Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Gussuk” captures the realities, tensions, conflicts, contradictions, and ambiguities of living in a bicultural borderland. The three principal characters, Lucy, Robert, and Mercy, are all subject to what has been called the tensions of biculturalism. The effects of that tension are manifested in Robert and Lucy, who are moving in opposite directions on the bicultural continuum, although for the same reasons. Both are seeking escape from the culture into which they were born and bred. After a brief sojourn into an alien culture, each returns to his or her home culture. To the question of whether bicultural differences can be overcome between people in general, and particularly between lovers, “Gussuk” answers “No.” The cultural gap is too broad to be bridged. Lucy’s experience at least has helped her to crystalize her sense of self, of who she is, and, perhaps as important, who she is not.

The lesson, if not bitter, is at least bittersweet. It has been learned, however, making “Gussuk” an initiation story for its narrator. Her eyes, always keen to her surroundings, have been opened even wider. They see things for what they are, even if that vision is unpleasant, and accept them for what they are. “Gussuk” faithfully renders that bittersweet vision. In the final analysis, Lucy’s initial resemblance to her native hosts succumbs to her differences from them. When Mercy says that Lucy’s predecessor did not belong there, it applies to Lucy as well. She, too, undergoes an abrupt change in attitude relative to her surroundings, realizing as her predecessor must have realized that she would always be a “gussuk,” even if she lived there for another fifty years. This is the tough lesson that Lucy, and outsiders like her, must learn through experience. In the last analysis, her naïve idealism is at odds with the reality she encounters, and her need to help others is not as powerful as her need to be among her own.