My intention in writing this blog is not just to comment on stories I have read, but to explore basic characteristics of the short story, identifying issues that might be controversial or debatable enough to stimulate conversation with my readers. I probably will discuss new stories or new collections for the most part, because I hope to encourage my readers to read new stories. Otherwise, the short story as a form will continue to remain largely neglected and unread.
One of the most important sources of new short stories in American publishing continues to be The New Yorker. I stopped my subscription to The Atlantic when they decided after so many years to stop publishing short stories. The special summer fiction issue, since it is not available to subscribers, but must be searched out on the Barnes and Noble or Borders magazines racks, does not reach as many readers as the regular monthly issue of The Atlantic. I still cannot understand why they do not have space for one story per issue. I continue to subscribe to Harpers, who still publish one story per issue.
One of the great pleasures of getting The New Yorker each week is the occasional publication of a story by the Irish writer William Trevor or the Canadian writer Alice Munro, who, in spite of advancing age, continue to publish in The New Yorker because the magazine has first refusal rights for their work.
I have yet to read a critic or reviewer who does not agree that Trevor and Munro are the two greatest short-story writers still publishing. However, no one has ever really talked about what it is that makes these two such masters of the form. I have an article in the Canadian journal, the Wascana Review about why I think Alice Munro is so good at the form. “Why Does Alice Munro Write Short Stories?” Wascana Review 38 (2003): 16-28.
I will talk about Munro another time, hopefully when she publishes her next story in The New Yorker.
The Dec. 15 issue of The New Yorker has a story by Trevor entitled "The Woman of the House." I thought I would try to suggest a few of the characteristics of this story that are unique to the short story.
The plot of the story is quite simple. Two young men are hired by a Irish man to paint his house. Before they finish painting the house, the Irish man disappears and it seems clear that his wife hides the fact of his death so she can continue to receive his pension check. The two men finish the house painting job and leave. That is all that actually happens in the story. Not only is the plot minimal, but we do not know much about the characters. What we do know is this: The two young men are European and speak little English. They are usually taken to be Polish, but they are not. The Irish man is crippled and restricted to a wheel chair. The "woman of the house" may be his wife, but this is never specified. In the past, she has often had sex with the butcher in the village in exchange for free meat. Now, she is obese and getting older and less attractive to him.
So what is the story about? Not the plot, which is mildly interesting, but not engaging. Not the characters, who we know too little about them to really be involved with them. Then what?
To discover what this short story is about, we must look at details repeated so often in the story that they creates a thematic pattern. I suggest the following.
The two young men seldom speak, communicating by nods and gestures.
When the woman of the house goes out to the shed to be fondled by the butcher, they do not speak.
She never tells the crippled man about the money she gets back from the butcher, hiding it in a Gold flake tin.
When the crippled man disappears, what is noticed by the two young men is the silence in the house.
When the two young men investigate the newly dug garden, "They did not say this was a grave, or remark on how the rank grass, in wide straight path from the gate, had been crushed and had recovered."
The story ends with the woman, and the two young men, keeping silent about the disappearance of the crippled man, knowing no one would miss him for no one ever comes to the house.
So, what does this all add up to? What is the story about?
I think it is about silence, about not saying, about the basic mystery of human personality, about Chekhov's famous comment that in the short story, it is better to say too little than too much, even though he admitted he was not sure why that was true. The story is a fine example of the short story form's focus on basic and universal human characteristics, even though I know that the word "universal" is not appreciated by postcolonial and other cultural critics, who seem more concerned with what separates us than what unifies us as human beings.
I hope you read the story and offer your own comments on what the story is about and what makes it such a great story.