Kay Boyle Essay - Critical Essays

Kay Boyle American Literature Analysis

Boyle’s belief in the moral responsibility of the writer is clearly evident in everything that she wrote. Writing in Story in 1963, she expressed her conviction that a writer is “a moralist in the highest sense of the word” whose responsibility is “to speak briefly and clearly of the dignity and the integrity of individual man.” The strongly autobiographical element in most of her work is apparent. The theme running through all of her work is the absolute necessity of love and the many obstacles and failures that prevent its fulfillment, such as narrow-mindedness, social conventions, bigotry, misunderstandings, and the tragedies of ordinary lives caught in war and other insuperable obstacles. The assertion of her moral convictions and the dependence on personal experience for her narrative sources characterize Boyle’s fiction, which is consistently concerned with the importance of love in its many guises, manifestations, and frustrations.

That Boyle’s life was extraordinary cannot be denied; thus, her use of her own experiences is understandable. As Sandra Whipple Spanier pointed out in a study of Boyle’s life and work, Boyle was:a fascinating woman who, in addition to writing over thirty books, had three husbands and six children and managed to be in the important places at the important times, participating actively in many of the major movements and events of our century. The effects of war—of defeat and occupation—were therefore prominent in her work.

Avalanche (1944), Boyle’s most popular novel, highlights the bravery of the French Resistance. A Frenchman Must Die (1946) also focuses on the Resistance as it describes how a former Resistance fighter brings to justice a French aristocrat who collaborated with the Nazis. Other novels deal with the problems faced by the French and Germans as they rebuild their war-ravaged countries. The short story “The White Horses of Vienna” also deals with the issue of the rise of Nazism in Austria.

Other stories, such as those in Life Being the Best, and Other Stories (1988), concentrate on the search for love and meaning in individual lives. The novel Monday Night (1938) is an examination of two men on a quest for a prominent scientist whose false testimony has led to the conviction of several innocent men. In her last novel, The Underground Woman, Boyle capped her long career with an account of an event in her own life. The book tells of some women who were arrested and jailed for participating in a protest demonstration at an induction center during the Vietnam War. In her final fictional work, Boyle was thus true to the issues and ideals that had concerned her throughout her writing life.

Boyle received considerable attention and praise for her innovative and original style, especially in the early years, when she was a prominent member of the group of writers who in the 1920’s and 1930’s were rebelling against prevailing literary conventions. Boyle’s style has been called poetic; it is intense, colored by strong images, trenchant metaphors, and telling details. Often, she writes in the stream-of-consciousness style that the modernists invented, expressing the thoughts and feelings of her characters through their own words, often in interior monologues, keeping herself as narrator in the background, even offstage.

One of the most notable of Boyle’s literary characteristics is the way in which she tells her stories on two levels. The explicit events and descriptions are concerned with vividly drawn characters speaking in their own voices. She tends to use dialogue much more than narration. Beneath the surface, however, is the implied significance of what she is really writing about, the larger world stage on which individual lives are played out. Thus the focus, especially in her short stories, is highly concentrated—on, for example, a particular situation or an intense conversation that actually illustrates a larger theme, such as the human spirit in adversity or the disappointment of unfulfilled love. Boyle’s tone is often rueful, even sad, revealing her compassion and concern for her characters.

Some critics have found Boyle melodramatic and self-conscious, her plots contrived, and her style affected. Her overriding aim, to transform society, has struck some as blatant and intrusive, and her emphasis on the necessity of love has been criticized as sentimental and overdrawn. Nevertheless, many other critics have admired her for the complexity and sensibility of her work and for the beauty and poignancy of her style. Certainly, the many awards and honors that she received indicate that Boyle deserved, and received, recognition as an important and distinguished writer.


First published: 1939 (collected in Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart, 1966)

Type of work: Short story

A young American woman is deeply affected by the changes in Austria resulting from the unification of that country with Germany.

“Anschluss” was regarded by many readers as one of Boyle’s best stories about the effects of the rise of Nazism before World War II. Boyle’s so-called war stories never take place on the battlefield. Instead, she shows how individuals’ lives are touched by the events leading up to and during the larger conflicts. The characters are usually civilians, but some are military personnel caught by Boyle’s observant eye away from the war front.

The heroine of “Anschluss” is a young woman named Merrill who works in Paris as an assistant to a fashion editor. Twice a year, Merrill takes a trip to her favorite vacation place, the village of Brenau in the mountains of Austria. The time is the 1930’s. Boyle draws a sharp contrast between the trivialities of Merrill’s life in Paris and the desperate straits of her two...

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