The central themes of Bishop’s prose are very much those of her poetry: the simultaneous comforts and terrors of domesticity; the childhood confrontations with dislocation, death, and matters of identity; the allure of travel; the quest for home in foreign and unlikely places; and the artist’s struggles between Heimweh and Fernweh (homesickness and wanderlust). Unlike much of Bishop’s poetry, however, which refers only obliquely to her own life, the prose works are often frankly confessional. Her story “In the Village” opens with her mother’s fateful scream of 1916: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village.” This high-pitched scream of Gertrude Boomer Bishop during a dress fitting signaled her relapse into an uncontrollable depression. Bishop’s father had died when she was eight months old, and the consignment of her mother to an asylum led to a difficult childhood for Elizabeth, who was shuffled between relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
In “The Country Mouse,” her reminiscence of her childhood dislocation to Gloucester, Massachusetts, she speaks candidly of the gloom of her grandparents’ house, of her dislike of her American school, and of three painful lessons that she learned. The first lesson was that she was capable of saying that her mother was dead rather than explaining her mother’s mental illness to a schoolmate. The second lesson was that social class distinctions existed between her affluent Bishop relatives and some of her classmates’ families. The third lesson was that she was a lonely individual, an “I,” destined to define her identity in isolation from others. This final lesson was the same one that Bishop recorded in the most confessional of her poems, “In the Waiting Room.” Much of the charm as well as the poignancy of these pieces comes from the fact that, as Bishop said of The Diary of “Helena Morley,” “it really happened.”
While the autobiographical pieces speak candidly of Bishop’s ambivalent feelings about home, her works of short fiction also treat this theme. Her short story “The Farmer’s Children” tells of a family divided by two sets of children: the two boys of the farmer’s first wife, with the forbidding names Cato and Emerson, and the three girls of the farmer’s second wife, with the romantic names Lea Leola, Rosina, and Gracie Bell. The division of the family is further realized in the contrast between the warm, yellow farmhouse and the cold, distant barn with its spectral shapes of farm machinery—the glimmering hay rakes, sickles, and disks. When the absence of the father and his hired man in December requires that the boys sleep overnight in the barn, they accept the chore with alacrity. It is an adventure for the boys and a chance to escape from their sisters and stepmother. When they are found the next day, embracing, having frozen to death in the barn, they seem to embody the contradictory warmth and coldness of their own home. Similarly, in “The Baptism,” the contrast between the Nova Scotian winter and a warm but confining home predominates. Lucy, the youngest and most imaginative of three snowbound sisters, is visited during the coldest days of winter by visions of Christ glowing and burning on the kitchen stove. When the ice cracks on the river in March, Lucy is baptized by total immersion in the icy river. Her death in April from the fire of the stove and the ice of the river indicates her inability to find a sustaining emotional and imaginative life in her traditional home.
In her two artistic parables “The Sea and Its Shore” and “In Prison,” Bishop illustrates most clearly the artist’s ambivalent search for home. The Nova Scotian beach cleaner Edwin Boomer (who shares Bishop’s own initials and the family name of Bishop’s mother ) represents the artist’s itineracy and semihomelessness, as well as the artist’s inevitable use of domestic materials: local newspapers, letters, and...
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