Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story is a wicked satire of American academia, shown here in three of its guises: a college going bankrupt, “a new experimental college in Oregon,” and a pretentious Eastern college that is “an exact copy of a college in England, right down to the gargoyles and stained-glass windows.” None of these colleges inspires confidence in American higher education, nor do the faculty members shown: mousy Mary, tediously copying out her lectures; egotistical Louise, expert on Benedict Arnold; Dr. Howells, native son of Utah, with his “porous blue nose and terrible teeth”; the young professor who talks around the pipe in his mouth; and assorted other members of the faculty menagerie. They are shallow, conventional, and phony, like bad actors in an academic commedia dell’arte, with Louise as stage manager. The only exception is the “brilliant and original” professor who is fired.
If the trustees make an example of the outspoken professor, the author makes an example of Mary, but of the opposite sort: She illustrates what can happen to people who sell themselves out for security. From the professor’s firing, Mary takes warning: “She shared his views, but did not sign the protest petition. She was, after all, on trial herself—as a teacher, as a woman, as an interpreter of history.” The irony of these words reverberates through the story because Mary is a failure in all three respects because of her career of self-censorship. She...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
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The inclusion of the word martyr in the title invites readers to consider the themes of moral corruption and sin. Martyrs are those who are willing to die for their beliefs, usually at the hands of unbelievers or sinners. Because their deaths live on in legend and story, the martyrs serve as examples to others of the ultimate triumph of their purity over corruption, good over evil.
Though no one actually dies in Wolff’s short story, the author does ask readers to compare the martyrdom of Mary by Louise and the members of her department to the Jesuit missionaries at the hands of the Iroquois. Mary’s experience during her campus visit and interview reveals the total moral corruption of the members of the history department, if not of the entire college, and the culture to which it belongs. They have come to believe that their social and intellectual superiority grants them permission to take advantage of and manipulate other people in order to serve their own ends. Mary herself is prepared to behave in the same morally corrupt fashion when she agrees to present Louise’s paper as her own. In the end, though, Mary chooses the martyr’s path, sacrificing her personal success and reputation in order to reveal the corruption of her tormentors.
The theme of betrayal dominates the narrative of ‘‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.’’ Mary’s betrayal by Louise and the...
(The entire section is 560 words.)