Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Two tales from 50 Great American Short Stories

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: The Girls in their Summer Dresses
Author: Irwin Shaw

This story is like a hard piece of candy. It seems bright and sweet at first but when you crack into it you find out it's brittle and hollow. The sweetness fades fast.

A husband and wife take a stroll down 5th Avenue. They've decided to spend the day together instead of meeting up with friends. It's meant to be an intimate time for them, but the husband keeps looking at other women with a gleam in his eye that his wife recognizes from when he first laid eyes on her over five years ago.

What follows is a conversation that exposes and widens the distance between them, the thinness of their intimacy. The husband (who at some points reminds me of a kid in a candy store) tries to be easygoing throughout, and says quietly devastating things in a reassuring voice, as if that will soften the blow.

And I can imagine what the wife is thinking. Not only the question that's voiced - whether looking and coveting will ever lead to adultery - but also the question of why he married her to begin with. If he looks at other women the same way, what makes her special? It's never clear why he married her specifically; she has a number of good qualities, but are they sufficient for him? And if he sees some of the same qualities in other women, or if those women are just as intriguing in their own way, where does that leave her? When he says, "I love you," on what level does he mean it? At one point she says, desperate, "I've made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I'd do any damn thing for you." He tells her that he knows; he clasps her hand in his. But he can't tell her what she hopes to hear, not without lying.


Title: A New England Nun
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Louisa Ellis and Joe Dagget are engaged but haven't seen each other for years. Joe has been working abroad; Louisa has lived alone. When he returns it's clear that they've grown apart; they behave like kindly acquaintances. What's more, Louisa has carved out a life for herself. Her house may be small, but it's hers. She has her own little garden, and a large dog that has a fearsome reputation in the village. Inside her home everything has its place, and she lives in peace.

Freeman writes about rooms, interiors, and personal space like no author I've come across yet. This is where her characters really come alive: in privacy, living quietly beyond the notice of other people. Her descriptions of 19th century New England village life and the countryside are also lovely.
Louisa could sew linen seams, and distil roses, and dust and polish and fold away in lavender, as long as she listed. That afternoon she sat with her needlework at the window, and felt fairly steeped in peace.
When Joe visits Louisa's house he feels out of place, a bull in a china shop. And by marrying him she knows she'll have to give up her home and move in with him and his mother. The fact that she has independent means of her own, however modest, gives her more of a choice of how to live her life. Both she and Joe are honorable enough to keep their promises to each other, even if their hearts aren't in it; they would still get along tolerably well. She also senses that this will be her last chance to get married, and that if she asked almost anyone they would say that she should. But who can understand, as she does, the pleasures and blessings of her calm solitary domain?


Other stories from this collection include The Blue-Winged Teal (by Wallace Stegner) and The National Pastime (by John Cheever), along with Silent Snow, Secret Snow (by Conrad Aiken) and The Damned Thing (by Ambrose Bierce).


A New England Nun also appears in Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway