Elizabeth Madox Roberts Critical Essays

Elizabeth Madox Roberts Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Elizabeth Madox Roberts once wrote, “I do not think that the ‘short story’ is a satisfactory form or that anything very good can be done with it,” at least half a dozen of the stories in her two collections are haunting poetic transformations of the older regional tale into the modern lyrical short story—a genre more popularly mastered by Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. Unlike local colorists, with whom she is often compared, Roberts does not focus on rural life to celebrate the exotic quaintness of its inhabitants, but rather, in such stories as “On the Mountainside” and “The Haunted Palace,” to explore the most basic human conflicts resulting from rural life.

Moreover, her poetic style is not merely a decorative device to sentimentalize the rural world, but rather a means by which she can transform the stuff of that world into embodiments of the inner life of her characters. Although the general critical consensus is that Roberts is a competent but not a brilliant writer of short stories, this view may be the result of an unexamined bias for the novel, as well as the failure of many critics to appreciate how she uses poetic language to create stories that, while grounded in rural reality, are haunted by the lyrical longing of their characters.

“The Haunted Palace”

Roberts’s most famous story, “The Haunted Palace,” whose title is derived from the poem in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” focuses on an old antebellum mansion that sharecropper Hubert and his wife Jess plan to buy—a house so possessed by all those who have lived in it that it becomes a hallucinatory embodiment to Jess of her own inner conflicts. The most compelling scene in the story occurs when the couple bring over thirty sheep into grand rooms of the old house to give birth; surrounded by the bloody and bleating beginnings of life, Jess confronts a ghostly apparition and beats at it with her club while it beats her with identical blows: “Herself and the creature then were one. She and the creature had beaten at the mirror from opposite sides.” Then she knows she has been flailing at her own reflection and has broken the great mirror. The shattering of the mirror is like the breaking of a spell, and the story ends with the quiet contentment of the sheep nursing their lambs. The story thus ends in the triumph of the couple’s prosaic present reality over the past romance of the old nobility.

“On the Mountainside”

Set in the Kentucky mountains, “On the Mountainside” is Roberts’s poetic treatment of the classic conflict of highlands people—whether to stay in their ancestral home or to leave the hills for the cities below. The central character, Newt Reddix, having...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)