Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central metaphor that holds the story together is the idea of the “gloaming,” that bittersweet transition period of twilight when “purple colored curtains mark the end of day.” When he was a child, Laird thought his mother said “gloomy” when she told him about the “gloaming.” He thought it hurt her that the day was over, but she always said that it was a beautiful time because for a few moments the purple light made the whole world look like the Scottish Highlands on a summer night. This metaphor of a transition, both sad and beautiful, colors the tone of the entire story.

The dominant technique of the story is the creation of the unsentimental dialogue between the mother and the son, a dialogue so stripped of the usual cross-purposes of conversations between parents and children that it often sounds as if the two are lovers. At one point when Laird says he wants to get to know his mother, she says there’s nothing to know, for she is average. When he says, “let’s talk about how you feel about me,” she laughs, “Do you flirt with your nurses like this when I’m not around?” However, the story is not all dialogue. The conversations between the two are interspersed by third-person self-conscious musings by Janet as she tries to find ways to cope with Laird’s approaching death. She feels quite alone but often turns around expecting someone to be there. Then she realizes that she is inviting a villain, an enemy that could be driven out by a mother’s love. However, she knows that the enemy is actually part of Laird, and neither she nor the doctors can separate the two.

The story ends after Laird’s death with Janet and her husband, Martin, together. Martin uses the same shy, deferential tone that he used when the children were young, the tone that made her feel “as though all the frustrations and boredom and mistakes and rushes of feeling in her days as a mother did indeed add up to something of importance.”