Complete Collected Stories of V. S. Pritchett

by V. S. Pritchett
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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

Critics generally hasten to label the majority of Pritchett's characters as Dickensian, principally because of their eccentricity. In an interview with Douglass A. Hughes (1976), Pritchett himself, did not "object to it [the labeling] because its an enormous compliment. But on the other hand, Dickens was a very great writer who was sort of centrally English in all of his comic characters. . . . sometimes I may be Dickensian but not in the sense of just going in for funny people. For most of the people I've written fantastic things about are not funny people at all." Thus, the characters in his short stories come forth as complex webs of the comic, the tragic, the pathetic, and the ironic. In the short fiction, Pritchett populates his fictional streets with characters who remind the alert reader of similar types from Dickens, Poe, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce, and Frank O'Connor; they may be resemblances, but they are never clones.

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Consider, for example, the adulterous partners, Joyce and William, in "The Accompanyist" (from On the Edge of the Cliff and Other Stories, 1979). The narrator, William, appreciates, graphically but tastefully, watching Joyce dress; he appreciates the humor in her bones: ". . . her legs and arms were thin, and as she put up her arms to fasten her bra and leaned forward to pull on her tights she seemed to be playing a game of turning herself into comic triangles." From a similar anatomical viewpoint, Pritchett relies somewhat on specialists in the field. In "On the Edge of the Cliff" (the titled story of the 1979 collection), Harry, a retired professor and botanist in his seventies, lives with his mistress Rowena, an artist in her middle twenties. Following an encounter with Daisy Pike, one of his former lovers — a woman in her fifties who currently sports a young lover — Harry decides on a swim au naturel, thus allowing Rowena to see him naked. "He was standing there, his body furred with grey hair, his belly wrinkled, his thighs shrunk. Up went his bony arms." Again, through such characters, Pritchett delineates the real but thin line between the ugly and the comic.

No matter who or what they represent, and regardless of their social or psychological states, Pritchett's characters tend to react strongly to one another, as though they exist and function as integral parts of a larger entity or idea. Most often, that entity can be identified within the context of a crisis. The reader might conclude that in a wide range of stories, lonely individuals must eventually and necessarily communicate with others, but they find the task difficult until such time as they establish a common ground between or among them. Rogers, a builder, and Pocock, a sensitive painter seeking peace ("Pocock Passes"), meet in a pub and realize, in their obesity, a spiritual bond of brotherhood. However, both suffer, within their common obese condition, from a sense that they must bear the burdens of the world. They continue to meet, much like lovers, until Pocock dies, leaving Rogers struggling to determine the reasons behind that death. The spiritual and physical limitations of the blind Armitage and the scarred Mrs. Johnson ("Blind Love") have been discussed above, but they fit into the same mold, as do the divorced Rachel and the widower Gilbert ("Did You Invite Me?"). The latter couple, both of them apparent bores, come to understand, during a fight between their dogs, that inner strength may often be obscured by outward, superficial weaknesses. However, Pritchett totally alters the circumstances in "Things As They Are." The pathetic and gullible Mrs. Foster gets drunk with a woman whom she believes to be sympathetic to her numerous problems. When the former passes out, the woman and Frederick, the barman, ransack her handbag. Again, a significant cadre of Pritchett's characters need to communicate with and to confide in others. When they cannot or will not do so, as with the seventy-year-old widow in "The Spree," their suffering rises to even higher degrees of intensity.

The reader might also discover several twists and turns of love-hate relationships among Pritchett's characters, conditions that generally create difficulties for the central figure or "hero" of the story. For instance. Rev. Lewis ("The Voice") considers Morgan, a defrocked priest, to be no less than a direct associate of Satan. Nevertheless, upon discovering that Morgan lies at the bottom of a bomb crater, buried under the rubble, Lewis rushes to save him, led by the voice that binds him to the victim. Charles Peacock ("The Fall"), an accountant, suddenly masters and becomes obsessed with his mastery of the theatrical stage fall, a routine that masks his own insecurity. In this instance. Peacock's love-hate relationship extends to his fellow accountants, his parents (the owners of a fried-fish shop), his brother Shelmardine Peacock (a successful actor for film and stage), and even with himself. In "The Sailor," the loveable eccentricities of Albert Thompson, the titled character (even though he no longer functions in that vocation), become compatible with the self-acknowledged Puritanism of the narrator. That translates into the realization that the sailor, himself, possesses qualities of the Puritan. Then enters the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a colonel who turns out to be the thirty-nine-year-old offspring of a sergeant-major; from there, Pritchett creates a conflict between Puritanism and those who would tempt others to sin. The piece becomes further involved when Pritchett wraps his characters in mantles of comic relief.

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