(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Doris Betts’s fiction is strongly rooted in the landscape and experiences of North Carolina. Her first collections were solidly realistic stories about her own part of that state, the Piedmont Upper South, and they focus on everyday concerns such as growing up, growing old, racial tensions, family relationships, and death as it is perceived by the dying and the living left behind. Her later work, although still centered on everyday experiences and characters, time, and mortality, also moved into fantasy and passed through a concern with death into a consideration of the afterlife. Her later stories, as always rich in diction and image, operate on several levels simultaneously.

The Gentle Insurrection, and Other Stories

Betts’s earliest collection, The Gentle Insurrection, and Other Stories, presents twelve tales, each involving a paradox or oxymoron. In all of them, characters who would cause an insurrection by breaking out of their situations or typical lifestyles go no further than contemplating changes or making plans for them. The plots concern race relations in a small southern town in the 1950’s, mothers deserting children, children coming of age, love, illness, and death. The characters face the burdens of ordinary life as they struggle against serious odds, especially loneliness. Betts’s universal theme is the difficulty of achieving real understanding between people.

In this collection, then, there is at least momentary defiance by individuals toward their situations and their discovery that life is not a matter of finding happiness on some climactic day. While the characters seek self-identity, independence, and, often, love, the issue of morality usually lurks in the background. These threads remained central to Betts’s fiction, long and short, throughout her writing career. Her style is suggestive, metaphysical, economical, flexible, and religiously allusive; her sobriety and humor are also in evidence. The setting is characteristically southern, in terms of both geography and mindframes.

An example of someone involved in a “gentle insurrection” by attempting to break out of her mold is Agnes Parker in “Miss Parker Possessed.” Here a fortyish public librarian tries to jettison her persona of an unloved old maid who focuses on her library duties completely and efficiently. Her “other self” longing to emerge reveals an inner being that presses her to declare her love for Lewis Harvey, a widower and the head teller at the Merchants’ and Industrial Bank in her town.

At a meeting of the Committee of Councilmen Supervising Library Management, Miss Parker evidences her state of mind when she suggests that the library acquire a competent textbook on sex. Previously, her “second personality” had shocked some prudish women at the Ladies Bi-Monthly Book Club, which Agnes Parker has attended regularly. Overhearing Mr. Harvey and another council member discussing the possibility of first hiring a library assistant and then pensioning off the apparently sickly Miss Parker, she enters the meeting room and resumes her former demeanor. She can now meet Mr. Harvey’s glance and let out a long breath without the earlier fluttering in her chest. Rather, she sees the longed-for lover of her timid desires as a balding individual with protruding front teeth, an unpleasant-looking scar on his left index finger, and a similarly unattractive mole behind his ear.

The resumption of her former routines, responsibilities, and persona suggest the sorrow of a lost opportunity to love and communicate—elements so crucial in Betts’s thinking—and thus the return to her earlier empty life. That is how the author achieves the oxymoron promised in the collection title.

The Astronomer, and Other Stories

In the first movement of Betts’s The Astronomer, and Other Stories, the eponymous hero (his real name is Horton Beam) retires from the huge, noisy textile mill in North Carolina where he has spent most of his adult life. It is his last day, and they give him a gold watch as he collects his last paycheck. At last, after a lifetime of subservience to the machine, he crosses a patch of grass outside the plant in defiance of a Keep Off the Grass sign and mutters (under his breath), “They can all go to hell.” It is important for the tone of the story and for Beam’s ultimate position in life that he does not have the courage to yell it out loud or to commit any major infraction of the rules. He tells his coworkers on that last day that he is going to do nothing. At the house where he has lived alone since his wife died years ago, his watch off, he begins looking at the books left in the house and comes across his dead son’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and sees the line “ heard the learned astronomer.” Beam decides on impulse to become a Learned Astronomer. This is a novel (or novella) of ideas, a short allegory set in prose form, a multileveled symbolic novel in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, as it turns out, a consummate exercise in mythopoetic fiction—for Betts’s artistry is such that it can be all these things, and in such a short space.

The next day, a young man, Fred Ridge, appears on Horton Beam’s doorstep, wanting to rent a room. The Astronomer ignores him and studies his star charts all day, but the young man is still there at nightfall, so Beam rents him a room. The next morning Ridge presents The Astronomer with his paramour—and the representative of the labyrinth—Eva, who has abandoned her husband and children and run off with Ridge, one of her husband’s used-car salesmen. These characters are not merely people but are the allegorical embodiment of ideas or forces or human options and choices. Eva reminds one of Eve by her name, but she is more like Lilith, the first (and evil) wife of Adam. Lilith, according to legend, objected to the recumbent position in sexual intercourse, preferring the superior one; when Adam tried to compel her obedience, she uttered the name of God and left. Lilith became the destroyer of the newborn (just as, later in the short story, Eva aborts the love child she conceived during her affair with Ridge). God is supposed to have sent...

(The entire section is 2562 words.)