Archive for the VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) Category

May 2009 Critical Essay

Posted in -May '09 Packet, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on May 31, 2009 by Richard Farrell

***Jess…I was able to include some thoughts on the second story, Anthony Doerr’s, The Caretaker, after working on it today. ***


The immediate effect of taking a character outside his ‘home’ and placing him in a faraway land leads to conflict-laden situations and moods of yearning, loneliness, and despair.  I will look at two stories that deal with this sense of displacement, and how the common theme of forging relationships with outsiders helps the central characters rediscover the essential parts of themselves that have been missing in their respective strange, foreign settings.

In Jess Row’s story, The Secret of Bats, an American teacher struggles to adapt to life in Hong Kong.  Very little is directly known about this narrator.  We never learn his name, and only the faintest sense of where he’s from (Larchmont, NJ) or what preceded his life in China (the only real mention is waterskiing.)  We know only that he has earned a fellowship to teach in Hong Kong and he apparently has no friends.  There are no significant relationships in his life, other than the one with his student, Alice.  We know almost nothing of his past or of his future.  When asked on a bus what America is like, his reply is telling: “Forgive me, aunt, I say.  I forget.”  Yet equally little is shown of Hong Kong.  We apprehend that this culture, this city, is deeply foreign to the narrator, but his descriptions of it are kept to a bare minimum. The absence of setting underscores the distance the narrator feels from the familiar.

 In Anthony Doerr’s longer story, The Caretaker, the main character is Joseph Saleeby, a Liberian man who has led a sheltered, almost pampered life with his mother until civil war strikes his country.  While Joseph begins the story in is home, so much of the familiar becomes quickly foreign as rebels slaughter his neighbors and his country plunges into chaos.  When his mother disappears, Joseph is forced to the streets, where he eventually runs afoul of a rebel group, who force him to prove his loyalty by shooting a captured soldier.  After this scene, Joseph stows away on a ship and ends up on the Oregon coast, where he finds a job as a caretaker on a wealthy American’s estate.  Joseph goes through a progression of exiles, from his home, from his country, and eventually from his new American home.    

Both characters, Row’s narrator and Doerr’s Liberian refugee, are isolated, alone and deprived of connections to their pasts.  Each character will seek and find such a connection in unusual secondary characters, characters that are ‘locals’ geographically but foreigners by temperament.  Both exiled characters are able to find some measure of peace and comfort in the face of isolation through contact with this other person, in which the foreign becomes familiar.

In The Secret of Bats, Alice Leung is a teenage student who blindfolds herself and practices moving around the school by echolocation.  Though Chinese, Alice is clearly on the outside of her world as much as the narrator who befriends her.  We will enter Hong Kong behind the blindfold of Alice, “keening a high C—cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat—never once veering off course, as if drawn by an invisible thread.”  Row keeps us outside the sights and sounds of the city.  He establishes a cold, barren world through sparse and frigid descriptions.  The school is “a five story concrete block, cracked and eroded by dirty rain, shoulder-to-shoulder with the tenements and garment factories of Cheung Sha Wan.   No air-conditioning and no heat…When it rains, mildew spiderwebs across the ceiling of my classroom.”   This is hardly the atmosphere of a travel brochure.  The setting remains dour and muted throughout the story.  But Alice is exotic and strange.  We gain the essence of Hong Kong through her, not through sensory descriptions.  We learn that Alice’s mother has committed suicide, and that in her society, this loss brings with it a certain shame.  Her principal describes ‘superstitions’ associated with suicide:  “Difficult to say in English.  Maybe just that she is unlucky girl.   Chinese people, you understand—some are still afraid of ghosts.”  

In Doerr’s story, the Twyman family leaves their estate for the winter months.  Joseph is tasked to care for the deserted house, but instead falls into a depressive ennui and loneliness.  He’s haunted by his past, both in a longing for the familiar and by guilt over what he’s done.  “In nightmares, Joseph replays the worst things men do to each other.  He sweats through his blankets and wakes throttling his pillow.  His mother, his money, his neat ordered life: all are gone—not finished, but vanished.”  One day, Joseph comes upon five beached whales on the beach near the estate.  He watches dying whales, and decides to take their hearts rather than allowing them to be burned.   This act of burial signifies a departure; he has found a way to reconnect with his past, where nothing is buried. “He thinks: at least I have buried something.”  Soon after this, Joseph loses his job because of his neglect and ends up living on the beach just outside the estate, tending to a garden he has planted on top of the buried hearts.  After a grueling period of near starvation, he sees the Twyman’s daughter, Belle, attempt to drown herself in the ocean.  Joseph rescues her, untying the cement blocks and pulling her to shore.  He discovers she is deaf, and like Alice, an outsider in her life.  She wants to die, or failing that, to runaway to South America.  Joseph, like Row’s narrator, has been connected to his foreign home by an unlikely friend: a strange, isolated teenaged girl.

In both stories, very little time is spent classifying the isolation.  It is felt, sensed by intuition, rather than described.  Both of the teen girls that appear in these stories act as a bridge: they unite the lonely male figure with his past in tangible ways. 

The climax of both stories occurs with these ‘foreign’ girls playing central roles.  Alice takes the narrator, wearing a blindfold to a rooftop, where she insists that, no matter what he hears, he not remove the blindfold.  He hears her feet running to the edge of the high rise roof, he’s certain she is about to go over, but her voice screams out to her dead mother.  The narrator crouches to the ground, blind, terrified.  “There is a long silence, and I stay where I am, the damp concrete soaking through to my knees.  My ears are ringing, and the numbness has blossomed through my head.”  It is in this state of horrified numbness that Alice goes to him, hugging him from behind.  “She puts her arms around me from behind and clasps my chest, pressing her head against my back. I thank you, she says.  She unties the headband.”  The untying signifies the fusion of this character to his world.  He is released from the frigid state of loneliness and dread that has followed him.  He is, in this sense, no longer foreign.  He has connected with Alice and is thereby united to the essential parts of himself.  In The Caretaker, Joseph has been detained and is being held for deportation.  He stops eating, and appears to give up his will to live, until one day, he is told that he has a visitor.  Belle appears in the detention facility.  She has run away from her family, and come to find him, carrying two melons from his secret garden.  “Everything feels very tenuous, just then, and terribly beautiful, as if he is straddling two worlds, the one he came from and the one he is going to.”  Belle, like Alice, has helped deliver the outsider home.

Perhaps this theme implies some sort of universal across cultural lines, the personal isolation much grander than the physical ones.  Both stories seem to point to this theme.  Both protagonists are ‘saved’ only in the act of reaching out to another, a local who does not fit in.  The implication is that there is some sort of deeper connection between people, something that stands astride cultural and social boundaries.

April Critical Essay.

Posted in April '09 Packet, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on April 30, 2009 by Richard Farrell

In this paper, I will look at how three different writers proceed to resolve conflict in their stories, focusing specifically on the crisis, or turning point of the story in each.  It is important to distinguish between the crisis and the climax, two similar but often distinct points.   The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms makes this comparison: “Although the crisis and the climax generally occur together, crisis is sometimes distinguished from climax by critics who use the former term to refer to a purely structural element of plot and the latter term to signify the point of greatest emotional intensity.”  The climax occurs at the point of greatest tension in the story.  The crisis moment occurs when the character’s fortune must change, for good or ill.  My argument is that resolution of conflict is often subtle.  The story can turn on the gentlest of images.   

In Richard Bausch’s story, Aren’t You Happy for Me, a father receives disturbing news over the phone from his daughter.  This story takes place in the confined space and time; indeed, most of scene involves one phone call transmitted in dialogue.  Bausch sets his story in motion with this dramatic premise:  “Dad, I’m bringing him home with me.  We’re getting married.”   We learn quickly that the man Melanie is marrying is almost forty years older than she is; that she is pregnant; that the man is her professor. On the other end of the phone, the father, Ballinger, has news of his own, though this news is kept from the daughter.  He and his wife, Mary, are ending their marriage.   The conversation is tense, especially as Melanie’s mother appears in the scene.  Bausch uses humor and anger to create a very plausible situation filled with problems needing solutions.  The turning point, or crisis, in this story comes near the end, after most of the tension has been released, when Ballinger remembers his own early, marital bliss.  “He sat there, remembering, like Mary, their early happiness, that ease and simplicity, and briefly he was in another house, other rooms.”  These other rooms are like a portal to his soul.  The turn comes when Ballinger calls out his wife’s name.  “’Mary’?’” he said, low; but she hadn’t heard him.  She was already out the doorway and into the hall.”   This name, posed as a question, is spoken into the void of his life.  It is a gesture towards something, but we will not see where it leads.  Perhaps it leads to reconciliation with his wife, or forgiveness for his daughter, or both, or neither.  There is, in his gesture, a point of understanding.   The story ends with Ballinger questioning himself about what he might have said had his wife answered.  The reader is left to consider the same question.

In Christopher Tilghman’s story, In A Father’s Place, Dan’s son Nick visits his family home with a new, combative girlfriend.  The family estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland provides both setting and context.  The land is old and retains the trappings of gentrification: antique furniture, oil paintings of ancestors, and servants. Into this setting come Nick and Patty.  Nick has travelled from New York to his boyhood home. Patty immediately begins to deconstruct the family’s estate and history.  Dan, a widow, seems hardly aristocratic.  He comes across as plain-spoken and grounded, suspicious of this girl and her effect on his son.  Nick has come, under her direction, to work on a book, presumably about the family.  The air is thick and still, both literally, for it is a hot and humid weekend, and metaphorically.

            The primary tension is between Dan and Patty.  However, the real energy of the story is relationship between the father and son, and the unsettling effects Patty is having on Nick.  Nick appears entranced and beholden to Patty, a changed person who has rejected the foundational structures of his life.  The couple stay at the house, and the tension increases.  One day, a strong wind begins to blow on the Chesapeake Bay.  Dan suggests that Nick and his sister go for a sail, thereby isolating and excluding Patty.  The climax occurs here, when Dan confronts her and throws her out of his house.  However, the turning point occurs just before this expulsion.  The natural setting, especially the weather, signals the moment when the story turns.  It starts with a subtle shift in the wind, first noticed as farm smells drift in from the northwest.   Dan “stared out into the dark for a long time before he undressed, and was still half awake when the first blades of moving air began to slice through the humidity.  He was nodding off on his pillow when, later, he heard the crustacean leaves of the magnolias and beeches begin to clatter in the wind.”   Notice the strong language given to the wind, and the way the natural world intrudes, the ‘crustacean leaves’, reminding of the bay itself.  The wind, the leaves, the bay, these things signal for the reader that change is coming.  The turning point in this story is directly related to the climax, which depends on and occurs directly after  the wind begins to blow.

 In William Maxwell’s Haller’s Second Home, an outsider named Haller experiences family life vicariously.  Haller arrives, in late 1941, in the New York City apartment of the Mendelsohns, a well-to-do family who are preparing a birthday party for their daughter, Abbie.  Haller thinks he has a great surprise in store: he’s arranged for Francis Whitehead, another close family friend who went off to Basic Training, to telephone the girl on her birthday.  But Haller’s presence with the Mendelsohns is not nearly as welcome or celebrated as the title might imply.  We see the ingratiating way Haller treats Abbie; we see him make fun of the sons; we see him brag about his travels.  Haller presents as the kind of person most people would not like, yet this family has accepted him, albeit tentatively.  The father all but ignores him.  The mother and children merely tolerate him.  It quickly becomes obvious that this generous family merely contends with his presence in their rich, loving home.  Haller senses this too.  A kitten with a deformed back becomes the double for Haller; no one really wants the cat, but because they are kind people, they do not know what to do with it. Abbie cares for the cat in her room inside a cardboard box.  The family, essentially takes pity on the cat the same way they take pity on Haller.

            The climax occurs when Francis arrives.  Suddenly, the contrasts with Haller’s arrival are shown in stark detail.  The family rushes to the door and marvels at his uniform.  He is welcome and hailed as a hero.  At one point, Haller remarks how it is just like him (Francis) to “leave us all sitting here admiring his empty chair!”  With Francis’s arrival, the family’s (and the story’s) energy and focus shift to him.  Haller is left wandering around, looking for a place to sit down.

            The actual turning point for the story comes that night, when Abbie suddenly remembers the kitten.  “She was almost asleep when the kitten commenced complaining from the box on the floor.  She had entirely forgotten about it in the excitement of Francis’s homecoming.  ‘A little chloroform for you my pet,’ she said, ‘first thing in the morning.’”  In the story, Haller is already off stage.  Only in memory does he appear, and not pleasantly.  The story shifts back to Francis and their love for him, leaving the reader to wonder about the cat and Haller.

Though these three stories are diverse in terms of style, structure and even time period, the common theme of family serves as a backdrop for this analysis.  Each story treats the crisis and conflict differently but each must solve the problem of resolving the conflicts effectively.  By paying attention these resolutions, and with the more narrow focus of finding the crisis, the craft techniques of these writers is revealed.

Ross Murfin & Supryia Ray.  The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd Ed.   (Boston:  Bedford/St.Martins, 2003)

William Maxwell.  All the Days and Nights.  (New York: Vintage Books, 1994)

Christopher Tilghman.  In A Father’s Place.  (New York: Picador, 1990)

Richard Bausch.  “Aren’t You Happy for Me?,”  The Art of the Story, edited by Daniel Halpern.  (New York: Penguin, 1999)


March Critical Essay.

Posted in March '09 Packet., VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on March 31, 2009 by Richard Farrell

Invisible Walls:  Structure and Form in Anne Carson’s Short Talks


In Anne Carson’s Short Talks, a nearly invisible cast of characters peeks from behind the curtain of a disconnected narrative to tell the story of “three old women…bending in the fields.”  Traditional forms of fiction are stretched and broken, yet the story still resonates in the absence of form.  Carson turns the story into a poetic expression that is ambiguous and challenging, but effectively leaves images glowing on the page long after the final word.  But this work suggests problematic questions too, especially if it is examined for its effectiveness and craft.  Is it appropriate to label this writing a ‘story’?  Can fiction exist without formal boundaries of plot, character and setting?  Does the illumination such writing provides justify the complete disruption of the traditional form of a story? 

From the opening, the scenes in Short Talks are broken by subject titles that appear diverse and thematically indifferent.  On a closer examination, the reader can begin to observe Carson pushing the story by subtle, threadbare connections.  Citing Aristotle, she hints that the reader should be paying attention to these thin veins which connect her writing.  “Everything that happens is pushed by something else.”  One goal, then, is to decipher the hidden code of this story by looking at the thematic and imagistic patterns which exist.  If this represents plot, it does so only in the most glancing way.

When a reader approaches such a non-traditional piece of fiction, the effect can be jarring.  There is none of John Gardner’s ‘vivid, continuous, waking dream’ motif here; each paragraph yanks the reader out of the story and into a search for comprehension.  So if the flow of the story is so disruptive, what is the author’s intent in creating such a turbulent piece?  Carson herself provides a few clues.  “I emphasize this.  I will do anything to avoid boredom.  It is the task of a lifetime.”  Thus the narrator begins to “construct an instant of nature gradually, without the boredom of a story.”  By shaking the traditional tree of fiction, she hopes to drop enough fruit to sustain her audience.  Obviously, such a technique can only be accomplished by a profound strength. 

Carson demonstrates this force by an encyclopedic knowledge of art, both modern and classical.  This alone may not be enough to sustain the piece, unless this disruptive style represents the transcendence of the traditional forms.  Carson makes this case by her frequent allusions to artists of the past.  She references no less than fifteen artists, from Ovid to Sylvia Plath, from George Braque to Dostoevsky, and even personifies some.  The ladies from the field appear to have had direct contact with both Seurat and Sylvia Plath’s mother. Ovid listens to a radio while he composes poetry.  She seems to be inviting her audience to be affected by the prose on a deeper level, something perhaps even indecipherable.  It is through her allusions to artists of the past, men and women who pushed the boundaries in their time that she indicates this story is attempting to do the same. 

This leads to an obvious question:  Why has Carson driven the characters off the page?  Character development in this story is almost non-existent and the reader might fairly ask if any actual character even exists in the story.  This absence represents the most troubling aspect of the piece.  Who is telling this story?  What is the subject?  Even in a post-modern piece of writing, character should still matter.  In Short Talks, the narrator appears only twice: in the introduction and possibly in the section titled “On Reading.”  “I glimpsed the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary.”  Who then, is the story about?   The most obvious answer is that this narrator is interviewing the three women, but because the characters are intentionally hidden, no names, no physical description, no age, no place, no time, it becomes impossible to discern what the subject is.  Can narrative fiction exist without a subject? 

Other fictional elements are also clearly absent.   The plot resembles a jigsaw puzzle, if there even is a plot.  The setting recognizes no time or place, though memories and intellectual connections abound.  Where conflict exists, it circulates around abstractions and fragments.  A good example occurs in the section labeled On Defloration:  “And when you dishonored me, I saw that dishonor is an action.”  While this line is powerful, arcing toward story, with character and embedded tension, it falls away into nothingness.  Who is being dishonored and why?  We never find out.  Yet despite the abstractions and the formless shape, the fragments of this story yield an emotional whole, an actualized work of art, an enduring example of the power of language to bring life to the page in the absence of traditional forms.  The problem for analysis though, is not what has been wrought emotionally after reading, but what this piece is.

In the end, no objective standard should define art.  Art grows in time, place, and in the imagination of the artist and it changes over time.  Yet to call Short Talks a story would seem to redefine what a story is.  Perhaps that redefining is valid.  But shouldn’t a story retain elements of form the way something labeled a ‘painting’ should involve paint?  Taken to a logical conclusion, the absence of form leads to nothingness, to obliteration.

  Carson calls the world “the most famous experimental prison of its time.  Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing.  Yet he could see.”  This metaphor seems fitting.  The artist strains to see beyond the walls of the prison, to seek freedom, to validate existence.  Removing barriers, shuffling form, moving outward from the restrictions, these things abide in art.  Carson closes with these words:  “I am writing this to be as wrong as possible to you.  Replace the door when you leave it says.  Now you tell me how wrong that is, how long it glows.  Tell me.”  She tells us that the story is wrong, but asks if it glows.  The effectiveness of this writing is undeniable.  It glows for sure.  It lingers, it challenges us, and moves us out of boredom.  It creates doubt.  Perhaps this is enough, and that defining it as a story or as a poem or something else only moves us back closer to the prison walls which we long to see past.   Perhaps it was intended to exist without form. It stands naked to remind us how form restricts, how it limits.  It asks us to see beyond the torture stakes. 



Carson, Anne.  Short Talks.  From:  The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.  Edited by Ben Marcus.  (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2004)

Rituals in Adultery. Critical Paper.

Posted in February 09 Critical Paper, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on February 26, 2009 by Richard Farrell

Rituals in Adultery

Ritual: B,2, b… “A series of actions compulsively performed under certain circumstances, the non-performance of which results in tension and anxiety.”  (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993)


In Andre Dubus’ novella Adultery, rituals are used to establish tension, tone, setting, and character as a married couple seek to transcend traditional concepts of marriage.  Rita and Hank develop under the constraints of both secular and sacred rituals.  They live just outside the prospect of their freedom, of a release from tedium, of the direct experience of life itself, but they must leave the routines and mundanity which their rituals support.  Dubus created a fictional world where the sensibility of his characters is both supported by and ensnared by their devotion to actions compulsively performed.  Indeed, the more the characters transcend these ingrained habits, the more likely they will experience madness and terror and lapse back into the safety of those same actions.  Dubus efficiently created a fictive world that is at once familiar and constrictive, a world that challenges the very foundations which support it.  But in using the ritual as a device, was Dubus pointing towards a solution?  Was he saying that rituals are more important than freedom from them?   

The story opens with Edith clearly locked in ritual common to many families.  She’s finishing dinner, asking her daughter to brush her teeth and put on pajamas.  This scene of domestic routine immediately establishes the story instantly.  It’s after dinner, in any typical American kitchen, and while Dad sips his coffee, Mom cleans up and their daughter goes upstairs to prepare for bed.  In one paragraph framed by a simple ritual, we launched into the scene directly.   Then Dubus shatters the calm with a one line revelation of the wife’s adultery: “I’m going to see Joe.”  By creating a comfortable, familiar space then instantly disrupting it, Dubus relies on both the ritual of family life and the destruction of it to do the work.  The reader can experience comfort and doom within a very confined space.

The main characters in this story labor under constrained, ritualistic, lives.  Hank follows obsessive patterns to jumpstart his writing.  “He did not want to spend the night with her.  It was a matter of ritual, he told her.  It had to do with his work.”  Then later: “He first made his bed and cleared his desk of mail and books, then while he made his coffee and cooked bacon and eggs on the hot plate he read the morning paper.”  He spoke of this time “seriously, almost reverently, about making a bed, eating some eggs, and reading a newspaper.”  For Hank, these rituals define his life as a graduate student and a writer.   And while they support his ability to deal with the chaos of creation, they also limit his relationship with the real people in his life, especially his wife. 

Edith also relies on ritualistic behavior to gird her life from loneliness and isolation.  Her life falls into well established routines that require little thought.  Only when she begins to suspect that Hank is cheating does she step outside this safe zone.  She takes this step by violating their normal patterns.  “He sat at the kitchen table, talking to her while she cleaned the kitchen.  It was a ritual of theirs.  She asked him for a drink.  Usually she didn’t drink after dinner, and he was surprised.”  After this violation, she asks Hank about his affair.  What follows is the realization that there is a life outside the ritual.  “All day she knew what madness was, or she believed she was at least tasting it and at times she yearned for the entire feast.”  The ‘entire feast’ is a life lived outside their rituals but that type of living invites chaos and disharmony as well as freedom.  So what immediately follows the escape in the story is not freedom but a rapid return to the familiar.  After her yearning for freedom, she slips rapidly back to the routine.  I am beating the eggs, she said to herself.”  Further down in the same section, she says, “I am talking to Sharon,” then, “Always scramble eggs in a saucepan.  Only when her most inviolate ritual (marriage/monogamy) is broken do these italicized character thoughts appear in the story.  This is significant.  They indicate a psychic break for Edith because her world has been upturned, but they also clearly deliver her back to the routines of her daily life.  This break signals both possibility and regression, for what she is doing now is using the rituals to support the growing discomfort she feels without them.  She returns to the action to avoid thought about its futility.  “At breakfast, Hank read the paper.  Edith talked to Sharon and ate because she had to, because it was morning, it was time to eat.”  The rituals support her unsteadiness but they are severely damaged.  “Hank’s betrayal had removed her from the actions which were her life.”  Notice how action becomes life. 

Dubus also used ironic juxtapositions of rituals to manifest their inherent conflicts.  Two significant cultural sacraments and their opposites stand out as primary examples of this: marriage/ adultery and the celibacy of a priest/the breaking of his vows.  Often in the same scene, these established rites are places side by side to build tension and disharmony.   Edith’s need for domestic order and routine keeps her locked in a marriage that she cares about but can’t accept outside traditional definitions.  Hank, her husband, opposes monogamy and convinces his wife to try an atypical arrangement, yet for all their attempts at openness, even their adultery takes on ritualistic patterns. “Always the unspoken agreement with Hank was that for the last part of the night and the breakfast hour of the morning the family would be together under one roof.”  The position of the ritual and its opposite work to drive both scene and character forward.  We see this same pattern clearly at work in one of the secondary characters too.

When the Catholic Priest Joe, who has ‘loved the Eucharist since he was a boy,” decides to break his vows in order to experience intimacy with a woman, we encounter the apotheosis of this construct.  Joe and the Church embody the inherent conflict between the ritual and the spiritual, between thought and action, between matter and energy.  No where is this more evident than in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the merging (in Catholic theology) of the spirit and the body.  For Joe, the Eucharist becomes the conflict between what he feels for Edith (he thinks it’s not a sin) and the tenets of his faith.   Edith has other affairs, but only Joe comes into focus.  Edith sleeping with a virginal ex-priest is the most extreme example of the inherent conflict between freedom and control. 

Dubus seems to be making a clear case for the stultifying effect of ritual on the human spirit, especially as we watch the main characters drift apart from the order which has supported their lives, yet he undercuts that case by forcing each character back into the rituals, however transformed, before the story’s conclusion.  Only Edith gestures at the possibility of breaking free but such freedom must be found off the page as the story ends with her promise to divorce her husband.  Was Dubus saying that these rituals were more important than freedom?  He seems to be, at least from the mouth of the dying priest.  “It’s what the ritual is for: nobody has to understand.  The knowledge is ritual.  Anyone can listen to the words.”  This justification fails though, because each of these characters has struggled against the constrictions of life.   Earlier in the story, he describes Edith’s marriage this way:  “Until now her marriage had been a circle, likes its gold symbol on her finger.  Wherever she went she was still inside it.  I had a safe, gentle circumference, and mortality and other perils lay outside of it.”  Aren’t the ‘other perils’ exactly what each of these characters seek?  Did Dubus, himself a lifelong Catholic, really believe that the rituals of life are more powerful than the freedoms those rituals sometimes evade? 

From a craft perspective, rituals are an efficient device to render scene.  Their familiarity and comfort act as a lure, drawing the reader onto a hook that the writer has cast.  Though the variance in rituals is complex and diverse, it seems reasonable to assume that most readers would respond in a similar fashion; it would be the rare person who has lived outside the effect of the familiar.  Yet on a closer examination, the restrictions create the conflict in the world of character which comfortably drives the story forward. 


January 2009 Critical Essay.

Posted in January 09 Packet, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on January 28, 2009 by Richard Farrell



In Lynne Sharron Schwartz’ story, Rough Strife, the two main characters are drawn together and thrown apart in repeating patterns of tension and reconciliation.  Ivan and Caroline are a married couple with a passionate love life which is threatened when she becomes pregnant after years of infertility.  The unnamed baby (in fact we never learn even its gender) grows throughout the story and works as a wedge between the two characters as they struggle to see life beyond their marriage and careers.

The plot uses a simple enough structure: we will encounter these characters through the course of her pregnancy.  Indeed, the story opens with the following:  “Caroline and Ivan finally had a child.”   By progressing through the stages of her pregnancy, from conception to morning sickness to quickening to birth, Schwartz has a ready-made framework which regulates time, conflict and movement.  Yet the story works off of the variable reactions of both characters to each other and the growing baby.  The tension grows with each scene as they each prepare for the impending birth and all that it implies.

The primary pattern I noticed in this story was one of ‘connection’ and ‘disconnection’, both a physical and emotional response generated in various scenes.  Caroline, a mathematics professor, had accepted her “special barren destiny” until she gives up on planning and their sex life return to spontaneity and fun.  The child is conceived one fall night in the “rough strife” of a scene that conveys undertones and images of rape, though that is not in fact what happens.    “He grabbed her wrists, and when she began kicking, pinned her feet down with his own.”  Though this scene is playful on the surface, indeed Caroline is rough and aggressive too, it underscores the concept of strife which will infect their lives once she is pregnant.   The pregnancy becomes a huge divide between the two characters that they must bridge if they are to survive as a couple.  The patterns of togetherness and separation, which I will describe below, follow this aggressive sexual fusion which unites their bodies and ultimately leads to the new life growing inside her.

I counted no less than twenty examples of connection and disconnection between the two characters.   The patterns begin simply but swing wildly out as the pregnancy progresses.  On the night she finds out she is pregnant,  Ivan “came home beaming stupidly just like Caroline, and brought a bottle of Champagne.  After dinner, they drank it and made love.”  At this point, it could proceed into a campy love story had Schwartz not pulled these characters in the opposite direction.   After the champagne and sex, Ivan says he wants to deliver a message to the baby.  “Clowning, he put his ear between her legs to listen.  Whatever amusement she felt soon ebbed away into irritation.”   This bipolarity will continue.   He will bring her breakfast in bed, then irritate her with his neatness and energy.   She will appreciate his care and concern but then will complain that it made her feel like a child.   Once her morning sickness ends and she feels she has “come back to life”, he begins his own period of lying in.  “Can’t I be tired too?” He says.  “Leave me alone.  I left you alone.”  No explanation is given, no illness diagnosed, leaving the reader simply to assume that Ivan is taking revenge on his wife.   When the baby moves for the first time, the couple reminisce about a trip to Italy “in their first youth, mad love”.    They laugh and make love passionately on the floor, leading to Caroline’s exclamation, “I could never love it as much as I love you.”  This trepidation for the unborn child and her dependency on Ivan is shattered just a few lines later when they argue over keeping the light on in the bedroom. 

As the baby grows inside Caroline, its physical space in the story drives them further apart.  In fact there are only three other characters that make a direct appearance in the story besides Ivan: Caroline’s OB-GYN who appears literally between her legs discussing his weight loss plans, a young man at a party who hits on Caroline because he has a fetish for pregnant women, and the baby.  All three act as foils for her relationship with Ivan, but none more directly than the baby.  

“They were growing apart.  She could feel the distance between them like a patch of fog, dimming and distorting the relations of objects in space.  The baby that lay between them in the dark was pushing them apart.”

                As the story moves toward the birth, their relationship spirals toward the end.    They attend a party, given in honor of Ivan’s work, and she wants to leave.  She even offers to leave alone, preferring that to his complaints.  Instead, he drives her home, slams the door and looks at her with a violence in his eyes that frightens her.  He says, “Our whole lives are spoiled from now on.  We were better off before.  I thought you had gotten over wanting it.  I thought it was a dead issue.”  The irony of calling their child a dead issue is not lost on Caroline either.  This could very well be the story’s climax.   He walks out and slams the door, and even though she knows he will come back, she feels no excitement in their making up (when it comes.)  “It would lie between them silently like a dead weight until weeks after the baby was born, till Ivan felt he could reclaim his rightful territory.”  This looking forward is in itself ironic, because the reader certainly doubts that Ivan would ever be able to reclaim his rightful territory.  The story could end here with a satisfactory question about where their lives will go, but Schwartz takes us through a prolonged labor with Ivan closely attentive to his wife’s needs.  He is the consummate labor coach, helpful, supportive, even self-less.  She squeezes his hand so hard it almost breaks, but he does not complain or pull away.   He says, “If that was what you needed just then.”   This gesture sends Caroline into tears, and he says to her “You didn’t break it, did you?  Almost doesn’t count.” 

          Almost doesn’t count then becomes a primary thematic image for the story.  They pull so close to the brink so many times, but they don’t go over.  Will their patterns continue after the baby comes home?  Since the reader never learns the baby’s name or gender, and is not given any physical description of the infant, it is fair to wonder if Ivan will indeed regain his “rightful territory” and whether Caroline will in fact love the baby less than her husband.   The story gestures to the opposite conclusion as well, that the baby will become the new center and Ivan will drift away into an angry absence.  It is this tension which makes the story so compelling and it is the repeating patterns of closeness and distance which drives the story forward.


Schwartz, Lynne Sharron.   “Rough Strife”.  In The Pushcart Book of Short Stories.   (Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 2008).