Jean Stafford Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Stafford American Literature Analysis

Stafford’s fictional world is one of loneliness, isolation, and alienation. For one reason or another, her protagonists are separated from other individuals or from their society as a whole. Even though they are often powerless to transcend their situation, their detachment makes these characters excellent observers. It is through their eyes that Stafford tells her stories.

Some of Stafford’s most appealing protagonists are imaginative, rebellious children. In “Bad Characters” (1954), Emily Vanderpool becomes fascinated by a young thief and, with her, embarks on a brief but exciting crime spree. In “A Reading Problem” (1956), the same protagonist gets involved with a traveling evangelist, again with hilarious results. In such stories, however, the protagonists face nothing worse than a scolding from their parents. There is no danger that society will actually expel them.

Some of Stafford’s adults, too, manage to transcend the problem of alienation from society. In “Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” (1955), for example, an American girl who has been humiliated by a group of sophisticates at a French country house transcends her embarrassment by dramatizing it for American friends, thus making it truly “rich,” or funny. Similarly, in “Polite Conversation” (1949), Margaret Heath and her husband, both of whom are working writers, risk losing only their time and their privacy when local organizers try to incorporate them into summer activities. One suspects that the Heaths can find appropriate excuses.

In such comic and satirical stories, the protagonist-observer emerges triumphant. Stafford’s tone, however, can be far gloomier. In “A Modest Proposal” (1949), for example, a dinner guest is confronted at once with the prevalence and the horror of colonial racism. On a more personal level, in “A Country Love Story” (1950), a wife comes to realize that what she had thought was a temporary estrangement between herself and her husband is, in fact, the kind of separate life that he desires. Sometimes, too, Stafford blends sadness with satire, as in the novel Boston Adventure, in which Stafford ridicules Boston society and yet sympathizes with the outsider who has exposed herself to it.

A similar mixture is evident in the autobiographical story “The Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies” (1964), in which struggling boardinghouse keepers, like Stafford’s own mother, engage in transparent attempts to convince themselves and one another that their daughters have wonderful lives, both as “Barbarians” excluded from college social life and as summertime waitresses serving the affluent. In this story, the eavesdropping daughter pities and yet despises the “ladies,” while recognizing that their efforts will enable girls like her to escape.

It is interesting to note that the patterns and preoccupations of Stafford’s works did not change in the course of her writing career, although her style did. While it has many virtues, Boston Adventure has the fault of Victorian wordiness. By the publication of The Mountain Lion just three years later, however, Stafford had transformed her style; her prose had become precise, economical, and colloquial. The new style was particularly effective in recording the thoughts of the young, such as the brother and sister in The Mountain Lion; the inexperienced, such as Maggie Meriwether; or the intellectually limited, such as the woman in “The End of a Career” (1956) who devoted her life to being beautiful.

Unfortunately, style alone was not sufficient to maintain interest in Stafford’s works. Compared to the exciting new experimental forms that began to appear in the 1970’s, her realistic works seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. The result was that, for a decade and a half, Stafford was largely ignored. The first sign of a renewed interest in the author was Twayne’s publication in 1985 of a biography of Stafford written by Mary Ellen Williams Walsh. Over the next twenty years, major critical and biographical studies appeared at regular intervals. It was evident that Stafford had been rediscovered. Once again, it had been recognized that her unique voice, as well as her flawless style, should ensure her a permanent place in literary history.

Boston Adventure

First published: 1944

Type of work: Novel

A poor girl, the daughter of immigrants, realizes her dream of penetrating Boston society, only to discover its falseness and its cruelty.

Boston Adventure, Stafford’s first novel, was also her most popular work. Although critics do not consider it her best novel, they do point out how effectively Stafford presents the inner life of the protagonist, much in the manner of the nineteenth century novelists Henry James and Marcel Proust.

The story is divided into two parts, each of which has been given the title of a place. Book 1 is called “Hotel Barstow,” after the summer place on the North Shore across from Boston, where Sonia Marburg, the poverty-stricken protagonist, sees the wealthy Bostonians whose lives she yearns to imitate. Book 2 is titled “Pinckney Street,” after the exclusive area in Beacon Hill to which Sonia is taken by a benefactor.

Sonia has good reason to want to escape from the place of her birth. The daughter of two immigrants who have failed to achieve the American Dream, she spends her childhood in a drafty shack, listening to her parents’ quarrels, which are interrupted only by their bouts of drunkenness. Her beautiful but bad-tempered Russian mother, who works as a chambermaid at Hotel Barstow, hates her husband, a German shoemaker she met on the boat trip to America, because he cannot give her the luxury he promised. From her earliest consciousness, Sonia feels unwanted; indeed, her father tells her that she should never have been born.

Sonia cannot help contrasting the chaotic atmosphere of her home with the order of the Hotel Barstow room occupied by an aristocratic Boston spinster, Lucy Pride. Because of her tranquil demeanor and her self-possession, Miss Pride becomes a symbol of an ideal way of life. When her father asks Sonia what she would like to be, she replies simply that she would like to live on Pinckney Street.

Ironically, it is the disintegration of Sonia’s family that makes her dream a possibility. Her father walks out; her little brother, who is born shortly afterward, wanders away from home and dies in a snowstorm; and her mother, who has gradually declined into insanity, is institutionalized. At this point, Miss Pride, who has always taken an interest in Sonia, offers her a position as a secretary, tuition for the training she needs, and, most important, her own room in the mansion on Pinckney Street. The final sentence of this section has a significance that at the time Sonia does not grasp. Dropping in unexpectedly, Miss Pride has found her protégé reading the newspaper comic strips. Politely, she suggests that she...

(The entire section is 2886 words.)