Ann Beattie American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Critic Christina Murphy has called Beattie a neorealist who uses an equivocal voice. Unlike the univocal narrator, the equivocal narrator does not offer the reader a particular perspective or interpretation; the equivocal narrator simply offers accumulated detail. Therefore, readers must approach Beattie’s works actively—they must be acutely aware of Beattie’s fine distinctions of character and circumstance.

Critics do not challenge Beattie’s characters’ credibility; an occasional critic, however, challenges her interest in her milieu. If many of Beattie’s characters closely resemble a select segment of her generation’s college graduates, some certainly do not. “Dwarf House,” one of the short stories in Distortions, provides one example. Unlike his self-pitying mother, his confused brother, and several other miserable characters outside the Dwarf House, James accepts his physical limitations and his options realistically. Although he must stand on a chair to meet people of normal height eye to eye, he has found work, friendship, and love. James can be happy.

Even before she gave readers a small clue to her complex irony and seeming detachment by using as her copyright “Irony and Pity, Inc.,” Beattie revealed an extraordinary understanding of human personality and the dynamics of human relationships. Engaging readers by forcing them to verify behavior and events with their own experiences before they can understand her fiction seems to be Beattie’s technique. The reader need not be as nonjudgmental as Beattie seems to be.

Most of Beattie’s characters are engaged in some kind of struggle for happiness. Often they are self-alienated. A great number of characters in Distortions seem to think and function inappropriately; they are doomed to struggle and fail. None of the lovers in “Four Stories About Lovers” seems happy; few are faithful. “The Lifeguard” is the story of the drowning of four children whose boat is set afire by one who has brought along gasoline.

It is only those characters like the dwarf James and his bride in “Dwarf House” who may love and marry in anything near ecstasy. There is some gift in a capacity for love. Sam, in “Snakes’ Shoes” in the same collection, can help the child of estranged parents by using the magic of imagination and love to transform antagonists into friends. Like Sam and James, Noel in “Vermont” empathically consoles the narrator when her husband leaves her. “You’re better off,” he reassures her, and she is certainly better off when Noel is ready to love her. A young Georgetown student, Sam, in “A Platonic Relationship,” can give Ellen, a music teacher, a fulfilling, if not a permanent or conventional, relationship.

In the collection titled Secrets and Surprises, the struggles continue. For the main character in “Shifting,” for example, happiness is synonymous with independent movement and eventual sexual freedom. In The Burning House, several key characters learn to recognize their own pain, a certain requisite to alleviation of suffering. In those instances they are far more aware of the reality of their own experience than are all the characters in Falling in Place, who probably terrify more than one reader (and critic) by their disengagement.

In more recent writing, such as Where You’ll Find Me, a short-story collection, and Picturing Will, a novel, Beattie retains her equivocal narrative stance, but her important characters show courage in finding and losing love; they act as foils distinguishing responsible nurturing from wanton irresponsibility in their behavior.

“Dwarf House”

First published: 1975 (collected in Distortions, 1976)

Type of work: Short story

A dwarf and his new bride seem to have found the happiness that eludes the “normal” members of his family.

“Dwarf House,” which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, was included in the first collection of Beattie’s short stories, Distortions, the following year. Because in this story James and his bride, both little people, are the only characters to have found happiness, Beattie seems to pose a question about the essentials for contentment. In contrast to James and his bride-to-be, MacDonald, the so-called normal brother, returns from a visit to the “dwarf house” (inhabited by one of his brothers, several other dwarves, and a giant) to report to his self-pitying mother not only that James refuses to return to the home of his previous misery but also that James is working, he is in love, and he plans to be married. When MacDonald telephones his own wife from his office with the usual “late-night meeting” excuse, after which he takes his secretary for a drink, he discovers that more things are askew. His secretary manages to smile only with the help of drugs, and she has recently had an abortion.

When the family assembles for James’s wedding, the minister releases a bird from its cage to symbolize “the new freedom of marriage and the ascension of the spirit.” This is marvelously apt, for the bride’s true radiance challenges all the “normal” characters—MacDonald, his wife, MacDonald and James’s mother—to a painful awareness, but only if they can perceive it.


First published: 1975 (collected in Distortions, 1976)

Type of work: Short story

A woman whose husband has just left her ponders whether she loves a male friend enough to move in with him.

In “Vermont,” characters in a typical Beattie milieu are revealed in intimate relationships. Noel, whose wife, Susan, has finally had to tell him that she has been having an affair, comforts the narrator when her own husband, David, announces his imminent departure. Although Beattie seldom describes her characters physically, Noel, the more generous and understanding lover, appears to be physically awkward and unattractive compared with David, who, early in the story, pities Noel for his “poor miserable pajamas.”

Noel tells the narrator that she “will be better off” without David, and he does his best to take David’s place as a friend and a father to her young daughter. When he eventually suggests that she and her daughter move in with him, she considers and finally protests that she cannot say that she loves him. He answers, “Nobody has ever loved me and nobody ever will. What have I got to lose?” If the narrator really does not love him, however, she has much to lose. When she later reveals that she has been considering his comment carefully, possibly because she does not find him unlovable (and cannot accept the bleak outlook he has for himself), he comments, “Well, I’ve told you about every woman I ever slept with. Which one do you suspect might love me?” They are speaking by telephone, and the narrator whispers to herself, “Me!”

David appears again at the story’s end to visit his former wife and his daughter and to reveal the extent of his confusion in his current relationship; he is not happy with his new girlfriend.


First published: 1978 (collected in Secrets and Surprises, 1978)

Type of work: Short story

A teenage boy teaches a woman married to a controlling husband how to shift.

“Shifting,” in the collection Secrets and Surprises, is about the focal character’s need for emotional change as well as her means of finding it: being taught to drive a standard transmission Volvo by a teenager who likes and perhaps understands her.

Natalie is in a bind: She has a rigid, controlling husband who does not even laugh at her jokes. Although both she and her husband have agreed to sell the old Volvo left to them by Natalie’s uncle, she puts prospective buyers off and secretly learns to drive the car. Sharing her husband’s car has been too restrictive.

Michael is a local teenager who delivers...

(The entire section is 3332 words.)