The Burning House

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Ann Beattie’s characters live in a world where most of the old certainties no longer obtain. Values have been shaken, religious beliefs overthrown. The passivity of spiritual inertia threatens. Yet humankind has a history of readjusting its sights in the face of confusing change and moving ahead with new integrity. The Burning House deals with the passivity and aimlessness of a generation of men and women who have found that the values of an earlier time are out of place, worn down, no longer valid; some of the titles of these stories suggest their plight: “Afloat,” “Waiting,” “Like Glass,” “Learning to Fall.” Work brings no pleasure, even though many of the characters are professionals; the main focus in their toneless lives is overwhelming dispiritedness, a sort of structural fatigue that belies the drama of the title of the work: the house burns down around them.

Beattie’s protagonists are without footholds. Friends do help one another, but the help is merely sustaining, not rehabilitating. In the title story, “The Burning House,” Amy’s marriage is falling apart. Although her house is full of friends whom she and her husband have known for years, these friends can offer no support, for their own lives are torn: Freddy, high on marijuana, can only offer to help with the housework; J. D., whose wife and child were killed in an accident, can only bandage Amy’s bleeding finger. Her husband has a mistress, she has a lover, and the trivial conversation of avoidance continues endlessly.

The friends in “Jacklighting” have gathered to commemorate the birthday of a beloved companion who has died. None of them is able to concentrate on the reason why they have gotten together. The dead man, Nicholas, had defined life for them by seeing them through LSD trips and planning their vacations; now, the young girlfriend of Nicholas’ brother says, “I don’t get the feeling you people had another life.” Each is incapable of mourning or of comforting the others, and the narrator, when she closes her eyes in a kind of tribute, sees nothing.

Children figure significantly in these stories. They are tight, tense, suspicious, selective, wise—in contrast to the adults, who are fearful, preoccupied, guilty, confused, and childish. In “Learning to Fall,” Andrew, eight years old, is taken to the city by a friend of his mother. These two make the trip often, and the friend has known Andrew since his birth, yet the adult cannot love the child—he is not perfect. Slight damages caused by the impatient use of forceps have made him pitiable to this woman. She anticipates the time when Andrew will recognize that he is imperfect and become as self-conscious as adults inevitably must be. The boy clearly loves her and trusts her; he confides that his mother is learning to fall in her dancing class. She is learning to fall slowly and gracefully, a lesson she will pass on to her son: once one begins to fall, there is no stopping, so one must be as resourceful as possible. Perhaps this is a way out of the dilemma of stasis; a message of hope that Andrew will be in control.

In “Afloat,” a sixteen-year-old visits her father. Each year, she brings a message from her mother which contains personal information recalling the life the parents shared ten years before. Annie is angry with her father because he never deigns to send a reply. Her anger, in fact, is quite positive in its energy compared to her father’s distance.

Louise in “The Cinderella Waltz” directs her life as best she can around the childishness of adults: her mother, her father, and her father’s lover. Louise’s mother and her father’s lover become confidantes of a sort, trying hard to be adult in a surrealistic way, while the child is the only one who dares to cry or to show anger. Bryce, in “Desire,” misses his father when he is with his mother in Vermont and misses his mother when he is with his father in...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Of the sixteen stories in Ann Beattie’s short-story collection The Burning House, twelve are rendered in the present tense by a first-person narrator. The present tense remains intact even when past events are being recounted; there is a regular movement between an immediate present and a past made present. The effect of this technical choice is to impart great immediacy to the conflict in each story. Moreover, the narrator is always an interested rather than a neutral party, which further heightens the pressure of the conflict and the search for its resolution. This style of narration differs from that of Beattie’s first two short-story collections, in which her characters’ passivity ordained an effortless acquiescence to their fates.

While there is variety in the psychological and temperamental natures of these first-person narrators, all are women ranging through their thirties; thus, they are Beattie’s contemporaries. Neither before this collection nor within it does Beattie treat males abrasively as a group in a systematic manner. She simply has a bias for probing the woman’s point of view, as her narrators and their friends struggle to create significant ties after years of ill-advised relationships. More than in the first two collections, the tales of The Burning House reflect some growth in this province.

The stories are told in a straightforward manner; there is no eccentricity in their plotting. Without exception,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Through both her narrators and the people whom they engage, Beattie has contributed to the investigation of the lives of middle-class, female baby-boomers. She seeks neither to lionize nor to harangue these women, but only to put on record what she believes are their actual dilemmas and battles. She has been willing, on occasion, to pot-shoot feminism, but she is certainly no detractor. The general dispassionateness of her tone would make commitment to anything ideological unlikely. Her politics, whether social, economic, or sexual, cannot be inferred from a narrative approach which so consistently witnesses without judgment.

Yet Beattie’s sensitivity to a range of women’s behavior—to the tough goodness of Ruth in “Learning to Fall,” to the near disintegration of the narrator of “Gravity” (who has never been central to anyone, even in childhood), or to the honorable motherhood of the narrator of “The Cinderella Waltz” (whose husband has left her for a man whom he treats with the same remoteness)—expresses implicitly a focus germane to women’s issues in modern times. None of this could have been said, with any broad applicability, about Beattie’s work prior to The Burning House.

The house that is burning has been inhabited by men, women, and children; Beattie has not intended a special purview of women. Most of her female characters, both in and out of The Burning House, are so much the product of their...

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ann Beattie writes in a minimalist style, but in contrast to other minimalists, her characters are more economically and culturally privileged. She uses various telling details, such as references to the college campus, Paris vacations, the art of Mark Rothko, or the music of John Coltrane or Lou Reed, to indicate that her characters belong to an upscale bohemian cultural world. Although her characters inhabit an elite cultural and economic circle, her way of describing them is low-key, even flat. Her first-person point of view is drained of color and feeling through the use of an uninflected voice reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s “hard-boiled” style. This colorless, cool, detached voice sometimes becomes a vehicle for deadpan humor, but more often it suggests a numbed or despairing sensibility.

Like other minimalists, Beattie deploys plot sparingly. “The Burning House” links together a series of almost pointless episodes that do not build to a conventional turning point or conclusion. One senses that at the end of this weekend, nothing has happened. This lack of consequence is communicated by a deliberately plotless structure and a deliberately monotonous, banal tone of voice.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Beattie, Ann. “A Conversation with Ann Beattie.” Interview by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. The Literary Review 27, no. 2 (Winter, 1984): 165-177. Taking on the claims of her detractors, Beattie explains much of her stylistic practice and worldview. She comments interestingly on the connection between cultural chaos, especially in relationships, and her methods of detailing and plotting her narratives.

Epstein, Joseph. “Ann Beattie and the Hippoisie.” Commentary 75, no. 3 (March, 1983): 54-58. A severe attack on Beattie for being only a “generation writer” and one who thoroughly denies life’s significance. Epstein goes so far as to call Beattie “the chief purveyor of her own generation’s leading cliches.”

Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1767.

McKinstry, Susan Jaret. “The Speaking Silence of Ann Beattie’s Voice.” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 2 (Spring, 1987): 111-117. An especially important essay in arguing (against the grain of Beattie criticism) that her stories are marked by “closure.” McKinstry sees Beattie’s female speakers as telling simultaneously an open, objective story of the present and a closed, subjective story of the past; this latter story the speaker tries not to tell. A space between the two narratives constitutes the story’s point or “closure.” Explains how this narrative tactic relates to gender. McKinstry admires Beattie’s sense of value and self-assertion.

Montresor, Jaye Berman. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Murphy, Christine. Ann Beattie. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Nation. CCXXXV, October 30, 1982, p. 441.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 26, 1982, p. 1.

Porter, Carolyn. “Ann Beattie: The Art of the Missing.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Sees Beattie’s endings in The Burning House as less arbitrary than in the earlier collections and her characters as more likable and somewhat more sure of what they are learning. Presents some apt focus on the role of gender in the stories.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 23, 1982, p. 128.

Stillinger, Jack. Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.