Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
There are several lines of symbolic imagery in the story—references to birds and “winging it” (in lectures), to rain and dryness—but the most important imagery expands on the story’s title by developing parallels between Mary and the two martyrs. The closer Mary gets to Iroquois country, the more she feels a sense of déjà vu. The strained appearance of Louise the hatchet woman reminds Mary of “a description in the book she’d been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting.” In the lecture room that Mary calls “the Long House” sunlight streams through windows of “stained glass onto the people around her, painting their faces.” Mary is, in effect, being roasted at the stake: “Thick streams of smoke from the young professor’s pipe drifted through a circle of red light at Mary’s feet, turning crimson and twisting like flames.” Like the priest who kept preaching through torture, Mary delivers her lecture; in the words that Mary imagines the priest speaking, time past and time present come together.
Mary herself is perhaps intended as a representative figure of higher education in the United States. In her days of clownish conformity, she became Brandon College’s presiding spirit, “something institutional, like a custom, or a mascot—part of the college’s idea of itself.” Her “martyrdom” is also typical of horror stories about cruel hiring practices in academia. “In the Garden of the...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
Although relatively unknown as an author, Tobias Wolff has been supported in his writing by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Writing Center at Stanford University, and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation. Winner of the O. Henry Award, Wolff is a graduate of Oxford and Stanford Universities. He was born in Alabama, grew up in Washington State, and now lives in upstate New York. Most of the stories collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs originally appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Antaeus, Mademoiselle, Tri-Quarterly, Encounter, and Vogue. Wolff’s narrative gift is unmistakable; his stories blend satire, tragedy, and dark humor in an unpredictable and memorable style.
No one story stands out as typical, but Wolff’s ability to draw memorable characters does stand out. Although Wolff’s skill is greater in drawing male characters than female, one of his best female characters is the protagonist of the title story. Mary, of “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” is a woman who has compromised her integrity by always playing safe, always keeping her opinions to herself. Over the years as a college teacher of history, she has written out her lectures and carefully espoused only noncontroversial opinions. After the financial failure of the college where she...
(The entire section is 2874 words.)
The Iroquois and the Jesuits
The Iroquois are the original inhabitants of the land on which the prestigious college now sits. The League of the Iroquois became a powerful force in colonial America because of the military prowess of its member nations, the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Onandaga. Although they once presided over most of what is now upstate New York, the remaining 11,000 Iroquois now own less than 80,000 acres.
The Iroquois are also remembered for their savage treatment of Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant. The two French Jesuit missionaries were captured near their mission in March of 1649 and tortured before being executed. They are known as the North American Martyrs and were canonized, or declared saints, in the Catholic church in 1930.
During the 1970s the job market for college and university professors began a steep decline. There were many more highly educated candidates than there were positions available. Following a trend that continues today, hiring departments can make whatever demands they wish on job candidates and have occasionally regarded applicants with disdain and condescension. Furthermore, the increased competition for jobs among recent Ph.D.s has inflated the importance of scholarly production, of books and articles, in other words. For example, Mary has had to produce a second book in order to be considered for other positions, but nobody cares, not even Mary,...
(The entire section is 283 words.)
Point of View and Narration
‘‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs’’ is presented to readers in third-person omniscient narration. The narrator describes Mary’s past in order to clarify her present situation. In the first part of the story, the narrator appears to regard Mary indifferently or even negatively. As the narrative progresses, however, Mary is presented more sympathetically and—importantly—Louise and some other characters are shown in a very bad light. Wolff subtly shifts the point of view. He explained in an interview with Jay Woodruff in 1991 that he always intended to let Mary take over the narration, that his ‘‘aim was to hand the story over to her.’’ He goes on to say that this shift in point of view was necessary because her voice needs to dominate the narrative by the time she gets to her dramatic concluding speech.
‘‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs’’ contains some significant tone variations that help contribute to the meaning of the story and parallel the shifts in point of view. Tone is the dominant attitude that the reader hears in the story. It can be ironic, genial, or objective, for example. The beginning of the story is characterized by the neutral and objective tone of the narrator, but by the end the tone is prophetic, resembling the language of the Old Testament. The success of the story hinges on this dramatic shift in tone, so that Mary’s voice...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Why would a college have a rule that requires interviewing at least one female candidate for each job opening? What laws or court decisions have helped shape such policies?
Critics often mention Flannery O’Connor when talking about Wolff. How does Wolff’s exploration of morality and prophecy differ from O’Connor’s as illustrated in her story ‘‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’’?
Research the history of the French Jesuits in the Great Lakes region during colonial times. How did their religious views influence their behavior, and what effects did their presence have on the culture?
What are Louise’s motivations for using Mary as she does? What theories of psychology might explain her behavior?
(The entire section is 117 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff is an account of Wolff’s adolescence and early adulthood. The memoir is told through the eyes of the boy, leaving the reader free to draw conclusions and make judgements about events the child could not have fully understood at the time.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the classic novel about another boy whose coming of age is characterized by a tendency to stretch the truth and who must make difficult decisions without much adult guidance.
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic novella about a misguided preacher’s search for meaning and moral certainty.
Dubliners is the collection of short stories by Irish author James Joyce that Wolff often mentions as having a major influence on his writing.
Ellen Foster (1989) by Kaye Gibbons is a novel about a female character whose lonely and unparented childhood resembles Huck Finn’s and the young Toby Wolff’s.
The Duke of Deception (1979) is Geoffrey Wolff’s memoir of growing up with his father, a con artist.
(The entire section is 173 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Banks, Russell. Review in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1985, p. 9.
Current Biography Yearbook 1996, H.W. Wilson Company, 1996, pp. 631-34.
Lyons, Bonnie and Bill Oliver. ‘‘An Interview with Tobias Wolff,’’ in Contemporary Literarure, Vol. 31, No.1, Spring 1990, pp. 1-16.
Skow, John. ‘‘Memory, Too, Is an Actor,’’ in Time, April 19, 1993, p. 62.
Prose, Francine. ‘‘The Brothers Wolff’’ in New York Times Book Magazine, February 5, 1989, p. 23. An interesting interview with both Geoffrey Wolff and Tobias Wolff that covers topics ranging from their childhoods to their current successes as writers.
Parkman, Francis. The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, University of Nebraska Press, 1997. A narrative account of the Jesuit experience with the indigenous people of the region.
(The entire section is 117 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Best Sellers. XLI, November, 1981, p. 293.
Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, August 15, 1981, p. 1036.
Library Journal. CVI, October 1, 1981, p. 1946.
Nation. CCXXXIV, February 6, 1982, p. 152.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 15, 1981, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXX, August 28, 1981, p. 390.
Village Voice Literary Supplement. October, 1981, p. 3.
(The entire section is 43 words.)