Alice Adams Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Most of Alice Adams’s stories revolve around common themes, and her characters, mostly educated, upper-middle-class women, are defined by a set of common traits and situations which reappear in somewhat different combinations. They find their lives flawed, often by unhappy relationships with lovers, husbands, parents, friends, sometimes with combinations of these, usually with a living antagonist, occasionally with one already dead. Often, they resolve these problems, but sometimes they do not.

Frequently, the tensions of Adams’s plots are resolved when her central female characters learn something new or find a new source of strength, which enables them to part with unsatisfactory husbands, lovers, or friends. Claire, in “Home Is Where” (in Beautiful Girl), leaves both an unsatisfactory marriage and a miserable love affair in San Francisco, where she feels “ugly—drained, discolored, old,” to spend the summer with her parents in her North Carolina hometown, where she had been young and “if not beautiful, sought after.” Refreshed and stimulated by the sensual landscape and a summertime affair, Claire returns to San Francisco to divorce her husband, take leave of her unpleasant lover, and, eventually, to remarry, this time happily. Cynthia, in “The Break-in” (To See You Again), finds herself so different from her fiancé Roger, when he automatically blames the burglary of his home on “Mexicans,” that she leaves him without a word. The narrator of “True Colors” (To See You Again) discovers, in Las Vegas, David’s ugly side as an obsessive gambler and leaves him: “From then on I was going to be all right, I thought.” Clover Baskerville in “The Party-Givers” (To See You Again) leaves behind her malicious friends when she realizes that she need not call them if she does not want to see them. All these characters have learned that “home is where the heart” not only “is” but also chooses to be.

Adams’s heroines sometimes reach out from their lonely and isolated lives to find sympathetic bonds with poor or troubled people from other cultures. In “Greyhound People” (To See You Again), a divorced, middle-aged woman’s discovery of kinship with her (mostly black and poor) fellow commuters, along with her discovery that her commuter ticket will take her anywhere in California, is so liberating that she can finally break free of her repressive, domineering roommate and friend Hortense. In “Verlie I Say unto You” (Beautiful Girl), Jessica Todd’s sensitivity to her black maid Verlie’s humanity underscores a fundamental difference between herself and her insensitive husband (see also “The Break-in” in this regard). In “Mexican Dust” (To See You Again), Marian comes to prefer the company of the Mexican peasants to that of her husband, friends, and other Americans as they bus through Mexico on vacation; she abandons her party and returns to Seattle, where she plans to study Spanish, presumably to prepare for a return to Mexico alone. In fact, one sign of a strong character in Adams’s stories is a marked sensitivity to other cultures. Elizabeth, in the story by that name, purchases her Mexican beach house in the name of her Mexican servant Aurelia and leaves Aurelia in full possession of the house at her death. The central focus in “La Señora” (Return Trips) is the friendship between a wealthy, elderly American woman, who vacations annually at a Mexican resort, and Teodola, the Mexican maid in charge of her hotel room. Adams’s own concern for the human plight of those of other cultures can be seen in “Teresa,” in Return Trips, a story about the privation, terror, and grief of a Mexican peasant woman.

“Molly’s Dog” and “A Public Pool”

In two of Adams’s most effective stories, female protagonists learn to live confidently with themselves: “Molly’s Dog” and “A Public Pool” (both from Return Trips). In the former, Molly returns with her homosexual friend Sandy to a small cabin by the ocean, where she experienced a love affair so intense she cannot think of it without weeping. A friendly dog attaches itself to them on the beach and follows them as they leave; Molly pleads with Sandy to go back for the dog, but he drives faster, and the dog, though running, falls back and shrinks in the distance. Molly and Sandy quarrel over the dog, and Molly, realizing that she is much too dependent on men, comes to see less of Sandy back in San Francisco. She finally learns to think of the dog without pain but cannot forget it, and the place by the ocean becomes in her memory “a place where she had lost, or left something of infinite value. A place to which she would not go back.”

In “A Public Pool,” the protagonist, though working class, neither part of the literary or artistic world nor so well educated as many of Adams’s female characters, shares with many of them a dissatisfaction with her body and a sense of being cut off and alone. She cannot bear to meet people or even look for a job (“We wouldn’t even have room for you,” she imagines an employer saying), so that life at age thirty is a grim existence in a cold apartment with a penurious mother. Though swimming offers an escape from home and a chance for meeting new people, it also has its fears: of exposing her body in the locker room and enduring the...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)