Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories
William Trevor is among the select group of contemporary writers who have achieved distinction in both the short story and the novel. Beyond the Pale and Other Stories, his fourth collection of short stories, will undoubtedly contribute significantly to his stature as a writer in the United States as well as in Great Britain, where he is better known. Though he was born in Cork and educated in Dublin, Trevor has lived and worked in England for more than twenty years. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the majority of the stories in this collection—seven of the twelve—have an Irish or an Anglo-Irish provenance, nor is it surprising that all of the stories have been previously published in distinguished magazines or anthologies in either England or the United States.
Perhaps the outstanding stylistic feature of this collection is the high degree of narrative skill reflected in the stories. Trevor, like many of his great Irish predecessors in the genre, is first and foremost a storyteller, and the reader will become immediately and continuously engaged in almost all of these stories. Indeed, Trevor’s narrative ability is so strong and sure that it overshadows minor flaws—particularly his tendency on occasion to push too hard for dramatic or ironic effect. His narrative mastery results, in part, from his sharp eye for, and economical use of, compelling realistic details in his descriptions of character, atmosphere, and place; it is, in larger measure, a result of his sense of pace and his artful use of point of view.
The collection is also distinguished by a wide range of characters, situations, and themes. Three of the stories—“The Blue Dress,” “The Teddy-bears’ Picnic,” and “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart”—focus in one way or another on psychological aberration. The journalist narrator of “The Blue Dress” gradually unveils a paranoia that has its roots in childhood misperceptions, accounts for the failure of his first marriage, and assumes monstrous dimensions in his interpretations of the character of his fiancée and her family. Normal behavior is evaluated through an abnormal vision so confident and apparently natural that, without ever being misled, the reader is almost seduced into accepting it.
Though grimmer and more shocking in impact, “The Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is similar in structure to “The Blue Dress.” The same kind of incremental revelation prepares the reader for a shocking climax. Though the reader may well be startled by the secret act of violence that disturbs a charming, tranquil setting, a little reflection will make it clear that the enormously self-centered young stockbroker on whom the story centers has been presented as a pathological personality.
“The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart” is the best of these three stories because of its deeper thematic resonance and broader ironic reverberations. On the one hand, the story blends the motif of marital exploitation with that of martyred love. On the other hand, it illustrates one of the main themes of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599-1600): in the words of Cicero, “Men may construe things after their fashion,/ Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” The genius of “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart” lies in the manner in which the theme of misconstruction emerges from the relationship of Mrs. Vansittart and her husband. Because of a pure and almost selfless passion, she has dedicated her life to protecting him from the consequences of his childish sexual predilections and to playing out a role which satisfies his psychological masochism. As a result, she becomes the victim of malicious gossip while he elicits a kind of condescending concern and pity from their friends. It is important to note that the initial assumptions made by the reader about the nature of the marriage are shaped by characters whose imperfections of spirit are clearly, if subtly, delineated. The final revelation is made directly by Mrs. Vansittart herself and serves, through the reflection of a submerged sense of self, to make her more real and the nature of the situation itself more believable than it would be otherwise.
(The entire section is 1726 words.)