Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Contrasting images of life and death form an essential background to Miranda’s early years. Some impressions are grasped directly and others are gathered only at second hand, as visible artifacts or in others’ recollections. Taken together, her views of the people around her suggest separate and distinct ways of life, which appear to the young girl fleetingly and in fragments. These types are presented unobtrusively, and nowhere are they disjoined from the people who embody them.

Aunt Amy, who died nine years before Miranda was born, left enduring memories that are revealed in parts to the young girl. The now almost legendary glory and sorrow of her short life are the more poignant for the coincidental, slightly garbled manner by which Miranda learns about the events of Amy’s brief existence. Her aunt was high-spirited and effervescent; she flouted convention and heedlessly sacrificed her health and well-being for a few nights’ dancing. Unconstrained, and given at times to wild abandon, she must have been coquettish, and probably indeed was capable of touching off deadly rivalries between her suitors. Perhaps settled married life was more than she could endure. No doubt she brought on her own tragic and premature demise, but then death claims other, more conventional types early as well. The reader senses that the force of Amy’s personality was felt the more after her passing, and that in retrospect she is cast larger than life.

The development of other characters suggests variant concerns in life. Great-aunt Sally, who is known only from her letters to Amy, was steadfastly committed to saving others’ souls. Uncle Gabriel, whom Miranda encounters early in her life, resembles Amy in his romantic fascination with horses and racing; yet where Amy spent herself in exorbitant demands on her substance, Gabriel gives way to weakness and self-indulgence and dies probably from his own bibulous excesses.

Miss Honey, who is very much his opposite, endeavors to restrain Gabriel but dies somehow well before her time. Miss Eva, Miranda’s plain cousin, appears at intervals ten years apart; though not devoutly religious, she is frankly disapproving of Amy’s youthful ebullience. Eva’s proselytism for women’s suffrage approaches the devotion of the faithful. It is from these conflicting examples, some tinged with a mythic aura and some distressingly mundane, that Miranda believes that she must find her own way of life.