Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Florence Goyet, "The Classic Short Story: 1870-1925"

Professor Florence Goyet of Stendhal University, Grenoble, was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925, now available in hardback, paperback, and kindle on Amazon. Originally published in France in 1993, this new edition is a revised and updated, translated version published in the United Kingdom and the United States by Open Book Publishers in 2014.

By "classic" short story, Goyet refers to a period of short story development somewhere in between the romantics of the mid-nineteenth century—Poe, Hawthorne, Gogol, Nerval, Gautier, Merimee, Turgenev—and the moderns of the early twentieth century—Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Hemingway,  Crane, Conrad, Kafka.  Goyet is quite right in pointing out that this "in-between" period has been relatively ignored by critics either because the stories were "naturalistic, an approach not always conducive to the short story, or "well-made," an approach that often led to simplistic plot-based tricks.

From the publication of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" in 1853 until Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, the development of the short story in America can be traced by examining stories in the following loose categories, which I pose for the sake of convenience only.  The discernible development of the form focuses on those stories that have been classified as "local color," which then compels a movement toward realism. The most representative examples are George Washington Harris, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree, Thomas Nelson Page, James Lane Allen, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Wilkins Freeman.  However, Cable's local color cannot be appreciated fully without an understanding of his use of gothic conventions, any more than Kate Chopin's local color can be understood without an appreciation of her use of Maupassant's convention of the well-made story.  And Mary Wilkins Freeman's local color must be seen in the context of Jamesian realism. 

The second issue that must be considered is how local color compelled, abetted, or served the growing development of realism, and how realism flowed quite naturally into modern impressionism.  The realists that might be discussed are William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris.  The realists becoming impressionists are, of course Henry James and Stephen Crane.  And included with this influential pair that presaged the kind of poetic realism that characterized Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and others of the 1920s, should be Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, and Willa Cather.  The final group includes those writers who developed the structural pattern of the short story to such an extent that it became the well-made story.  These include Edward Everett Hale, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Frank Stockton, Fitz-James O'Brien, and O. Henry.  All of these strands had important influences on the American short story in the last half of the nineteenth century and continued to influence the development of the form into the twentieth century.

Goyet has chosen to focus primarily on five writers  in the latter  part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth: Maupassant, Chekhov, Giovanni Verga, Henry James, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke.  She says she has read all the stories by these writers, and has placed them in the context of their contemporaries, e.g. Daudet, Kipling, etc.  She has chosen a corpus of one thousand stories, reading them in their original language in the newspapers and journals where they first appeared.  In addition to  reading all this primary material, she has documented her research in secondary material scrupulously.  Indeed, on some pages, the footnotes take up as much space as the text.  The three major sections of the book approach the classic short story from three perspectives;  its structure, its original publication site, and its relationship between reader, author, and character. Goyet's book is an ambitious project, and it is certainly a strongly grounded work of academic research and critical analysis.

I don't intend to offer a detailed review of the book.  If you have an academic or historical interest in the short story, you will want to read it.  Instead, I want to talk a bit about those aspects of the classic short story Goyet emphasizes that interest me most.

Goyet's argument about paroxystic characterization in the short story, that is, that characters are always symbolic, representative and dependent on a structural tension or antithesis, rings true to me. For example, in discussing a story by Verga about a manhunt, she says the story is about the manhunt par excellence.  She says, like the fairy tale, the classic short story works with unequivocal entities: "paragons of virtue or vice." But she adds, this paroxysm does not characterize only the main characters, it permeates the entire narrative.   In other words, the paroxystic characterization of the classic short story makes its characters into exemplary representatives of a category,  making them into almost abstract entities.  Reader interest then shifts from individuals to the development of the story.  Thus, the central feature of the classic short story is its structure, which, she argues, is  almost always based on antithesis.  Narrative structure takes precedence over the characters, who primarily are at the service of their role in the plot, or, I would say, pattern.

Goyet, not surprisingly, chooses Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as emblematic  of the deep antithetical tension in the classic short story.  The power of the classic short story, she says, comes from making the tension between two opposing forces the governing energy of the story as a whole.  This oxymoronic tension, Goyet argues, is a necessary aspect of the classic short story, but not of the novel.

One of the results of the classic short story's emphasis on antithetical structure is the form's focus on its ending, what Goyet calls "the twist in the tail."  Rather than emphasizing the most obvious surprise ending stories, such as O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," which she does discuss as an example of antithetical structure, she talks about Chekhov's story "Misery," the emotional impact of which is not dependent solely on the ending when the old cab drive talks to his horse, but rather on the antithetical structure that permeates the story throughout and culminates structurally in that ending. Goyet says that great stories with a twist in the tail ending are more complex than O. Henry's simple trick endings because they force us into what she calls a "retroreading," i.e., a reconsideration of the entire story from its beginning.

Comparing the short story to the sonnet form, Goyet argues that the classic short story is a genre that is so dependent on antithetic tensions and rests so heavily on the paralleling of elements that the signs in the story do not take on meaning immediately but rather are half-hidden and put on reserve in the memory until the ending gives them a definitive place in the structure. "At the end of the text, one's mind runs through the elements stored during the reading and gives them back their hidden meaning, the meaning provided by the general structure and economy of the work."

Goyet concludes her discussion of the structure of the classic short story by arguing that what gives masterpieces of the genre their greatness is their effective use of what ancient rhetoricians calls "hypotyposis,"  that is, a particularly vivid depiction that makes us "see," rather than conceive.  She says that it is the balance between the abstract and the concrete, the powerful descriptions and schematic material, that distinguishes the classic short story from the allegory or the medieval exemplum.

I enjoyed reading Florence Goyet's book, and I thank her for sending it to me.  Her scrupulous analysis of a body of short fiction that is often ignored reaffirms for me some of the characteristics of the form for which I have argued for many years, especially the short story's emphasis on thematic structure and its presentation of character both "as if real" and "representative" at once. I recommend it to you for its breadth and insight.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Short Story and Theory of Mind: Some Preliminary Remarks

While working on a keynote presentation I am scheduled to make at the Alice Munro Symposium next month in Ottawa (My colleague Robert Thacker will also give a keynote, and a number of Munro experts and other Canadian scholars will make presentations),  I have been reading Keith Oatley's Such Stuff as Dreams and Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction, as well as a thick wad of research reports by cognitive psychologists from Canada and the U.S. on so-called Theory of Mind. 

If you are not familiar with the concept, Theory of Mind (sometimes unfortunately shortened to ToM) is not really a "theory" of mind, but rather refers to the ability humans have to formulate theories about the minds of others.  It seems to be a human characteristic developed by children sometime during the third year of life. Before the development of this ability, children do not know that other people have minds. We always knew, didn't we, that all little children are egomaniacs.

The classic experiment involves children watching puppets in a scene in which one puppet puts a toy in a red box and then leaves the room.  Another puppet removes the toy and puts it in a blue box.  When the first puppet comes back in, the children watching the scene are asked to predict where the puppet will look for the object.  Before the age of four, children predict that the puppet will look in the blue box, for that is where they know the toy is and thus where they assume the puppet thinks it is also.  After the age of four, the children predict that the puppet will look in the red box, for they know that the puppet doesn't know that the object has been moved. In other words, they now have the ability to formulate a theory that the puppet has a mind. I apologize to the cognitive psychologists who have formulated this if I have oversimplified or misrepresented.

A recent study that received quite a bit of popular press in the U.S. was reported by psychologists at the New School for Social Research in the Oct, 2013 issue of Science.  I found the report at www.sciencemag.org under the title "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind";  the researchers are David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. With a little extra research on the Internet, I was able to find the Supplementary material for the report, which detailed the methodology and the materials used.  I was particularly interested in the fact that one of the "literary" stories used in the study was Alice Munro's "Corrie," on which I have posted, and which has received quite a bit of response on this blog. 

I also discovered that the "popular" fiction the researchers used to juxtapose against "Corrie" was a romance story by Rosamunde Pilcher entitled "Lalla," from her collection Love Stories. (Other literary stories are from the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Award Stories; other popular stories are from Popular Fiction: An Anthology. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand.  In the literary vs. popular test, in addition to "Corrie," they used Sam Ruddick's "Leak" and Wendell Berry's "Nothing Living Lives Alone."  For the popular, they used "Space Jockey" by Robert Heinlein, "Too Many Have Lived" by Dashiell Hammett, as well as "Lalla" Rosamunde Pilcher.

I will talk a bit about "Corrie" and Theory of Mind in my presentation at Ottawa next month, and so will not duplicate that discussion here.  However, I do want to make some suggestions about how the notion of Theory of Mind may be related to the thesis I try to develop in the first chapter of my book I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies.  (I posted that first chapter a few months ago on this blog if you are interested in looking at it.) Basically, I suggest that Frank O'Connor's concept in his book The Lonely Voice about the short story's focus on human isolation and loneliness is the primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union.

It seems to me that the Theory of Mind hypothesis that before the age of four the child has no notion that others have minds is related to Jean Piaget's theory that  the young baby itself constitutes its sole reality because the baby's universe contains no permanent object, no “It” and therefore no “I” except the total and unconscious egocentric self. Piaget tells us that the baby's objectless universe is made up of "shifting and unsubstantial `tableaux’ that appear and are then totally reabsorbed." However, during the second year of life, a kind of "Copernican revolution" takes place in the child, a general decentering process during which the child begins to perceive the self as an object in a universe made up of permanent objects, a universe in which causality is localized in space and objectified in things.  Although Piaget's theory has been questioned in recent years, I like its explanatory power.

In my book, I correlate Piaget's theory with the concepts of Martin Buber, who identifies the  "separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it... Whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word I-It, the word of separation, has been spoken."  This fall from at-oneness, dramatized in the Genesis story of the Fall and the story of Cain and Abel, is, it seems to me, related to the discovery of Theory of Mind children experience after their third year—that there are other minds out there that can never be known.

Maybe it is just because I am so committed to the underrated short story that I am always trying to make a case for its importance, but it seems to me that the story that is short—which is a primary narrative form, not a derivative narrative form like the novel—came into being as the primary means by which human beings, confronting the realization that they can never know the mind of the other and thus are forever trapped within their solipsistic isolation, try to identify with the other.  Frank O'Connor uses one of the earliest "modern" short stories, Gogol's "The Overcoat," as an example of the thematizing of this notion, which is why I use the plaintive cry Akakey Akakievich makes to his colleague—"I Am Your Brother"—as the title of my most recent book.

H. Porter Abbot, my colleague at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who uses Bartleby as an example, focuses on fictional minds that cannot be read, not only by characters in the story world but also by readers in the actual world. When my students encountered a character whose behavior just did not make sense to them, for example Bartleby's stubborn preference "not to", Kurtz's journey into the heart of darkness, Gatsby's passion for the silly Daisy—they simply said, "they must be crazy."  As Ginger Nut, like my students, puts it, "he's a little luny."  This, of course, is the easy evasion of the challenge to know the other that seems mysteriously unknowable.

I am not sure it is mere coincidence that the American writer often credited with first recognizing the unique characteristics of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, was concerned with the mystery of motivation and the efforts human beings make to try to project themselves into the mind of the other.  Poe's stories about the mysteries of what makes people do the strange, contrary things they do, focus on what he calls "the perverse."   "The Imp of the Perverse" begins in an essay format describing a human propensity—what the author calls a "prima mobilia of the human soul"--previously ignored because there seems to be no reason for it, either in a divine or a human plan. 

The writer argues that if one proceeded à posteriori from observable evidence, rather than à priori from previous assumptions about God's plan, thinkers would have to admit "an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term."  He then describes the principle as a "mobile without motive, a motive not motivirit."  However, more than acting without a comprehensible object or motive, the principle involves acting precisely because one should not.  This radical impulse fascinates Poe because it cannot be broken down any further; it evades analysis by its very elementary nature. He explores the concept further in "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The effort to project the self into the mind of the other can best be seen in "The Purloined Letter," in which Poe's detective Dupin gives an example of the school boy who is a master at playing the game of "even and odd"--a guessing game in which one holds a number of marbles in his hand and asks someone to guess whether they are even or odd in number.  The boy succeeds in guessing by projecting himself into the one holding the marbles, identifying with the opponent's intellect.  He says he fashions the expression of his face in accordance with the face of the opponent and then waits to see what thoughts come to him. 

In Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley cites Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes's use of the same technique: "I put myself in the man's place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances."  Oatley also cites G. K. Chesterton's  Father Brown, who says: "When  I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done, I always realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions, but not under others."

I suppose I could be accused of being obsessed with this basic theme of the short story, for I have been exploring it since my first published article, a piece entitled "The Difficulty of Loving in Eudora Welty's 'A Visit of Charity'."  Maybe so.  But this new research on Theory of Mind intrigues me.  Perhaps I can use it to further make my case that the short story is a very importance literary form—a form that Jorge Luis Borges once referred to as "essential."

I am especially interested in this research that seems to argue for the importance of fiction in light of the fact that most states in the U.S. are now adopting the so-called "Common Core," which has reduced the importance of reading fiction in favor of requiring students read more nonfiction.

More about this later.  And more about Alice Munro when I get back from Canada.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Tribute to Alistair MacLeod

I first laid eyes on Alistair MacLeod in June 2007 in Dublin, Ireland.  I was there guiding a group of twenty or so students from California State University, Long Beach through Joyce's Dubliners and Ulysses. We walked the walk and talked the talk on the sites of those two great books for three weeks, staying in a youth hostel up near Stephens' Green and hiking down each rainy morning to Trinity College where the English Department was kind enough to provide me with a classroom. I love Dublin, having spent a year there with my family as a Senior Fulbright Fellow, and I enjoyed sharing it with my California students; I was especially happy that my younger daughter, who had just started in her first year as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, was with me. We were lucky in 2007, for we were there not only for Bloomsday but also for the Dublin Literary Festival.

I had never met Alistair MacLeod before, had never even seen a photograph of him.  But as my daughter and I were setting in the lobby of the Peacock Theatre, a small venue adjacent to the famous Abbey Theatre, waiting for the reading by MacLeod and the wonderful young writer Claire Keegan, I watched a stout, red-faced man in an tweed cap come into the lobby and set down a worn briefcase.  I have to admit that I was then guilty of a bit of professorial profiling, for I felt sure I knew who this man was—so sure that I asked him, "What are you reading for us today?"  He smiled and said, "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun."  And I smiled and said, "Wonderful, that's my favorite."

And read it he wonderfully did, a tour-de-force of the ancient storyteller’s art that transformed everyone in that theatre into enrapt listeners, hunched close to catch every nuance, like peasants around an Irish fireplace.  The story begins, “Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea.  And the man had a dog of which he was very fond.  She was large and gray, a sort of staghound from another time.” I can hear Alistair MacLeod's voice now, telling the tale of a man rescuing a dog after it was run over by a cart when he saw the silhouette of its small crushed body beneath the mud, interjecting the phrase "as the story goes" occasionally as a tale of violence and inevitability unfolds—a powerful story about the terrors that haunt our dreams.

I ran into Alistair MacLeod again three years later in Toronto at a conference on the short story where I was on a panel with friends and colleagues discussing Alice Munro's story "Passion." We sat at the same table one day for lunch and chatted about a few things.  I did not ask him if he remembered our brief meeting in Dublin. He laughed a lot as we talked about very little—just lunchtime chatter. Somehow, we got to talking about whiskey, and he laughed that he had a couple of bottles of very good whisky that he had been given in the past, but that he still had not opened because he felt the whisky was too good for him.  Then, it was my turn to laugh, for I told him that I had a bottle of Middleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey, 1993, that one of my graduate students gave me some fifteen years ago.  I had been waiting for a special occasion to open it and share it, but so far had managed to forget.  And I sure as the devil  knew that it was much too good for me.  He had I both agreed we were quite satisfied with the middle shelf stuff and had always left the top shelf to our betters.

My younger daughter, now in her twenties, married, with a child of her own, loves Ireland, and she also loves my home state Kentucky.  A few years ago, the two of us flew back to the mountains for a visit. With a great deal of pleasure, I showed her all the places I knew as a child.  And when we went to the old family graveyard, I pointed to where I wanted to be and exacted a promise that she would carry my ashes back here on her lap and bury them in this spot surrounded by family.  I told her I had a small oak box in my study at home, which currently housed a rare bottle of Irish whiskey that I have hoarded for several years.  I keep saying that I am going to drink it, but I can’t get over the feeling that it is too high-shelf good for me.  The fact of the matter is, I probably take some comfort in knowing that it serves a current noble purpose--I mean, after all, it is very fine whiskey—and that once empty, the box will sit there idle waiting for…well, you know what. My daughter even wrote a story in a creative writing class about carrying out my request.  And when I read it, it caused the kind of shiver that used to make folks feel somebody was walking on their grave.

Last year I agreed to deliver a keynote address at the Canadian Literature Symposium on May 9-11; the symposium this year focuses on the short stories of Alice Munro, and, although I am not an  Alice Munro specialist, I happen to know a few things about the short story.  I have been looking forward to the symposium not only because I am such a great fan of Alice Munro, but also because I knew that Alistair MacLeod was going to be there.  I wanted to tell him that right after the conference, when I returned home, my wife and I were driving to Tucson, Arizona, where my younger daughter was to receive her Ph.D. in literature.  I think I read somewhere that two of his six children were also literature professors.  I wanted to tell him that I was finally going to open that Very Rare bottle of 1993 Middleton Irish whiskey, for even if I did not feel I was worth it, I knew for sure that she was.

When I got online this past Monday morning and saw that Alistair MacLeod had died, I cursed and cried and listened to a reading of  "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," and had a drink of middle shelf Irish whiskey.

In his brief essay in The Writing Lie, which Constance Rooke edited as a fundraiser for PEN Canada a few years ago, Alistair MacLeod  said he is pleased that his work seems to have "struck a responsive chord that sounds the note of our shared humanity." Maybe this is what the writing life is all about, Professor MacLeod says, "a life of communication which helps us to recognize the great within the small and make us feel less lonely than we are." He says he believes that writing is a communicative act in which the writer is sending out letters to the world, and that he or she is hopeful that the world will receive the letters and be affected in some way. "Perhaps," Professor MacLeod says, "the world will write back."

Rest in Peace, Professor MacLeod.  This is just me writing back.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Márquez--Memories of My Melancholy Whores

In honor of the great Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who died this week at the age of 87, I post the following discussion of his last work of fiction, the novella Memoria de mis putas tristes, (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), published in 2004. A novella, rather than a novel, it has many of the characteristics of those forms from which the short story is descended—the fable, the fairy tale, and the romance.

 The plot of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores is quite simple, summed up in the initial sentence, in which the unnamed first-person narrator says that on his ninetieth birthday he wants to give himself the gift of a riotous night of lovemaking with an adolescent virgin.  The remainder of the book recounts the results of this decision by the narrator, a journalist in a Colombian town.  The most important result is that the elderly hero does not engage in a night of sexuality with a young girl, but instead sits by her bed, watching her as she sleeps. For the remainder of his ninetieth year he returns to the brothel night after night, continuing to watch the girl sleep, hardly ever touching her and hearing her voice only once.  However, he falls helplessly in love with her, and as, improbable as it may seem, she ultimately falls in love with him, and they finally come together as a most unlikely couple on the last page.

Some critics chastised the author and the novella’s hero as dirty old men who have no social conscience about the exploitation of young women in third world countries, but it is a misunderstanding of the tradition of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, as well as Garcia Márquez ’s obvious intention, to label this a perverted book about an old man’s wicked lust for a teenage girl. As Garcia Márquez has suggested in previous works, visiting a brothel does not have the same unsavory aspect in Colombia as it does in America.  Indeed, the author of the classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) has praised the brothels of Bogota, where he studied law, even though he was once beaten up there for failing to pay a prostitute. There is no hint of criminal exploitation in the book, no sordid reality of young women made chattel to men with money.  Rather the story is about enrapt attention, fantasy, the romantic dream of pure ideal love.

Although the protagonist realizes that sex is merely a consolation for not having love, he has never been able to experience love; indeed has never had sex with a woman unless he paid for it.  That the final object of his desire is a fourteen-year-old girl has nothing to do with the social issue of preying on the helpless and innocent.  Neither love nor sex in this novella has anything to do with social reality; the story is rather a complete romantic idealization of the art-like object of desire. 

The romantic nature of the old man’s silent observation of the girl as he watches her each night can be compared to the famous metaphor that opens the quintessential romantic adoration of an untouched object—John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  For the young girl in Garcia Márquez ’s novella is a frozen work of art, not to be approached if the true nature of ideal romantic love is to be sustained.  She is indeed Keats’ “still unravished bride of quietness,” a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time.”  The protagonist knows that he does not want her to awaken, does not want to hear her voice, does not want to see her in daylight, but rather wishes only to watch her in silence.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s paean to passion for a child, Lolita (1955), but it is Dante’s celebration of a similar love for his Beatrice that invented this kind of romantic love story. Gustave von Aschenbach’s tragic love for the young Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) is perhaps the most famous twentieth century model.  

The most immediate comparison is suggested by Garcia Márquez’s opening epigraph from Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of Sleeping Beauties” (1926), another classic story of idealistic love of an older man for a young girl.  “House of the Sleeping Beauties” centers on a brothel visited by old men who can no longer perform sexually.  Forbidden to have sex with the young women, and thus free of sexual expectations, they lie down with beautiful young virgins who, under the influence of a sleeping potion, are unaware of their visits.  The central character is a man who does not tell the madam that he is still able to function as a man, and his visits are tormented by the fact that he desires more than the girls are allowed to give.  As he lies by different girls each night, he remembers his youthful adventures and contemplates his own future impotence as he grows older. 

The difference between Kawabata’s story and Garcia Márquez ’novella is that whereas Kawabata is concerned with the inevitability of growing old and the longing for death, Garcia Márquez  holds out for the romantic ideal of never being too old to fall in love. Memories of My Melancholy Whores is not a fairy tale for the aged, but rather a fable for the romantic. 

The unlikely her says he is ugly and shy and seems proud to admit that he has never gone to bed with a woman he did not pay. He was even voted client of the year two different times in the red-light district he frequents. He says by the time he was fifty, he had slept with 514 women.  Then he simply stopped counting. He lives in an old ancestral mansion, has no wife, no children, no kin, no pets. He is cultured, surrounding himself with great literature, listening to classical music.  Each week he writes in longhand a weekly column for the local Sunday newspaper, and he is fairly well known in the town.  At one time in his youth he was engaged to be married, but at the last minute he hid from his bride and never again made a commitment to a woman.

The virgin the madam arranges for him to visit is a poor girl who works by day sewing buttons in a clothing factory.  She lives with her crippled mother and provides for her brothers and sisters.  She is afraid of sex because a friend once bled to death when she lost her virginity.  The madam gives her some bromide and valerian that makes her sleep during the protagonist’s visit.  Each night he lies beside her, listening to her breath, imagining the blood flowing through her veins.  Neither he nor the reader ever sees her awake.  He sometimes speaks to her in her sleep, but she does not respond. Her only sentence is the sleep-laden cryptic remark, “It was Isabel who made the snails cry.” 

On one other occasion, she writes an enigmatic sleepwalking message on the mirror when  she goes to the bathroom about the tiger not eating far away. He reads to her from “The Little Prince” and “The Arabian Nights” and eventually begins to write love letters to her that he publishes as his columns. It is appropriate that the protagonist reads fairy tales by Perrault to the young girl, for she is the classic Sleeping Beauty, untouched and untouchable; to waken her would be to make her merely human, and that is not what the protagonist falls in love with.  Realists may say that it is immature to fall in love with a child, with someone you can never have, with someone you have hardly spoken to; however, most great love stories in western culture, from Tristan and Iseult to Romeo and Juliet, share such characteristics.

The old man’s idyll is interrupted by an intrusion from the real world when an important banker  is stabbed to death in the brothel, and the investigation and bad publicity shuts it down for months. The protagonist watches for the girl on the street, even though he knows he would not recognize her dressed and in daylight.  He imagines her in what he terms her “unreal” life, caring for her brothers and sisters, sewing buttons at her work. He feels he is dying for love, but he also knows that he would not trade his suffering for anything in the world. During this separation from his beloved, the protagonist happens to see his long-ago bride-to-be, aged and infirm. He meets with an old sexual companion who advises him not to die without knowing the wonder of having sex with someone he loves. 

He is anguished by jealousy, thinking that the madam Rosa Carbacas has sold his loved one to someone else, and he flies into a rage when it seems that his romantic fantasy love has been contaminated by sordid reality.  But he cannot stay away from his “Delgadina.”  On the morning of his ninety-first birthday, he and Rosa Cabarcas make what they call an old people’s bet--that whoever survives keeps everything that belongs to the other one.  The madam says instead that when she dies everything will belong to the young girl, which will amount to the same thing, for, she tells him in the final improbability of this most romantic novella, that the poor girl is head over heels in love with him.  Radiant, he feels that finally he is experiencing real life, with his heart condemned to die of happy love.  Garcia Márquez thus ends his romantic fable in the classic fairy tale manner, leaving the reader hopeful that the couple will live happily ever after.