Stafford, Jean (Vol. 7)
Stafford, Jean 1915–
An American novelist and short story writer, Jean Stafford is respected for her insightful, carefully styled fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
In a decade at which we still prefer to look askance, the work of Jean Stafford has rarely failed to call some attention to itself. Her incisive talent, her style so often distinguished, would indeed merit no less. Yet the attention Miss Stafford has won for her work is not all that one should like it to be: it is the kind of attention that takes her limitations for granted, that makes too much of them by accepting them too readily.
The achievement of Miss Stafford, though still in progress (and though time likes nothing better than to give a critic the lie) has an air both of freshness and orthodoxy. One feels that she has allied herself with a large tradition of the novel, the tradition of Proust and James most markedly, and with a tradition certainly not less native than Willa Cather's or Katherine Anne Porter's, while others—possibly Flaubert and Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky—stand from a distance silently on guard. Large as this tradition may appear (Miss Stafford does not seem to betray the specialness of a Paul Bowles or a Peter Taylor) a rather definite, and perhaps finite, animating center is recognizable in her fiction. The center, I think, is a metaphor of age and childhood, a composite image of change and experience, caught in an ironic, elegiac, and retrospective vision. It is her attachment to this center that defines the expense of her style and the scope of her sensibility.
There is some propriety in taking up Jean Stafford's massive first novel first. For in Boston Adventure, 1944, all the figures of her imagination, all the peculiarities of her style and sensibility, are declared in a manner which if it is not final has certainly enough authority to presage the tenor of her work. The ideas of age, childhood, and adolescence, of growth and decadence, of classes and values in juxtaposition, of the lonely passion and the public sentiment, of elegy and satire can be already seen to hold a central place in her fiction. The bipart structure of the novel, in so many ways consonant with its intent, suggests a vast metaphor of which the disparate terms have been yoked together with the violence of a metaphysical conceit, suggests indeed the reciprocal pressures and criticisms and ironies which are inherent to that type of figure; and if, to invoke Eliot, the intensity of fusion is somewhat less than incandescent, it is nonetheless, capable of energizing a very real "illusion." The two terms of the novel's metaphor encompass the squalid fishing village of Chicester in which Sonia Marburg has grown up, and the fabulous hub of Beacon Hill to which she aspires…. The terms encompass Sonia herself—whose "gift of consciousness," her first person narration, is the unifying principle of the work—Sonia, daughter of a German immigrant, a cobbler—Sonia, silent, perceptive, responsible; and Hopestill Mather,… ferociously radiant, willful, predatory, who must consume all, must consume herself in one vicious youthful flame, without hope of renewal, while Sonia, equally unfulfilled, enduring with a knowledge which is like the earth's knowledge, accepts and awaits the slow renewal of rain. (pp. 185-86)
The knowledge which the novel has of death and evil, of the twilight and murkiness of spirit, gives it a dimension that novels of manners and satire sometimes lack. We feel the shadow of mortality and corruption creep silently on many a scene…. (p. 187)
Of triumph or freedom Sonia has no share except what suffering and maturity bring…. A large and qualified acceptance, a certain tenderness, are all that she can salvage from her adventure.
What the reader does not salvage from the story is the feeling of aesthetic and moral inevitability. For Boston Adventure has those faults which prevent it from being the novel it could have been. I am not thinking of such minor faults as sudden and inexplicable changes in style, occasionally turgid and involuted sentences, descriptions and anecdotes which remain precisely description and anecdote, and expressions of Boston patois that are more a parody of themselves than of anything else. The faults I have in mind are of another order. There is in many parts of the novel a length of preparation, of hinting and retrospection, that is incommensurate with what finally is revealed—the promise of style and implication is left unrealized. I believe that a certain lack in dramatic presence, a lack of dramatic scenes and an abundance of novelistic expatiation, are in part responsible. But only in part. For in Miss Stafford's work the telling detail is often a detail that should have been telling; in Proust, whether the narrator is gazing at a teaspoon filled with cake crumbs, or at Gilberte Swann in her garden, or at the steeples of Martinville in a certain slant of light, the fleeting impression is caught and appropriated, the vision is charged, and the reader is shocked into a recognition which is like epiphany. The difference—and Miss Stafford invites such a comparison—is perhaps due to a quality of mind, mind in Trilling's sense, for which sensibility alone is no fair compensation. The second part of the novel is also subject to the limitations of a somewhat caustic presentation. The characters on Beacon Hill are not given quite the chance to develop which their counterparts in Chicester have: they appear in sharp and adamant relief without any suggestion of what might lie on the obverse surface. And perhaps this is in the nature of a kind of satire that does not purport to convey the full measure of complexity in human behavior and human character, and that does not acknowledge the pressure of insights to which it is opposed. What it gains in brilliance, it surrenders in inclusiveness, if not in honesty (a comparison of Mary McCarthy and Wyndham Lewis with Jane Austen and Henry James is in this respect suggestive). The best satire always merges into irony; it evolves from character and situation more than it does from stance or speech, certainly more than it does from the author's commentary; it is not a defence, not the scratching of a surface; and perhaps more than anything else, it confesses that both its subject and object are involved, beyond stricture or rejection, in some common and positive way. But one feels of Miss Stafford that she has not consistently transcended her satiric vision of Boston, except where Lucy Pride is concerned, in the manner of the author of The Bostonians or of The Late George Apley.
And this brings me to the last question I would raise of an ambitious and powerful book, a question of point of view. I have said that the narrative is in the first person, the person of Sonia who has the "gift of consciousness." Such a point of view, as Lubbock has observed, is particularly suited to the large, panoramic novel. It is one, however, attended by difficulties. The least of these difficulties, perhaps, is the fact that Sonia speaks and feels in the beginning of the novel as no child would—Flaubert blended his vision with Emma's and so does Jean Stafford blend hers with Sonia. More serious is the difficulty of self-characterization and self-dramatization. Sonia has to convey the impression of being awkward, reserved, admiring, critical, agonized, stoical, and superior all in the course of action. And she does manage to convey all these. But she cannot dramatize herself, involved herself, in any way that we can recognize as meaningful. The satiric vision working through her consciousness leaves her uncommitted. And this is serious because, as I have already said, Sonia is the unifying principle of the novel. Her high lucidity is neutralized by a lack of dramatic and emotional engagement in a novel that requires less the detached point of view of a Marlow than that of a Henry Esmond. Her qualities of self-sufficiency and innate probity, her controlled response to every character she meets, though they prevent the novel from being a twitching account of self-awareness, serve to insulate her spiritual existence. The effect of the point of view, submerged as it is in Sonia's character, is to rob her last renunciation of moral content. The renunciation comes without the moral and aesthetic force of James' sacrifices, without his "rich reference": it is acceptance verging on simple endurance. But whatever may be said of the failings of Boston Adventure, the sweep of its social intentions and the grip of some of its individual scenes put it on a par with any first novel by an American writer of this last decade.
The Mountain Lion is a very different story. It has a certain ease, a kind of sensuous intimacy, that the more brilliant and synthetic style of Boston Adventure lacks. Sense and spirit, symbol and perception, are blended as only a childlike vision can blend them. For what the novel presents is the fast world of childhood and adolescence, secret and secure in its rituals, fanatic of heart, violated by the irreconcilable facts of living, violated by death, growth, sexuality, the sense of alienation and the sense of identity. (pp. 189-91)
The idol of the two children [Ralph and Molly, the central characters,] is Grandfather Kenyon…. Unlike [their other grandfather, a model of "gentility,"], Kenyon is a stomping, uncouth Colorado rancher, hardly literate, but with a natural integrity that is as obvious to Ralph and Molly as are his enormous, knotty hands. He … belonged to a vanished generation, one that knew Jesse James and killed squarely in self-defence. The contrast between the two men is vital. It brings to the novel a social reality of two orders whose values are in essential conflict and whose pressures on the present are still to be felt amid "the huge, unrecorded hum of implication" in American culture. It further serves to isolate Miss Stafford's recurring themes of past and present, of the expense of spirit, of the perpetual engagement between sense and insensibility, ideal and reality. But more relevant to the novel, the contrast binds Ralph and Molly, in common rebellion, to such a perception of life as would make their inevitable estrangement the more blistering. (p. 192)
What leaves the [dominant symbol, the lion,] open to criticism is that it is more willed than created: it lacks emotional immediacy and lacks the power to unite and reveal. What limits the significance of The Mountain Lion, as a whole, is that the tragedy of Ralph and Molly is not sufficiently rendered in the terms of moral perception which, as Blackmur has said, "estimates and adjusts the relative value of the whole structure." For the assumption of tragedy is that a part of the human spirit is infrangible and that its actions are not defined by the accounts of psychoanalysis or biology. But the novel has a certain purity of development which the spate of details and the imminent reminiscences that attend Miss Stafford's technique can hardly mar….
The country she brings to life is Colorado, its people are Westerners, and their chores are variations on a vast, submerged theme of manners and values. And as Katherine Anne Porter captures in "Old Mortality" the flux of American generations, so does Jean Stafford catch their pulse in the small tragedy of two adolescents. "The existence of the horrible in every particle of air," as Rilke put it, is seen sharp against Molly's death before it can finally settle on the trodden ways of her forbears.
The Catherine Wheel, 1952, may be the augury of a happy development in Jean Stafford's writing. The development is from satiric wit to irony and sensibility, from stylistics to poetry—the range between a writer like Mary McCarthy and one like Willa Cather. And as Eliot observed of a very different novel, Miss Stafford's should perhaps attract readers of poetry most. For the book, like the Minerva and fig tree of Congreve House, casts a reflection that invites consideration sub species aeternitatis: it has what both Joyce and Aquinas would have called aesthetic stasis. More specifically, the novel presents an arrested picture of the intricacies of love before and beyond the zenith of life. The impression we take from it is of a circle of light "still and moving:" the girandole of a soule brief and bright against a summer evening. But the texture is not all shimmer. What we find here, for the first time, is a certain warmth and bounty of apprehension, a certain resonance which is like the resonance of a legend. (pp. 193-94)
The phrase [the Catherine Wheel] suggests the very idea of pattern in the book, only its circle, like each circle in our lives, is never really complete. There is first the Catherine Wheel with its associations of the rack, the girandole, the oriental mystic circle, and the Freudian female symbol. Katharine Congreve [the protagonist] and St. Catherine of Siena, pain and martyrdom, change and recurrence, transience and fixity, gaudiness and beauty are all united in a symbol which translates itself continuously into specific action and concrete perception…. But it is not the symbol alone that is circular. The structure, which "imitates" the action, surrenders itself to the dominant metaphor of the novel. It surrenders itself in a number of apparent devices and in a number of others more purposeful and oblique. To be counted among the first are recurrent leitmotifs, the cross reference of images, the beginning of the story in a garden party with Maeve and Katharine wearing mousse-line dresses and its ending in the same manner with Katharine wearing the same "burning" dress. Then there are the chapter headings which are variations on the old and lovely carol, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, a partridge in a pear tree," a carol which has a progressive refrain of counterpoint suggesting the circular movement of Medieval folk dances, besides being both sacred and erotic. (These qualities of texture and structure, incidentally, evoke the spirit of legend so that at times we are made conscious of a plangency which is akin to that of Mann's in The Holy Sinner. The circular pattern is perhaps more meaningful for its imitation of action on the subjective and the objective levels, the pathos and the ethos of the work, to fall back on a convenient distinction. The pathos here is occasioned by the dramatic interaction between a child and a middle-aged woman, an interaction which has something of Wordsworth's "The Child is a father of the Man" in it. The ethos lends itself to the same idea of recurrence. Eliot's epigraph to the novel describes it: "Man's life is a cheat and a disappointment; / All things are unreal, / Unreal or disappointing," and so do his lines: "The boarhound and the boar / Pursue their pattern as before." (pp. 196-97)
The Catherine Wheel shows that Miss Stafford has caught the stride of her talent. The writing is devoid of unconscionable virtuosities, it is very much her own. Drama, perhaps even character, still remain in the chatoyant background of her sensibility, and situations are sometimes taxed beyond the limits of their actual significance, though much less so here than in her earlier works. But the novel stands squarely to James' test of "the perfect dependence of the 'moral' sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it."
Yet it is perhaps as a short story writer that Miss Stafford is best known. One feels that her sensibility, always sudden and mordant, is more happy within the confines of the shorter medium which Frank O'Connor aptly described as a "lyric cry in the face of destiny." The metaphor of childhood is expanded in such stories as "A Summer Day," "The Violet Rock," "The Healthiest Girl in Town," "The Shorn Lamb;" the metaphor of age in "The Hope Chest," "The Present," "Life Is No Abyss;" and the ironic vision in "The Maiden," "A Modest Proposal," "Children Are Bored on Sunday," and "Polite Conversation." But to speak of an expanded metaphor is to state the achievement of some thirty stories almost too simply. For if some of these stories reinforce what Miss Stafford has already presented in her three novels, and if some recapitulate it, there are others, notably in the collection Children Are Bored on Sunday, 1953, which lead us beyond all previous echoes to vantages from which as she herself put it, "the convolutions and complexities of human relationships,… the crucifixions and the solaces of being alive," may be viewed anew. To particularize these, to give them hue and life, to locate them in the realities of our world is the intent of her fiction. (pp. 197-98)
Two of the best stories in this collection, though they deal with adults rather than children, reveal two different attitudes Miss Stafford likes to adopt towards her subject. "The Interior Castle," in which style is transfixed with meaning, captures the acute reality of consciousness: pain and wonder, void and sensation, the magic drama of the mind inscrutably playing the role of object and subject at the same instant of perception, eternally Narcissus, though more in Valéry's than in the classical sense. The import of the story—a girl undergoes a critical brain operation—is anything but clinical: it is that of pain made serviceable in the quest for identity: it is that of an outrage committed against what is most secret in man, perhaps the radical betrayal of life itself…. In its strange, closed-in implication, the story merits comparison with Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow." The manner of "Children Are Bored on Sunday" is less poetic than ironic, its situation less private than social. Miss Stafford, by confronting urban with rural values, succeeds in making a rather subtle comment on the enervated, disinherited New York intellectual who likes to see himself as "Pontius Pilate, that hero of the untoward circumstance," and who, without his stylized gossip and party rituals, succumbs to boredom and despair on a symbolic Sunday between the museum stroll and the solitary martinis. One feels, however, that the author has risen here to a larger view of her two characters, for the unhappiness of Emma like that of Eisenburg has a depth to which satire alone cannot penetrate.
In point of structure, the stories hold some affinities with a type we commonly associate with the New Yorker, though they hold more, when at their best, with the tradition of Joyce and Chekov. The intimate glimpse unresolved, the moment of sudden knowledge, the reversal of a situation, the symbolic crisis, the humor of innocence and perversity, find each some deft application in Jean Stafford's stories. The technique aims, I think, at an effect most nearly presentational: an act is largely apprehended as implication and an event as pure experience. But drama will not suffer itself to be shut out. It is present in the best of these stories under the guise of irony, a kind of irony which, in any particular conflict, is made more valuable by Miss Stafford's attitude of simultaneous criticism towards all characters engaged in that conflict. Such an attitude endows each character with a reality separate from his author's and allows the irony of one point of view to be dramatically modified by that of another…. The symbolic object, a prominent device in these stories, often serves to heighten the ironic development: the change to which it submits in the character's eyes is a part of the more significant change in the total situation…. (pp. 198-99)
When the stories fall short of their intent, it is usually because too much is made of too little…. But perhaps the most serious lapse to which a writer like Miss Stafford is susceptible is the one Frank O'Connor had in mind when he wrote, "It is one of the weaknesses of the story-writer that, because of his awareness of the importance of the crisis, he tends to inflate it, to give it artificial symbolic significance."…
[To] define the quality of Jean Stafford's style and sensibility, to find the scope and the expense of each, is, I believe, to grasp the substance of her achievement in contemporary letters. It is an achievement based on pattern and some internal coherence, reenforced by its distinctive motifs, and developing still towards a larger order. (p. 199)
At its worst the style of Miss Stafford lacks resilience: it is brittle and brilliant, learned in chinoiseries and legerdemain. But then it is not very often as its worst and its intent redeems its failures. The intent of her style—which is sometimes also its expense—appears to be multiple: erudite in the substantive and the specific, it attempts to lodge her story in reality, to catch what James called "the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle," and to justify Blake when he observed that "The Eye sees more than the heart knows;" erudite in irony and persiflage, it wants to criticize what it reveals and describes, to discover the ridiculous and grotesque, to put, as Berenson would say, in every remark some "metaphysical lining or sting;" and erudite in that inner correspondence of things which reigns in the Romantic world, it aims to weld appearance with reality as Baudelaire did in his "forests of symbols," and to render each detail in a manner that would satisfy Elizabeth Bowen when she asks for "the naturalistic surface, but with a kind of burning." But in the end it is not the style's erudition in all these respects that sustains it: it is its poetry and control, and its memorable interpretation of experience—as in The Catherine Wheel. So large an intent must occasionally admit of failure. Then are we left with the hiatus in narrative and perception, and that loss of dramatic presence which is the novelist's bane—as in parts of Boston Adventure.
The scope of Jean Stafford's sensibility may be viewed through the heightened consciousness of childhood and senescence. It includes the magic apprehension of the first and tragic retrospect of the second, a world too closed and one too open—the realities of the future and of the past converging on the critical present. A sensibility so oriented must, and does, enlist a triple vision: a psychological insight into the internal life, a panoramic view of the changeful past, and an ironic sense of that unremitting tension between the internal and external in the life of man. (p. 200)
[The Mountain Lion], like some of Miss Stafford's stories, and unlike The Catherine Wheel, does not seem to me fully to transcend its techniques, nor does its conflict appear to be the more moral for its humanized psychology. The point is worth making, not because the danger it implies is insurmountable—Miss Stafford does surmount it in her felicitous moments—but rather because its implication puts some limit on the significance of tragedy in the modern world. The frailty of love which Capote and Carson McCullers sometimes emphasize seems almost to exempt their characters from responsibility; in a writer like Colette, "abnormal" as her situations are, that exemption from morality, which some take the pathological ward to abbet, is hardly implied….
It is [the] gravid sense of time, the penetration of experience into memory, that Miss Stafford awakens; for hers is a sensibility attuned to the rhythm of change, the arch drama, both in the life of her characters and in their ambient realities. The social force impinges on the refractory substance of the soul: this is what both Trilling and Schorer have recognized to be the life of the novel. And it is to reconcile these that Jean Stafford resorts to the ironic vision, perhaps the only vision that could reconcile Jane Austen to Dostoyevsky in the world we know. (p. 201)
Ihab Hassan, "Jean Stafford: The Expense of Style and the Scope of Sensibility," in The Western Review (copyright by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission), Spring, 1955, pp. 185-202.
Jean Stafford's stories … tend to be best when they breathe that air of gentility which is her signature, an air in which dispossessed American ladies of middle age roam uncomfortably in Europe, saving face, enduring on behalf of their children "horrifying ordeals with the international mails"; in which young women from Tennessee, abroad for the first time, are humiliated at dinner parties in Chantilly where their Sweetbriar French is a form of silence; in which elderly Boston spinsters nurse their loneliness by harassing children and maids in a Boston not yet touched with the psychedelic and macrobiotic; and in which, on Royal Newport lawns, ladies named Beatrice Trueblood have extraordinary fallings-out with fiancés named Martin ten Brink within a teacup's throw of their hostess' famous hydrangeas. Despite their air of gentility, however, these stories are not genteel, for they slice unhesitatingly through that protective skin of Victorian furniture, rare crystal, tins of foie gras, and discussions of "the servant situation" into the pulpy underlayer of folly—but with a grace that stays the cutting edge one layer short of cynicism, at the precise depth where all is exposed and nothing destroyed. (pp. 736-37)
Though [hers] are tales set in formal gardens, they often carry over into that wilderness beyond, where age, pain, exile, and decay, those counters of mortality, are every-where in the undergrowth. But when they directly set out after such heavy game, it is clear that Miss Stafford's weapons, despite their hairline accuracy, are too fine-gauged to assure the result…. [A] sense of manipulation runs … blatantly through … [some stories]. The insight is subtle, but it emanates from the author and not from the story….
Miss Stafford's real dwell is on the surface of experience, a terrain which implies the upheavals that have shaped it…. (p. 738)
Arhtur Edelstein, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by Arthur Edelstein), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973.
The Catherine Wheel,… a "New England Gothic tale,"… is much closer to the romance of Hawthorne than to the post-Hemingway novel. The difference is apparent in the subject matter, the consequences of an act rather than the act itself; the central role of hidden envy, guilt, and remorse; the closed structural system of symbols; and the narrative method which captures both moonlight and sunlight. (p. 77)
In [Boston Adventure and The Mountain Lion] Stafford uses a sequential narrative method, linear time, and a conventional realistic structure in which the significant dramatic action occupies the foreground and is molded and formed through common social and mythical patterns, the rites of initiation and the quest of the hero. In The Catherine Wheel Stafford uses an incremental narrative method, non-linear time, and a different pattern of psychic development—the cul-de-sac. With the narrative action caught and fixed in both space and time, Congreve House in perpetual summer, Katharine Congreve still embarks upon a journey, neither linear through space nor vertical through consciousness. The journey is rather through both space and consciousness, one attuned to the most powerful symbol of Godhead, the closed circle. (pp. 77-8)
Although one of the cornerstones of realism, the incremental narrative method is particularly apt for the romance. In The Catherine Wheel Stafford is able to construct, through a scrupulously accurate recording of the seemingly mundane details of everyday life and the nuances of social intercourse, a pattern of symbols which, through repetition and juxtaposition rather than logical progression or psychological perception and development, order the experience portrayed. As noted by Hassan, the circle is both the major symbol and the basic pattern of the novel. (p. 78)
Stafford's use of the incremental narrative method also controls and defines those relationships between the characters which can be dramatized. Since Katharine refuses to acknowledge any time but time past and since she is the central character in the novel, her relationship with each character is as rigidly fixed and patterned as the steps of the roundelay…. (p. 81)
[The] dominant symbol of the novel supports both the basic narrative method of the novel and the thematic movement from life to death and rebirth through passionate despair. The dramatic action can only be embodied within the progression of the central symbol because in the Eden of Congreve House only movement through stasis can effect change. (p. 90)
Katharine Congreve represents a common type in Jean Stafford's fiction. The heroines of her earlier novels and most of the major female characters in her short stories also deliberately turn their backs on life. Stafford has, as yet, presented only the conventional motivation for and consequences of the denial of the self; she has offered no alternatives. Her most damning indictment is of Katharine Congreve's final act of self immolation. When Katharine asks the twelve-year-old Andrew to destroy the history of that aspect of her self which she could not force into the conventional social role, her secret diary, she asks him to burn the most sacred symbol of Catherine of Alexandria, the book. (p. 91)
Jeanette W. Mann, "Toward New Archetypal Forms: Jean Stafford's 'The Catherine Wheel'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1975, pp. 77-92.
Jean Stafford's novel The Mountain Lion (1947) tells of two children, brother and sister, growing up in America at a time more remote from us than the calendar conveys—an irrecoverable time, before World War II, when America still cherished innocence. As the novel opens Ralph is 10 and Molly eight. They are too young yet to have had the experience that dispels innocence. But in the four years their story spans, they are forced into growing up, a dangerous process, possibly deadly. For they must enter "a tunnel with no end," the dark tunnel of adolescence in which the child will be forever lost. In the shadows of this tunnel, where shamefully Ralph and Molly discover sin, their childhood expires—and with it, the dream of American possibilities that once we shared.
That was the dream of expansion, of growth and release, for which our symbol was the West…. Ralph rides and hunts and becomes obsessed with a golden mountain lion, the last of its kind, which he alone must kill. One day he finds his lion, and for a precious fleeting moment, dream and reality coalesce. He shoots—and kills his sister Molly; and the burst of blood upon her forehead becomes the mark of inbred inescapable guilt in the American character. The letting of blood, with which the novel begins and ends, betrays the dream of innocence.
Why must Molly die? Why must brother and sister—so close they think and act and even bleed as one—fall into antagonistic roles that seem inevitable; and mutually destructive? Why must the male become a hunter, and the female, his prey? These questions strike me as crucial and implicatory—and too long overlooked. Raised here they can lead us to the reconsideration of a prophetic American novel we have in the past unjustly neglected; and to the reconsideration of an anachronistic American myth we may in the future finally disown.
Molly dies, I believe, in a sacrificial ceremony disguised in the novel as accident. Her death is demanded by the great masculine myth of the West—a symbolic place: where boys like Ralph become men; and girls like Molly become not only extraneous and intrusive, but actively threatening to the ritual of male initiation….
The Mountain Lion is a study in childhood ambivalence, in social intolerance. For American society does not tolerate ambivalent or shared sexual roles: it demands that the child growing up assume a clear-cut sexual identity. This demand destroys both Ralph and Molly as it turns them against each other, and involutes their love with hate. It destroys them because they are too much a part of each other to conform to the unequivocal roles of man and woman their society prescribes…. As social satire The Mountain Lion is merciless and funny. Jean Stafford surveys the American scene, East and West, and finds everywhere that American characters are reduced to caricature…. Tintypes all: flattened, glossy, gross figures. But they represent the adult world in which eventually the children must find their grown-up roles. As a comedy of manners The Mountain Lion is caustically funny. But as a social condemnation it is not funny at all. All our prejudices are here imprinted, both consciously and not. We must find the novel far more condemning than intended: for time, the sweeping course of events in recent American history, has reinforced the horror with which it ends. (p. 22)
Why must Molly die? So that Ralph can live up to a male image perpetuated by the myth of the West that makes violence and destruction the consummation of manhood…. But Molly also collaborates in her death. A fascinating aspect of the novel, I believe, is her willingness to accept death as an only alternative, and to elicit Ralph's unconscious support of her desire. (pp. 23-4)
Why does Molly want to die? She knows why, and says so. "I know I'm ugly. I know everyone hates me. I wish I were dead." We need not elaborate here on the price any American woman must pay for being ugly—for being defined as ugly, that is, by her culture….
In her stories Jean Stafford shows the same brilliance when describing characters driven like Molly to internalize the social values they believe they have either rejected or transcended. Her prize story "In the Zoo" depicts two sisters recalling their childhood, not realizing, as we do with a shock, that they have grown up to be the kinds of women they despised. In "The End of a Career" a woman blessed with rare and exquisite beauty discovers she has been cursed. Because everyone valued her beauty she devoted her life to its care, only to discover at the end of her "career" that she had sacrificed her life to society's love of appearance. The young woman of "The Echo and the Nemesis" finds beauty and intellectual brilliance burdens too heavy for her to carry. So she splits her personality in two, bestowing beauty on one self, and brains on the other: a solution of insanity, painful and full of self-punishment of an almost diabolical kind. (p. 24)
In 1947, when The Mountain Lion was published, critics praised it as a "beautifully modeled tale." Reconsidering it today, we may not be as impressed as the original readers by the perfection of its structure, too closed for our modern taste; or the polish of its wit and language, too stiff and glossy; or the manipulation of its Freudian symbols, too contrived. We may not be so unprepared for, nor so delighted with, its eruption of "sudden horror" at the end. We have seen the world erupt with so much horror that we hardly expect happy endings; we are more alert to symptoms of disorder…. In 1947 the reviewers did not see this strain in the novel: that it embodied a puritanical, even Calvinistic, view of life beneath its witty satire; that from the beginning, it had the children predestined to violence and horror…. If The Mountain Lion makes us reconsider some of the ways children have been forced to grow up in America, then it should not remain out of print and neglected. In 1947 one reviewer hoped it would become "a modern classic." Apparently it has not. But if by classic we mean basic, typical and enduring, then upon reconsideration, perhaps that is what it is. For it embodies our basic prejudices and enduring myths, and it represents our typical consciousness as Americans. If by classic we mean high quality, The Mountain Lion-fits that definition too. (pp. 24-5)
Blanche H. Gelfant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 10, 1975.