Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Jean Stafford is fond of exploring the parallel between the landscape of the Rocky Mountain West and characters indigenous to that region. She believes that the Colorado spirit is reinforced by a strength of character, an inimitable independent personality, which makes people straightforward, resilient, and above all intrigued by life’s potential. As Dr. Bohrmann himself observes, there is a special ingredient found in the Rocky Mountains that gives characters a certain Western charm. “Once they were out in the world, they seldom came back to Adams, and when they did, they were not the same, for they had outgrown their lucubrations; they were no longer so fervent as they had been, and often their eyes strayed to their wristwatches in the midst of a conversation.” Just as Stafford herself never returned to the Rocky Mountain West to live after leaving the area when she finished her university education, other characters who move away in her fiction seldom come back to live. However, those who remain, like Dr. Wolfgang Bohrmann, epitomize a certain quality not to be found elsewhere.

Another theme frequently found in Stafford’s short stories and novels is the importance of a character’s past experiences on his present life. Often her characters seem anachronisms in the society in which they live. Dr. Bohrmann, for example, relishes his retirement in his new house, but he also fills the new space with artifacts of his past, symbols of a former life that he would never forsake simply because it was out of date. Stafford recognizes the universality of human experience and urges readers to become aware of the value of the past.

Stafford echoes the theories of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence with regard to the centrality of character in fiction, insisting that her characters be, above all, dynamic, believable, and real for the reader. In a letter to the Pulitzer committee in 1969, Stafford wrote: “I want, in a novel, a tarnished, perhaps, but nonetheless sterling hero or heroine; I don’t want everybody to be a simon-pure alloy of base metals.” Thus, in her collection of short stories entitled Bad Characters (1964), she portrays individuals whose lives are far from perfect but who nevertheless live determinedly. Stafford’s devotion to physical and psychological realism gives her fiction the solid, earthy quality so integral to the American literary tradition.