Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Short-Story Month 2015--Aldrich, "Marjorie Daw" and Stockton, "Lady or the Tiger"

What makes Thomas Bailey Aldrich's famous story, "Marjorie Daw" work is the letter technique.  Letters between Delaney and Fleming who broke his leg tell the story.  Thematically, the story depends on the device that Alfred Hitchcock in the famous movie "Rear Window".  The issue is the same--when one is immobile and cannot "reality check" a fiction, then one has no choice but to take the fiction as reality.  Moreover, when one is dependent on the reportage of one person, who is obviously free to create out of the imagination something unreal, one is caught in the fiction.  This same sort of thing happens today on the Internet.
The first letter is from the doctor:  It is a nice irony that Fleming has twenty-seven volumes of Balzac, mainly to throw at his serving man, a sly joke about the main use of the novel. Delaney apologizes that he has nothing to write since he is living out in the country with no one around.  He says he wishes he were a novelist so he could write him a "summer romance," like Turgenev.  He then says "Picture to yourself..." and beings a description of the house across the road, and puts it in present tense--"a young woman appears on the piazza with some mysterious Penelope web of embroidery in her hand, or a book.  There is a hammock over there--of pineapple fiber, it looks from here.  A hammock is very becoming when one is eighteen and has golden hair, and dark eyes, and an emerald-colored illusion dress looped up after the fashion of a Dresden china shepherdess....But enough of this nonsense..."
Although the description begins generally, it is enough to catch Flemming and he writes back wanting to know more about the little girl in the hammock.  Tells him he has "a graphic descriptive touch."  Delaney write back "There is literally nothing here--except the little girl over the way."  He begins to create a family for her and a name--Marjorie Daw coincidences:  He says "how oddly things fall out!" for just as he describes perhaps meeting her he says he is called downstairs and her father is there with an invitation.  He then describes sitting with her--"It was like seeing a picture to see Miss Marjorie hovering around the old soldier...."
He says he tells her about him and she asks questions about him. "I think I made her like you!"  He describes her as a beauty without affectation and her father a noble character.  Flemming writes back to say:  "You seem to be describing a woman I have known in some previous state of existence, or dreamed of in this."  He says if he saw a photo of her he would recognize her at once.  He says her manner and traits and appearance are all familiar to him.  Delaney says to say she is not his type, but says if they were on a desert island--"let me suggest a tropical island, for it costs no more to be picturesque"--he would be like a sister to her. [Note all the references to story telling]
Delaney says:  "Is this not the oddest thing in the world?" (referring to Marjorie's interest in Flemming), then says, no the oddest the overall effect.  "The effect which you tell me was produced on you by my casual mention of an unknown girl swinging in a hammock is certainly as strange." He writes again, and now the letters are all from Delaney to Flemming, in which Delaney refers to the letters from Flemming. Why do Flemming's letter's disappear from the exchange?  "Do you mean to say that you are seriously half in love with a woman whom you have never seen--with a shadow, a chimera? for what else can Miss Daw be to you?  I do not understand it at all."  (The convention here is that he is a lawyer and not a romantic)  He says Fleming and Daw are like ethereal spirits and he is Caliban (Another clue to the made-up nature of the story--The Tempest--he is not Caliban, but Prospero, who creates a world.  "When you do come to know her, she will fall far short of your ideal, and you will not care for her in the least."
Later letter, he writes to say Daw loves Jack also, and comments on the "strangeness of the whole business."  He says he has lost the faculty of being surprised "I accept things as people do in dreams."  When Flemming says he wants to write to Daw, Delaney says:  "She knows you only through me; you are to her an abstraction, a figure in a dream--a dream from which the faintest shock would awaken her."  "Do you not see that, every hour you remain away, Marjorie's glamour deepens, and your influence over her increases?" When Flemming talks of coming there, he puts him off and make sup story about the father wanting her to be with another suitor.  The letters become increasing urgent and short.  "Stay where you are.  You would only complicate matters."  When Flemming says he must see her, the letters stop and we have the only narrative, which provides the opportunity for the last letter.  Delaney goes to Boston.
The last letter: He is filled with horror and regret at what he has done.  Says he just wanted to make a little romance to interest him and did it all too well.  "There isn't any colonial mansion on the other side of the road, there isn't any piazza, there isn't any hammock--there isn't any Marjorie Daw!"  Wonderful ending--A classic story about the power of story to create a sense of reality.  This is a story that moves from the old romantic story of the supernatural, mystical woman (Diamond Lens and the Gautier story.
Ostensibly "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, that is, the only kind of justice possible in fiction--poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional alternative endings of comedy or tragedy--marriage or death.  The fact that this particular story "ends" before it ends, giving the reader the freedom to choose a conclusion, is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice enacted.  Stockton urges readers to close the story not by choosing what they want to come out of the doors, but rather in the way readers always achieve closure--by looking back at the plot, the tone, and the thematic motifs to determine the story's thematic "end." 
Since the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady-like and tigerish, what readers are really asked to decide is which aspect of the princess dominates at the end--her lady side or her tiger side.  Because the presentation of what goes on the princess' mind makes quite clear which side that is, the reader is not so free to choose as it first appears.             
The story is most interesting for its focus on the reader's need for closure.  For even though the story leaves little doubt that the tiger pounces out at the end (for the princess has more tiger in her personality than lady), most readers feel somehow tricked or cheated that the author leaves the final choice ostensibly open. This is a story that constantly refers to the storyteller who is in the position of being aware of the reader and how he is responding. 
 "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, but about the only kind of justice possible in art, that is, poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king, the game of the arena has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional endings of long narrative--depending on whether they are primarily tragic or comic--that is, marriage or death.  The fact that in this particular story, the story "ends" before it ends, and the reader is explicitly made to choose an ending is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice performed. 

The story is our most famous "open" story, or at least it pretends to be open.  However, the reader is compelled to close it not by choosing arbitrarily by rather in the way he or she always closes a story, that is, by looking back at the plot, the tone, the motifs and determining which came out--the lady or the tiger.  For the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady like and tigerish.   What we really need to close the story off is to determine which aspect of the princess dominates--her lady side or tiger side.  The story makes quite clear which side that is.  Thus, we close the story in all its openness by determining the pattern and tone of the story.

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