Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
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,...
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- Critical Essays
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 Roman remains, Tory flirts with the attendant and Edward feels unsafe with her; thoughts of the future and death disturb him, as they would not do if he were at school, “anonymous and safe.” At the end of the story, when Tory leaves, her son waves at her, “radiant with relief.” When she disappears around the curve of the drive, he runs “quickly up the steps to find his friends, and safety.”
The relief that both mother and son feel at the end of the story when the required visit is completed suggests that this is not simply a story about a woman who is not comfortable as a mother; rather it is about the depressing fall into reality from the ideal of what society says a mother/son relationship should be. It is a story about the loss of the ideal of marriage, family, and motherhood, and one woman’s halting and uncertain efforts to cope with that loss.
“A Dedicated Man”
In this combination social comedy and psychological drama, a stereotypical, stiff-necked British waiter, Silcox, enters into a “partnership” with a reserved waitress, Edith, pretending they are husband and wife in order to procure a more prestigious position in a fancy hotel restaurant; however, they sleep in twin beds, maintaining strict decorum. The focus of the story is on Edith, a woman who has known from childhood that she is not attractive to men and thus exaggerates her gracelessness to such an extent that she becomes sexless. Her attitude toward Silcox is that he is always a waiter and nothing else; the two are “hardly even human beings” in each other’s eyes.
The story is complicated by the fact that the pretense Silcox creates includes a fictional son, complete with a photograph placed prominently in the couple’s room. However, Edith begins to believe more and more in the reality of the fictional son, bragging to the other employees about his successes. Although Silcox thinks she is losing her mind, she says she has never been so happy.
The ruse crashes when Edith finds a photograph in Silcox’s drawer that reveals the boy is his son by a previous marriage; because the picture also includes the boy’s real mother, Edith feels she has been displaced; her hatred for Silcox’s deception increases when he laughs at her disappointment. This shift from social comedy to domestic poignancy makes a final turn at the end of the story when Edith spreads rumors that her “son” has been disgraced as a thief. When she packs and leaves the hotel, Silcox is left to confront a loss of prestige in the eyes of the staff because of his son’s disgrace.
In this short, highly compressed story, Taylor once again combines social comedy with psychological drama. The story centers on two women of the same age—Mrs. Allen and the woman who comes to do her housework every day, Mrs. Lacey. The domestic drama element of the story stems from Mrs. Allen’s sadness at not being able to have children. She imagines them in fleeting scenes, like snatches of a film, even crying when she dreams of the day her eldest boy will go off to boarding school.
Ms. Allen’s sadness is contrasted with Mrs. Lacey’s complaints about her own children, who make demands of her and treat her disrespectfully. The life in Mrs. Lacey’s house fascinates Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Lacey’s children are vivid in her imagination although she has never actually seen them. Mrs. Lacey, however, envies Mrs. Allen her pretty house and clothes, her figure, and her freedom. The central conflict of the story occurs when Mrs. Lacey misses work because of nausea, suggesting that she might be pregnant again.
The story’s climactic scene centers on Mrs. Lacey’s husband coming to Mrs. Allen’s house, concerned about his wife working too hard. When he tells Mrs. Allen that Mrs. Lacey can no longer come to the house in the evenings to care for Mrs. Allen’s children while she and her husband go out to parties, Mrs. Allen knows that Mrs. Lacey has been lying to her husband and has been sneaking out to the pub in the evenings to drink with other men. She does not tell Mr. Lacey this, only promising not to ask his wife to baby-sit in the evenings again. When Mr. Lacey leaves, Mrs. Allen begins to blush and she goes to the mirror to study “with great interest this strange phenomenon.”