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Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Notes on "Story of an Hour," "A Sorrowful Woman," "A & P," and "Eveline" ~~
"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--
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?
& 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
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
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