Stegner is an acknowledged master of both the novel and short-story forms, and “The Blue-Winged Teal” is often cited as one of his best stories. “The Blue-Winged Teal” fits squarely into the tradition of American realism. It deals with ordinary events among ordinary people.
A young man named Henry Lederer who has returned home from college to be at his dying mother’s bedside now feels out of place in his hometown. College has taught him to value culture and intellectual achievement; his father’s ignorant cronies seem gross and absurd. Henry wants to get back to his college environment, but he has no money and is forced to share his father’s hotel room and eat at his father’s dingy, smelly poolroom. He finds that he despises his father for his lowbrow tastes and immoral behavior. His mother had kept his father on a higher plane, but as soon as his mother dies, his father returns to his old habits. After Henry’s mother has been dead for only six weeks, his father is already consorting with loose women; he comes home smelling of cheap perfume.
Henry goes duck hunting and returns with nine ducks of assorted species. Later, one of his father’s cronies cooks the ducks for a special feast. One of the ducks is a blue-winged teal; its beauty moves his father to tears, because he remembers how Henry’s mother loved those birds.
Henry Lederer experiences an epiphany. He suddenly realizes that his father shares his grief but has a different way of expressing it. Perhaps more important, he realizes that his feelings are not unique but are shared by the whole human race. He realizes that he is young and self-centered; he also realizes that he is surrounded with quiet human suffering that is not often expressed. He becomes a different man as a result of this epiphany; its effect is to release him from psychological captivity in his hometown and to allow him to return to college, where he can pursue his career.