Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 Tales from Great American Short Stories

Collection: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway
Editor: Corinne Demas

Title: The Birthmark
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

After a scientist marries a woman of beautiful character and appearance, he becomes obsessed with the birthmark on her cheek, her one apparent flaw. He's convinced that as a scientist he has the means to rid her of this imperfection.

The birthmark, shaped like a small hand, is a symbol of his wife's humanity and mortality. Most men wouldn't have considered it a flaw but instead would have seen it as a distinct feature, perfectly imperfect and uniquely hers; the reason it becomes a flaw here is because the scientist can't stop fixating on it. His wife loves him deeply and permits him to proceed with his experimentation, but after reading through a journal of his previous work she wisely grasps his limitations:
Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.

With heavy symbolism Hawthorne illustrates the arrogance and idealism of scientists who think they have the capacity to undo anything in nature. Like other quests for impossible perfection this one ends in disaster. Hawthorne's cautionary tale addresses people's conviction that science can and should be used to eradicate anything regarded as a flaw.


Title: The Flight of Betsey Lane
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett

Betsey Lane, Lavina Dow, and Peggy Bond are three old ladies living on a poor-farm in New England. Betsey is the youngest and still dreams of traveling; when she hears about the Philadelphia Centennial, she's determined to attend. She's seen very little of the world and isn't going to miss out on this chance.

Jewett writes fresh, vivid characters. Their lives aren't whitewashed; they're forgotten by the community and spend most of the day in a cluttered room carrying out small chores. At the same time they're comfortable with themselves and, in a quiet way, full of life; they aren't pitiful.
They were close together, knee to knee, picking over a bushel of beans, and commanding a view of the dandelion-starred, green yard below, and of the winding, sandy road that led to the village, two miles away. Some captive bees were scolding among the cobwebs of the rafters overhead, or thumping against the upper panes of glass... There was a cheerful feeling of activity, and even an air of comfort, about the Byfleet Poor-house. Almost every one was possessed of a most interesting past, though there was less to be said about the future.

Betsey does get to go to the Centennial, and who knows what will come next. She's open to possibilities and doesn't let age, lack of money, or other people's expectations kill her spirit of curiosity and exploration.


Title: Paul's Case
Author: Willa Cather

Paul is young, impatient, sensitive and impractical. He has a love of beauty and refinement, a taste for flowers, champagne and theater. If he could, he'd escape from his lower-middle-class neighborhood, where everything feels dull and flat to him. Paul wants the lifestyle that only lots of money could give him but hates the thought of the decades' worth of drudgery required to even have a shot at wealth. The one job he loves is working as an usher at a music hall, because it brings him closer to brilliance and color; he doesn't realize that art itself demands years of patient work. It seems he wants only to feel, to revel in elegance and sensuousness. But life can't be lived that way, and Paul knows it; only he keeps hoping that somehow he can lose himself in his dreams and step into the world of illustrious hotels, perfume, silk, hothouse flowers and delicate luxuries.

Paul eventually shows the extent of his desperation. His vivid imagination is in some ways greatly limited, and at a crucial point in the story he fails to imagine that life can ever be better for him. There's also no one he can talk to about his struggle. His need for escape is not just a lazy ploy to avoid work. He feels out of place in his family and community and has a tendency to be high-strung. He doesn't fit in anywhere except for the rarefied places that he craves but that are denied to him. It's as if he was born into the wrong world, and he refuses to adapt to it in any way. By the end of the story he's given himself a taste of a dream life, while knowing it can't last; after that he denies himself a return to his everyday life, with its complexities, sordidness, and (he realizes too late) possibilities. Cather's complex portrait shows a boy who, by choice and by his nature, fails to negotiate with reality.
When Paul went down to dinner the music of the orchestra came floating up the elevator shaft to greet him. His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color--he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.
I wonder if Paul's appreciation of this grand hotel and the way of life it represents was deepened by the fact that he didn't have a long time to stay in it. Had he constantly lived in this world, in "the bewildering medley of color," he might have grown used to it and not been as moved by it. Then again, he might have been able to enjoy its beautiful variety. That's something we don't get to find out.


Other stories from this volume include: The Cask of Amontillado (by Edgar Allan Poe) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).

"Paul's Case" also appears in this anthology.


This post (and this one) have been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #19 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.