Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Antisocial Nature of the Short Story: William Trevor's "An Idyll in Winter"

I wish to thank my fellow blogger Trevor Berrett at
for calling my attention to a William Trevor story, “An Idyll in Winter,” published last Nov. in The Guardian, that I missed.  You can find by clicking here

After reading the story, I read Trevor and Betsy’s responses on mookse and gripes and wrote a brief response of my own.  However, the story and the responses reminded me of several issues about reading the short story as a form that I often discussed with my students when I was teaching.  It has always been my studied opinion that the short story does not usually present characters as if they were real people in the phenomenal world, and that the short story, when it is most successful, does not deal with social issues, but with universal human experiences.  I offer a couple of examples of this below before discussing William Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter.”

Monica Wood, “Disappearing”

My textbook collection, Fiction’s Many Worlds, includes a first person point of view story by Monica Wood entitled “Disappearing” that focuses on a young woman who diets and swims to lose weight. When my students and I discussed this story, my students wanted to talk about the social issues of obesity vs. compulsive dieting to achieve a runway-model type image.  However, reading the story as being about a particular young woman suffering from an eating disorder, was, I tried to convince them, reading it in too limited a way. Although anorexia might indeed be the diagnosis of the protagonist if she were a real person in the real world, or even a realistic character in a novel, short stories, I argued, urge the reader to understand the protagonist's situation as universally human.

The basic motivation of the woman in the story is suggested by the title; she wishes to disappear.  Since such an action is physically impossible, the reader might want to consider the story as the depiction of either a symbolic action or an hallucinatory one.  The vehicle that embodies the protagonist's desire or hallucination to lose the body, or disappear, is water, for floating in the water is an appropriate metaphor means of escaping gravity.  For one hour a day the young woman is thin as water, transparent, invisible.

As she becomes thinner and thinner, she drops all things away that might keep her out of the water and the water out of her.  The psycho-logic of the story is that if it is good to lose physical weight, then it is best to lose all weight, to give up all things associated with the body. To become one with the water is to lose the physical self completely. This is a metaphysical goal, not a physical or a social one.

Events in this first-person story lose their hard edges as scenes in the external world and take on the subjectivity of the teller. This highly charged subjectivity is further emphasized by the relative inarticulateness of the speaker. Instead of trying to probe and rationalize her behavior and motivation, the woman describes her actions in simple sentences or fragments.  However, she does know, at least intuitively, what drives her, even though she cannot explain it, for she tells her friend and her husband that she is not just interested in losing weight, and she knows they cannot "imagine" what she is doing or why. 

Although it is easier to use this story as an “excuse” to talk about the social issue of female body image or the clinical problem of anorexia, my students were only able to do this by ignoring the tone, language, and voice of the story, in short, by forgetting about the story itself in order to talk instead about some real-life social “issues” which pre-existing terminology made them more comfortable to categorize and discuss.  Needless to say, I fought such evasion and oversimplification—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain”

One of the most difficult stories I taught in the last few years before I retired was Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” because my students wanted to avoid discussing the story itself and talk instead about the social issue of homosexuality. However, both Ennis and Jack, the two young men in the story, insist that they are not homosexual, and neither of them have sex with other men in the story.  The two men seem crave that time on Brokeback Mountain when their embrace satisfied “some shared and sexless hunger.”

Annie Proulx takes a creative chance here because she knew that many readers would try to simplify the story by classifying Jack and Ennis as homosexuals, or else latent homosexuals (a term that experts are more and more classifying as meaningless), or even bisexual, another meaningless term.  But such easy classifications will not serve here. When Jack and Ennis deny their homosexuality, they mean it.  Ennis wonders if the feeling they have for each other happens to other people, and Jack says “It don’t happen in Wyoming.”

However, this prejudice against homosexuality is less a social issue of homosexual intolerance in Proulx’s story than it is a typical literary impediment that gives famous love stories their tragic inevitability, such as the feud between families of Romeo and Juliet. The story ends not with a message about the social intolerance of homosexuality, but rather with a poignant image of Ennis creating a simple memorial to Jack with a postcard picture of Brokeback Mountain and two old shirts the men wore when they spent their first summer together.

The technical challenge Annie Proulx faces in “Brokeback Mountain” is how to write a love story between two men without falling into the clich├ęs and conventions of a homosexual story, in short without social baggage and easy stereotyping.  Proulx achieves this by creating a fable-like style for the story, with little or no attention paid to a realistic social context.  Instead, the story focuses on the passionate love affair between Jack and Ennis against a stark landscape, much like that of the heath in Wuthering Heights.  Proulx focuses almost entirely on the encounters between the two men as mysterious passionate couplings and tender concerned sharing. By refusing to make judgments and by treating the relationship of the two men with dignity and respect, Proulx succeeds in making the reader believe in this love affair between two men without classifying it narrowly as a homosexual story.

William Trevor, “An Idyll in Winter”

William Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter” is an idyll in two senses of the word; it describes a brief romantic interlude, and it is also a traditional literary form with a romantic theme, much like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous Idylls of the King.  We know that Trevor has Tennyson and other Victorian writers in mind in this story, for when Anthony stops at a village inn on the way home from seeing Mary Bella, he dreams of her as a child reciting for him: “Willows whiten, aspens quiver/Little breezes dusk and shiver,” which are lines from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.”  Anthony wrote the word “idyll” for Mary Bella when she was a child; she loved the word then and loves it even more now when he returns. Like Cathy and Heathcliff, they both know that the moors and the house called Old Grange are where together they belong.

“An Idyll in Winter” is an exemplary love story, following all the traditional conventions of this genre.  The fact that Anthony and Mary Bella meet when she is twelve and he is twenty-two has nothing to do with pedophilia, either explicitly or implicitly; it is a metaphor for one of the most essential elements of a love story—the forbidden.  As  Denis de Rougemont says on the first page of his book, Love in the Western World:

“Happy love has no history. Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself.  What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion.  And passion means suffering.  And there we have the fundamental fact.”

William Trevor’s story has all the elements of the classic Victorian love story: a beautiful, romantic, young girl; a handsome, romantic tutor from outside; a lonely Grange on the moors; a father who is killed out riding because of a broken heart; the rustic men over which the young woman presides. The context for their love is all the stories that the young tutor teaches her in the schoolroom—the conventional place where one learns—the romantic histories of Jeanne d’Arc, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth, Charlemagne, Marie Antoinette; and the fiction of the Victorian era: the world of the Marshalsea prison from Dickens, Dorlcote Mill of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Wildfell Hall of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Haworth Rectory, which was the home of the Bronte sisters, and finally, the most magnificent romance of all—Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  Indeed, what Anthony experiences on the moors he finds very “Heathcliffian.”

(A personal sidebar here:  When I was in graduate school, my major field of study was Victorian Literature.  I spent three years studying Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes.  I taught the Victorians for several years.  The tone and style of Trevor’s story sounds very familiar to me, as does his fabulistic plot and characterization.)

In the classic love story, one does not make a conscious choice about anything; one is rather caught up, swept away, overcome, driven to madness.  There is nothing ordinarily human about Heathcliff’s passion for Cathy.  For that matter, there is nothing ordinarily human about Gatsby’s love for Daisy or Tristan’s love for Iseult.  By ordinary human standards of good sense and everyday reality, all such love stories are stupid and destructive.  They detach themselves from the everyday world and create a secret world of their own.  Read Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” again.

The fact that the romance in William Trevor’s story begins when Mary Bella is only twelve emphasizes that romance begins in the imagination, not in any act; it also emphasizes what Trevor calls “a child’s unspoilt charm.”  The summer they are first together is one in which both are immersed in the romance stories of history and fiction.  But since a love affair between a twenty-two-year-old man and a twelve-year-old child would be distasteful, they must be separated until they are adults and “what had been impossible…now was not.”

But now that what was impossible is possible, another forbidden element must be added, for love stories always demand the impediment to fulfillment—the classic one of adultery, as in Tristan and Iseult. To which is added the additional element of the child Amelia, who refuses to eat after her father leaves. The hospital says there is nothing particularly unusual about a child responding this way to distress, and Anthony, a practical man of maps, says there is nothing “mysterious to be discovered” about it.  But for Mary Bella, the knowledge of the deserted wife and the waning child infuses a sense of reality into the romance that she finds difficult to bear.  She thinks that as in the schoolroom, whereas “once Jeanne d’Arc had ridden into battle, as precious stones had glittered on the great high collar of Elizabeth Tudor, so shadows now were more than shadows.  The knife that so cruelly and so often fell, the heads that rolled into a mire of blood, the treachery of plots, through their own drama became reality.”  Romance cannot tolerate reality.

Truly a man of maps in all their accuracy and precision, Anthony says, “We are here, we are together…. We live with consequences.  We have to, and we can.” And this is indeed the difference between living in romance and living in reality.  When Nick tells Gatsby he can’t repeat the past, he says, of course you can.  When Starbuck tells Ahab to give up his hunt for the white whale, Ahab says he would smite the sun if it offended him.  Although Mary Bella tells herself that Anthony is right, that people live with what happens to them, she feels pity for the damaged woman and a child that had been damaged.  Even when the child begins to return to normality and Anthony says the awfulness of that time is over, Mary Bella knows it isn’t, “since memory would not allow it to be over…the damaged do not politely go away.”  While Anthony says all this is foolishness, Mary Bella knows that when his patience has worn itself out, there would be indifference, then disdain, and then contempt. She tells him, “How blurred the edges are: what we can do, what in the end we can’t.” 

And then one morning, he is gone—back to his wife to whom he will tell lies of mercy to convince her that love was only a “wild infatuation that did not last and now is over.”  Mary Bella knows he will not come back, that there will be no “tawdry attempt at revival.”  She only wishes that the men who work for her—a sort of tragic chorus--will know that her love for Anthony is still there “among her shadows…She wishes they could know it will not wither, that there’ll be no long slow dying, or love made ordinary.”

And this indeed is the aim of romantic love, for it is never ordinary.  It either ends in death or in a retreat from reality back into the imagination--the only place where it has a chance to survive.

No comments: