The Burning House Essay - Critical Essays

Ann Beattie


The lives that Beattie seeks to display and understand in these stories are disjointed and veering out of control. As she has admitted, she focuses on observing and recording the relationships of baby-boomers, even though she goes some distance toward suggesting the whole of contemporary American life. Her characters are without clear goals. Their ennui about the way in which their lives are slipping beyond a vague memory of direction and purpose reflects Beattie’s sense of her generation’s need for filling the gap in meaning created in the wake of the Vietnam War. These characters have experienced a freedom in their youth which first declined into license and, with the onset of middle age, into randomness. Metaphorically, they are portrayed as floating and falling; they are ungrounded and irresolute. Beattie is skilled at invoking the trouble that this attitude causes between spouses, lovers, and parents and their children. Bonds of every kind, including those that were supposed to be liberating in their defiance of taboo, prove tenuous and suffer erosion.

Unlike the stories of the first two collections, however, those in The Burning House seem pointed a bit more in the direction of hope or, at least, of less despair. It may be that this distinction will depend on the reader, but even that relativistic proviso indicates a turning from the categorically despondent aura of the earlier stories. One reader might interpret the sense of isolation in many of the children as a spiritual disease carried to a second generation. Another might see the narrators’ sympathies for these children as a struggle to vanquish selfish proclivities, to stop the extension of adult failings into the innocent lives of those who have been created and reared in an atmosphere of spiritual meandering. The precocity of these children is as much emotional as intellectual and appears pathetic on the one hand and instructive on the other. Beattie’s young seem crippled or...

(The entire section is 805 words.)