Elizabeth Taylor Critical Essays

Elizabeth Coles


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Elizabeth Taylor said that one basic difference between the short story and the novel is that, whereas the novel is conscious scheming, short stories are inspired, “breathed in a couple of breaths.” For them to succeed, she argued, there must be an immediate impact resulting from suggestiveness and compression. Indeed, critics have suggested that what makes Taylor’s stories so fascinating is her ability to crystallize a particular “moment of being.”

Great short stories, said Taylor, are so charged with a sense of unity, they are like lyric poetry, thus giving a “lovely impression of perfection, of being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction.” Many of Taylor’s stories are social comedies that satirize class distinctions and social expectations; however, the best of them begin as social comedies, only to become subtle evocations of characters caught in elusive psychological conflicts.

“The First Death of Her Life”

This popular anthology piece is so short and slight that many readers may feel it is not a story at all, but rather a simple emotional reaction to, as the title suggests, the first death the central character has experienced. Although the story starts with tears, it immediately moves to writing, in this case, the protagonist’s writing a letter in her mind telling her boss why she will not be in to work for the next four days.

The basic method the story uses to communicate emotion is Chekhovian, for instead of focusing on feelings, it focuses on concrete details—either in the present or in the past—that evoke emotion. The thoughts of the protagonist shift first to an image of her father riding through the streets on his bicycle and then to images of her mother, most of which recall the boredom, drabness, and denial of her life. The detail at the end of the story—when the protagonist opens the window and thinks that it is like the end of a film, but without music rising up and engulfing the viewer—suggests that the story is about one of those experiences that is such a disruption of everyday reality it seems unreal. The final image of the father propping his bicycle against the wall and running across the wet gravel completes in actuality what the protagonist earlier imagined.

“A Red-Letter Day”

The story opens with a gothic ominousness—leaves “dripping with deadly intensity, as if each falling drop were a drop of acid.” The “malevolent” landscape is redolent with the horrors of family life: rotting cabbages, rakish privies, rubbish heaps, and gray napkins drooping on clotheslines. The central female character, Tory Foyle (a figure from Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour), is attending Visiting Day at her son’s school, but without a husband. Because Tory’s husband has asked for a divorce, her own life is frail and precarious; she feels she and her son are amateurs without tradition and no gift for the job. On Tory’s arrival at the school, the point of view shifts to her son Edward, age eleven. When the mother and son go to the Museum at the Guildhall to see...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)