First published in the Southern Review in 1940, Peter Taylor wrote ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ while he was still an undergraduate at Kenyon College. A rich and complex story, ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ touches on Taylor’s recurring themes: family dynamics, gender conflicts, and, most importantly, life in the American South in the early twentieth century.
‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ is considered one of Taylor’s finest short stories and is often praised for its honest depiction of growing up in the America South. Yet because it was published so early in Taylor’s career, some critics believe that the story tends to be overlooked in favor of his later works.
The first line of ‘‘A Spinster’s Tale’’ reveals several important facts: ‘‘My brother would often get drunk when I was a little girl, but that put a different sort of fear into me from what Mr. Speed did.’’ The author reveals (as the story’s title also suggests) that his narrator is older now, that drinking played an important role in her family life, and that there is a menacing character named Mr. Speed.
The narrator, Elizabeth (named after her late mother), discusses her vague obsession with Mr. Speed, the town drunk. Elizabeth’s father dismisses him as a ‘‘rascal,’’ yet Elizabeth suggests that she will eventually confront Mr. Speed.
Elizabeth reveals some of her fears when she stands before a mirror, craving escape, whispering ‘‘away, away,’’ until she bursts into tears. She then sees Mr. Speed ‘‘walking like a cripple’’ down the street. Elizabeth remembers her late mother and tries to forget about Mr. Speed.
One evening, Elizabeth stays awake until her brother returns home. He offers her candy, but she reenters her bedroom. He follows and she smells the ‘‘cheap whiskey’’ on his breath. Crying and hugging him, she exclaims, ‘‘I’m always lonely.’’ The narrator recounts:
He kept his face turned away from me and finally spoke, out of the corner of his mouth, I thought, ‘‘I’ll come home earlier some afternoons and we’ll talk and play.’’
When I had said this distinctly, I fell away from him back on the bed. He stood up and looked at me curiously, as though in some way repelled by my settling so comfortably in the covers. And I could see his eighteen-year-old head cocked to one side as though trying to see my face in the dark. He leaned over me, and I smelled his whiskey breath. It was not repugnant to me. It was blended with the odor he always had. I thought he was going to strike me. (Excerpt from ‘‘A Spinster’s...