Complete Collected Stories of V. S. Pritchett

by V. S. Pritchett
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Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

In the most general of terms, Pritchett has received critical acclaim as a writer of short fiction because of his grasp of character, an attentiveness to detail (no doubt brought about by his literary apprenticeship as a journalist), and an interest in and understanding of natural human behavior. Further, even though his themes may appear morally and psychologically intricate, his focus has always been socially sharp. At all levels of meaning, his stories principally describe and develop predominantly middle-class, ordinary characters who find themselves immersed in the mundane and often comic details of common existence. Certainly, the title piece of When My Girl Comes Home has attracted attention for the irony that governs how Hilda Johnson's family and neighbors view her, as well as the spiritual upheavals created by and following her return from Japan and the war. However, the story also remains a classic exercise in portraying realistically the social intricacies and tensions of English working-class life within a clearly defined physical and emotional environment. Pritchett's fictional Hincham Street very much deserves placement — on a much smaller scale, of course — beside the likes of Mark Twain's Mississippi River, James Joyce's Dublin, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River, Elmer Rice's New York City street, or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

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In his autobiographical works and in interviews, Pritchett has repeatedly asserted that his stories almost always begin with obvious, concrete, and active images that anchor themselves firmly to the minds of the readers. Those images then relate directly to the plot of the story and unify both actors and their actions. For example, in "Tea with Mrs. Bittle," a painting of Psyche (the soul) has always been in the possession of Mrs. Bittle (another of Pritchett's lonely characters) and her family. In church one Sunday, she befriends two young men, who visit her for tea on several occasions. Then, one of them returns to her flat to steal the painting and other objects. Mrs. Bittle enters suddenly and discovers the act. In the end, she and the painting, although both having been violated somewhat, win the day against the hooligans. However, given the psychological inadequacies of both characters — frustrated homosexual and heterosexual love being the most obvious and the most traumatic — nothing has been resolved, which in itself stands as a typical outcome within Pritchett's short fiction.

Another Pritchett practice, again perhaps the result of his training as a journalist, concerns his ability to be concise. He has refined the technique of compacting considerable material into relatively short numbers of words. In "The Wedding," he develops the biographies of three complex characters, sketches the essential details relative to several minor persons, constructs the details of two weddings, provides the opportunities for a symbolic rape and a seduction that follows it, outlines a history of the farming community in the principal events of the story occur, and details the interior plans of three houses. He then finds the space to draw forth all of the social and sexual antagonisms between those inside and those outside of the farm community. Interestingly enough, Christine Jackson, the thirty-year-old divorcee, proves a close relation of Hilda Johnson ("When My Girl Comes Home"); each of the two women returns home after a fairly long absence, and their neighbors and friends tend to see them as persons other than what they really are.

Social Concerns

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Although Pritchett's stories, much like their creator's early life, contain strong elements of social comedy, they also convey elements of social and class realism, as well as at least one significant instance of social protest. The realism may best be observed in "Sense of Humour" (from You Make Your Own Life, 1938), in which representatives of the middle-class business community work terribly hard to achieve and maintain prosperity, but do not always succeed. Pritchett introduces his reader to three characters who, eventually, reveal a series of complex and often interrelated personal and social conflicts: Arthur Humphrey, the narrator and a socially conscious snob, shares his religion equally with the Methodists and Presbyterians; socially and economically he exists as a middle-class English commercial traveler (modelled after someone Pritchett actually had met in Ireland during his tenure with the Christian Science Monitor). Muriel MacFarlane, an attractive Irish girl with a sense of humor, functions as a clerk in the hotel where the salesman lodges. Colin Mitchell, Muriel's young boyfriend, and a dull garage mechanic, bristles with jealously when Arthur embarks upon an affair with Muriel. Colin dies violently and horribly in an auto accident, and the love-sex-death motif underscores the reality of the frustrations arising from the ambiguities of class distinction. Arthur's father happens to be an undertaker, which means that he, as an indirect cause of Colin's death, can save Mrs. Mitchell (the young mechanic's mother) money by lending his father's hearse for the funeral. In fact, Arthur, himself, drives the very vehicle in which Muriel rides beside him, with Colin's body behind. In the end, little has changed.

Pritchett's major attempt to confront social protest appears in "Main Road" (also from You Make Your Own Life), where he reveals to the reader the naturalistic effects of poverty on the human spirit. Within the economy of a direct and relatively simple fictional environment, Pritchett depicts two unemployed and seemingly desperate men traversing the English countryside. Hungry and tired, but also frustrated and filled with resentment, they rob a young poacher. However, their crime satisfies or resolves nothing; indeed, knowing the vocation of their victim, the action might not even technically be considered criminal. More important than that, however, the two men have only satisfied temporarily their physical hunger with the food; any Marxist would see and argue that their social spirits remain totally unfulfilled.

The third aspect of Pritchett's social considerations, social comedy, anchors itself firmly and most often to the institution of marriage. The longest of the fourteen stories in You Make Your Own Life, "Handsome Is As Handsome Was," concerns an unattractive and childless English couple, the Corums, in their forties who entangle themselves and others in a complex web of neurotic and humorous (in a sickly sort of way) relationships. Set in a French coastal pension, the story reaches its climax with a near drowning and a love-revulsion relationship that produces little beyond examples and results of human stupidity. Coram, an industrial chemist who has climbed the ladder from working- to middle-class; his wife, who has stepped down a social notch or two, tries to demonstrate her defiance of middle-class morality by trying to seduce the twenty-two-year-old Alex, who refuses her.

Literary Precedents

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Any discussion of literary precedents in Pritchett's short fiction must begin with those writers who he had read and with the literary impressions that their works stamped upon his imagination. In 1986, Pritchett told critics Ben Forkner and Philippe Sejourne that, as a journalist in Ireland during the civil uprisings of the early 1920s, he "read a great deal of the Irish writers then such as Yeats, George Russell [A.E.], Loam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, in fact all those remarkable writers. They all read the Russians." Insofar as concerned Dickens and critics' attempts to label his characters as Dickensian, Pritchett had, sixteen years earlier, told another interviewer, William Peden, that he denied any direct influence from Dickens and saw nothing Dickensian in his characters, even the most eccentric among them. "There are a lot of people in England," he maintained. Two years after that statement, in 1972, Martha Duffy would look across the Channel for a literary precedent, telling her readers of Time magazine that "Pritchett's knowledge of Balzac's body of writing is so well assimilated that he [Pritchett] can call on it at will."

If the reader looks closely at the short fiction of D. H. Lawrence, however, he or she might find an identifiable link between certain aspects of his work and that of Pritchett. Both writer suggest that spiritual death results from a character's failure or unwillingness to accept or even to consider change. Should that character remain tied to a place, situation, or condition, any change then becomes at best difficult. The character "dies." In spite of that, both Lawrence and Pritchett manipulate certain of their characters to the extent that, by responding to purely emotional stimuli, they can change — even if they do not want to do so. Thus, Christine Jackson, the pseudo-prim and pseudo-intellectual school mistress who always wanted to be a duchess, raises her ire when Tom Fletcher, a farmer from the local village to which she has returned, literally "lassos" her at a village wedding. Despite the sexual and social antagonism that whirls about and between the two, Tom wins Christine's heart. After all, she who would spurn a mate will die a maid. In other words, Pritchett may be accused of dramatically diverting Christine from obvious spiritual death, but in her case, the need for love serves as a natural deterrent to loneliness and delusion.

In a consideration of the influence of the Irish writers upon Pritchett's work, one may, for example, draw a parallel between Pritchett's "A Careless Widow" and "A Change in Policy" and the complexities of Joyce's "A Painful Case." Lionel Frazier ("A Careless Widow"), a bachelor and a successful London hairdresser, reminds one of Joyce's James Duffy. Both are afraid of any romantic involvement because it will only complicate their lives; Frazier recoils from the careless widow who lives in the flat beneath his. Paula, in "A Change of Policy," becomes romantically involved with a printer, George, whose wife has been in a coma for more than two years. To entangle matters further, Paula feels a responsibility toward George's young son. Then, suddenly, George falls from his horse and dies, his widow emerges from her coma, and Paula rushes forward as the nurse for both mother and son. The three then take up harmonious residence in one house. Interestingly, the piece represents one of Pritchett's relatively few plunges into the waters of melodrama.

However, one must dig deeply into Pritchett's short fiction to find consistent tracks leading to specific influences and literary precedents. Yes, one uncovers bits and pieces from the Irish writers, the Russians, the French, and, on certain stylistic occasions, even Ernest Hemingway. But, with the obvious exceptions of Dickens and the European Continental writers of the nineteenth century, Pritchett was a contemporary of Lawrence, Joyce, Yeats, O'Flaherty, O'Connor, O'Faolain, H. G. Wells, and Hemingway. He wrote when they wrote and saw essentially the same events as they; indeed, he has surpassed all of them in literary and mortal longevity. "In its essence," wrote Eudora Welty, "Pritchett's work, so close to fantasy, is deeply true to life." Thus, the real precedent for Pritchett's short fiction lies not in the works of others, but in the notion that, since its very beginnings, literature has mirrored and echoed the sounds, the persons, and the senses of life.

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