Harriet Doerr Essay - Critical Essays

Harriet Huntington

Harriet Doerr Short Fiction Analysis

Called by one reviewer the “mother of spare prose, a patron saint of life’s enduring details,” Harriet Doerr published a small body of fiction that has been highly praised for its classically spare style and its ability to evoke the personal past. All of Doerr’s fiction was based on her own long life, most of it focusing on the times she and her husband lived in Mexico as the only Americans in a small village.

Doerr’s short stories, like all her fiction, are so thoroughly enmeshed with autobiography that the question of whether events she describes actually occurred matters little. Referred to by reviewers as essays, recollections, stories, and sketches, her short fictional pieces in The Tiger in the Grass, which she subtitled Stories and Other Inventions, derive their power from the unassuming voice of their narrator, who delights in language’s ability to stimulate discovery. Doerr’s short fiction admirably reflects what she once told an interviewer: that everything and everyone you meet rubs off on you and is never lost. “That’s what’s eternal,” Doerr said, “these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river that has no end.”

“Edie: A Life”

Although like many of the short fictions in her collection The Tiger in the Grass “Edie: A Life” is highly autobiographical, it is the most popular choice of short-story anthology editors primarily because it has the kind of well-made unity that critics expect of the modern short story. As the title suggests, the story is an account of the life of one person, Edith Fisk, governess to the five half-orphaned children of the Ransom family. However, unlike book-length biographical accounts, this “life” of Edie narrowly focuses on the governess’s relationship to the family, a stylistic limitation that, typical of the short story, transforms her into a significant symbolic character rather than a well-rounded realistic individual.

Brought over from England to California after the mother has died during the birth of twins, Edie immediately transforms the grieving family, becoming as much a part of their lives as food and water. In a twelve-year period, while the father brings three different wives into the home, Edie is the “mast” the children cling to in a “squall of stepmothers.” While mysterious adult affairs disrupt the house, Edie creates an alternate world of sheltering security.

When Edie is sixty years old and the children have all left, she moves to a beach cottage with a pension for the rest of her...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)