Study Guide

Birthmates

by Lillian Jen

Birthmates Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “Birthmates,” an omniscient narrator representing the central character’s consciousness affirms his financial responsibility for what transpires. In an effort to save money during an industry slowdown, Art Woo has booked the least expensive room he could find for a business trip, only to find himself in a strange city on a snowy December night in front of the locked door of a welfare hotel. His decision to stay at this hotel and his observations of and responses to these accommodations illuminate his character and his life situation. He is revealed to be a man profoundly alone, grieving, failing personally and professionally, and riding swells of inner terror. During this business trip, Art suffers acutely from fear, from anxiety about his job performance, from grief at his wife’s departure, and from growing awareness of the pain of the loss of their unborn child.

Fearing for his personal safety, Art huddles in his dingy hotel room, scarcely able to sleep, clutching the handset of the clunky old phone as a weapon against imagined intruders. Still clinging to the disconnected phone handset in self-defense as he leaves the lobby in the morning, Art is tormented by children who use the handset to knock him unconscious. Cindy, an African American mother living in the hotel who nurses his injury, stimulates his sexual fantasies and stirs his impulse to care for others.

At the trade show later in the day, Art’s physical fears yield to...

(The entire section is 404 words.)