Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although Mary Gordon has elsewhere made a clear distinction between fiction and memoir, the events of this story closely parallel the circumstances of her own childhood. The incident of the renovation of the house is described in her memoir Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity (2000). Like much of Gordon’s fiction, this is a story about the lives of women, with men playing subordinate roles in the narrative. Although she has been called a Catholic writer, Gordon prefers to say that she writes out of her experience as a woman. However, the Irish Catholic immigrant experience underlies the narrative.

The characters are not given names; they are known only in their roles within the family: grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, and daughter. While well-developed in their individuality, they also represent the closely guarded secrecy and self-denial of Irish Catholics. Such words as guilt, blame, and punishment permeate the text. These women, survivors of harsh experience, cannot openly express their emotions and turn to myth to describe their family past. They have learned not to dream or to expect things they cannot have. This self-denial has allowed them to succeed in a hostile world in which prejudice against Irish Catholics was common. However, the darker side of this tendency is the repressed anger that drives the daughter who deprives her mother of seemingly worthless objects that represent the small pleasures of her life.

The narrator reports these events without emotion, like the uncomprehending child she was at the time she observed them. Now middle-aged, she explores the meaning of these events and is grieved by her new insight that her grandmother’s life is a mystery to her. This stern, hardworking woman, who refused to reveal the disappointments in her life, is given another chance to lead a different life in the narrator’s imagination.

The story suggests that the habitual self-abnegation and secrecy of these women not only colors their own experience but also deprives the following generations of essential truths about these women’s lives. Their descendants, like the narrator, inherit only entertaining myths and must reconstruct in their imaginations the unrealized possibilities and the small tragedies of thwarted desires and unrealized pleasures. At another level the story is evidence of the power of the written word to confront memory and to reinvent a past that cannot be recovered.