The Girls Essay - Essays and Criticism

Joy Williams

Essays and Criticism

The Theme of Evil in Williams's Short Story

“The Girls,” by Joy Williams, is a story in which evil reigns, front and center. The protagonists—the main characters—are cruel and unsympathetic. Their antagonist, Arleen, is the one with whom the reader sympathizes because she is so credibly normal and appears to be vulnerable to the girls’ attacks for much of the story. The evil within the girls seems outwardly expressed by their cats that kill songbirds in the garden, lounge around the house, and are generally aloof. Arleen’s picking bloodsuckers off the cats at the end of the story is symbolic of her exorcising them of evil. The sudden death of the girls’ mother following Arleen’s pronouncement that the girls are killing her appears to validate what Arleen has said: her daughters are actually toxic.

The girls are born of the evil act generated by their father, who struck a man on the side of the road on a snowy night and kept driving, too eager to pursue his own plans to take care of another person. Grotesquely, the girls delight in this story, as if they were part of some fantastical movie rather than privy to a horrible breach of moral responsibility in their parents’ lives. Daddy’s lack of conscience makes him in essence as evil as his daughters. Although the ways and reasons are never made explicit, Mommy and Daddy have clearly spoiled their daughters and encouraged their dependence. Their emotional development has been stunted, and they behave as if they were half their actual age—sneaky, naughty teenagers, completely absorbed in their own physical beauty and concerned only with what is of interest to them—themselves, their cats, and their parents. Completely narcissistic, the girls believe they are special, important, and do not tolerate their opinions being challenged. They manipulate their parents and try to manipulate the houseguests. They declare that they have never fallen in love and do not intend to marry. Disturbingly, the girls turn their self-absorption toward each other in a kind of twisted self-love. They are inseparable to the extent that they have no individual identity. Williams does not distinguish them (or their cats) with names. They move together, behaving in unison.

Their childish, narcissistic behavior has led them to treat most people around them with cruelty. They insinuate that Arleen should leave by asking her about her home as well as by asking Arleen if she had a nice birthday after telling everyone that they think birthdays are an “idiotic American institution.” The sisters delight in embarrassing Father Snow and Arleen over their house gift of a cocktail shaker. They go searching repeatedly for Arleen’s journal and when they find it, they intend to read it even when Arleen comes upon them. The sisters ask Father Snow about his relationship with Donny, trying to drive him to anger or depression. When that fails, they comment on Donny’s poor teeth and revel in the awkward silence. In an act of ultimate cruelty, the girls reveal their parents’ awful secret about how their father hit a pedestrian with his car the night he proposed to Mommy. Their malice in embarrassing their parents before Father Snow and Arleen with this tale is surpassed in evilness only by their pure delight in the sordid story.

Father Snow represents goodness, although he is blind to evil. His name, Snow, implies purity, and his profession of Episcopal priest also speaks to his righteousness. Strangely, he is not the one who faces off with evil; indeed, he seems unable to recognize it. Although the girls make snide comments directly to Father Snow, he never replies or acknowledges in any way that he has heard these things. He seems to be particularly friendly with Mommy, holding her hand when she is distressed after her daughters tell everyone the terrible family secret of the man Daddy killed over thirty...

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Joy Williams Overview

‘‘I think Joy Williams may be the most ‘relevant’ woman writing at this time,’’ remarked Anatole Broyard in his New York Times review of Williams’s first novel, State of Grace. ‘‘I can’t tell which moves me more: her historical inevitability or her talent.’’ In her novels and short stories, Williams writes with a surrealistic intensity of how ordinary lives are vulnerable to horror and hopelessness. Although critics have responded somewhat unevenly to her fiction, they nonetheless recognize her unique talent and skill. Gail Godwin observed in the Chicago Tribune Books: ‘‘Joy Williams ‘writes like’ nobody but Joy Williams, and that is distinctively sufficient. . . . She has her own sound. Her writing style is laconic, austere, yet numinously suggestive.’’

Williams first attracted popular and critical attention with State of Grace, an impressionistic novel in which ‘‘shards of experiences slowly assemble into a powerful portrayal of . . . a heroine cursed by total recall,’’ said an Antioch Review contributor. The novel follows the heroine ‘‘from her pregnancy to the birth of her child,’’ wrote David Bromwich in Commentary, ‘‘with generous flashbacks to her religious childhood and her early free-living and free-loving adulthood.’’ Godwin cautioned in the New York Times Book Review that while the ‘‘fated heroine of this bleak but beautifully-crafted first novel may well be the final perfected archetype of all the ‘sad ladies’ . . . [she] is no simple ‘slice-of-despair’ character; her sad story becomes, through the author’s skill and intention, transubstantiated into significant myth.’’ Although the Antioch Review contributor believed the book’s nonlinear structure causes problems with unity, the critic found a ‘‘totally involving immediacy’’ in the novel and concluded: ‘‘All Joy Williams needs is the ability to better organize and control the visions of her extraordinary imagination. She is almost certain to write a novel that will be even finer than this one.’’

The Changeling, Williams’s impressionistic and not easily categorized second novel, did not quite fulfill the expectations several critics held for it. Broyard, for example, acknowledged in the New York Times that State of Grace is a ‘‘startlingly good novel, but it pains me to have to say that The Changeling is a startlingly bad one. . . . Harsh as it may sound, I find that nothing works.’’ Broyard called the story line ‘‘an arbitrary muddle about a young woman who is more or less kidnapped by a man who marries her and takes her to live on an island.’’ Strange occurrences on this island prompted a New Yorker contributor to wonder whether this is a ‘‘horror story or something more serious? The steady decay of [the heroine’s] mental powers, skillfully rendered by Joy Williams, may persuade the reader that the title is a metaphor for a schizophrenic.’’ In the Hudson Review, Patricia Meyer Spacks assessed the novel as an ‘‘increasingly surrealistic account . . . , which retreats altogether from the public realm into a self-indulgent phantasmagoria of privacy’’; Spacks also suspected that the corresponding stylistic shift from ‘‘outer to inner events . . . reflects unsure novelistic purpose.’’ Similarly, Godwin found the stream-of-consciousness ending disappointing and seemingly evasive because of its unanswered questions. However, Godwin concluded in the Chicago Tribune Books that Williams may be luring the reader to his or her ‘‘own solutions—and to await with anticipation her future fictions.’’

Discussing The Changeling in the New York Times Book Review, Alice Adams appreciated the inherent difficulty in writing about the ‘‘borderland between psychosis and reality, the land of private mythology of the ‘grotesque.’’’ And while she believed Williams is a ‘‘talented, skillful writer . . . [who] evokes the feel and smell of certain moments with an eerie precision,’’ Adams found the novel ‘‘unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfactory . . . , instead of the very good one that I believe Joy Williams could write.’’ Nevertheless, D. Keith Mano wrote favorably in the National Review of the multifarious elements in The Changeling, crediting Williams with a willingness ‘‘to stretch and...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)

A Story of Dislocation

The short story as a compressed narrative is a form particularly well suited to explore small worlds to explore the lives of individuals and...

(The entire section is 1558 words.)