Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Annie Proulx’s Close Range is a collection of eleven short stories organized around life in Wyoming from the days of the earliest white settlers to the late twentieth century. The stories offer a bleak view of life. Though choices of genre and narrative tone can serve to distance a reader’s ability to determine an overriding perspective, for the characters in these stories, finding a way to survive in the face of human misery and harsh, inhospitable landscapes is almost never accomplished in this book.

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Proulx uses a variety of genres in this collection. As she notes in the book’s foreword, some of the stories are derived from earlier folktales. “The Half-Skinned Steer,” a reworking of an Icelandic folktale, tells of a rancher cursed for his mistreatment of an animal, a curse that seems to reach others in the book as well. A mock moral is in the story “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a retelling of the Bluebeard folktale about the danger of opening forbidden doorways. The moral, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun,” suggests that even murder can be explained away if the conditions are harsh enough.

Diamond Felts, in “The Mud Below,” lives a life of rage because the man his mother identifies as his father has denied parentage. Felts uses, even rapes, the women around him, unable to form a close relationship. His father has abandoned him, and Felts cannot trust his mother, unable to determine who has lied to him. Mero Corn, in “The Half-Skinned Steer,” distances himself from family for sixty years. He has grown up stubborn and independent and would rather trust a distant memory than accept offers of family help. The collection opens with an epigraph: “Reality’s never been of much use out here,” a statement that applies to family relationships throughout the book. The images of love lead at best to obsessive fascination, and are more than likely to lead to molestation, betrayal, and murder.

It is hard to find a loving voice in these stories, other than that of an object, a tractor, which “declares” its love to a character in “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World.” The closest to a loving relationship between humans is in “Brokeback Mountain,” but that story is also full of denial of reality. Both main characters try to present a false identity to the world, marrying, raising children, and having to lie to their families. They finally realize that they could have had a good life together, rather than two unhappy marriages, but all they really had was a life built around a memory of early, idyllic times on Brokeback Mountain.

Ennis suggests “if you can’t fix it you got to stand it” as the only route to making one’s way through the troubles of living. The narrator of the story offers an even bleaker belief of how life plays out: “Against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere.”

Despite their dark view of life, Proulx’s books have a wide range of readers. Her works have garnered for her many literary awards, including multiple O. Henry Awards for short stories, a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a National Book Award, and a selection (“The Half-Skinned Steer”) in the collections The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Furthermore, a recent scholarly overview of woman writers from the start of American literature traces the canon to Proulx.

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