Dylan Thomas Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Dylan Thomas Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Dylan Thomas’s ten stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog are charming reminiscences of his relatives, school friends, and neighbors in the town where he grew up. Their wit and accessibility made them immediately popular, in contrast to the dark, subjective stories he had written prior to 1938, for which he had difficulty finding a publisher. In March, 1938, he wrote to Vernon Watkins that “A Visit to Grandpa’s” was “the first of a series of short, straightforward stories about Swansea.” Published on March 10, 1939, in the New English Weekly, it told of a boy’s waking up on a mild summer night to the sounds of “gee-up and whoa” in the next room where his grandfather, wearing his red waistcoat with its brass buttons, is reining invisible horses. On their morning walks, the grandfather has expressed his wish not to be buried in the nearby churchyard. When he is missing a few days later, the entire village is summoned to go in search of him, and they find him on Carmarthen Bridge in his Sunday trousers and dusty tall hat on his way to Llangadock to be buried. They try to persuade him to come home to tea instead.

“The Peaches”

In “The Peaches,” first published in the October, 1938, issue of Life and Letters Today, the naïve narrator tells of his spring holiday on a farm in Gorsehill. His uncle Jim drives him there in a green cart late one April evening, stopping for a drink at a public house. The squeal coming from the wicker basket he takes inside with him prepares the reader for the fact that cousin Gwilym will note that one of the pigs is missing the next day. The terror of being abandoned in a dark alley is assuaged by Aunt Annie’s warm welcome of him later that night at the farmhouse. He enters, small, cold, and scared, as the clock strikes midnight, and is made to feel “among the shining and striking like a prince taking off his disguise.” Next morning, Gwilym takes him to see the sow, who has only four pigs left. “He sold it to go on the drink,” whispers Gwilym rebukingly. The boy imagines Jim transformed into a hungry fox: “I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth in its thigh, crunching its trotters up; I could see him leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.” Gwilym, who is studying to be a minister, takes him to the barn which he pretends is his chapel and preaches a thunderous sermon at him, after which he takes up a collection.

Next, the complication begins. Gwilym and Jim are told to dress up for Jack Williams, whose rich mother will bring him in an automobile from Swansea for a fortnight’s visit. A tin of peaches has been saved from Christmas; “Mother’s been keeping it for a day like this.” Mrs. Williams, “with a jutting bosom and thick legs, her ankles swollen over her pointed shoes,” sways into the parlor like a ship. Annie precedes her, anxiously tidying her hair, “clucking, fidgeting, excusing.” (The string of participles is typical of Thomas’s prose style; one sentence [in “Return Journey”] contains fifteen.) The rich guest declines refreshments. “I don’t mind pears or chunks, but I can’t bear peaches.” The boys run out to frolic, climb trees, and play Indians in the bushes. After supper, in the barn, Gwilym demands confessions from them, and Jack begins to cry that he wants to go home. That night in bed, they hear Uncle Jim come in drunk and Annie quietly relating the events of the day, at which he explodes into thunderous anger: “Aren’t peaches good enough for her!” At this, Jack sobs into his pillow. The next day Mrs. Williams arrives, sends the chauffeur for Jack’s luggage, and drives off with him, as the departing car scatters the hens and the narrator waves good-bye.

Two aspects of the point of view are significant. The first, its tone, is what made all the stories so immediately beloved. The genial Chaucerian stance, which perceives and accepts eccentricities, which notes and blesses all the peculiarities of humanity, is endearing without being sentimental, because the acuteness of the observations stays in significant tension with the nonjudgmental way in which they are recorded. This combination of acuity and benevolence, of sharpness and radiance, is the special quality of Thomas’s humor. The second aspect of the author’s style is its expansion and contraction, which indicates the view of a visionary poet. The narrator is both a homesick, cold, tired little boy, and “a royal nephew in smart town clothes, embraced and welcomed.” The uncle is both a predatory fox and an impoverished farmer, as he sits in “the broken throne of a bankrupt bard.” The splendid paradise where the narrator romps is simultaneously a poor, dirty “square of mud and rubbish and bad wood and falling stone, where a bucketful of old and bedraggled hens scratched and laid small eggs.” The “pulpit” where Gwilym’s inspired sermon is “cried to the heavens” in his deepest voice is a dusty, broken cart in an abandoned barn overrun with mice; but this decrepit building on a mucky hill becomes “a chapel shafted with sunlight,” awesome with reverence as the “preacher’s” voice becomes “Welsh and singing.” The alternate aggrandizement and diminution of the perceptions energize the style as the lyric impulse wars with the satiric impulse in the narrator’s voice.

“Patricia, Edith and Arnold”

The naïve narrator of the third of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog stories, entitled “Patricia, Edith and Arnold,” is totally engrossed in his imaginary engine, whose brake is “a hammer in his pocket” and whose fuel is replenished by invisible engineers. As he drives it about the garden, however, he is aware of his maid, Patricia, plotting with the neighbor’s servant, Edith, to confront Arnold with the identical letters he wrote to both of them. The girls take the child to the park as it begins to snow; Arnold has been meeting Edith there on Fridays, and Patricia on Wednesdays. As the girls wait for Arnold in the shelter, the boy, disowning them, pretends he is a baker, molding loaves of bread out of snow.

Arnold Matthews, his hands blue with cold, wearing a checked cap but no overcoat, appears and tries to bluff it out. Loudly he says, “Fancy you two knowing each other.” The boy rolls a snowman “with a lop-sided dirty head” smoking a pencil, as the situation grows more tense. When Arnold claims that he loves them both, Edith shakes her purse at him, the letters fall out all over the snow, and the...

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