The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford Critical Essays

Jean Stafford


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 entire section is 766 words.)