Morley Callaghan Essay - Critical Essays

Morley Callaghan Short Fiction Analysis

Over his long career, Morley Callaghan published more than one hundred short stories, in such magazines as The New Yorker, Scribner’s Magazine, and numerous other magazines. Many of these have been collected in his four volumes of short stories.

While there are variations and exceptions, Callaghan’s stories generally have recognizable characteristics. Foremost of these is the style: Most noticeably in the early works, Callaghan employs short declarative sentences, colloquial dialogue, and plain, unadorned language. As he remarked in That Summer in Paris, he attempts to “tell the truth cleanly.” This sparse, economical, straightforward style has been compared with Hemingway’s. Perhaps Callaghan was influenced by Hemingway (he admired and respected the older author), but it is likely that Callaghan’s work on a newspaper shaped his writing, just as Hemingway’s style was honed by his years of reporting.

Like a journalist, Callaghan presented the events in his stories objectively, neither condemning nor praising his character. By precisely recording his observations, Callaghan allows his readers to form their own judgments. He strives “to strip the language, and make the style, the method, all the psychological ramifications, the ambience of the relationships, all the one thing, so the reader couldn’t make separations. Cézanne’s apples. The appleness of the apples. Yet just apples.” In other words, he endeavored to capture the essence of the moment.

Although Callaghan’s stories are often set in Canada, he should not be classified as a regional writer. His appeal ranges beyond the borders of his country. The themes he treats are universal and are not limited to Canadian issues; in fact, he has been criticized for not addressing Canadian problems more forcefully. Many of his stories examine human relationships, and they therefore revolve around psychological issues rather than physical actions. They depict the ordinary person and his or her desire for happiness. This desire is often frustrated by environmental forces such as unemployment and injustice and by internal drives such as fear and sex. In the early stories, the characters, inarticulate and of less than normal intelligence, are on the edge of society: the poor, the disabled, the criminal, and the insane. The characters in Callaghan’s later stories are more likely to be educated, but they still struggle in their quest for a better life. All Callaghan’s characters reflect his concerns as a Roman Catholic, and a certain pessimism underlies their portrayals. Rarely in Callaghan’s characters are innate spirituality and nobility of character allowed to triumph over the more ignoble of human instincts and behavior.

In 1928, Scribner’s published Callaghan’s first novel, Strange Fugitive, and followed this a year later with A Native Argosy, a collection of short fiction containing fourteen stories and two novellas. These stories are some of the most naturalistic produced by Callaghan, and the characters, themes, and style resemble that found in work by other naturalistic writers, such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. Influenced by Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, these authors applied the principles of scientific determinism to their fiction. Humans are viewed as animals trapped in a constant struggle to survive. They are limited by forces that are beyond their control and even beyond their understanding. Callaghan, like the other naturalistic writers, presents the material in an objective and documentary manner, eschewing moral judgments and optimistic endings.

“A Country Passion”

The first story in the collection, “A Country Passion,” originally printed in Transition, portrays an inarticulate character who is ultimately destroyed by a combination of his instincts and society’s strictures. Jim Cline loves Ettie Corley, a retarded girl twenty-nine years his junior, who will soon be sent to an asylum. He wants to marry the sixteen-year-old girl, but the minister forbids it because Jim has been in jail, as the reader learns later, for stealing chickens and for fighting. Although unable to marry, Jim nevertheless “had come to an agreement with her any way,” and now he faces a charge of seduction which carries a life sentence. Jim’s interest in Ettie is more than sexual. Out of concern for her, Jim has bought coal and food for Ettie’s family in the winter and clothes for her. She needs him; as the minister comments, “she’s had the worst home in town and something should have been done about it long ago.” Nevertheless, the culture will not accept their union. After being arrested, Jim escapes from jail, harboring the vague notion that “if he could get out he could explain his idea to everybody and get people behind him” and his problem would be solved. Unable to concentrate, he cannot formulate his idea. He is caught and will presumably spend the rest of his life in jail, while Ettie will spend hers in an institution. Though Jim and Ettie struggle to attain happiness, they cannot overcome the forces that oppose them. The depressing outcome is relieved partly by their achieving, even for a brief moment, a sharing of their affection.

“Amuck in the Bush”

The naturalistic tone is found throughout the collection. In “Amuck in the Bush,” Gus Rapp is portrayed as an animal, controlled by his instincts. Fired from his lumberyard job, he seeks revenge by attacking the boss’s wife and five-year-old daughter. The attack is savage, and only because of his own awkwardness does he not kill them. After the attack, he appears as a mute and uncomprehending animal as he crashes through the forest. Eventually, he is drawn back to the town, where he is captured and roped to a lamppost.

“A Wedding Dress”

Many of the characters in A Native Argosy are dissatisfied and troubled by vague, unarticulated desires. In “A Wedding Dress,” Lena Schwartz has waited fifteen years to marry. Finally, when her fiancé has a good job, the wedding is scheduled. She longs for a dress that will show her to her advantage and make her desirable to her future husband. Unaware of her own actions, she steals an expensive dress from a store. Regretting the deed, she nevertheless tries on the fancy but ill-fitting dress. Still wearing it, she is arrested. Her fiancé bails her out and takes her into his custody. In “An Escapade,” a middle-aged woman is lonely and repressed. Because of the titillating gossip of her bridge-club friends, Rose Carew misses the service at her Catholic church in order to attend another service being held in a theater. During the service, she is sexually attracted to the man next to her. She does not, however, recognize the emotion; she only knows that she is uncomfortable. She hurriedly leaves, goes to her Catholic church, and prays until she recovers her equanimity. Both of these characters yearn for a change in their lives, but they cannot articulate their desires and are unable to initiate actions that might bring about the desired results.

“A Predicament”

Throughout Callaghan’s work appear stories that contain characters, settings, and conflicts that are familiar to Catholics. In “A Predicament,” a young priest hearing confessions must deal with a drunk who has wandered into the confessional booth. The man, thinking that he is on a streetcar, waits for his stop. The priest, ignoring him, hears confessions from the other booth, but it soon becomes apparent that the man will not go away and will probably cause a disturbance. The priest, young and somewhat insecure, is afraid of any embarrassment. To resolve the issue, the priest slips into the role of a streetcar conductor and announces to the man, “Step lively there; this is King and Young. Do you want to go past your stop?” The drunk quietly leaves. The priest is at first satisfied with his solution, but then his dishonesty bothers him. Earlier, he had chided a woman for telling lies, instructing her that lies lead to worse sins. Unsure of his position, he thinks that he should seek the bishop’s advice but then decides to wait until he can consider his actions more closely. Thus, he postpones what might be a soul-searching encounter. Callaghan, gently and with humor, has shown that priests are no strangers to human weaknesses.

In His Own...

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