“In the Autumn of the Year” received an O. Henry Award in 1979, a year after its first publication in The Bennington Review. Like many of Oates’s stories, it tells of a single but important encounter between a man and a woman from different backgrounds and with different attitudes.
The protaonist, Eleanor Gerhardt, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, an articulate spinster suggestive of the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson, who has come to a small New England college to accept an award. Her host for the visit is Benjamin Höller, a man she knew as a boy in Boston, because at the time she was his father’s mistress. Eleanor, now sixty-three years old, lives life with a sense of its near-completion. She lives in the past and no longer considers herself an active, feeling woman. Never married, her passion for Edwin Höller and the dramatic dissolution of their relationship form a memory that she sustains, though she has not seen him in decades and he is now dead. Upon meeting Benjamin and throughout her visit in his midst, her consciousness shifts back and forth from the uneventful present to the tumultuous and deeply felt past.
Then, in a casual meeting after the ceremony, Benjamin and Eleanor start discussing his father. To Eleanor’s surprise, Benjamin expresses accumulated anger and hatred. As he openly confronts her with his father’s cruelty, her own insensitivity, the cheapness of their affair, and their...
(The entire section is 509 words.)