring experience, no doubt. To wake up to a world where poverty is left to fester beside the decadence of great wealth, a world where "some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven"-and, Miss Moore could add, feed them for months-is to wake up on the wrong side of the bed, angry and confused. Sylvia knows herself well enough to take a time-out. Like a boxer on the ropes, she's glad the bell has rung to end the round, and she can go to her corner, think things over. Figure out her strategy. You know she's going to come out swinging. Question is, at who?
What kind of change would the sudden awareness of the existence of this world bring about in you? What kind of change does it bring about it Sylvia? Does she seem changed at the story's end?
Life has many lessons
to teach us, and they're not all happy lessons. The most difficult lessons seem
to be the ones that make us grow the most
.that change us to our very core,
sometimes for the better-sometimes, not.
Here's a story in which the conventional use of plot, character development, point of view, dialogue, setting-you name it-all the elements of form fly out the window! The story has an especially innovative point of view. It seems like a monologue, the mother's voice filtered through the daughters consciousness, and we're hearing her thoughts; but it's actually a dialogue, because the daughter does answer here and there.
At the heart of this "plotless" narrative there is still a very clear conflict: mother vs. daughter. There's "Mother" who wants to indoctrinate her offspring, prepare her to live an adult life according to the cultural mores of her place and time. And there's Daughter, who, feeling nagged and oppressed, responds by rebelling (maybe). She seems to have her own sense of herself and, if she doesn't outright rebel, she at least resists her mother's attempts at indoctrination. How does it all work out? That's ambiguous. How would it work out for you if you were the girl?
This story is a great example of literature's ability to leap across cultural boundaries. Kincaid is from Antigua (in the Caribbean) and it seems the story is set there. But it's a timeless, universal story about the generation gap. Parents and grandparents will always try desperately to pass their own values on to their children and grandchildren-their lifetime's worth of learning and wisdom-and children will also try desperately to discover their own values and gain their own wisdom.
There's a little
bit extra here, too. This daughter seems oppressed, not only by her nagging
mother, but also by the role being offered her. It seems very confining and
limited, and perhaps that's what leads the girl to resist it. Kincaid herself
left Antigua at age 17 at least partly to escape her mother, and that makes
this story seem especially biographical, though of course it is still fiction.
Questions? Contact me.
All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright ©
2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.
The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.