Barbara Kingsolver Short Fiction Analysis
Barbara Kingsolver’s short stories are notable for their clear-eyed, sometimes ironic, and always empathic look at the daily lives of ordinary people. Her narrators are mostly female or compassionate omniscient voices telling stories of homecomings, intergenerational misunderstandings, and mundane events such as scheduling errands or getting to know one’s neighbors. She pays close attention to the tensions that control events like Thanksgiving dinners and accurately captures the dynamics of husband and wife and of mother and daughter. In her stories, characters struggle to understand who they are in the context of family history and their present circumstances. The epiphanies of Kingsolver’s women are small but searingly personal. They range from deciding not to have a child to a sudden understanding of a mother’s point of view. In a News Hour online interview with David Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News and World Report, Ms. Kingsolver explained her fascination with the quotidian episodes in families’ and couples’ lives:We need new stories. We need stories that can help us construct, reconstruct the value of solidarity, of not the lone solo flier, but the family, the community, the value of working together.
Kingsolver’s short fiction is not minimalist. She belongs to generations of storytellers who create settings rich in sensual and situational detail. Her characters are clearly situated and her stories have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end as do the stories of nineteenth century writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. She is also distinctly contemporary because her characters reach an episode’s end when they achieve some insight or understanding of their condition. They do not, however, find sentimental or easy answers. Each story concludes with characters more able to cope with the literal and emotional landscapes of their lives.
Like poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, Kingsolver embraces the political. She believes art should reflect the world she sees daily, so she writes, for example, about the plight of mine workers in the American Southwest and the displacement of American Indians. College professors, aging hippies, and small-town eccentrics all wrestle with bigotry and stereotyping as they move through their lives. Kingsolver’s characters avoid the cynicism of many contemporary fictional voices, seeking instead a synthesis that will see them through or the moral vision that will allow them to rise above prejudices they cannot control. She combines the narrative structure of nineteenth century realists with the frank look at life espoused by John Steinbeck, one of her inspirations. Ms. Kingsolver’s characters offer an alternative to ironic, angry characters. They struggle with the inequities of American life without losing their ability to maintain human connection. Kingsolver creates characters who confront life without relinquishing hope. Her vision is distinctive and welcome.
Homeland, and Other Stories
Barbara Kingsolver’s collection is divided between stories in which the difficulties of small-town life are controlled by the fears and sensibilities of people wed to the status quo and those in which the clash between alternative lifestyles and the ordinary routines of existence is prominent. With one exception, the narrators are women or feature omniscient narrators, whose voices elucidate women’s lives and points of view. The stories frequently have a postmodern view of time, jumping nonchronologically from one episode or memory to the next, the changes marked by spaces in the text as well as by narrated events. Kingsolver interestingly blurs the line between character and narrator by interspersing narrative passages with snippets of dialogue. Often the narrator’s contributions could just as easily be spoken by the main character; this shared quality underlines the universal relevance of private stories. Kingsolver’s stories, built around family routines,...
(The entire section is 1,452 words.)