Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” tells the story of Mary, a college professor who has grown increasingly depressed since her longtime employer, Brandon College, closed. At Brandon, Mary made herself as agreeable as possible and rarely expressed her own opinions. Now marooned at an inadequate school in Oregon, Mary is thrilled to be invited by a former colleague, Louise, to apply for a job at Louise’s university in upstate New York. When Mary arrives for her interview, however, Louise’s behavior is unsettling. At the last minute she unexpectedly tells Mary she must give a lecture after her interview. Later, Mary discovers that at least one female candidate must be brought in for every open position. She rightly suspects that she has been misled by Louise into thinking there was a chance for her to get the job. Stunned by the betrayal, she improvises a dramatic lecture that details the tortures inflicted on two Jesuit priests by the Iroquois tribe. Despite protests by the faculty in the audience, Mary turns off her hearing aid as she begins to narrate the religious advice of the dying Jesuit, including the admonition to “turn from power to love.” Her story rebukes the cold brutality of Louise and the hiring committee who invited her for a sham interview. She has finally learned that being agreeable ultimately serves little purpose. Her shocking monologue pushes the genre of the story from realism to parable.
(The entire section is 242 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” begins with a summary of Mary’s career, a sort of curriculum vitae establishing her credentials as an uninvolved person: a college history teacher who “watched herself.” Early in her career, she witnessed the firing of “a brilliant and original” professor whose ideas upset the college’s trustees. To diminish the chances of similarly offending, Mary carefully wrote her lectures “out in full” beforehand, “using the arguments and often the words of other, approved writers.” She just as carefully avoided entanglement in departmental politics, the cliques and ongoing quarrels of her colleagues. Instead, Mary adopted the role of a campus character, cultivating little eccentricities and making people groan with her corny jokes, culled from books and records. She was also such a good listener that eventually she had to get a hearing aid.
Thus, Mary’s innocuous career of playing it safe coasted along for fifteen years at Brandon College. Then, suddenly, Brandon College went bankrupt (the result of the business manager’s speculations) and closed. Shocked, Mary was forced into a tight job market. She did get another job, but in a miserable Oregon college housed in one building (apparently a former high school or junior high). Mary found the weather in Oregon equally miserable: The incessant rain troubled her lungs and hearing aid, flooded her basement, and encouraged “toadstools growing...
(The entire section is 1028 words.)
The story begins with a distant, omniscient narrator describing Mary, the main character. She is a history professor who has made a career of avoiding controversy and expressing only safe, approved views. After fifteen years of teaching at Brandon College she is forced to look for a new job when the college suddenly closes in the wake of an administrator’s reckless and disastrous mishandling of its funds. Mary’s belief in the rewards of prudence and caution is shaken by the evidence that anyone ‘‘could gamble a college.’’
Mary’s mid-career job search yields only one offer: at a ‘‘new experimental college in Oregon.’’ The narrator’s description of the place makes it seem more like a high school than a college: ‘‘Bells rang all the time, lockers lined the hallways, and at every corner stood a buzzing water fountain.’’ Mary dislikes Oregon and continues to look for other positions. After three years she receives an unexpected offer from a former colleague in the history department at Brandon, identified only as Louise. Louise, whose career and work on Benedict Arnold have been more high-profile than Mary’s, wants to know if Mary is interested in applying for an opening at ‘‘the famous college in upstate New York’’ where she teaches. The offer surprises Mary, who remembers Louise as self-absorbed and indifferent to other people, but she sends off a resume. Louise calls to tell her she will be interviewed for the job....
(The entire section is 892 words.)