Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Two tales from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories
Editor: Joyce Carol Oates

Title: The Middle Years
Author: Henry James

Dencombe, a novelist, has moved to the seaside to try to revive his failing health. As he looks over his latest novel he realizes that he's reached the full flowering of his talents only now, at a point in his life when he's too ill to work. When he was younger and healthier he wasted years and made many mistakes as he slowly learned to write well:
It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art. The art had come, but it had come after everything else. At such a rate a first existence was too short - long enough only to collect material; so that to fructify, to use the material, one should have a second age, an extension.
In the course of the story Dencombe is befriended by the young and optimistic Dr. Hugh, the personal doctor of a countess who has also come to the seaside to convalesce. The part of the story involving the countess and her female companion, a pianist, seemed flat compared to Dencombe's musings about art and life and his connection with the doctor. The doctor's companionship gives Dencombe an opportunity to share some wisdom, confide his doubts, and maybe even experience some hope - not necessarily the hope that he'll live much longer, but the thought that maybe he really did do what he could with his life. The best moments in the story are marked with that painful mix of triumph and futility that's so much a part of what makes people beautiful.
"A second chance - that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Title: Sweat
Author: Zora Neale Hurston

Delia Jones, a pious washerwoman living in the segregated South, has survived years of marriage to the brutal Sykes, who has recently taken up with another woman. Although it's gotten to the point where she can better stand up for herself against his physical abuse, she'll now have to resist his attempts to kick her out of their home, which she paid for through her own labor - doing laundry for white people. Sykes tries to end this battle of wills by bringing home a snake, which he keeps in a box as a pet; Delia is terrified of snakes, but digs her heels in harder and refuses to leave.

Sweat has a pressure cooker atmosphere, heat and tension rising; you know the snake isn't going to stay confined, not for long - and Sykes may have set himself up to fall on his own sword. One of the strongest points to the story is Delia's endurance. Suffering has toughened her but hasn't made her brutal or spiritually brittle; she has become stubborn, intent, grateful for small joys, and hopeful of better things to come. Even though Sykes mocks her for laboring over white people's laundry, she believes in the dignity of her work. Sykes resents her job probably because he relies on the income she brings in, and also because her job has given her some measure of security and independence and the means to stand up to him. Delia can rely only on herself in this story. At one point some of the men in town consider beating Sykes up - not so much for his years of abusing Delia but for the fact that he's running around openly with another woman - but they never get around to it; the heat makes them sluggish, and they'd rather sit on the sidelines and make condemnations instead of doing anything. She's on her own.

Delia isn't a saint; she's just as strong as she can be, repeatedly tested. And Sykes isn't a one-dimensional monster. He's brutish and evil, but he's human too, which makes the sum of his life all the more sad and horrible. At the end, he and Delia share one look of mutual knowledge; there's a little bit of Sykes in Delia, and a little bit of Delia in Sykes.


Other stories in this collection include The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.


This post has been linked to on Short Stories on Wednesday #29 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.