Astronomer's Wife

by Kay Boyle
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Although she was a member of the famous Lost Generation of American artists and writers who inhabited Paris in the 1920s, the poet, novelist, and short story writer Kay Boyle never liked that characterization. Her writing echoes many of the themes common to such Lost Generation writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—disorientation, the loss of a sense of home, alienation from one’s acquaintances and family. But Boyle is different in that, unlike such writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, she concentrates on the double alienation of women and especially on middle-class women’s difficulty in finding fulfillment.

‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ has rarely been specifi- cally discussed by critics. However, most commentators on Boyle’s work feel that the short story is her forté, and as a result they have primarily written about her mastery of the short story form, especially in this period of her life. The title story of the volume in which ‘‘Astronomer’s Wife’’ appeared, ‘‘The White Horses of Vienna,’’ has been frequently considered Boyle’s finest story, one in which her concern with the inner lives of her characters—particularly notable in her early stories— is married to her social conscience and her interest in politics and history. In 1935, she won her first major prize for that story, the O. Henry Memorial Prize for the best American short story of the year.

Contemporary reviews for that volume point out Boyle’s confident hand as a short story writer. In Books, Elizabeth Hart remarks that Boyle’s ‘‘stylistic gifts are displayed to their best advantage in her short stories,’’ and R. W. Seaver of the Boston Transcript notes that, in The White Horses of Vienna, ‘‘Boyle presents a series of acid-etched vignettes that are sometimes harrowing, occasionally confusing, but always powerful.’’ Richard Carpenter compliments Boyle’s ‘‘dagger-sharp images and crackling metaphors’’ and calls her ‘‘an exquisite manipulator of the nuances of phrase.’’

Not all of Boyle’s reviewers were so impressed, even if they all recognized Boyle’s skills. Criticism of her work from this time often expresses the opinion that Boyle was a brilliant stylist but that she did not concern herself with the issues of the day and how those issues affected people. The eminent mid-century critic Mark Van Doren feels that ‘‘her people are motionless, like frost-people on a pane of glass . . . they are [not] interesting in the way that men and women in stories can be interesting.’’ E. H. Walton, of the New York Times, says that Boyle ‘‘has taken to lavishing her amazing, but exquisite, skill on situations so tenuous and rarified, on characters so wraithlike or pathological, that she leaves the reader unstirred by anything but her technical virtuosity.’’ And the Springfield Republican writes that Boyle’s ‘‘point-of-view towards her own creations is so extrinsic as to be really frigid . . . the icy beauty of Miss Boyle’s language leave[s] her readers . . . in a state of morbidity.’’

Critical opinion of Boyle’s short stories has grown friendlier over the years. Feminist critics have pointed out that the primary objection to Boyle’s stories—that her detached tone left the readers unsympathetic to her characters—often sprung from a sense that as a female writer, Boyle should concentrate more heavily on the emotional reactions of her characters. Boyle is now seen as a pioneering writer, injecting a feminist consciousness into the American short story and into the modernist movement.

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Essays and Criticism