Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story seems to break all the rules of modern narrative technique, yet its combination of folktale and self-conscious philosophical speculation is disarming. The mode of country storytelling with a cast of village stereotypes, nameless widow, and grass-sucking old man, is mixed with a more literary dramatization of the same situation, and the risks to the fictive illusion are increased by the intrusive comments of a writer/narrator. The effect of a comment such as this is to deflect the reader’s resistance to repetition: “After all, what I am about to tell you is no more fiction than what I have already told, and I lean no heavier now upon your credulity than, with your full consent, I did in the first instance.” Writer and reader are united in a conspiracy, in the cooperative process of finding meaning in a fable. The brisk tone of presentation and inquiry keeps the momentum of the narrative from flagging, especially in the second version, and the writer’s deference to the reader is flattering and involving, as in the process of gossiping.

Mary Lavin’s choice of this technique reflects her thematic interest. If the widow ends by appearing to be a mean and self-destructive character, it is the result of her isolation from other people. The story implies that “careful watching, and absolute sincerity” are encouraged in the confidential and cooperative exchanges of gossip or storytelling.