Because of their delicate nature, the conflicts Ann Beattie is often concerned with cannot be expressed directly and discursively, but rather must be embodied in a seemingly trivial object or an apparently irrelevant other person. This technique, originated by Anton Chekhov near the turn of the century, mastered by James Joyce twenty years later, and practiced expertly by such recent so-called minimalist writers as Raymond Carver, is central in the development of the modern short story as a form. The emphasis is not on communicating feeling by internal monologue, for the practitioners of this technique assume that some emotions go beyond the ability of mere reflection to capture them, but rather by focusing on concrete situations and details that, even as they seem ordinary and merely "realistic," resonate with subtle symbolic significance.
"Janus" is a story about an object that has emotional significance, but it does not seem to really become a story until the end--when we learn what that emotional significance really is. At the beginning, the bowl seems to be a practical object--something to help the protagonist sell houses. But gradually we begin to realize that it has more significance than that, for the protagonist is obsessed with the object. Moreover, as we read, we may begin to wonder about the significance of the title, for, knowing that Janus is the God of two faces, we are alerted to watch for examples of opposing forces in the story. Perhaps the most basic way the bowl is two-faced is the way that any symbolic or significant object is two-faced; it is both practical and spiritual at the same time, both merely an object and a meaningful object at once.
In Beattie's story, the bowl is like a child in some way, the child of her and her lover who bought it for her. Every time she sets it in a house, the house becomes the house that she and her lover never had. When it is at her own home, it does not really belong there. It sits on her coffee table "meant to be empty." However, while the bowl stands for her lost relationship, it only does so in an idealistic or poetic sense. The first sentence--"The bowl was perfect"--makes this clear, for it is perfect in the abstract or Platonic sense. However, the bowl is, at the same time, still a real estate agent's trick to prospective buyers that a house is unique and special. The irony of course is that its very unreality is what makes the house seem so real.
It is a paradox of a bowl--both subtle and noticeable at once. Like all art works, particularly like Keats' Grecian urn, although it is a static object, it suggests motion, for even as it is "still" as Keats "still unravished bride," it seems to be "still" going on. It has no other function than to be an empty vessel of whatever one imposes upon it. The bowl's basic characteristic is like that of the husband's assessment of her--that she has a fine aesthetic sense and can also function in the real world. However, a basic difference between her and her husband revolves around their reactions to such art-objects: ironies attract her, but he does not like things many-sided and unclear.
Only in the last three paragraphs do we learn the emotional background of the bowl, just as we only get the source of the balloon in the last paragraphs of Barthelme's story of that name. "Why be two-faced?" her lover asked her. And telling her she cannot have it both ways, he leaves her. Such dichotomies are what give the story its meaning, for as she looks at the bowl still and safe on the table, it embodies the world of experience that the art object always tries to embody: both "deep and smoothly empty."
Tomorrow: Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl"