(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Any reader of Ellen Gilchrist’s fiction quickly comes to recognize some of her people, places, and preoccupations. She writes about women, very often about wealthy southern women who are coming to terms with their own boredom and self-indulgence. Sometimes she writes about creative women, writers and poets and scholars whose impulses lead them into tight situations from which only drastic actions can rescue them. In fact, desperate circumstances—pregnancy, even murder—mark the central action of many Gilchrist stories. Gilchrist also peoples her fiction with children, particularly adolescent girls whose growing self-awareness and sexuality often draw them into the sort of circumstances their creator most enjoys exploring.

Gilchrist frequently revisits favorite characters at several ages in their lives, so that reading successive stories about them becomes a bit like reading a short novel. In fact, Gilchrist frequently interweaves motifs, linking stories within as well as across collections. In her work, characters appear and reappear from one collection to the next, sometimes with new names, sometimes with slightly different families or backgrounds, but always with recognizable characteristics that take on greater depth as the reader sees them from multiple angles. Gilchrist treats settings the same way, using real geographic detail about places such as New Orleans, California, or Charlotte, North Carolina, to create the canvas on which she works, linking the various frames of that canvas through repetition.


In “Rich,” an early story from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Tom and Letty Wilson are wealthy New Orleans socialites. Their lives have brought them everything they have ever wanted, including each other. Tom is a banker who likes to quote Andrew Carnegie: “Money is what you keep score with,” he says. Letty has loved him since she saw him performing drunken fraternity stunts while they were both students at Tulane University. On one occasion, he stole a Bunny bread truck and drove through the Irish Channel district, a poor area of the city, throwing bread to the housewives. The one thing missing from Tom and Letty’s lives is a child, and even that gap is filled when they adopt a baby girl named Helen. After the adoption, Letty has no trouble conceiving, and in short order, the Wilsons have four additional children. Of their children, only Helen is imperfect; she is plagued with learning disabilities and attention disorders; she must take drugs in order to be able to concentrate.

The Wilsons are also rich in maids, and the maids find Helen hateful to care for, especially because she can turn from loving to vicious in moments, shouting “nigger, nigger, nigger” at the maid who has crossed her will. In one such confrontation, Helen runs from the angry servant, crashes into the bassinet holding the smallest Wilson baby, and sends it rolling off the porch to crash on the sidewalk, killing the infant. The death ruins Tom. He begins to drink too much and makes bad banking decisions. The thought haunts him that people will think Helen is his illegitimate child. His life is crumbling to nothing. At last, driven beyond what he can tolerate, Tom takes Helen with him out to his duck camp. He takes along his prize Labrador puppy, a rifle, and a revolver, and after amusing Helen as tenderly as he can manage, he shoots first the puppy, then Helen, and then himself. Many things about this story are typical of Gilchrist’s work, especially the violent ending and the detailed use of New Orleans for the setting. The reader, however, should also notice the realistic picture of Helen, whose psychic deformities are displayed without melodrama. What is less typical is the shifting point of view in the story; in later work, Gilchrist tends to use limited viewpoints or to write in first person.

“The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar”

“The Famous Poll at Jody’s Bar” offers a good example of Gilchrist’s fondness for returning to characters. In the story, nineteen-year-old Nora Jane Whittington, whom Gilchrist describes as “a self-taught anarchist,” is trying to decide how to get the money to go to her boyfriend, Sandy, in San Jose. She and Sandy had lived together for fourteen months after she had finished high school. Sandy had taught Nora Jane many things, including an appreciation for jazz and an ability to plan holdups. Now she uses that ability, along with her skill in disguise, to hold up Jody’s Bar, where the regulars include a judge and Jody himself who, ironically, keeps himself armed against the holdups he constantly expects. The poll of the title is being taken to let the bar’s customers decide whether Prescott Hamilton IV should go on with his plans to be married. As she cleans out the till, Nora Jane adds her ballot to the jar; then, disguising herself as a nun, she leaves, headed for Sandy.

Victory over Japan

When the reader sees Nora Jane next, she is in California in “Jade Buddhas, Red Bridges, Fruits of Love,” from Gilchrist’s 1984 collection Victory over Japan. The story concerns Nora Jane’s efforts to reconnect with Sandy, and it reveals how instead she takes up with Freddy Harwood. As often happens in Gilchrist’s stories, biology plays a dramatic role in Nora Jane’s destiny, and she becomes pregnant, perhaps by Freddy. In “The Double Happiness Bun” in the same collection, the reader begins to suspect that her baby is really twins. At the end of “The Double Happiness Bun,” Nora Jane is caught on the Bay Bridge during an earthquake; she is entertaining the children of a stranger who is even more desperate than she. In the volume that follows, Drunk with Love, the reader actually experiences part of the story from the point of view of the twin fetuses. Although, like many Gilchrist women, Nora Jane seems trapped by her own sexuality and reproduction, it is a mistake to see her as a victim. Like Gilchrist’s most vivid characters, she is also daring and resourceful. Her holdup demonstrates this, as does her courageous decision to help the stranger and her children in the earthquake disaster.

“Music,” in Victory over Japan, is the story that most amplifies the character of Rhoda, a woman who appears in several stories over several collections. When readers piece together her background, they know that Rhoda’s father is a self-made man; his fortune has come from geology, and he has moved his wife and daughter around the country—heartlessly moved them, his wife says—where his work has taken him. Rhoda appeared as a child in several stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, sometimes with her own name, sometimes with another. In “Music,” the reader sees a sulky, willful fourteen-year-old Rhoda who embodies many of the qualities of Gilchrist’s older heroines. In addition to being unbearably self-centered, she is also intelligent and romantic; those are the parts of her character that prevent her from being a bore.

In this story, she has become the means by which her parents express their ongoing conflict. Furious at being dragged from Indiana to Kentucky by her father while the boy she is sure she loves, Bob Rosen, undergoes surgery for cancer far away in St....

(The entire section is 2984 words.)