Style and Technique
Typical of Stafford’s work, this story does not call attention to its stylistic features; nevertheless, it shows meticulous care in its strategies. The story’s purpose, to reveal May’s growing consciousness of despair, is well served by the unobtrusive voice and the restriction of the third-person narrative to May’s own consciousness. There is much that May does not recognize in the early part of the story, but by refusing to reserve the highest consciousness for her narrator, Stafford avoids condescending to May, allows her to retain full stature, and emphasizes her gradually maturing vision. The persona who tells the story implies a sympathy exclusively for May but does so only in arranging events: Daniel speaks his intolerance and retreats to his study. The narrative voice itself is unfailingly objective, following realism’s assumption that the events, told completely, will interpret themselves.
The arrangement of events and placement of images shows Stafford at her masterful best. For example, descriptions of the earlier years of the marriage emphasize their intellectual sharing. Daniel’s refusal to converse with May about his research or his year in the sanitarium reveals his inability to speak of what actually preoccupies him: jealousy and suspicion. The story’s imagery, however, implies in other ways that May has never wished to be unfaithful: May’s dream of canoeing with her lover in a meadow of water lilies parallels exactly an earlier scene wherein she rowed with Daniel and first noticed changes in him; the lover himself, as mentioned above, is physically like Daniel, only younger. Similarly, Stafford handles the adultery theme with reference not to human beings but to animals: During Daniel’s exile, May takes refuge from her guilty sexual longings by “imitating the cats,” sleeping. This initiates the series of images connecting the barn and its passionate animals with the sleigh and May’s desires, all of which culminates in the cold final scene’s “lion foot” unlit stove and the blacksmith’s cat that climbs into the sleigh. These elements allow Stafford to develop themes never explicitly named by the characters, and to show the developing of May’s psyche as she responds to Daniel’s accusations though never consciously understanding them. The technique allows May to retain not only essential innocence but also a truly human complexity.
Finally, there is in both the setting (the claustrophobia of the old house,...
(The entire section is 591 words.)