Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Gurganus uses a set of terms and phrases that emerged during World War II to convey the lingering effects of that pivotal event. Not only does the elder Dick Markham use these terms and phrases himself, but also his son employs them throughout his narration. In the introductory scene, in which the pair meet the “young hipster” who approves of the older man’s 1940’s vintage clothing, the son regards his father as “the fifty-two-year veteran of Integrity Office Supplier.” When he later considers his father’s office, he likens the ashtray to a torpedo, and the color of the metal desks to the color of battleships. The son also projects himself into his father’s shoes, and imagines the older man viewing their visit to the hospital as being subjected to a “Nazi medical experiment.”

Miss Green serves as another embodiment of Dick Markham’s attachment to the past. She retains the hairstyles, clothing, and high-heel shoes of the decade within which the man is trapped. That she herself is free of that decade in her personal life is something the younger Markham discovers only after his father moves back home.

One of the strongest symbols of the elder Markham’s clinging to the past is his hat. Introduced in the first paragraph, the hat is presented as a relic of the past. “Till the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” the story begins, “most American men wore hats to work.” Markham’s three hats serve him throughout the year. Because he changes his hat with the season, the old hats serve as a way of keeping each season the same as the one before. At the end, it seems to be the act of putting on his hat beforehand that allows him to accept his office at home as a real office.

In the end of the story, Betty Markham reveals her husband’s closing act: “He died at the office.” This is in itself symbolic. Dick Markham’s life of obsessive work had served somehow to hold negative forces, which he repeatedly identified as the Nazis, at bay. By dying in his office, he had died in the line of duty.