As Stafford observes in the author’s preface, these stories all center on the theme of homelessness. In “The Bleeding Heart” and “A Summer Day,” the protagonists are both orphaned and dislocated, and the pitiful Cherokee boy of the latter story faces further isolation because of racial prejudice. Even a child with parents, such as Hannah of “Cops and Robbers,” feels desolate and worthless because her father has cut her golden hair. The child alone faces a much bleaker outlook than the sisters of “In the Zoo,” who are bound together by love and struggle. When escape comes, as for the protagonist of “The Liberation,” it is at a terrible cost.
The choices Stafford offers her protagonists are escape and retreat. “Children Are Bored on Sunday” traces the insecurities of a woman artist on the fringes of the literary society of New York, based on a chance encounter Stafford had with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Coming from the West, as had Stafford, and imagining herself laughed at for her lack of sophistication, Emma shuns her literary friends and withdraws into herself. She is the rustic innocent who views the literary scene with a childlike clarity, creating a pervading sense of irony. Emma’s identity crisis, however, is more than social insecurity; it is a psychological and spiritual malady. When she accidentally meets Alfred Eisenberg, a down-and-out artist, she longs to ease her loneliness with a fellow sufferer. Yet Stafford never allows Emma any real sense of community but keeps her an outsider, a soul with an abiding sense of homelessness. Retreat is at best a tentative solution to the dilemma of alienation.
Drawing on her own experiences at Damariscotta Mills, the home she shared with Robert Lowell, Stafford describes the dangers of a psychological retreat that ends in a descent into madness in “A Country Love Story.” “The Interior Castle,” again based on Stafford’s own experiences, shows the protagonist following in the steps of St. Teresa, alluded to in the title. Patsy Vanneman, in the hospital as a result of a car accident, has sustained serious head and facial injuries. Her response has been to withdraw into herself. During an excruciatingly painful nose operation, she experiences a liberation and metamorphosis of the spirit through her suffering. Stafford’s meticulous description of the surgery is uncomfortably accurate, and necessarily so in order to emphasize the struggle between mind and body. The moment of illumination that Patsy experiences is short-lived, and as the anesthetic wears off, she is left in pain and bitterness. “The Interior Castle,” like “A Country Love Story,” presents an essential tension in Stafford’s work between the outer self assaulted from all directions and the inner self that can serve at best as a limited haven for escape.
Though Stafford often draws upon her own experience for her fiction , she is cautious about becoming confessional or self-pitying. Her controlled point of view, which only twice in thirty stories is in the first person, results in an omniscient narrator centered in the consciousness of her protagonist....
(The entire section is 766 words.)